We boarded the ferry at the impressive Nelson Mandela Gateway along with the Dutch, American, Swedish, British and other golden geese that migrate from colder climes to Cape Town at this time of year. I was in the company of two young tourists — a nine-year-old and a six-year-old — who double as my sons. We had already done most stops in the holiday package itinerary: the aquarium (in search of Nemos), the World of Birds (with the monkeys being the most popular item), Chapman’s Peak (where rock’n’roll has a new meaning) and Ratanga Junction (eish!).
The trip to Robben Island Museum was to be their one particularly “cultural” trip, an experience of education that they would have before being swallowed up by the more formal education system for another year.
This most famous landmark in our country’s long walk to freedom certainly has the fine, external trappings becoming of its history and its new-found status as a world heritage site. The terminal and boarding point are suitably Waterfront-swanky, the ferry is fast and comfortable, and the buses are a major improvement on the relics from Noah’s Ark that first transported visitors around the island.
But if one had to reflect on the experience of the visit, the expression that comes to mind is that of Kevin Kline kicking the moneyless Mini in A Fish Called Wanda and uttering “Disappointed!” Much of it probably had to do with the restrictive format of the tour and the over-garrulousness of the guides who — like old-style teachers — emphasised didacticism over experience, content over form.
We were bused around the island, taking in various sites from behind bus windows — the lepers’ graveyard, the convicts’ prison for ordinary (as opposed to political) criminals, Robert Sobukwe’s prison house, the limestone quarry … But the only time we were allowed off the bus was at a halfway point with an ad hoc café where we could buy tazos (and crisps) and drinks. Time was running out, the ferry was to leave soon, and there was no time to see the penguins on the other side of the island. Inside the maximum-security prison, we were rushed past Mandela’s cell (no one is allowed inside any longer), with 40 camera-clicking golden geese sharing three minutes between them to snap a picture for their tan-envying friends and families back home.
It was like being driven around the pyramids in a bus, and only stopping at a roadside stall for a shwarma and Coke. Then, when we were eventually allowed inside Tutankhamun’s tomb — one of the primary reasons for going to Egypt in the first place — we were hurried along so rapidly that we had to make do with a postcard of the embalmed icon, conveniently sold in the shop on the way out.
The Robben Island Museum is probably the closest thing we have to a Holocaust Museum, whose walls could speak to us, whose ghosts could haunt us, whose stories could leave an indelible impression on us. We heard the guides, but didn’t feel. For we were on the tourism conveyor belt, snapped up at one end that raised expectations, and spewed out at the other into a curio shop having being bored with rhetorical outpourings and oft-told tales that had now become dispassionate words, falling upon our ears, but sadly missing our hearts.
“This year we celebrate a decade of democracy, and it is your democratic right to tip the guide and the bus driver,” announced the guide at the end of the bus tour. The good-natured geese dipped into their leather pouches and laid their golden eggs in the palms of the guide and driver who had seen others benefit from this democracy, so why not them? The prison guide listed a number of his former island comrades who were now in high places, while he remained on the island. Again the golden geese laid their pitying eggs.
“So what was the most interesting thing for you on this trip?” I asked the six-year-old tourist on the way back. “It would have been the penguins,” he said. Indeed. A trip remembered not so much for what it was, but for what it could have been.