Robben Island Museum to overhaul ailing visitor experience of iconic SA heritage site

2015-04-09 16:35
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Cape Town - Ambitious new plans for the improvement of Robben Island, including a new smart phone application that would make for a more independent visitor experience, are in the pipeline for the old apartheid-era prison island, that housed the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. 

Robben Island's executive team met in Cape Town on Wednesday, 8 April, and discussed options on how to improve the visitor experience on the island.

The dire state of the Robben Island visitor experience has been a point of contention for some time, with transportation to and from the island by ferry being the biggest headache. 

See: Robben Island ferry gets lost

Quinton Mtyala, communications manager of the Robben Island Museum, told Traveller24 that the long term goal would be to operate shuttle ferries only, which will run to and from the island every 30 minutes, daily. 

Robben Island Museum wants to move away from the four-hour visit with a prison tour followed by a bus ride around the island, which is currently the norm, and give visitors a more independent option to explore the island, Mtyala explains. 

By using this method, "visitors will not be restricted by schedules, or by the limited ferry trips", he says.

This new approach will differ vastly from the way in which ferries are currently operating, taking large groups of visitors on 4-hour-long scheduled tours to the island. 

The New App

The smartphone application, which is already in development, will be audio operated and will give listeners a comprehensive history and background regarding the various places they visit on the island. With it, travellers will be able to explore various sides of the island and also possibly part-take in walking tours, biking tours, environmental tours, mining and geology tours and even World War II tours of the island. 

The new app is set to be tested on the public from the end of July this year, and hopes to be fully launched and applied by the end of 2015. 

The app will initially be used in addition to the tour guides, many of whom are ex-prisoners who currently operate as guides through the Robben Island prison. It is also believed it will give visitors information which they might miss when travelling in large groups through the prison. 

In the long term, the app might run more independently from these tour guides, since many of them are in their late 50s and 60s, and will soon be retiring. 

Visitors seeking a more interactive experience on the island, however, will still be able to walk with designated tour guides, in addition to the new app. 


Although the app is a short-term goal for the improvement of the island, Mtyala warns that the implementation of the more frequent shuttle ferries is still a long term goal. 

Currently, only one of Robben Island's designated ferries, the Dias, is operational. Both the Susan Kruger and the Sikhululekile are out of the water for repairs. 

The island thus hires privately owned ferries on an ad hoc basis daily, depending on the amount of bookings they have.

Mtyala said that it is impossible to say how long it will be until Robben Island could have its own functional ferries, which will service the 30 minute pick-up-and-go idea as "Robben Island is a government entity dependent on government funding". 

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