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10 hours in Cape Town: From Mandela's cell on Robben Island to the penguins on Boulders Beach

CAPE TOWN, South Africa

South Africa has long been on my travel wish list, so here was a dream trip, courtesy of work.

Four nights in Johannesburg. Two days to represent PolitiFact at meetings with our partners at Africa Check, and two to chill between the 18-hour travel days.

That's not much time for a massive country with a deep history of apartheid, so I zeroed in on my top goal: visiting Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island. He spent 18 years there isolated from the world, and I wanted to see where this great man suffered so senselessly.

Only, where is Robben Island?

About 9 miles off the coast of Cape Town, on the southwest tip of South Africa.

I had one day to spare in my tight schedule, so I booked an early-morning flight and planned a 10-hour day centered on a ferry ride to Robben Island. I soon discovered Cape Town was the real gem and my time was too short.

9 a.m.: I land in Cape Town after the two-hour flight from Johannesburg, with breakfast served. The weather is beautiful, maybe 70 degrees, clear skies.

I turn on my phone to find out how far it is to Table Mountain, the majestic centerpiece of the Cape Town peninsula, a must-see for visitors because of its unique tabletop of hiking trails, and where I plan to go before my 1 p.m. Robben Island tour.

My heart sinks. Why hadn't I looked this up sooner? My phone says it will take almost an hour to get there, leaving a small window for hiking the mountain. Why did I assume the airport was near everything? Barely on the ground and my day is shot.

9:06 a.m.: Breathe. Breathe. This is a big place, there's got to be an option. Hey wait, didn't someone mention penguins? Here in Cape Town? Scroll through my phone and find it: Boulders Beach. That's more doable. Okay, day possibly saved.

9:10 a.m.: "Need a taxi?" I wasn't even at the curb to call one. But soon enough, Henry is telling me all about Cape Town, where he has lived his whole life. He's a good ambassador for the area, having never left, not once.

Cape Town is a big vacation destination. Mountains. Wineries. Beaches. Great white sharks. Spending one day here is foolhardy.

To get to Boulders Beach, we drive down the coast south of Cape Town. Hugging the Indian Ocean, we pass adorable beach towns. Muizenberg. St. James. Kalk Bay. I take notes in my phone on the names, so I can remember to come back to visit.

The areas remind me of Florida with their kitschy stores, surfers and swimmers. But the ocean waves are huge. And the mountains in the distance remind me where I am. Henry tells me that the Indian Ocean is way warmer than the Atlantic, so if I do visit again, I should stay here. The Cape Town area borders both oceans. "No one goes to the Atlantic," he says.

There's terrible traffic because of road construction, but I don't mind because the view is absolutely majestic. The drive gives me an unforgettable look at the unending landscape of blues, greens and brown. You can see for miles. I forget that I'm racing the clock.

10:15 a.m.: Boulders Beach in Simon's Town. Henry drops me off and says he'll wait, so I walk down to the entrance to the penguin colony. It's a national park, and it costs 60 South African Rand to get in, about $4.

There are boardwalks leading to the African penguins, but it's kind of a surprise when one shows up right next to me, maybe 5 feet away. I find myself talking out loud. "Oh, hi there, cutie." I take a few photos and some video and keep walking.

Around the bend, to my surprise, a hilltop full of penguins. They are everywhere, walking, sitting, gossiping. So many that I keep talking out loud. "Hey, penguins!" Yes, there are lots of other people around, but they don't care.

I watch them scoot across the sand against the ocean. I soak up the open air, admiring their wobbly gait and radiant black and white coats.

Keep walking to the end of the boardwalk, and the beach opens up to even more penguins — hundreds. Feels like I'm on Clearwater Beach during spring break, watching natives in their native land.

Now I can see them racing to the water and playing. Lounging in the sun. I am in awe. I wish my daughter, who adores penguins, were with me.

10:40 a.m.: I walk back and find Henry. "That was quick," he says. "You should have stayed longer." I explain that I'm worried about the time. I have that 1 p.m. ferry to catch in town, for the one thing I really wanted to do. I'm not missing it.

Henry drives me back and points to the Atlantic Ocean side. "It's really beautiful over there, but you don't have time." Through the mountain we go.

11:35 a.m.: We approach the V&A Waterfront, a bustling harbor area in downtown Cape Town where the ferry to Robben Island is. I try to settle up with Henry because I'm not sure how long I'll be, but he gives me his card. "Just call when you're on the ferry back."

The secret idea is to have time to hit Table Mountain on the way to the airport. If I'm back with Henry by 4 p.m., he says, that's possible because of where the waterfront is.

