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Thu May 15 2003 (Cape Town)

I seem to be getting the hang of what for me are early starts, certainly on-holiday early starts. 8.15 this morning, out of bed and straight over to reception to sort out the Robben Island tour. Naively I had been aiming for the 9am tour, but my timing wasn't good enough for that. I spoke to the booking agent on the phone, 10 & 11am tours available (both much more expensive than the 9am tour but beggars can't be choosers). I plumped for the 10am tour, gave my Amex credit card details and was told to be there by half-nine or lose the booking and my money (nice customer service!).

I went back to the room and grabbed my stuff for the first shower in 3 days (the pack had arrived from the airport after I was ready yesterday). Definitely needed it and felt much better afterwards. I was starting to push it a bit for getting down to the Waterfront before the booking agent tore up my ticket, burnt my credit card and judging by her tone possibly sent me on a one way trip to the island. I ordered a Rikki before I was ready, and it turned up ten minutes after I finally made it out of the front gate.

I let the driver know I was in a bit of a rush and he put his foot down. Actually, bit tricky to know if he changed his driving style as all Rikki pilots seem to create white-knuckle high-adrenaline journeys using what is probably a lawn-mower engine running on second-hand pig grease. On the way we picked up a lady carrying an interesting looking cardboard box. She seemed to be a bit of a regular as her and the driver exchanged familiar banter. Turned out she owns a shop down near the acquarium ans was on her way to open up for the day. She'd lived and worked in London and Dublin for several years, doing various jobs, staying with friends, etc. She thought London was a bit of a nightmare. I would have agreed with her a year ago but I've since started to see the capital through the eyes of someone who really loves the place and I can appreciate what a great city it is. Having said that, on a bad day it's still crap, especially when you're coming out of a game having lost. She'd been meeting some strange department of the South African government about owed taxes or something, and had been surprised how cooperative they'd been. The driver also seemed surprised and started whinging about the state of the nation. Thankfully at this point we arrived at my destination and I left them to sort out the country's problems between themselves.

I wandered through the scary tourist trap that is supposed to be a small shopping mall but only seems to have shops offering tat to people with more money than sense. I must have been looking a bit more lost than normal as a chap came over and helped me find my way down to the ticket office. I produced a crumpled piece of paper from my back pocket containing the booking reference and the lady behind the desk recognised me from my phone call earlier and pulled out the relevant paperwork. "I need to see your credit card". No worries, I handed over the Amex. "This is the wrong card". I was adamant I'd used the Amex, but I shrugged and gave her my Visa instead. Still the wrong card. I battled with her for a few seconds until she finally bothered to check the booking reference and realised she had the wrong tickets. She printed the payment slip for me to sign. I noticed it said 60 Rand and I was sure it should be 150. Maybe they'd taken a deposit over the phone and the balance now?

Who cares, I now had my ticket. I was pretty desparate for food, particularly as the tour took 3 hours. I asked if there was somewhere nearby I could nip off to grab something to eat. No chance, the mall is totally devoid of food stalls, probably not enough room to fit any in with all that tat. There'd be basic snacks on the ferry across she assured me. I went through into the departure room, and started to look at some of the photographs and artefacts from the island that are displayed around the room. Not a bad exhibit actually. At this point my friendly booking agent came into the room and explained that I had made a booking for the 9am ferry which obviously I'd missed. She got me to look at my ticket to prove the point - yep, 9am. I explained, calmly as possible that she had told me on the phone that 9am was fully booked and 10am was the earliest tour available. She thought about it for a while and managed to admit her mistake without actually apologising and somehow making me feel it was all my fault after all. "So which tour do you want to go on?" I forced out an exasperated "10am" in response. Now we had to go to another booking desk on the upper floor where she sorted me out a special ticket for the tour, which was stamped as 'school party'. Then back to her desk where I had to pay the 90 Rand difference between the two tour prices. The tours are identical, but the early one is hugely discounted for some reason. Finally I bade farewell to the lady who I felt I'd spent half of my holiday with by this point.

I made my way back into the departure area and was beginning to have a good look at the stuff, just as we were called through to board the ferry. The boat was nothing special, looked as though it had seen better days, but the sun was shining so I had few complaints. I nailed one of the last seats on the back rail just before a party of schoolkids arrived. I was expecting mayhem when they boarded as I know what we were like on trips. Couldn't be farther from the truth. They were all immaculately dressed in uniforms (including school-badged raincoats), and so well behaved you forgot they were there almost immediately. I was surprised they were all black as I expected the new South Africa to be fully mixed, especially within the education system.

