Today we’re flying to Cayenne in French Guiana (Guyane) for the start of our 21-day trip with Dragoman. This was supposed to be in one of their expedition trucks, but a couple of days ago we got an email saying that the truck was not allowed into French Guiana, so the whole trip will be done in a series of minibuses. We can’t understand why they can’t just leave the truck at the Suriname/French Guiana border, so that most of the trip can be done in the truck, but later find out that they were bringing the truck in via Belem and a 48-hour boat trip on the Amazon to the South Eastern side of the country, and to get it to the West side they would have had to backtrack an awfully long way – and it couldn’t be done in time anyway. Apparently the truck, though it has been in South America for a number of years, was originally registered in France, and as French Guiana is a Department of France (i.e. it is part of France and all the rules of France apply there) they are stricter with French vehicles. We are not overly upset with the change in plans, as we don’t think the expedition trucks are the most comfortable way to travel, and are not necessary when you’re not camping.
We each paid A$2565 less A$513 discount for the trip as we bought during a 20% off sale. We also paid a kitty of US$1,010 each to cover daily costs such as accommodation, some tours etc. We were going to have two or three nights camping, but because all the camping gear is on the truck, we can’t camp, so Dragoman will probably cover the extra cost, as well as the cost of hiring vehicles in each country.
We don’t know much about the three countries we are visiting, so do a bit of reading, and find out the following for our first country, French Guiana (or Guyane in French).
Total population is about 275,000 – between 30-50% of the population are Creoles (that is, with an African heritage). About 20% of these are from Haiti, attracted by French social benefits and the high living standards. Europeans (mostly French) are 10-14%, Asians 4-5% (including 1-2% Hmong from Laos). The Amerindian population is between 3-4%. People from Brazil, Suriname and Guyana make up the balance.
The first European settlement was by the French in the early 1660’s. Various countries claimed possession over the years, but in March 1946 it became the Department of Guyane, with the same laws, regulations and administration as a department in metropolitan France.
The colony was mainly used as a prison for French convicts with camps scattered throughout the country – Saint-Laurent was the port of entry. These prison sites and their history, along with the European space Centre at Kourou, are two of the main tourist attractions in the country.
Thursday 22nd March Belem (Brazil) to Cayenne (French Guiana)
We originally booked for the 5.30am Wednesday flight to Cayenne on Suriname Airways, but a couple of weeks ago we were notified it no longer went, and we were booked onto the 7am, 1.5hr Thursday flight. When we looked on the internet, it said that the timetable was in the process of changing from summer to winter schedule, and the Thursday flight was only confirmed for a couple of weeks, which was a bit worrying.
It is very important we don’t miss the plane today as it only goes three times a week, and our tour officially starts this afternoon. As a result, we only had some broken sleep, and were up before the 4.15 AM alarm, and down at reception by 4.15. Sorted out our bill and outside to see if the taxi waiting is ours. The taxi is a new Toyota van, with AC, seat belts that work, and an engine which doesn’t give the impression it is going to die. We are in good shape, and proceed along Nazare as far as the market (which IS a long way to walk), before turning to the river and along the major road all the way to the airport. Our progress is aided by the driver slowing, but not stopping, at the multiple red lights, but other cars are doing the same thing. At the airport, we find Suriname Airways, check in, but can’t get a window seat, and are told about something that happens at 5.30am, even though our flight is due to leave at 7am. This turns out to be when security and immigration open, so we kill time looking at breakfast possibilities without finding inspiration, and reading Dianne’s supply of Good Weekends.
When security does open, there is a large line, but it seems to be moving so we join it. It turns out they are letting in batches, so the line was actually pretty slow. Security was pretty tight with shoes and belts off. Dianne, with open sandals, thought she would pass OK, but the metal buckles tripped the detector.
Boarding was arranged in two rows by number, but the majority of people were in the 1 to 20 line, so boarding was pretty chaotic. We hoped the passenger in the A seat might prefer the aisle, but got pretty short shrift when Dianne asked.
The plane took up a lot of the runway to get off, but as it was going on to Suriname, was probably full of fuel. The flight was pretty smooth, with not a lot to see from the inner seats, but we would have had some good river and jungle views leaving Belem.
At Cayenne, we landed about 8.30am into a short but intense rain storm, but had an air bridge to get us into the terminal dry. At immigration, a lot of the passengers had French passports, and were waved through, but our inspector checked out Dianne’s passport at length, wanting to see onward flight information, and asked how long we were staying in French Guiana. Finally, we were stamped in, found our bags already on the conveyor, and walked out with no customs check to sort out transport, as we already had a supply of left-over Euros from last year. Some passengers were outside, apparently waiting for an airport bus, but with no information, and only one taxi waiting, we decided to take it, figuring it couldn’t be too savage (forgetting this was a French Department, and fare ended up about 50 euros). It was a long haul to Cayenne, about 17kms, through fairly scrubby jungle to get to the spread-out industrial outskirts, and finally to the town proper, on the Cayenne River. It was very Caribbean to look at, with narrow streets, very rusty roofs, a lot of run-down timber buildings, some large masonry buildings, certainly no high-rise as in Belem. We reached the coast to find our Hotel des Amandiers on the last street along the water, with a park opposite, and a brown choppy sea, with no real waves extending to the horizon.
