Nelson Mandela’s Madiba Trail

Visit key sites in Nelson Mandela life, from his youth to his freedom from jail.

In a country as vast and varied as South Africa, you couldn’t hope to see everything on one trip, so when a friend suggested picking a theme for our month-long jaunt, we began racking our brains. We considered the obvious—a wildlife-based trip—but decided we’d rather go for a more original angle. We discounted surfing, wine tasting and rock climbing and in the end could think of no better way to plan a trip than to base it around the life of one of the 21st century’s greatest men, Nelson Mandela.

Places pertinent to Mandela’s life span the country, but with limited time we had to hone in on the most important locations. We decided on three main cities: Mthatha, Johannesburg and Cape Town, meaning we could actually follow the route in chronological order.

Madiba Trail

Our bottom-of-the-range hire car was ill-equipped to deal with the dirt roads leading to Mandela’s birthplace on the Eastern Cape, Mvezo, though this is the true starting place for the so-called Madiba Trail. Madiba is Mandela’s clan name and most South Africans use it as a term of endearment for their beloved former leader. Instead of visiting the miniscule hamlet where Madiba spent his first two years, we went to nearby Qunu, the place where he grew up.

The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Qunu is much easier to reach and there’s more to see, so all but the most hardcore Mandela admirers start their explorations here. The village itself is tiny, but overlooking it is a grand, if empty, building. The Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Centre houses occasional exhibitions and hosts community events, but it’s the staff rather than the installations that are Qunu’s real gem.

Brimming with pride that the former president hailed from his hometown, security guard Peter was keen to point out places with a Madiba link. We squinted to see the spots where a young Mandela played, the church where he was baptized and the ruins of the school where he received his Christian name, Nelson (his parents called him Rolihlahla).

A rather more impressive structure on the horizon is his modern-day retirement home, considerably grander than the simple hut of his childhood. A short hike or a bumpy drive transports you to this open-air museum, but our time in the Eastern Cape was running short and we wanted to explore Mthatha before heading north.


Mthatha is an essential stop on the trail, especially for the Madiba novice. The Nelson Mandela National Museum brings you up to speed on Mandela’s life within an hour. The main exhibit chronicles his excellent autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It’s kind of like 3-D CliffsNotes for travelers who haven’t read the full text!

Chunky excerpts are displayed alongside photos that bring the story alive. We studied his extraordinary life then admired the collection of gifts sent by everyone from world leaders to local school children.


Keen to keep following the tale, we flew to the place where the tribal chief’s son became a lawyer and later a freedom fighter: Johannesburg. Many travelers give Jo’burg a wide berth, fearful of its scary reputation, but if there’s one reason to head to South Africa’s biggest city, then Mandela is it.

In a bid to keep things chronological, we made a beeline for Soweto. Arriving in a decrepit old car hired from the aptly-named Rent-a-Wreck, we found a place to stay then began to explore. Our main reason for visiting, other than the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum chronicling the 1976 uprising, was to step inside the Mandela House.

There are no real exhibits in the house; no plaques or information panels. It’s basically been left exactly as it was when the Mandelas lived here. Madiba resided here from the late 1940s, bringing up his young family until his arrest. It wasn’t until his 1990 release that the family moved away. It could have been a tedious stop along the trail, but the lively commentary given by passionate guides transformed the modest family home into a fascinating historical relic.

Back in Johannesburg, we took up the trail where Mandela took up his struggle against the apartheid authorities. Liliesleaf Farm is now a museum, but in the 1960s it was the underground headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military arm of the African National Congress (ANC). Exhibits detail the anti-apartheid struggle and the devastating 1963 police raid that saw 18 freedom-fighter arrests.

Mandela was already in custody when the raid took place and the site of his cell was the next stop on our pilgrimage. Constitution Hill was one of the more poignant places we visited. Sitting in Johannesburg’s troubled city center, the former prison has been transformed into a superlative museum. After seeing the cell that once held Mandela, we explored the rest of the museum, a bleak look at the realities of apartheid.

Robben Island

If we were looking for a pick-me-up, we weren’t going to find it at our next destination. Lying four miles off Cape Town’s pretty coastline, Robben Island is probably the most famous place on the itinerary. Once a leper colony and now a somber tourist attraction, this desolate island was best known for being the prison that held Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. Our tour, like all tours here, was conducted by an ex-prisoner.

Hearing tales of mistreatment, of furtive meetings and unshakable hope, we couldn’t say we’d enjoyed Robben Island. But seeing the tiny cell where Mandela penned the first draft of his autobiography, it was certainly a chapter not to be missed.

Grand Parade

Thankfully, Mandela’s life story had a happy ending, meaning our trip could also finish on a high note. We bought ice creams as we wandered Grand Parade, finally feeling able to treat the trip like a vacation. This is where crowds gathered to party on February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela stood as a free man following almost three decades behind bars.

Although distressing at times, we were glad we’d followed this emotional itinerary. The world offers plenty of places for beach hopping, wine tasting or wildlife watching, but there’s no experience as truly South African as paying homage to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Destinations: South Africa, Johannesburg, Cape Town

Themes: Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums, Sightseeing