The boat reversed into the harbour, turned and started its journey away from the awesome backdrop of table mountain. On my left were a retired couple from Herts who were at the end of an 11 day tour of Jo'burg, Zambia, Botswana and Cape Town. They were due to fly out in the afternoon but were keen to see the island before they left. On my right was Shirley, a South African lady probably around my age. She was originally from Cape Town but had moved to Melbourne 5 years ago with her husband (also S African) who has relatives out there. This was her first trip home in that time, and her 6 month old son's first visit to her homeland. She was only over for 10 days and was being a complete tourist, photographing and videoing everything she could, both for her husband who couldn't make it, but mainly for her son who she wanted to understand Cape Town a little when he is old enough.

I made an attempt to buy some food on the boat, but my best friend in the world, the booking agent, had got it wrong (makes a change...). This was an old ferry that was laid on to allow extra tours, only the new ferry carries refreshments. The journey across takes around 45 minutes, and on arriving my immediate priority was obtaining anything edible to save me the embarressment of keeling over part way through the tour. Thankfully the souvenir shop lies between the boat and the coach that we had been told to board by a frightening sounding woman on a tannoy. I dashed in there together with another bloke on the same mission. We both grabbed handfuls of snack bars and headed out to the bus.

The bus was to take us around the island before we returned for a closer look inside the high security part of the prison. Our driver was Solomon, and the guide Sobantu, a seriously funny bloke. We set off through the gates that separate the small harbour from the rest of the island and Sobantu launched into his talk by trying to teach the people at the front of the bus a few words of Xhosa. This he approached by giving them an impossibly long sentence full of clicks and verbal gymnastics which drew nothing but blank expressions when he put the microphone in front of their mouths for repetition. "OK, we'll continue in English then", which caused sighs of relief at the front of the bus and a few chuckles further back.

Robben Island actually has nothing to do with robbers, the name literally means Seal Island in Dutch due to the seal colony that lived there when the place was first explored. The island is pretty small, about 8km by 5km, has a peak altitude of 30m above sea-level and lies some 11km from Cape Town, although the nearest point on the mainland is 7km. Shirley had told me earlier that one of her school friends had swam that 7km route some years ago. Several prisoners had attempted this feat, most perishing in the cold Atlantic waters. One had made it to the mainland only to find the police waiting for him to take him straight back to the island.

Soon after passing through the gate I caught my first ever glimpse of wild penguins through the windows of the bus. A few Jackass penguins were hanging around by the side of the road, it's their breeding season so they are busy nest building in the scrub undergrowth. The locals call them African penguins, but I reckon the correct name is far better.

A few hundred yards beyond the gate is the high security prison. Originally, the criminals and political prisoners had been kept together. However, the authorities began to realise that many of the criminals were influenced by the opinions of the polical prisoners and left the island to pursue their own fight against the government. Therefore in the early 60's, prison labour was used to construct a new high security block that would be used purely to house political prisoners.

We turned left in front of the high security block and headed past the buildings that constituted the village of the guards, including housing, a school, shop and post office. The history of Robben Island also goes back much further than the Apartheid era. In the second world war a small airfield and defence battery were placed here. Before that the island was used to isolate outcasts of society, the mentally ill and people with leprosy. A cemetary still stands at the side of the road containing those from that period who were never allowed to leave.

The tour continued around to the side of the island that faces Cape Town and we stopped for a quick photo opportunity. Certainly in the good weather that we had today the island is beautiful with various types of bok running wild. At one point the bus had to make a short stop to allow a tortoise to cross the road. I'm not sure how hospitable the place would be in the grips of a winter storm though. It does sit very isolated, well away from the mainland and pretty unprotected due to being so flat. Sobantu told us a story of when Hillary Clinton visited and in preparation they airlifted a luxury coach which would be used to give her a tour around the island. Part way across the water, the cables underneath the helicopter snapped and the coach now lies somewhere at the bottom of the sea, allegedly now employed by rays and sharks for undersea tours.

Almost all of the political prisoners were not recognised as such by the government and therefore lived in conditions similar to those of convicted criminals. However, one man was particularly feared due to the influence he seemed to have over large numbers of people. I have to confess I didn't catch his name, but during the pass-law system all black people were legally bound to carry an identity pass with them which could be checked by the authorities at any time. This particular man urged everyone to challenge the law by leaving their passes at home and handing themselves in at a police station. This suggestion was taken up by people in their thousands and he was sentenced to 5 years solitary confinement in a detached building on the island. The period and nature of the confinement ultimately affected his mental and physical state and he was sent back to the mainland at the end of his sentence where he died.