The front-of-hotel was an open bar, with a reception desk to one side, and a four-storey rendered brick building behind. It took a while to sort out that we were part of a party of 10 booked in a name we didn’t know, then we were taken up to the first floor in a lift, and shown into a large room, with a Queen bed, desk, hall storage, modern bathroom, and a balcony, common to three rooms, facing the sea, with a view over the large, flat metal roof of the bar. Only downside was a locked door to an adjoining room, which from past experience means no soundproofing between the rooms.
After settling in, we went down to look at the food possibilities at the bar, but found little except crepes, so asked where we could find a restaurant, and were told there are lots, a big one just around the corner. With rain on the horizon, Murray went back for the umbrellas, and we walked into town, finding nothing encouraging after a couple of blocks, when it started raining hard. We sheltered to wait out the worst of it, asked a local woman where we might find a Supermarket, which didn’t compute with her, so tried asking for Carrefour, then given lots of instructions which included four blocks down, two to the right…… Had no luck asking for a Petit Carrefour, so thanked our lady, then Murray looked across the street, and there was a small supermarket right there.
We bought a large, fresh baguette, sardines in tomato sauce, chips, Coke, Yoplait, and mosquito spray, and returned to the room for lunch and a sleep. After, we walked the waterfront and a couple of blocks down into the town, but didn’t see much of interest apart from a variety of birds. We have still not seen any likely fellow travellers, but there is a meeting at 6PM, when all will be revealed.
The seven passengers and Duncan the leader and Dutchie the driver turned up for the meeting. Drinks were provided and after introductions all around, Duncan read through the revised itinerary, and explained more thoroughly why the truck couldn’t be used – namely that it was supposed to enter French Guiana via the ferry across the mouth of the Amazon, but it was originally registered in France, and was still subject to French bureaucracy.
The fellow passengers were Dean and Michael from the USA, Sarah from Wales, Charlene from Ottawa, and Andrew from England. Our leader, Duncan, is from NZ, and our driver without a vehicle to drive, is Dutchie, who is, strangely enough, Johan from Holland. After the meeting, the collection of the kitty, and a group decision to take the tour to Iles du Salut, including Devil’s Island, we walked a long way through the streets of town to the Place des Palmiers, a park with a lot of palm trees, and a large colonial building with the Las Palmiers Restaurant on the ground floor. The place was crowded, but we got a reserved table out the back in the graveled beer garden, under an expandable awning. The menu was extensive, but most settled for pizza, us with a Hawaiian and a Capriccioso, with anchovies, plus beer, Coke and coffee, coming to €38.60, with plenty of food left over take home in le doggy bag for breakfast, instead of the hotel €10 breakfast, as we needed an early start. A local woman of African heritage provided singing and guitar for the clients, and was quite good, but made conversation harder to follow.
We all headed back to the hotel about 10PM, to pack for the early start and to catch up on sleep.
Friday 23rd March Cayenne – Trip to European Space station at Kourou and return
Our original itinerary has been changed for a number of reasons. Originally we weren’t going to Kourou till tomorrow, but the Space Station isn’t open on the weekend, so we have to drive the 65km there today, but return to Cayenne so we can have a look around here tomorrow.
We are woken at 6am by the alarm in the next room, ahead of our own 6.15 alarm. Take a watery dawn photo from the balcony, have some of the pizza from last night for breakfast, enough to take pills on, and are down and in the van by 6.30am, with us as suitably small bodies in the tight seats beside Dutchie, the driver. We are a bit ahead of schedule, so stop at the small supermarket in the Main Street for some to get breakfast. The road to Kourou takes us back through the industrial and commercial outskirts of Cayenne we travelled on the way from the airport, before branching west parallel to the coast. The good quality road crossed a major river on a long, low bridge not far out of town, and we encountered a massive traffic jam of vehicles coming towards Cayenne, which extended for kilometres (later told this is normal). Road was flanked with jungle a fair bit of the way, changing to pasture land with cattle, and savannah of long grass, possibly swampy, before crossing a second major river with port facilities and steep jungle clad isolated mountains.
Just out of Kourou town we encountered a roundabout with a large rainbow arch and a large native dugout canoe with native and European paddlers. We took the road to the space station, coming first to a large office building then a full-size replica of the Ariadne 5 rocket beside the Visitor Centre, Jupiter Control Centre and the Space Museum. We had already filled in our information forms, and were ready to join the queue of English speakers when called. We surrendered our passports in exchange for identity badges, and proceeded upstairs to the auditorium which was separated by glass walls from the actual Control Centre where technicians, spaceport directors and representatives of the payload customers had their assigned places.
