We cross the river to French Guiana by ferry and suddenly find ourselves in Europe - a strange experience for us in South America.
There’s a strong mixed culture of Amerindian, Laos Hmong, Creole and French in Saint-Laurent du Maroni making market day a colourful event in this pretty riverside town where many of the lovely old buildings were constructed by prisoners.
We meet a local couple who have been reading our web page for many months now and they invite us to their home where we sample some great food and wonderful hospitality. Lucky us!
Laos market woman, bush negro art door and local bath time in the Maroni river.
Saint-Laurent du Maroni is best known as a old penal colony (1857-1946) that for many years was home to Papillon - one of the most famous of the 70,000 prisoners sent to French Guiana.
Our guide explained what conditions had been like for the convicts as we toured the old transportation camp.
Before ‘Madame’ Guillotine was introduced, prisoners were executed by flogging - a terrible slow death that had to be watched by all convicts. Men would be shackled to their beds at night, even in a private locked cell, unable to change position on the hard wood surface all night - an extra punishment for bad behaviour was to leave them shackled like this for 48 hours with no food or water.
And the lower walls of the prison were painted with charcoal so that guards could easily tell if a prisoner had rested by leaning against a wall - the charcoal would leave a obvious black mark on their white clothing. In many cells we could still see where prisoners had counted their days by marking the walls or where they scratched images of sailing ships onto the wall - maybe to dream of escaping?
Papillon himself returned to the camp for the making of the movie and it was with Steve McQueen by his side in cell number 47 that he renewed his graffiti name on the cell floor. A fascinating place to visit.
A water pump for the laundry tanks inside the transportation camp.
A uncomfortable bed, counting the days and famous graffiti.
A trip out of town leads us past a sugar cane plant that still uses a old steam engine - sadly a modern engine is due to replace this working gem.
In the countryside we meet a local family who live simply - Lyn and her husband explain to us that the land here is not as fertile as Suriname and that trying to grow vegetables and fruits can be a challenge. At night they lie in bed listening to the snakes ‘talking’ as they patrol the land - a strange noise they make as they scent their territory.
Our visit was a great opportunity for us to sit and chat with people who speak Taki Taki - a strange regional language with a English/Dutch base to it.
There are 4 reasons for us to visit Guiana and one of these reasons was to see Leatherback turtles, so our next stop is the beach.
Awala beach is famous for being one of the finest places in the world to watch turtles come to lay their eggs. These giant turtles can weigh up to 900kg’s and it’s a incredible sight to see one of them drag themselves up the beach for their annual migration. It takes a long time for them to get into position before they start clearing an area to dig - a long process of clearing with their enormous front legs followed by some delicate digging and scooping out with their more dexterous rear legs. They pant and puff and pause for breath as they dig, their eyes producing a thick protective mucous from all the flying sand. Finally the land is cleared, the hole is dug, the eggs are laid, the hole is filled, the land is levelled and the exhausted turtle can make it’s way back into the sea.
Morning light brings a terrible truth - a beach covered with destroyed eggs. Local dogs patrol the beach smelling for freshly laid eggs, they dig them up and share their breakfast with the vultures yet, even worse than this, people dig up these eggs to sell in local markets - one egg can be sold for up to 10 Euro’s and one small boat can carry up to 9,000 eggs. The season has only begun and yet, in Suriname, 40,000 stolen eggs have already been confiscated by the police. It’s amazing that there are any eggs left to hatch!!
Probably the funniest moment of our time on the beach was when we met a lovely Argentine biker who spent a night with us. That night we all walked along the beach looking for turtles and after a short time Dave’s torch picked up a dark shape on the shoreline in the distance and then it reflected off an eye. Imagine our surprise when, after a few minutes of walking, we realised that the dark shape was two of the French scientific volunteers having an ‘intimate’ moment on the beach!!! We mumbled apologies and carried on along the beach before turning and walking all the way back along the beach and then down to the other end, where, once again, Dave’s torched picked up another dark shape on the beach. Yes - you’ve guessed it - it was the volunteers AGAIN. Oh Amour!
