NELSON Mandela's death brought many memories of the great man. His demise reminded me of a trip to South Africa in 2001 when I visited Robben Island, his prison home for 18 years.

My guide was a fellow inmate of Mandela’s, and he showed us the dingy cells where Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were kept.

We saw too the quarry where they laboured crushing limestone. The hours spent working in the glaring whiteness of the stone almost blinded Mandela and permanently damaged his eyesight.

The guide told of how makeshift eye-shades, like those worn to protect against snow-blindness, were crudely fashioned and saved his sight.

The smallest of details brought home the agony of imprisonment. Our guide told us was that what Mandela missed most was the sound of children. Glimpses of warders' families playing would be a rare delight. This unexpected detail then, as now, made my stomach lurch in pity.

But the most powerful story I came away with was one which seemed to sum up the humility and forgiveness he learned in prison and took to his fellow-prisoners and then to a sceptical and violent country. To the warders, the people who would make their daily lives a misery, who for entertainment would order an inmate to dig a pit in which they would stand and would then urinate on them; he made an offer. In a response which moved me and still does, he would teach these often illiterate men how to read and write.

How anyone could rise above such brutal treatment and extend that hand of friendship left me humbled, but struck by the immense power of such a gesture.

It's safe to say that South Africa got under my skin all those years ago. It was a newly-democratic country, but one which was stalked by violent crime and fears that its peace could fracture. But in poor townships and in comfortable suburbs, there was optimism, sometimes guarded, that they would be able to work through the country's many problems. At its heart, that optimism was spawned by the courageous offer made by Mandela to his guards and tormentors.

Travel is said to broaden the mind, but my visit to South Africa went way beyond this - it taught me a lesson about this extraordinary country and this extraordinary man.