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Published: October 8th 2007
Zus & Zo arranged a taxi for us to French Guiana. The taxi was 150 SRD for the 2.5 hour trip to Albina and we could have got it cheaper if we waited for other people but that could have taken all day. The taxi man then arranged a boat for us and a taxi on the other side. This was much easier than the last border crossing. We were first taken to an old wooden building in need of a paint. We climbed the stairs over the sleeping dog to where the immigration man at a desk on the balcony. We filled in the exit slips and got stamped out. No queues. Pieter went to the loo and was a little uneasy to see the mans gun sitting inside unattended in an open drawer. The taxi then took us to the boat. 5 euros each. It was just a fishing boat and quite a fun trip. The boat stopped at immigration where again we were the only people. The nice frenchman gave us a smile, said bonjour and stamped us in. We were not too sure if there would be a stamp being europe. No customs, our bags were left
Crossing the border
Crossing the Maroni river in a fishing boat
on the boat. Back in the boat the boat man went just 20 meters along the shore and there was a taxi guy waiting for us. Again, to avoid waiting for other passengers we paid 90 euros for the trip to Kourou. The car had french licence plates and the roads were of european standard. On the Suriname side we were constantly bouncing over potholes, in some places the tarmac was completely missing. We passed two sloths on the way to Kourou, one was road kill, one was think about it.
French Guiana has little or no tourist infrastructure. We were going to find it difficult on our own as we couldn't speak french so we contacted Alina through Couchsurfing.com
. She was working at the space center like many of the europeans living in Kourou. We had to wait for her to finish work so we were dropped in town and waited in a bar for 4 hours. There was an internet cafe but it was closed on Mondays and it was Monday. There wasn't much else around, it was a residential area with shops under the apartments, mostly closed or hairdressers. Bit like a run down estate in
europe. Still, we were happy to drink cheap french plonk and Hoegaarden beer and play cards until the end of the working day.
Alina picked us up after work and took us to see the lighthouse before going via the supermarket to her place. Working as an engineer at the space center she gets cheap rent on a huge 3 bedroom house with a pool in the backyard. We enjoyed the pool in the dark then took off in search of food. Being Monday a lot was closed but we found a Brazilian restaurant open ... with european prices. But the food was fantastic. Alina and I shared a great coconut fish dish while Pieter had chicken. Here, the local tipple is Ti Punch, a mix-your-own rum, syrup and lime.
Alina was great. She booked us in for a space center tour. First we walked to the market which was very small with lots of fruit and veg and french looking clothes. It was odd to see so many white people in South America who were not tourists. They worked at the space center or for the french military or as school teachers or other support roles. The
The lighthouse at dusk
military fellas wore the tightest little shorts. Alina had already gone to work so we had to make our own way to the space center. There were a few taxis around and absolutely no buses so Alina told us we should hitch hike. Not something that we have done a lot on this trip, we stuck out our thumbs, and withing 5 minutes a lovely off duty gendarmerie (military police) man stopped for us and we had a nice chat in English on the short drive to the space center.
The Guiana Space Centre has been operational since 1968 and launched the Ariane rockets. They have a museum that we visited first. 3.80 euros. And the air-con was up high, a huge relief from the scorching heat outside. They have a really good modern display with lots of interesting facts, interactive bits, models and chips and a bunch of interesting satellite photos. We had to exchange our passports for visitor passes and were shown to the control center. Well, not too sure what it was but there were lots of comfy seats facing an area with lots of computers and monitors. Being outside the secure area this was probably
where they monitored launches for the reporting to the media. We had little cordless headphones which worked only for a short video. The presentation in french went on for ages. Then we hopped into 2 big modern buses. As we left it started to rain ... hard. It was 15 km to security after which we saw our first buildings and launch zones. With the rain it was impossible for photos. We stopped at launch area 3 where we visited the proper control room, more complicated looking machinery. When we left it had cleared up a bit and we were able to get out for photos. It was an OK trip but they volunteered nothing in english and we felt awkward asking. We met Deckland on the tour, the only other english speaker. A lovely South African who had been a tour guide in his home country and an accountant in London. Now he was travelling until January when applications were accepted for english teachers in Japan. A local had shown him a way to the space center through a golf course so we all walked back that way. A nice long walk, bit tiring.