In front of the glass wall were models of the rockets, arranged in size from the left -the small Vega with no external boosters, the Russian Soyuz medium load rocket with four external solid fuel boosters, and a kerosene and liquid oxygen fueled main stage, then the Ariadne 5, with two solid fuel boosters and a liquid oxygen and hydrogen fueled main stage, then the proposed Ariadne 6, with four solid fueled boosters and a liquid oxygen and hydrogen fueled main stage.
We were shown promotional films on the various rocket programs, the structure of the administration of the Centre, actual launches, and the history since the decision in 1964 to have it at Kourou. There have been over 250 launches, and over 460 satellites orbited from here (most launches have more than one satellite).
With the English speakers group is also a Chinese group being generally disruptive, taking selfies and group photos and talking loudly while everyone else is sitting down and paying attention.
After the presentation we proceed to a large luxury bus for the 12 km drive to the actual Adriane 5 launch site, some of the passengers seeing a sloth in a tree beside the road on the way. We are able to get out and take photos of the launch pad, the water tower and water curtain nozzles and exhaust gas discharge chutes from a safe distance. We are told not to walk on the rail tracks, twin tracks about 30-metres apart, which carry the rockets to the launch pad, but the Chinese ignore the instructions.
We visit an elevated viewpoint to look over where the Vega is launched, then the facilities for putting together the imported Russian Soyuz rockets in the horizontal position before being pushed to the launch building and erected. We are able to get out of the bus and look down into the recently used gas exhaust gas discharge pit below the assembly building for the Soyuz. The building moves on its own rails out of the way when the rocket is ready to launch.
One of the overwhelming impressions we are left with is that most personnel are evacuated a couple of kms from the launch site, so they must be expecting a Big Bang if things go wrong. Back at the Control Centre we get our passports back, and drive into Kourou town, which has the look of a model town, much newer and better laid out than Cayenne. School must be finished, or at least having a lunch break, as there are lots of students about, a fair few of them riding bikes.
There is a commercial street with a number of Asian restaurants, and we select one at random, and get a pretty good and filling marinated chicken and rice/noodles for about €7 each. We have a sleepy drive back to Cayenne, have a break for half an hour in the hotel, then drive about 10 km East along the coast through the suburbs to Montjoly Beach, which we’re told is a much better beach than the very muddy beach in the Centre of Cayenne.
The beach was better, but far from good. There is coarse yellow sand above the high tide mark, which slopes down to the water, getting progressively black streaked as the water gets closer. Those game enough had a paddle in the water to find sticky mud just below the thin sand covering. The water was quite warm, but as it was shallow a long way out there were no swimmers in the group. Some locals were kite surfing in the light breeze coming onshore. We walked with Andrew almost to the headland at the east end of the beach, but stopped short of the jungle and rock outcrop, as there was a group of youths under the trees.
We walked most of the length of the beach the other way, and see some pretty flash grounds of properties fronting the beach, large piles of big rocks for the storm season, and giant geotextile sandbags looking like beached whales. Dianne found some fruit on the tideline which looked like the scaly textured Indonesian snake fruit, but didn’t look too appetising when opened.
Back at the hotel, Murray had an afternoon sleep. See a lot of Friday evening action in the park opposite, with families out and about, and people playing on the well-lit boules courts. Feeling the urge for something to eat before bed, we took instructions from Dutchie, and walked through pretty deserted streets to the Place Des Palmiers, where we ate last night, but this time walked through the Centre of the park, where there was lots of action with family groups playing in the park, and eating from the line of food trucks, mostly serving hamburgers, and sandwiches consisting of a half-metre long baguette with hamburger filling . We settled for a hamburger madras, with egg, bacon, lettuce but no available tomato. It came in a polystyrene box, in a plastic bag, and we added a can of Coke and a plastic straw. With the whole van chokker with bags and flat-packed polystyrene boxes, the current world plastic crisis was put into perspective, even in a nominally Eco-conscious French department. Cost of evening meal – €5.
We walk back through streets with the homeless just settling down for the night, past our corner store for a Yoplait and a couple of medium bottles of Coke.
The action in our bar was tapering off, with none of our group present, so we went up to settle in for a bit of journal catching up, only to be interrupted by a very loud smoke alarm, right after the stairway door let out its characteristic bang. A local man who may have been an employee greeted Murray, wrapped in a towel, in the corridor with a French “nothing to see here, folks”, but it took quite a while to get the alarm turned off. We settled for a night of low powered AC and intermittent use of the doona, but got a pretty good sleep, right through to about our usual 5.30, plus a couple of hours of sort-of sleep.
Saturday 24th March Cayenne to Kourou (again), this time to stay.
