Rebecca Arnold writes: Being herded onto a bus with 40 other tourists and being driven from sight to sight, stopping only to let people off to take a few snaps before re-boarding the bus, is not my idea of a good time.

But some things you just gotta do.

And Robben Island, a short ferry ride from Cape Town is one of those things. Famous for being the “home” of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 years, there is, unfortunately, only one way to do it: the dreaded group tour.

Mandela's cell, photo from Flickr
Mandela's cell, photo from Flickr

I read the warnings. Lonely Planet told me what it would be like once I got off the ferry. But I still chose to go. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did. It’s just that why did they have to make what should be an amazing historical site so shite?

In my travels, I’ve come to understand that tours are a necessary evil. There are some places that are impossible to get to without handing over cash and surrendering yourself to the unknown in return for convenience. But why are some tours so terrible?

Roughly 12 kilometres from Cape Town, Robben Island can only be reached by ferry. After a fairly rough ride, watching the face of a young woman in a matching Juicy Couture tracksuit slowly turn green, we disembarked and were immediately ushered onto two waiting buses for our tour of the island.

Judging by the monotonous tone of our tour guide, it appeared she’d voiced her script several times before. Tone aside, the history of the island was quite fascinating.

Robben Island has long been used as a prison, but it also has a history of captives of another kind: in the 1800s lepers were banished there from the mainland. In 1961 the island reverted back to a prison, once again housing political prisoners.

We’d actually been quite lucky to time our visit to the island with the day of Mandela’s 92nd birthday. Well, so we thought. The next words out of our guide’s mouth were: “Today it is Madiba’s [Mandela’s nickname] birthday. There is a party on the island, but you will not be able to attend; it will be over by the time you get there.”

Oh, okay.

After we were ejected from the bus we met Zozo, our next guide and a former prisoner. Zozo took us through some of the shared cells, telling us about life as a prisoner and the different ways prisoners were treated according to their colour. “Coloureds” and Indians received more food than the black prisoners, and also long pants and shoes rather than shorts and no shoes.

The supposed highlight of the Robben Island visit is seeing Mandela’s cell. But in this case, seeing his cell meant standing on our tip toes to peer over the heads and digital cameras of other visitors. Blinded by the flashes of 40 cameras, we moved on quickly with barely a glance at the small space that held the great man for so many years, and where he secretly wrote many of the pages of his memoir Long Walk to Freedom.

Filing out after the tour of the cells, we were only allowed 15 minutes to wander around by ourselves before we had to head back to Cape Town.

I will admit that it was quite amazing to see the place where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years that he was in prison. The fact that he came out of this place which sought to crush him and then managed to become President of the country is legend of his enduring spirit. To me, Madiba represents peace and is a symbol of the triumph of human spirit over adversity.

But what should have been a special visit was turned into an experience much like cattle being herded, and we weren’t able to get a full sense of the history and hardships of the island in times gone by.

What tourist “must-sees” have you visited that you just straight-up didn’t like?

In the real world Rebecca Arnold is a Melbourne-based PR flack. She’s just spent some time volunteering in South Africa and writes about her travels at Rebecca and the World.