The next stop on the tour was the lime quarry where prisoners were sent for hard labour. Nelson Mandela had initially been sent to work here for 6 months but ultimately spent 13 years in the quarry. The quarry is quite small, probably about 25-30 feet deep and 50 yards square. The lime is very dusty and also incredibly bright in sunshine. The prisoners were working without any protection for their eyes, nose and mouth and most of them left with permanent eyesight and lung damage.

At the bottom of one of the quarry walls is a cave, maybe 5 feet high, 7 feet across and probably the same again in depth. This was used by the prisoners to eat food that was brought from the prison, as a toilet and also to educate each other. Education for prisoners was banned and so they spent spare time exchanging knowledge about a wide range of academic subjects. Books, paper and writing materials were not allowed but the garden inside the prison was used to hide such items from the guards, including the manuscript for Mandela's auto-biography. This was eventually discovered by the guards when the garden was dug up to lay the foundations for a new wall. However, a copy had been previously smuggled out of the prison.

Eventually in the 70s the authorities gave in and allowed education as a right. Many prisoners studied from the island and enrolled in correspondance courses with universities. Some guards attempted to disrupt this by sabotaging examinations and withholding post, but in spite of this, prisoners were leaving the island with several degrees to their name and went on to become government ministers and high court judges.

Near the entrance to the quarry is an innocuous looking pile of rocks. Some years after the closure of Robben Island, a ceremony was held in the quarry for ex-prisoners. At the end of the ceremony as those present were making their way out of the quarry, Nelson Mandela stopped for a moment. Then he walked over to the side of the quarry mouth, picked up a stone and placed it on the floor in the middle of the entrance. The others followed suit, many struggling with the permanent physical scars of their time in the quarry, and created the rock pile that lies there today. There's some debate over what it represents but the concensus seems to be that it marks the time of the people who were forced to work in that place simply because they stood up for an ideal, many of whom hadn't survived to see that day. Regardless of the exact meaning, that seemingly unimportant mound of unimportant stones was the thing that affected me most on the tour.

We were dropped back at the high security prison near the harbour and handed over to Eugene, a very well spoken and intelligent man, for the part of the tour that went inside the prison. First we took a look inside Section F, which was a block used to house general political prisoners. It consisted of a series of large cells, almost like dorm rooms, each one housing maybe 10-20 people. Now the rooms have bunk beds but originally the prisoners slept on the concrete floor with nothing but a thin mat.

All inmates of the prison system were racially separated into white, black and coloured. Coloured was basically anyone who didn't fit into the first two categories and were generally mixed race or of Indian origin. We were shown the food ration allowance and white prisoners received the most, coloured prisoners a little less and black prisoners around half.

We passed through the garden and into Section B, which was reserved for leaders of the liberation movement. These were tiny individual cells, around 8 feet square, with a shelf containing a couple of small pots in which any personal possessions were kept. On the floor was a toilet bucket and a blanket. Mandela was kept in this block until 1982 when he was moved back to the mainland.

Eugene then told us a little about his own story. He was at high school in 1981 and went on a protest for equal education rights. The protest got out of control and turned into a 3 day street battle, during which police stations were attacked and burnt to the ground. He was arrested and detained for 2.5 years. Eventually he was convicted using a forced confession on charges of terrorism and communist activism, and spent 7 years on the island.

At the end of the tour we all thanked Eugene and people started wandered back to the boat. I hung back a little so I could get some photos and take a look at things on my own without a crowd in the way. I had a look at the penguins in the bushes we'd seen earlier from the bus, and then wandered out through the gate, passing an old man on the way. I said hello and carried on a short distance, stopping to take a look at a large display photo on the wall showing prisoners arriving by boat in the 60s, shackled together and surrounded by armed guards.

The old man caught up with me and started talking about the photograph. He was Elias Mzamo, a very well-dressed, soft-spoken and dignified man. Elias was a political prisoner on the island from 1963 to 1968. We sat together on the ferry and talked for the journey back to Cape Town. When he was brought to the island it was the first time he had ever been on a boat, and for some of his fellow prisoners it was the first time they had seen the ocean. They were shackled together and put below decks so they didn't cause offence to the habitants of the city. They were given a single bucket to share as a toilet and if anyone became seasick. If anyone needed to use it then anyone shackled to them would need to go too.