We are leaving Cayenne after a tour of the town, so pack up our bags and try to leave them in Duncan’s room, which we are told is 12, but can’t get a response at the door, so take our bags back to the room and go looking for the others. Turns out the room is 13, and Duncan was there, so take the bags back up in the lift and go to the park to meet our guide, Gwenaelle Quist (email email@example.com). She is a woman in her 30’s, of African heritage, born in NE France, who went to Uni in Britain, so has pretty good colloquial English, and we recommend her as a good guide.
She leads us on a guided walk through the streets, passing the massive wall of the former gaol, on the coast very close to our hotel, then the derelict hospital, which is being reclaimed as a cultural Centre, but has a long way to go. The way such things proceed depends on who is the Mayor, and what his agenda is. There are no mangroves on the beaches of Cayenne, because of a mayoral decree, although there are some on the west side of the park in front of the hotel.
She describes a typical colonial house nearby, three storeys of timber construction including the well-ventilated roof space which also serves as accommodation. Colonial shutters are a feature of the older houses, with or without window glass. There are a lot of examples of colonial houses, some two storeys, some three, some renovated or looked after, others semi-derelict.
We walk to the Place Des Palmiers again, the very large square in the Centre of the city, with streets extending through it. It started off as a common area for grazing livestock, but the central water hole was filled in, and hundreds of palm trees were planted. Palms have a lifespan of about 100 years, so the current generation has some large, some younger trees. The current trend is to plant more palms, but this, once again, depends on the Mayor. In the middle of the Place is a large square of concrete where sporting events and public meetings are held. This is where we had an evening meal last night at one of the food trucks, and watched children pedaling four-wheel carts. We look around the square while Dianne visits an ATM, see some very impressive colonial buildings, including Les Palmiers restaurant where we ate on our first night. There is a bust of a woman on a column in the Centre of the square, which was supposed to be of someone famous, but the sculptor had a stock sculpture and used that instead. The mistake/fraud was known, but never corrected.
From the Place, we walk towards the hill at the west end of the city Centre, which is the site of the original fort, and the current concentration of military activities. Walking past the administration Centre we happen upon a wedding group having photos taken on the front steps, and take our own photo of the colourful occasion. It is pretty hot as we climb the steep, narrow street to the steps leading to the fort, where we get good views of the city, the lawn on top of the historic water tank which was built to provide water for the four fountains which provided clean water for the citizens. Only two of the fountains still remain, but the water cistern is still in use. There is little left of the original fort, but there is a replica strong timber watch-tower. To the west of the fort area the hill descends to the dense stands of mangroves on the banks of the wide mouth of the river.
On the way back down the hill we get another photo of the bride and groom. On the way to the market area we get photos of the large colonial Gendarmerie and the arched entrance to the military area. In the Centre of a roundabout near the market is a statue of a well-dressed European, Victor Schoelcher, a French abolitionist writer, and a semi-naked African in an embrace to celebrate the end of slavery in the French colonies. There are many colonial buildings in this area, but they are generally smaller.
The market has both an open area along a street, and a covered market in a large, high steel building. There is a strong local community of Southeast Asians, particularly the Hmong, refugees from communism after the Vietnam wars, and a lot of the vendors are Asian, and the quality of produce reflects the skill and hard work of these people. There are old favourites, and new and strange fruits and vegetables. Dianne can’t resist a rambutan hunt, and the rest of the group go into the covered market, hoping for a pho soup lunch, but the seating is all taken. Dianne joins us and the party splits, some hanging around waiting for a seat, and four of us, with the guide, go to an “ethnic Creole restaurant” which we think is just around the corner. We take a photo of the French rooster on a memorial column in the nearby park, then, a dozen blocks later, we arrive at Kaz Mimi (Rue vernont poly carpe -6 of 66 on Trip Advisor) to find a fairly flash restaurant, with inside and outside seating and a full menu of local bushmeat delicacies, such as Agouti, our rodent friend from Belem zoo, Capybara, the world’s largest rodent, two types of peccary a small wild pig type, and two types of Armadillo. We politely declined these offerings, and settled for the Pimentade d’acoupa au lait de coco and Colombo d’porc frais for 16 euros each, and delicious pineapple and passionfruit drinks. The prices were not exactly what we were expecting from a small, ethnic restaurant, but not too bad, and the food was good.
We were running late for the 1pm departure, but the guide had Duncan’s phone number and an exchange of messages gave us leeway to make the few blocks back to the hotel in time to recover our bags and leave Cayenne for what we assumed was forever, taking a photo of a modern French pissoir in the park on the way out.
Having done the run to Kourou before, we were happy to concede the front seat to the two girls, and settle into the middle seats, taking no photos of the entire trip, including the hotel and our night excursion to the Main Street to check out the restaurant scene.