I optimistically walk off to find food before I have to catch the ferry. There's a bakery near the harbor. It's not great, but costs me only $6.50 for flapjacks and bacon.

12:30 p.m.: I get in line with probably hundreds of people for the ferry to Robben Island. The group is diverse and appears to be from all over the world. I know from reading the Johannesburg paper that not many South Africans get to make this journey. The cost — 300 South African Rand, or $20 — is prohibitive.

Mandela was almost 46 when they brought him to Robben Island, convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 18 of his 27 prison years in a small cell here. The prison had housed inmates for centuries, but started as a leper colony.

Under apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, political dissidents were brought here. As far as they could possibly be from causing trouble on the mainland.

The prison no longer houses inmates, but the museum hosts tours three times a day.

1:50 p.m.: The ferry ride is 45 minutes across the bay, and looking out the window and behind the boat, the view is striking in its perfection. Table Mountain. Cape Town. The ocean. It's an extra treat for my short day.

2:25 p.m.: On the island, we board buses for the tour. There are multiple prison buildings, some housing for workers, and the limestone quarry where prisoners were made to do hard labor. We're shown some cells, but these weren't for prisoners, they were for the dogs. "Remember the size of these, they're much larger than the prisoners' cells," we're told.

Our guide explains the rough conditions on the island. How the maximum security buildings were reserved for the political prisoners. Murderers and rapists enjoyed roomier confines, because they were less threatening. How prisoners could speak only English or Afrikaans, no tribal languages. How visitors were allowed once a year. My eyes water as I think about the insane punishment for disobeying the rules: You could be shot.

3:15 p.m.: We get off the buses in front of the maximum security prison. Here we are met by a former political prisoner from the island, one of many now working there giving tours.

Our group doubles, because two buses unload at the same time. It's hard to hear the man with the soft voice telling us his story of imprisonment.

He leads us into a common room and describes how some 50 men would sleep on the floor here, on coarse mats. Those dogs with the roomy cells? Each morning they were brought in to ravage the men.

3:40 p.m.: We walk to another building where the cells are. This is it.

By now, our large group is filing down the hallway, trying to figure out which cell was Mandela's. I think I see it, but I'm not sure and keep walking. I figure the guide will point it out, give us time to reflect and take pictures. But we're going single file, and he's at the front and I'm near the back.

When we get to the next room, he thanks us for joining him and says it's time to catch our ferry.

Wait, what? I'm here to see Mandela's cell.

3:50 p.m.: I race back to the cells with a few other people and ask if anyone knows which one was Mandela's. No one is sure.

I run outside to where the guide is herding the crowd and imploring us to move along.

"Which cell is Mandela's?" I ask.

"The one with the bucket," he says. "Be quick."

The bucket, okay.

Not much bigger than a closet, it has a small table, a mat for sleeping, and a bucket to use as a toilet. The walls and floor are concrete.

There is a window with some light, but it is cold and so remote. Isolated. A person could be forgotten about here.

I take some pictures and try to think about how hard it would be to survive a life sentence, not for a crime, but for your political beliefs. For trying to right a wrong in your country.

A chill runs through me.

Against the horror of a nation trying to destroy him, Mandela grew stronger. In this cell.

4:10 p.m.: Walking out into the sunshine, I'm struck by the irony of such ugliness happening just a few miles from the beauty of Cape Town. It's unimaginable.

4:16 p.m.: I call Henry as I board the ferry. He says he'll meet me where he dropped me off.

5:04 p.m.: Down the steps from the harborfront, I find Henry waiting. My flight is at 7 p.m.

"No time for Table Mountain, I guess."

"Yeah," he says, "next time."

Contact Amy Hollyfield at Follow @amy_hollyfield.

If you go

With a favorable exchange rate, South Africa is an affordable vacation after the airfare. Right now, one South African Rand equals 0.069 dollars. (My all-day taxi fare came to 2,000 Rand, or about $137, including the tip. That's an insane bargain considering Henry was a great tour guide, too.)

The hardest part of the journey is the flight, more than 18 hours in my case, including a direct Atlanta-Johannesburg leg of about 15 hours.

If you want to go to Robben Island, buy your tickets in advance at because they sell out early. Caution: High winds can cause the tours to be canceled.

Amy Hollyfield is a Tampa Bay Times deputy managing editor. She oversees political coverage, including the Times' fact-checking website PolitiFact, and business news. PolitiFact is partnering with Africa Check (, a fact-checking website based in South Africa, to rate statements about global health and development.

10 hours in Cape Town: From Mandela's cell on Robben Island to the penguins on Boulders Beach 04/28/16 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2016 2:00pm]
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