Alina's flatmate, Valerie, arrived
Control room at launch area 3
home this evening from house sitting in Cayenne. We spent the evening drinking wine, eating french breadsticks and looking at photos.
The next morning Valerie dropped us off for the 8:30 sailing to Îles du Salut. Again, Alina had been kind enough to reserve us tickets and lend us some hammocks for an overnight stay. It was 36 euros return each and took about an hour to get there on a busy catamaran. Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands) is 3 islands used as a penal colony from 1852 until 1953. The islands were made famous by the book 'Papillon' by Henri Charriere. The catamaran put in at Île Royale, the largest of the 3 islands. We would be spending the night on Île Saint-Joseph so stowed our bag under an upside-down dingy on the peer until a boat left for the island in the afternoon.
There was a little museum where a nice lady told us all about the island and gave us a map. The buildings were much restored with the former guards houses now provided accommodation. It was an interesting place with a church containing murals done by a prisoner, a great old hospital, a light
house and an infants cemetery. They were all children of the guards. We saw where the guillotine used to be. There was also a radar station or something like that for the space station. The islands are controlled by the space agency and when there is a launch the islands are evacuated as they are on the flight path. There were lots of agouti everywhere, so cute! Trying to drag off huge coconuts. Wandering around the island, we spotted a monkey who looked at us a bit before running off. Pieter tried to smash open a coconut but it ran off into the water. For lunch we ate at L'Auberge, the expensive hotel on the island. For 22 euro we got a set meal outside overlooking Devil's island. Quite good food but flies galore.
At 2 pm we caught a catamaran shuttle for 8 euros each return to Île Saint-Joseph. It was a proper sailing catamaran this one and we enjoyed the 10 minutes of luxury. A french couple who had been here many times before told us to follow them to the only sandy bit of beach. We did and there were quite a few people there so
Îles du Salut
Île du Diable (Devil's Island) as seem from Île Royale
we parked up quite a long way along. There was an unfortunate odour of human excrement all along the beach and lots of toilet paper. There were no facilities here and it was a shame people found it necessary to use the beach where hammocks were put up. We successfully hitched our hammocks between palm trees and relaxed. A light breeze kept the bugs away. We soon found it necessary to put up the tarpaulin that we carried with us also as the sky promised rain. It didn't get blown away as the wind increased so we must have put it up well enough. It didn't rain much in the end. Pieter spent significant time gaining entry to coconuts so I could drink the juice. We had sandwiches with us for dinner. We entertained ourselves by playing who-am-I until we feel asleep. At 2 am we were woken by scuffling sounds. Earlier Pieter had seen two rats tugging on a coconut, so we were hoping it was not them, perhaps it was lizards, but sure enough, when a huge amount of noise was heard a torch revelled two gigantic rats having a fight under Pieter's hammock. Pieter got such a
The hotel that used to house the guards of the prison
fright and he hit his head on a palm tree that sat between but off to the side of the two trees he tied his hammock to. The rest of the night was spent scaring off rats. I got a little too close to one as it was sitting on top of the bags when I leaned out of the my hammock to scare them off. There was no sleep until dawn. I read a lot as having the light on kept them away. We discovered on stirring later that they had managed to chew through a little pocket in my Macpac back pack and were on there way to extracting a bag of food inside. They buggered the zip, nasty little devils. We slept a bit more in the early morning light waking to find some more welcome visitors, a lovely wee hummingbird testing the tassels of our colourful hammocks for edibility, and a number of turtles swimming around just off shore.
Around noon we found the energy to explore. We walked around the island, see another rat crossing the path, then we found a path up to the prison ruins. They were well on their way to
being reclaimed by the forest. Some of the shackles remained and there were some isolation buildings that looked much bigger than those on the other island. There were mature tree trunks and vines everywhere inside. Lots of spiders of a venomous looking variety and leaf cutter ants making themselves at home.
We dozed and relaxed for a few more hours before breaking camp and heading back to Île Royale. We enjoyed a few drinks in the bar of L'Auberge before catching the boat back to Kourou. The French couple that we had meet on the island gave us a ride back to Alina's house. It was a great experience to visit the islands ... even with the rats.
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