The Hotel Atlantis (1 of 5 on Trip Advisor) looked pretty upmarket, complete with pool, but as we are starting to find out, places that start out smart decline quickly with no maintenance. The lift was not working, so had to walk up a couple of flights of stairs to our room. We were nearly locked inside our room, as the door handle was pretty loose, and took a lot of maneuvering to get it to unlock. The main problem, however was the toilet tap leaked after flushing, and by morning our bathroom was awash with inches deep water. Dianne had a quick swim later in the afternoon, just as it started sprinkling.
Later all out for a meal. After driving, then walking the Main Street, we parked about in the Centre of it, and considered a couple of ethnic restaurants before five, including Dutchie settled for one of them, and we and Duncan and Andrew braved a walk through the dark, mean streets of Kourou to find a restaurant that Duncan had found high on a list of Kourou restaurants. We reached a commercial area, with no sign of a restaurant, then found what could be it behind a locked door. When we knocked, the door opened into a small room with tables and an actual customer, so we gave it a go. The owner was a middle aged woman from Hong Kong, with excellent English, and an English menu, and we settled in for a good meal of rice and sweet and sour pork, fried crispy, and a fish meal for Dianne, Tsingtao beer for Murray, and an “interesting” Cotes de Rhone rose’ for Dianne. All of this came at a very reasonable price.
Our walk back to the truck followed a better-lit route, and we found the others still finishing off tagines, and other local delights. It rained quite hard in the night, but had sort-of taken up by the time we were woken by the alarm.
Sunday 25th March Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands, including Devil’s Island)
We had an early breakfast at the hotel buffet, which was quite good, but a little wasted on us, as we were on a tight schedule, and didn’t have time to make the most of it, and were down at the ticket office at the port by 7.30am with all our gear stashed in the van. For security and other reasons, Duncan sorted out the problem of a missing voucher, then stayed with the van, and Dutchie was given the task of holding our hands for our day trip to the Salvation Islands (A$81 each)
We took a wooden walkway through high, dense mangroves, then a modern aluminium, trussed bridge to a floating dock off the muddy banks of the river. We walked past a particularly scruffy collection of yachts, some in better condition than others, but most heavily covered with tropical mould, to board a large, well-kept sailing catamaran, with a big, strong rig, and enough winches, sails and gear to sail efficiently, if ever asked to.
We deposited our shoes in a container, found still-wet seating in the large aft cockpit, and were under way fairly soon. Some of the other passengers moved up to sit on or near nets at the bow, but the weather wasn’t looking all that promising, so we stayed in the cockpit, drying the seats with already wet towels.
The trip to the islands was about 24 km, the first 5 being at low speed through a well-marked channel, used presumably for the freighters which bring in the rocket components. The sea was pretty flat until the end of the marked channel, getting progressively rougher and cleaner as we approached the islands. One of our girls was steering the boat for a lot of the passage. French sailors know how to make friends. At the islands, we took a course which took us through the Pass de la Destrade between Ile Royale to the west and Ile Saint-Joseph to the east, and then swinging to port to take the Pass des Grenadines to pass between Devil’s Island and Ile Royale, and complete the circuit around Ile Royale, docking at the eastern end of the sheltered bay on the south side of the island.
The islands are now owned by the Space Agency, who have restored a lot of the historical buildings. The islands are under the trajectory of the rockets, and the islands have to be evacuated every time there is a launch.
Onshore, we met Gwen, our guide from yesterday whom Duncan had retained for our guide of the islands (10 euros each). She was there with a daughter of a friend, and her young English boyfriend from Bournemouth. The guided tour led us anticlockwise around the island on a rising road, passing along the basalt boulder shore with agoutis in the dense scrub to the left, past the derelict convict workshops. By now, we were in our weatherproof coats, as the wind was too strong for umbrellas, and the day was getting steadily more unpleasant. The seas on this side of the island were surprisingly rough, considering the relatively easy passage out to the islands, and give an indication of the difficulty of escaping the islands. Further on, we pass the slaughter house with a floor drain to send the waste offal and blood down to the sea, encouraging the sharks which made escape more difficult. Throwing dead convicts into the sea would also have encouraged the sharks. Beside the slaughter house is a tower which once supported a flying fox which delivered supplies and personnel to Devil’s Island. It is a long way, and the tower is not all that far above water level, so the wire must have been stretched pretty tight.
Looking across the passage to Devil’s Island from here you can see where political prisoners, including Alfred Dreyfus, was housed in a two-storey building, just him and a lot of guards. However Devil’s Island is probably more famous because of the book “Papillon” by Henri Charriere. Now that we’re in French Guiana, and learning its history, we now understand why he was sent to this country, though possibly not Devil’s Island, as some believe he used other people’s stories in the book, rather than his own.
France had tried since 1604 to colonise French Guiana, but it had been unsuccessful and by the 1850’s the survivors were on the brink of extinction. It was then decided to use it as a penal colony. From 1852 to when it was completely shut down in 1953 (no, that’s not a typing error – 1953!) about 80,000 prisoners were sent here, and very few made it back to France. For a start, if their sentence was more than eight years, they could never go back. If their sentence was less, they had to spend the equivalent time of their sentence in French Guiana, then they could return to France IF they had the money to pay for the fare, which most didn’t.
