Are township tours and Robben Island suitable for families?

It is all too easy to travel through the Cape region in comfortable lodges and not have any sense of how the majority of the country lives. On the basis that exposure breeds understanding and awareness, we think it is a good thing to learn about this magnificent countries turbulent past and present. Not all families and children will enjoy it, so it is important to understand the options and what is involved.

Generally speaking, most visitors consider two activities, visiting Robben Island and a township. Where Robben Island gives insight into the political struggles of the past, a visit to a township gives insight into the economic realities of the present.

Robben Island is the infamous windswept Island just offshore from Cape Town that held Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders captive for almost 20 years. The Island became a focal point for international resistance to apartheid and is now a powerful symbol of freedom. Tours last 3 and a half hours in total including a 30 minute ferry from the V&A Waterfront . On the Island itself you are guided by former inmates of the prison through the notorious B-section (which held Mandela), you’ll see exhibitions that tell the stories of inmates and take a trip around the Island by bus.  There are no age restrictions as such, but given the captive and guided nature of the experience (three and a half hours in total) it is arguably most suitable for families with teenagers or ‘interested’ under 12s. Tickets need to be bought in advance and you will need to allow half a day for the experience.

Safety is undoubtedly less of an issue than you would think, however a visit to a township should not be considered lightly. Some are fantastic uplifting projects, others are exploitative tourism at their worst. Done right, you’ll be guided by a local from the township, you’ll learn about the history and struggles of the people and get to participate in some inspiring projects. Like anything in life, no two townships are the same, some are absolute no go areas, some have developed well and are safe for visitors. 

With children involved, it is important to have a focal activity. Two of our favourite projects meet both of these briefs: 

Township Tour by Bike in Masiphumelele: I took my 6 year old daughter to Masiphumelele and whilst it wasn’t an unqualified success (at least for her), I’m glad we did it. Cycling through the township is a wonderfully relaxed way to explore the township and an excellent way to break down barriers with the locals. We stopped to visit a couple of community projects including a nursery and library, met a local spirit healer and enjoyed a very local lunch of pap and chicken at Nonny’s superb road-side café. Whilst the conditions in the formal township area (where the government has installed infrastructure) were good, as soon as we abandoned the bikes and walked into the informal township (where new arrivals to the township live), the sights of families washing in the squalid waste water and flooded shacks constructed from little more than card-board in places was hard to stomach and a real eye opener. Still there was a very real sense of order, progress and pride. What’s more, the meeting of nationalities was intriguing. The Somalis tend to keep shop (and are welcomed by locals thanks to their low prices) whilst the Nigerians are apparently the best barbers. Both myself and my daughter found the hardest part of the experience the visit to the nursery, where we were both met by a universal cry of teech-ah and were mobbed by scores of kids. Being grabbed and climbed upon by scores of kids was not surprisingly intimidating for the 6yo. From my perspective, I felt uncomfortable intruding into these children’s class rooms and worried about the values it might teach the children at such a young age. Approximately 80% of the cost of the tour goes into the community and the tour is run in partnership with the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN) which imports and renovates used bicycles and trains locals in their maintenance. We drove our hire car to Masipumelele and met our guide, Zwai, in the car park of a supermarket in a more gentrified area near-by. Masipumelele is well located to then head on to Boulders Beach and Cape Point. 

Township Cooking Tour: Eating and learning about local foods is one of the best ways to get a feel for a local culture, but you’ll be lucky to spot local staples such as Pap, chakalaka, samp and African stew on the tourist route. The class is based in a cooking school that is teaching the catering trade to locals in the townships with a remarkable success rate in terms of end employment. Although ostensibly an African cooking class, the cooking part is really just a great opportunity for you to taste the local food and to spend some time meeting the local people. This African cooking class tends to start with an introductory low-down on African cuisine and culture accompanied by a refreshing glass of homemade ginger beer. The class itself involves learning to cook dishes like pap, chakalaka, samp and African stew. For lunch, the dishes are served up in the restaurant - a building crafted from old shipping containers. Cooking classes are typically small scale affairs arranged for individual groups so can be tailored to suit families very easily. On the way to the cooking school we recommend visiting the District 6 museum to get an insight into the history of the forced removal of blacks from their communities. 

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