Category Archives: South Africa

Robben Island

Robben EntryIn his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela says, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones — and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”

I have looked forward to many things about South Africa: natural beauty, delicious food, living history. I fully agree with all those who describe the stunning scenery of Cape Town. The food has been delicious, and this past Saturday we were treated to a fantastic dinner by neighbors in Yzerfontein. They served us Yellow Tail fish they caught from the Atlantic, Wildebeest sausage, and Springbok biltong (a type of dried and cured meat similar to jerky). These have been wonderful beyond words!

But it is the living history that most attracts me to South Africa, and Robben Island is the place that I most wanted to experience.

We traveled to Robben Island on a clear, sunny day. I was struck by the irony of such a beautiful place also being the setting for long and cruel imprisonments. The island is about eight miles from Cape Town, and the views of the city are incredible.

Table Mountain from Robben Island

Table Mountain from Robben Island

As our boat approached the island, my son said with surprise, “This looks more like a resort than a prison.” Mandela himself made the same comment on first seeing Robben Island.

To prepare for this visit, I read Mandela’s book, Long Walk to Freedom. In his book, Mandela describes long days filled with hard labor and difficult conditions. I felt a pit in my stomach looking at the quarry where prisoners worked five days a week for years on end. I listened to our guide, himself a former politcal prisoner at Robben Island, describe the apartheid system even in prison in which prisoners were treated differently based on their skin color. Black inmates, for example, were issued inferior clothes and given less food than prisoners from other racial backgrounds.

Site of Mandela's Garden

Site of Mandela’s Garden

Despite the unrelenting challenges, Mandela and other prisoners found ways to maintain their hope. Just outside the cell block, you can see the courtyard where Mandela eventually planted a garden and also hid parts of his memoirs in the soil (before they were discovered). In his book, Mandela describes creative ways prisoners maintained communication with one another and the outside world despite officials’ attempts to keep them isolated.

Mandela's Cell

Mandela’s Cell

I was most deeply moved to see Mandela’s cell. In this tiny place where he spent so many years of his life, Mandela remained committed to the cause of a free South Africa. He entered prison at age 44 (the same age I am now), and his commitment to the cause of freedom never waivered.

In his book, Mandela says, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of our guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure and keep me going. [Human] goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”

Thankfully, Mandela’s story — and that of South Africa — does not end at Robben Island. It continued after his release from prison and his time leading the country. Now following his death, it continues in the lives of people committed to reconciliation and justice.

Whales and Seals in South Africa

Shortly after we arrived in the Western Cape of South Africa, we were told that we may be able to see whales during our stay.  The Southern Right Whale spends summer feeding near Antarctica and migrates north in winter for breeding.  September marks the end of winter in South Africa, and we have seen signs of spring all around.

A couple of days after arriving in Yzerfontein, South Africa (the beautiful seaside town that is our home for the month of September), my wife and daughter were enjoying time on the beach, when they spotted something near the town’s dock.  At first, my wife thought it was a rock, but on closer inspection, they saw that it was a whale.  They sped home to gather my son and me, and the four of us went to the dock.  We spent the next forty-five minutes transfixed by the whales.  There were three whales within fifty meters of the dock, and they appeared to be two large adults and one small young whale.  We could see another whale about three hundred meters away.  They seemed to float effortlessly, rising and falling with the waves.  Their mouths came out of the water, and they occasionally fluttered their fins and tails.  It was a sight to behold!Whale

We have seen whales on two other occasions.  Once was while at the West Coast National Park, a beautiful place set on the coast just north of Yzerforntein.  And the second time was from the beach while walking the dogs. A storm was brewing, the winds were strong, and the seas rough. Just off shore — no more than 200 meters — we spotted a whale easily floating in the water. It seemed to take no mind to the storm that was leaving us damp and windblown. And we didn’t mind the cold and damp conditions as we watched this majestic creature.

SealIn addition to whales, I also hoped to spot some seals while in South Africa. We traveled to Robben Island (more about this experience in another blog post), which is named for the seals in the waters near Cape Town. Robben is the Dutch word for seal. As our boat approached the island, we saw eight or ten seals sunning on rocks. It was a nice sight, but I really was hoping to see seals in a more natural setting.

Yesterday, while my daughter and I were walking the dog on the beach, we looked behind us, and we saw a seal on the shore. We stood still for several minutes watching the seal. With Pella the dog securely on the leash, we walked closer to get a better view. As we approached slowly, the seal looked at us for a while before walking into the surf. It started swimming in the water just a few feet offshore. As we walked back home, the seal swam parallel to the shore in the same direction we walked. What a gift in this wonderful town! Seal 2

Isepho Means “Gift”

After a wonderful time in South America, we made our way across the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa. During the month of September, we are staying in Yzerfontein, South Africa, which is about one-and-a-half hours drive north of Cape Town on the western coast. It is a beautiful setting on the ocean, and the combination of white sands, brown rocks, and large waves is breathtaking. (The scenery here is very similar to the California coast near Monterey and Carmel, one of the most beautiful spots on earth.)Rock

We are staying in a wonderful home named Isepho, which means “gift” in the local language. Truly, it is a gift to be here. (If you are interested in staying here yourself, you may book a reservation through

We found our way here thanks to, a house sitting website that connects prospective sitters with homeowners who need help when they are away. Our duties include walking the Labrador Retrievers (Biscuit and Pella) and caring for the cat, Magwa. All three animals are wonderful, loving creatures. They greet us warmly each morning, and Magwa the Cat sits in my lap as I drink coffee on the back deck while watching and listening to the surf.

On the beach with Pella

On the beach with Pella

Our gracious hostess, Claire, met us at the airport, treated us to ice cream on our way home, introduced us to people around the town, fed us dinner, and trusted us with her automobile while she is away. Yes, I am driving a manual transmission on the left-hand side of the road. All of this is a gift indeed!

Table MountainIt is winter here, and temperatures range from about 10 degrees Celsius to 21 degrees Celsius (that’s roughly 50-72 degrees Fahrenheit). Days have been sunny and beautiful. We can see Table Mountain in Cape Town as we look south down the coast. And to the north is West Coast National Park with its vibrant display of wildflowers this time of year. People across South Africa travel to this area this time of year to view the flowers much like people in the States travel to New England to see Fall Foliage.

In the coming days, we will explore the area. We plan to walk on the beach every day, see the wildflowers, and travel to Cape Town where we will visit Robben Island, Table Mountain, and other sights in that wonderful city.

For now, we are enjoying Isepho, the gift we are fortunate to share for this month.

Yzerfontein, South Africa

Yzerfontein, South Africa