From here we passed two swimming spots, the first with steps down to the open water in a reasonably sheltered inlet, the other with steps down to a rock enclosed swimming hole for the prisoners.
We climbed up past a public toilet to the original Commandant’s house, now a museum, reasonably well preserved in the structure, but without artefacts. For many years the islands were completely neglected, so anything of value was long gone. Displays included maps of the islands, historic maps of the coast, photographs, paintings by Francis Lagrange a convicted art forger doing time on the islands, and documentation of the Dreyfus case. Transportation only finished in 1937, so a lot of the history is relatively modern.
From the museum, we walked up a wide stone flagged road, fairly slippery under the dense scrub, most of which, including coconut palms, was introduced to the relatively bare islands. At the top of the island, we found a wide, grassed area with the major buildings surrounding it. Dominating the scene are the very attractive brick ruins of the hospital buildings, with the framed lighthouse structure to the west, and the stone and wood church building to the east. We walked down to the children’s graveyard, with most of the children less than 12 months old, then up the convict cells, common area sleeping area with steel and wood pallets with sliding bars to lock leg irons to the wall, solitary confinement cells, condemned man cells, and in the central long courtyard, the four masonry pads on which the Guillotine was mounted the night before an execution. There are monkeys, reportedly up to the usual monkey tricks of stealing loose items, in the trees and on the roof of the cells.
From here we walk past the large excavated water tank, which used to hold Caiman to keep the frogs down, to the flash restaurant and accommodation building. There is other low cost accommodation on the island, including hammock hanging halls. By now it was absolutely pouring rain, and we all head to the restaurant area. We are not interested in the expensive buffet, but are saved from going out into the rain by the intervention of our guide, who negotiated a couple of tables at the far end of the long verandah where we could eat our humble packed lunch, right under the sign which says Private, no Picnique.
We are all ready to head home, as we’ve seen everything and it’s pretty miserable with everyone wet and bored, but we have about three hours to wait.With intermittent heavy rain, the guide negotiated with the boat that we would not go to the Ile Saint-Joseph for a swim, but would leave at 3.45 to go direct back to the mainland, so we sat as long as Murray could bear it before taking advantage of a break in the weather and taking a steep stairway down to the museum, then along to the wide road we used to go up, but taking it down a short distance through dense scrub to the west end of the bay, the boat ramp and power and water desalination plants. Fortunately the power plant building had a long verandah with eaves and enough shelter that we could sit under cover, with the noisy Diesel engine behind us, and wait for the rest of the boat passengers to arrive.
Walking along the edge of the bay, Dianne managed to see a couple of turtles where we had seen one on arriving, but Murray moved on before the turtle came up for a classic pose. Back on the catamaran, with our shoes off again, we sat in the back of the cockpit, copping a bit of rain, but not too much once they had fixed the protection on the windward side. We did a sail past on the western side of Ile Saint-Joseph, where a Navy barge was loading at the boat ramp, then headed back toward the mainland, invisible in the rain to the south. The time passed a bit more quickly on the return passage by the application of a white or brown Rhum drink issued to the passengers. The brown was pretty terrible, even if strong at 50% alcohol, but the white was a reasonable approximation of a higher octane Baileys, and went down well.
As we approached shore, we were trailed by another cat, and passed by the Navy landing barge. The weather improved, and we could see the white tower of the mock-up Ariadne 5 rocket at the Space Centre over the top of the coastal scrub. Coming up the river, we got a better indication of the tide, as boats that were floating when we left we’re now aground and listing. After going ashore, and visiting the toilet, where Dianne was rescued from confinement by a helpful caretaker, Murray went back to the river to take photos of the extreme grottiness of the boats tied up to the wharf, and we saddled up and headed for our homestay down near the mouth of the Fleuve Maroni, the western border of French Guiana.
The road was pretty good, and we saw a lot of jungle, some big rivers, and plenty of vultures on the way, but no road kill, even though we were driving fast right on dusk. We were glad we weren’t in kangaroo country. Just before Saint-Laurent du Maroni, we turn off toward the coast, and our Amerindian homestay at Awala Yalimapo, which is right on the edge of a famous turtle nesting beach, although this is not all that obvious when we arrive in the dark.
We settle in for the night in our large mosquito-mesh enclosed shed, with double deck bunks in two lines, hammock space at one end and toilets and cold showers at the other. The toilets, though conventional flush toilets, are pretty sniffy, so we relocate from our first selection to something further away. We make up the bunk beds with top and bottom sheets, pillows and cases, and Murray attaches our mosquito nets, even though the enclosure seems pretty intact.
