In the summer of 2003 we visited South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. One very ipmressive tour was the excursion to Robben Island in South Africa. It was here, that Nelson Mandela toiled virtually every day for 13 years, digging up rock, some of which paved the road we were driving on with our bus. The sun was so relentless, the quarry so bright and dusty, that Mandela was stricken with “snow blindnes” that damaged his eyes. Robben Island (Afrikaans Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 12 km off the coast from Cape Town, South Africa and is located at 33.806734° S 18.366222° E. The name is Dutch for “seal island” (or to be strictly accurate “island of seals”, because Robben is a plural noun), although “Seal Island” is a different island near Cape Town (in False Bay).

Entrance Prison Robben Island - Cape Town - South Africa

Entrance Prison Robben Island – Cape Town – South Africa

Robben Island is roughly circular and about a kilometer wide. It is flat and only a few metres above sealevel, as a result of an ancient erosion event. The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group. Robben Island was first inhabited thousands of years ago by stone age people, at a time when sealevels were considerably lower than they are today and people could walk to it. It was then a flat-topped hill. Towards the end of the last Ice Age the melting of the ancient ice caps caused sealevels to rise once again (they have gone up and down many times over the ages) and the land around the island was flooded by the ocean. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people — mainly prisoners — and amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. The most powerful part of the tour is a visit to Mandela’s cell, a 7-by-9-foot room where a bulb burned day and night over his head for the 18 years he was jailed here, beginning in 1964. As Mandela recalled in Long Walk to Freedom, “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

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China’s capital is at its most magical early in the morning. Few cities have such a profound sense of history as Beijing. It whispers down the grand boulevards, cries out from its megaliths and monuments, echoes in its palatial courts. And despite the fact that Chairman Mao’s mausoleum now looks over the Colonel’s Kentucky Fried, nothing of the past.

Tiantan Park - Beijing - China
Tiantan Park – Beijing – China

Unlike its more sassy sister cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, where an energized nightlife rocks into the wee hours, Beijing seemingly slumbers after 10. But, like most Chinese communities, its parks and plazas spring alive to greet the rising sun with tai chi and other sports, some I could recognize, others I don’t. We visited Tiantan Park early in the morning to see thousands of Beijingers starting the day with tai chi. Tiantan Park, hugely popular among locals as a venue not only for tai chi, but also for myriad of activities from ballroom dancing to croquet to Chinese martial arts, and as we experienced, massive opera singing activities as can be seen on the video we made this summer. So Tiantan park is an ethereal place to visit,especially in the gentle morning light when old folks are practicing their tai chi and qigong, opera singing and sword dancing. A place where Beijing can catch its breath from the relentless and perplexing change of recent years.

Vieuw Gallery Tiantan Park – Beijing – China

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