French Guiana is also one of the main places in the world for rocket launches now and we have timed our visit to see one. Lady luck is on our side and the rocket launch we are here to see is not only the biggest rocket but it’s also the space stations first dual rocket launch. To get close to the site we must gain permission, clear a security check and be issued with personal invitations then, when the day arrives, we are searched before being issued with passes and driven on a coach to the viewing site.
Our site is 7.5 kilometres from the rocket - it seems like a huge distance, but when it comes time for the launch we can see why we need to be so far. Warnings of acid rain and a safety briefing of gas masks and emergency clearance procedures make you understand that things can go wrong.
We listen to the countdown and wait for the blinding light as the fuel ignites billowing enormous clouds of smoke, yet we hear nothing. It takes several seconds for the roar of the rocket to reach us - an incredible sound that gives you goose bumps.
After such a great experience, we decide to visit the space museum where we go on a tour of the huge launch sites. A great day out for us. At the end of the day we park by the beach in Kourou, a small town of only 26,000 people who are mainly employed either by the space centre, the police or the foreign legion. It’s a town you would imagine that would be very safe with one police officer for every 1,000 inhabitants, yet a local tells us that during the weekend that we stayed there, the town had 26 armed robberies - this may be Europe but over here you can simply walk into a shop and buy a gun!
We actually ended up spending a lot of time parked in our lovely safe little corner of town and enjoyed meeting a lot of great people - fellow overlanders who have settled down here and a Foreign Legion soldier who was Scottish to name but a few. But the strangest thing was being approached by people who wanted to chat to us but could not speak English - we were always amazed when they asked if we spoke Spanish. We never imagined that we would be chatting to people in Spanish in French Guiana.....
Some of the things to see at French Guiana’s space centre.
The next highlight of the country is a day trip to the famous prisoner islands offshore. We set sail on a fabulous catamaran to the islands and arrive after one hour looking like ghosts - we realise that we are not sailors as we stagger ashore gulping down breakfast as it tries to revisit us!
The first island we visit is Isle Royale and it is the largest island with a church and hospital, it was where the prisoners were initially kept. The clear sea water around the island is full of green turtles and the scenery is superb. Devils Island is tantalisingly near yet it is strictly forbidden to visit the island and the off shore currents are deadly. Then we visit Isle Saint Joseph - another wonderful island with a atmospheric graveyard and crumbling buildings. It was a great trip but we were very relieved to arrive back in Kourou a healthy colour of pink rather than white - maybe the rum punch drinks helped?
We sit trying to plan our route through Brasil - we want to complete our earlier coastal route before turning back and driving the Trans Amazonian highway toward Peru. Little do we know that we will shortly be leaving South America for good without Nessie.
Cayenne is the capital of French Guiana and we have to say that it was a big disappointment for us - few historical buildings, chaotic traffic and lots of alcohol and crack cocaine abusers staggering along the streets. But near the city is a great place to visit - Chou Ai is a rescue centre for an amazing animal - the sloth. These incredible animals were a delight to see but it was a cheeky resident capuchin monkey that captured our hearts - we stood howling with laughter as he got amorous with a cat before charging a duck from the rear!
The coastal route east of the city was beautiful - palm lined crescent beaches with white sands and wealthy homes edged by lovely forest filled hills. It’s probably the nicest beach scenery we have seen since Venezuela.
And then, quite suddenly Nessie is sold! Her new owner is a man who has spent years meeting overlanders who enter French Guiana and he has made a point of asking every overlander he meets what their thoughts are about the best/worse features of the vehicle. After al of this research he has decided that our truck is the ‘perfect’ overland vehicle for him - “Not too big and not too small - a studio apartment in a reliable truck that is not too heavy and can go everywhere.” SOLD
So here we are - one minute planning our next two years in South America and the next minute booking flights back to the UK. Who would have imagined? With tears in my eyes, we cross the Maroni river to Suriname leaving Nessie behind. We hope she has many more adventures with her new owners and completes the South American route that we will not.