Unfortunately there is a security problem and we are advised to put all our valuables, and indeed, all the gear we do not need immediately in the secure van, which left us a bit half-assed with regard to what we usually need.
We have booked a home cooked evening meal and breakfast for 32 € each, and the evening meal is pretty good, starting off with a savage cocktail of home-made brown sugar syrup, white rum, and passion fruit juice, with fresh cut lime to taste. The meal was two fish stews, on with big fish, one with smaller fish, and a helping of the liquid it is cooked in to give flavour to the farofa granules which are used as a base for the plate. This particular form of farofa is cooked so hard it doesn’t soften much in the juice, and you are not sure if you have a fish bone or a lump of farofa. Overall the meal was pretty good, finished off with fruit salad and ice cream.
After the meal we walked across the road and across an area of fairly long grass and scattered trees, which turned out to be more benign than it looked, and led directly to a sandy beach with a fairly short strip of sand sloping to what must be a high tide line. Because of the security lockup, we were ill prepared for weather, but it looked promising, with a half-moon shining through scattered clouds, and only the occasional spit of rain. We walked a couple of hundred metres toward the west, pretty ill-disciplined regarding the use of torches in turtle country, looking for turtle tracks and drag marks, but saw nothing significant.
Suddenly it started to rain, quickly turning to a downpour, and we were wet through in minutes. Murray had the big camera and the money pouch, and attempted to protect them with his thin cotton shirt, but by the time we got back to our shed, everything was soaked. With most of our gear still in the van, and the rain still pouring, we could do little but dry off as best we could and go to bed.
Duncan went out for another look after the rain subsided, came back to report a couple of turtles, so Dianne and a few others geared up again in their wet clothes. They sallied forth to find one turtle nesting and another coming out of the surf, but it got scared and retreated. Dianne fired a few photos on the hand-held-night-shot setting, but it was pretty dark, and for her trouble, got a couple of grainy shots by the light of a red torch that someone had.
It started to rain again in earnest, so the turtle expedition beat a retreat to the shed, all absolutely soaked. During this expedition, Dianne managed to recover some of her gear from the van, so was in better shape to get to bed dry about midnight.
We had a surprisingly good night’s sleep in spite of torrential rain drumming on the bare metal roof just over our heads, and the communal sleeping arrangements. Others in the group didn’t fare so well, only getting a couple of hours.
Monday 26th March Alawa Yalimapo-Saint-Laurent du Maroni-Cayenne.
We were up early to get our wet gear sorted and bagged before our included breakfast of fresh French bread, scrambled eggs, various local jams, a small amount of sliced ham and salami, tea and coffee. Managed to fill up pretty well for our assault on the Suriname consulate in Saint-Laurent for the visas which were reputed to be available in a single day. The office was located in a building which also housed some sort of public service which was open and taking in clients, but the consulate had its roller shutter down to the stroke of 9AM. Although we were first there by the time the shutter came up there would have been 20 people waiting, and no queue. Our people and Dutchie, who only needed tourist cards were processed reasonably quickly, made their 37€ credit card payment and were finished, but the Australians (us) and the Kiwi (Duncan), were told we would have to wait a week for ours to be processed. We were told, however, that the Cayenne consulate would be open till 2PM, and could do it in a day. Duncan did some quick recalculating, checked that they could have the van for a couple more days, and we dropped the rest at the hotel to kill time before checking in, and hot-footed it out of town on the now-familiar road back to Cayenne. By this time we had discovered that the big camera had jammed and would only open to the initial focus position, so we have no photo record of the trip as far as Kourou either way. The road was good, the weather generally fine and we made good time, passing quickly through the police checkpoint, and running into some heavy rain near Kourou, with the abominable slowmen holding up progress for a few kms.
Fortunately the long line of morning rush-hour traffic into Cayenne had dissipated, and we made good time into and through Cayenne, arriving at the consulate at about 12.30, enough time for a sympathetic consulate to process our visa, but it was not to be. We filled in our forms, then walked in the hot sun to a photocopy shop for copies of our yellow fever books and our flight itinerary. The scans of our passport pages were considered acceptable, and we paid our A$67 each by card, and left with a promise that the visas could be picked up at 1PM tomorrow.
We got another 200€ at Credit Agricola, across the street, bought a baguette and Yoplait at a nearby convenience store, and drove to the Place Des Armandiers to book into our previous hotel, finding at first they had no rooms, but looked again to find our old room, 6, which we were glad to leave to Duncan, and room 11 on the next floor. In spite of this hotel not being as flash as the one at Kourou, the lift worked, but the door closer on our room was badly adjusted, and we had to fight our way in.
We lunched on baguette and tuna “au natural” in interesting pull-top cans with a glued-on aluminium foil lid, spread out our wet clothes from last night, and set an alarm for 6.30pm to meet Duncan for a hamburger truck meal down at La Place des Palmiers. This time we tried the sandwich Americaine a hot half-baguette with hamburger filling and an aluminium foil wrapper (good) and we sat on the grandstand seats in the park to eat, and drink our supermarket Coke, finding half a baguette each plenty.
