Nelson Mandela’s jail on Robben Island, South Africa

With Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s great leader and icon of democracy, in failing health, there is so much news coming out all over the world on his life and experiences.

We at Travelife Magazine, the leading travel & lifestyle publication, wish him a full and speedy recovery.


All the news on Nelson Mandela also made me remember my trip to South Africa last November.

The very first place we’d seen in South Africa, literally hours after coming off an overnight flight, was Nelson Mandela’s home in a very nice neighborhood called Houghton in Johannesburg.

It was a lovely house with a tall wall surrounding it, in one of the best neighborhoods of the city, not far from our hotel, The Westcliff of the Orient-Express Hotels.

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We’d done an early check-in at the hotel and then, after freshening up, we’d jumped into a car with our guide for a city tour.

This was the very first place our guide took us to.


That’s the hovercraft you have to take
to get to Robben Island from Cape Town

Then we’d visited Robben Island just off Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela had spent years behind bars.

Frankly, it’s an effort to make this trip to Robben Island (at least pyschologically), as you need to wake up early and get on a hovercraft for a 30- or 40-minute ride to Robben Island.

There are no private tours so you just have to book your public tour in advance, get on the hovercraft, and then get on one of the waiting buses on Robben Island.

It’s a cookie cutter tour when you get there, but you do see everything and you learn a lot about the history of the prison.


The solitary confinement jails on Robben Island

In hindsight, I am so glad we did this.

If I had been left to my own devices, I’d probably have slacked off and opted for a leisurely breakfast and a walk around the waterfront, even if I am very interested in Robben Island and the life of Nelson Mandela.

It’s just that jails are not really attractive places to visit, and they leave you with a rather heavy feeling.


Fruits and smoked salmon as a first course almost everyday
for breakfast in South Africa

But the Travel Companion was insistent and he’d done all the research and bookings, so I basically just went along with his plans.

I’d done the Big Picture for our trip to South Africa, you see, but he was completely in charge of our day-to-day itinerary.

So our very eventful day began with our usual three-course breakfasts. That day, we had it in our hotel in Cape Town, which was the Mount Nelson Hotel, another member of the Orient-Express Hotels group.

Eggs benedict as a second course almost everyday
for breakfast in South Africa

We had big breakfasts everyday, and this is what we had on that day: smoked salmon and capers to start, and then grilled kippers and eggs benedict to share.

Then we had pastries and cheese, all washed down with delicious Rooibos tea, of course.

On that day, we had an extra course of a perfectly grilled kipper, with two eggs.

A car took us to the waterfront where we lined up with everyone for the first hovercraft departure for Robben Island.

There’s a movie onboard about Robben Island so you won’t get bored on the trip.


This is the first thing you see when you reach Robben Island

Once you arrive, you just have to take your pick from around 4 waiting buses — each with a guide — and then you’ll all follow a step-by-step three-hour tour that operates like clockwork.

That was our first guide on the bus.
He was very good at entertaining us.

This tour takes you around the island, so you see the spectacular coastline with a view of Table Mountain.

It’s really beautiful over there, and it’s just unfortunate that none of the prisoners ever got to see these views perhaps.

The pretty spectacular scenery of Robben Island
as seen from our bus
Even the views from the coffee stop are good

You also see the pretty horrible jails used for solitary confinement of certain prisoners. I think this was where my heavy feeling started.

Then you get to the jail proper, where you’re actually toured around by a former inmate and political prisoner.

This former inmate recalls his real experiences in the jail, so everything is interesting but very horrific, of course.

An ex-political prisoner took us around the jail proper

The highlight is getting to see Nelson Mandela’s actual cell.

It’s a small room with a mat on the floor, a very low table and a bowl. It’s unthinkable how anyone could have spent years and years in such conditions.

And these were during the good years. There was a period when Nelson Mandela was placed in solitary confinement, and the cell you see below is the Four Seasons Hotel compared to the accommodations for solitary confinement.

Nelson Mandela’s jail

Getting back to Cape Town on the 1 PM hovercraft back to reality, we were certainly in need of nourishment.

We decided to walk around the rather touristy waterfront to look for the least touristy restaurant we could find.

I think all the restaurants here are basically geared for the tourist market, but we walked past a steak restaurant with a sign saying it was voted the best in Cape Town — and, well, we fell for it.

The food was just okay. We shared a dry aged T-bone for lunch, because I really wanted to have this, and then had a delicious sticky toffee pudding with ice cream for dessert.

But, for some reason, in spite of just a so-so steak, this lunch is one of my favorites in two weeks of pretty amazing lunches.

I didn’t hear the end of this from the Travel Companion for a very long time, by the way. We were talking about favorite things on this South Africa trip once, and I happened to mention this lunch as among my favorites. He thought this was very funny considering how mediocre the steak was.

Actually, I liked this lunch a lot because of the conversation we had. A good meal isn’t always about the food, for me.

After lunch, we walked around the mall.

Until that point, we still had not bought any souvenirs of consequence, as we didn’t really have the time or the inclination to go into stores with a mission to use the credit card.

Thanks to the Travel Companion, we’d had a crazy schedule in Johannesburg, and then we’d spent the most relaxing part of our trip until then on safari in Sabi Sabi, which is basically in the middle of nowhere.

So there’d been nothing to buy.


But after this lunch, we walked into a craft store that was selling animal skins and found two very good — trophy grade, my Travel Companion says — zebra skins that were almost identical in look and also in price.

We both bought the zebra skins. One was slightly better than the other, and of course I got this one.


Lugging our purchases back, we just had enough time to call the hotel car to pick us up, and then to freshen up.

At the hotel, we picked up a picnic basket and then headed out to Table Mountain for that multi-million dollar sunset view.

All the goodies in our picnic basket

On a fine day, that sunset from Table Mountain is everything people say it is.

So don’t ever miss it. And bring a picnic basket if you can…

View of Cape Town from up high

We were so lucky that the weather cooperated for much of this trip, in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.