Elias was one of the prisoners used to build the high security block that I had just been inside. It had been finished in 1964, a few months before Mandela arrived. On leaving the island, Elias had been sent to a part of South Africa far from his hometown and placed under house arrest. Part of the conditions were that he was not allowed to be in the company of more than 4 people at the same time. In 1976 he was arrested for breaking the terms of his house arrest, but the key witness fled the country and the case was dropped.

Eventually the house arrest term ended and he moved to Cape Town where he started working for a civil engineering company. However, after a while they found out about his past and he was sacked. He found it difficult to integrate back into society, and small things like not being allowed to smoke on the island meant whenever he saw a policeman he'd instinctively throw away his cigarette. When Robben Island was declared a world heritage site, they were trying to find prisoners from the 60s to give tours and contacted him. He's now been working there for 5 years, although at first he found it very difficult. The tours reminded him of two wardens who were particularly sadistic, and he was unable to complete the tours. It was quite clear that his experiences had affected him significantly.

He thinks that racial inequality is still very much alive in South Africa, but the situation is improving slowly. In general, black schools have far worse facilities than white schools and if they can afford it, black parents try to send their children to white schools. When white schools visit he gets the impression that many of the children and even some of the teachers still think of him as just a 'kaffir' (derogatory term for black people used during Aparthied). However, some of them understand what happened and quietly get closer to him to ask more questions. The black kids often ask if things have progressed, they know that the white kids have much better opportunities and want to know why.

There's a new problem emerging of economic migrants from other African countries, employers prefer them as they will work for much lower wages. This is keeping unemployment high amongst the South African population. This could unfortunately result in bigotry between South Africans and their neighbours.

Elias told me how he and his friends used to sneak into British Lions games in the 40s and 50s. Black people weren't allowed to go but they used to sneak in and support the Brits, which really riled the white South Africans. He's never been outside of South Africa, but would like to visit London and Ireland. He seemed fairly daunted when I said it was a 12 hour flight.

That afternoon Elias was attending a private memorial on the island for Walter Sisulu, a fellow political prisoner and one of the leading figures in the fight against Apartheid. Mr Sisulu died last week, and will be buried near Soweto later this week, the funeral will be carried live on national TV and radio. I felt privileged to spend some time with such an interesting person and hope he can use the island tours to banish some of the ghosts that still haunt him.

We landed back at the Waterfront and I grabbed some Mexican food (meatballs and rice) and a few beers, whilst I watched the boat trip hawkers competing to lure tourists onto their excursion tours. I've booked a night's accommodation in Knysna for tomorrow evening. Knysna is half-way through the 'Garden Route' section of the Cape Town-Durban coastal route, and was recommended by Emma and Sara who passed through it recently. I decided to abandon the trip to see the penguins today as the journey out there by public transport sounds a nightmare and I was starting to run out of daylight.

I had a wander through the shops on the Waterfront complex, and found a warehouse containing various types of souvenirs, arts and crafts. One stall was selling bottles of sand with various designs on the front (Cape Town and South Africa messages and the like). Then I noticed there were English football teams scattered amongst them. Mainly glamour teams (ManU, Arsenal etc), but bizarrely Millwall ... and QPR! Couldn't believe it, two bottles with the QPR logo on the front, one saying Cape Town, the other South Africa. I plumped for the Cape Town one as it was a better circle on the badge and Emma tends to be a bit fussy about things like that. Then I wandered around the other side of the building and found some great animal sunset paintings by a chap called Everton (he was also flogging them!). So I bargained with him and got a giraffe painting for Sara. Should be worth a few brownie points with the girls, and they have been extra helpful with my travel plans.

I called for a Rikki which turned up quickly (these things are great, wish we had them in England). The driver was a total loon, screaming down the radio at the controller who was screaming back at him, great entertainment. I slept for a few hours then made my first attempt at uploading the first couple of diary entries and a few photos to the web-site. Amazingly it worked. Also I picked up an email from englandfans acknowledging I didn't have my match ticket and telling me to collect it from the British Consulate in Durban on the day of the game, or the day before. I received an SMS from mum about terror alerts in Eastern Africa, hope that sorts itself out before I get up there. Early to bed tonight as the hire car should be turning up at 8am tomorrow and I'm keen to make a detour down to the penguin colony before I head along the coast.

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