Back at the hotel we caught up on intermittent internet before Dianne had had enough, and repaired to the bar downstairs, which has good Internet. Murray worked on the camera to find the zoom is functioning again, then on the Diary, transferring photos to the computer, no mean feat using the touch screen and track pad, as our mouse has died (and we’re only a couple of weeks into our trip with all these equipment failures). Murray to bed about midnight, Dianne about 1am.
Tuesday 27th March Cayenne to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni
Dianne is awake about 7AM, and fiddles on internet till 8.30 before getting sick of drop-outs and going down to the bar. About 9.30 we are on our way out to find breakfast. Look at the local patisserie, but don’t find any inspiration, so check our corner shop has bread, then continue into the city, looking for a patisserie or small restaurant. We get off the beaten track, walk up a narrow street to the north, past an erotic lingerie shop, then clothes shop with a lineup of mannequins built like the more up-front of the local girls in revealing outfits. We look at a couple of bars without success, see the local gendarmes on mountain bikes talking with a local, then happen upon a shop with electronic audio gear and accessories, so go in to ask about a “souris” for the computer. The owner had reasonable English, recommended a shop one block further on, and to the right. The shop had its front door locked, but we could see people inside, and they released the lock. Inside, there was an Asian man selling, and an Asian woman collecting the cash. Murray had brought the dead mouse (souris) with us, so showed it to the salesman who produced an assortment of mice, big, small, wireless and retractable cord like ours. One looked like it’s big brother, same colours, but we settled on the smallest and cheapest, 15€ in sky blue. Leaving the shop, Murray read the fine print, saw that the mouse was compatible with XP Vista, 98, 2000, but no mention of Windows 10, so we backtracked to confirm it worked with it, which turned out to be a mistake, as although it worked, the fact that its been sitting around for a number of years meant the cord had perished a bit, and won’t last very long.
Walking back toward the hotel we passed a small no-name Chinese restaurant with a large selection of prepared dishes in a Bain-marie that looked pretty good, so settled for a sandwich, half a baguette filled with a chicken dish, for 2.50 €, a bargain. Made the mistake of ordering only one, which the cook split in halves for us, and ate it sitting on the grandstand in the Place Des Palmiers.
We walked back through light rain, Murray having to use his damaged umbrella in compact mode. At the hotel, told Duncan we wouldn’t need to drive to get a mouse, and could stay till 11.30am book out time. Spent some time giving our new mouse a workout transferring diary to the computer and rating photos.
Having loaded the van, we drove to find Diesel for the van, then the restaurant we used for breakfast. Find it, but can’t find parking until we are almost back to our hotel. We walk to the restaurant, settle for one noodle and chicken meal for the two of us, and a full meal for Duncan. By the time we eat and get back to the Suriname consulate, it is 12.50, a reasonably polite 1PM. Get there before the rush, but still takes a while for our passports, with fancy visas glued in, to appear.
We head out straight away, Dianne in the back, Murray riding shotgun. The road is getting pretty familiar, so not a lot of photos taken on the return journey to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni which is on the Maroni River bordering Suriname, and known as a former penal colony. The 1858 Camp de la Transportation has cells and a museum. Duncan drops us at the Visitor Centre for the 4.30pm last tour of the day. We buy our tour tickets and kill time looking at the waterfront, and a docking rack for very flash shaft drive hire bikes until our guide turns up. She is a blonde 30ish Belgian woman, reasonably fluent in English, but admits she is still learning the language and the history of convict transportation.
We do the one hour tour of the gaol, fairly similar story to Iles du Salut and Devil’s Island in many ways, but more divisions of prisoners, and much more use of convicts as work parties out in the jungle where they tended to die off quickly. There wasn’t much use of the guillotine, as these camps did the work for them. The grounds were attractive if a little grim, but considerable work had been done during the transportation era to maintain quality buildings.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed a number of quite attractive colonial buildings, on a street with very deep tropical gutters in brick down the edges, and all front fences done in brickwork laid to provide a pattern of bricks and voids.
The hotel, apart from being two storey walk-up, was pretty attractive, with an open plan foyer and common room downstairs, and a small pool with an outdoor lounge area behind it, where we sat around talking to the team, now that we are all together again, being monstered by sandflies. Later all walk down into the town to have a meal at the parking area for the food trucks. Dianne ended up with a rather soggy crepe, Murray with a quite large Hawaiian pizza, which took quite a while to produce, so we ended up having half of it and taking the rest back to the room for breakfast, first having to reconstruct the pizza box to fit in the fridge. About 9.30pm Dianne went down for a refreshing swim, after asking if it was OK to swim after the 8.30pm curfew.
This is our last night in French Guiana, as tomorrow we head to Suriname.