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Published: December 12th 2012
Iles du Salut - Ile RoyaleDay 419 Monday 3rd December
Looking across to Devil's Island
For breakfast walked to Le Café Crème and had the best coffee we have had in South America so far, guess this is due to the French influence. On the way back to the hotel we dropped into the Suriname Embassy to pick up some visa application forms. The hotel let us know we could have another night but we would have to ask tomorrow about the next night which is frustrating. Filled out Suriname visa application and as usual there were some questions we hoped we understood correctly, back at the embassy the lady at the counter quickly checked the forms. Once again we got grilled about not having a return airline ticket and we had to do a song and dance and plead that we had no intention of settling in Suriname, but I guess you never do know. We paid our money and were told to pick them up tomorrow so fingers crossed we will have an entry into our next destination.
The central area of town is tiny but has a good feel but only takes a few minutes to walk around so late in the afternoon after doing some
souvenir shopping we stopped at Bar Les Palmistes for a drink and watch the crowds walk past. Well actually there were about 5 people that walked past and about 8 people sitting in the bar this gives you an idea about the of vibe on main street.
For dinner we went to a restaurant called Hippopotamus and had a great steak but boy did we pay for it. Day 420 Tuesday 4th December
Back at Le Café Crème for breakfast the staff are great and very friendly and we had another good coffee and a toasted ham roll. Back at the hotel we check the status for another night and were told no, so we hope there is no problem with the Suriname visa. Packed our bags and left them at the hotel and walked down to the embassy and got our passports back with our visas so we are moving on. One of the visa application questions was the date you were going to enter Suriname the question is not usual but we realised that they have taken it exactly so we can’t enter till the 12th December; other countries start the visa from
date of issue or first entry stamp date. Grabbed our bags and walked to the canal where the collectivo taxicos leave from, it costs 10 euros to Kourou but needed to wait for the van to fill. The journey only took 1 hour and we are now half way through the country.
The collectivo dropped us off at the corner near the Le Gros Bec accommodation that is in the Lonely Planet the gate was opening for the Postie and we walked in with her. The lady at reception spoke English and we had no problem getting a room which is a small apartment with a kitchenette, lounge room and upstairs bedroom. We walked around the town and most things were closed but found a small supermarket and brought a few things and saw another larger market that we would try later when it may be opened. At the hotel we asked about tours and arranged a tour for Iles du Salut tomorrow and got a number to call the Space Station.
A word of warning if coming to French Guiana I think you need to pre book accommodation as we discovered later that the reception here is
Looking at Bar Les Palmistes
hardly ever open and we were lucky that the lady was here when we arrived.
Later in the afternoon we picked up more food to cook dinner, something I have not done for about 11 months hope I remember how. There is not much in this area to look at so wandered back to the apartment. It is nice to have so much space and being able to cook what we want for a change. Day 421 Wednesday 5th December
Up early to get the boat so after breakfast walked 5 minutes down the road to the wharf to get the 7.45am tour. There were about 12 passengers plus 2 crew; the boat was a nice catamaran so it should be a good trip. The only problem was the choppy seas and it was not long before I was ill but not as bad as another girl who was throwing up, I could not wait to see land.
Iles du Salut are three beautiful islands off the mainland (Ile Royale, Devil’s and St Joseph), that were originally called the triangular islands. The name was changed to the Salvation Islands when the last 2,000
Looking at the Main Street
people of a 13,000 person settlement expedition from France came here as a last hope way back in the 1700’s. The islands may have been salvation for the luckless settlers, but if you had asked the last lot of occupants they would have said it was hell on earth. From 1852 to 1947 this area was used as a French Penal colony and it is estimated that 80,000 people died here including prisoners, guards, their wives and babies from malaria, other infections and of course the guillotine if you did something bad while you were here. The food was limited and conditions appalling during this period, standing here today on the largest Island Ile Royale with a cool sea breeze and a great restaurant it is hard to believe. These islands gained fame from the book and movie called Papillion (butterfly) written by Henry Charriere supposedly about his time here. Since the book was written it has been proved that although Henry was a prisoner in Guiana he never was on Devil’s Island and most of the stories happened to other prisoners namely one Charles Brunier.
We had about 3 hours to walk around Ile Royale which was mainly
Place des Palmistes - Main Plaza
an administration island that had a church, hospital, the children’s cemetery, warden’s accommodation and a few prison cells. We stopped at the restaurant which overlooks Devil’s Island and I had the fish soup which is really nice after lunch we walked past the ruins of the mental asylum to the wharf. We were all to meet here at 1.30pm to be picked up, but a huge cruise liner had come into the bay and the passengers were getting ferried onto the island, the average age was 100 years with Zimmer frames so we ended up waiting till about 2.00pm before our boat could pick us up. While waiting we were amused by one of the idiot crew dressed in a prison outfit and a photographer taking photos with the passengers it was so lame.
Back on the boat we sailed across to St Joseph’s Island which was far more interesting and eerie. Restoration is only just starting here and access to the actual cells is closed off, not that it stopped anyone from our boat stepping over the red tape and ignoring the warning signs about rocks falling. We had come a long way to see this and the
only things that seemed to be falling from above were coconuts and they were falling in the unrestricted areas too. Note there is a small military base on the island so we made sure they did not see as we were not sure if they would stop us. It only takes about 20 minutes to walk the trail around the circumference of the island which we did first passing the cemetery for the guards. The prisoners were buried (or dumped) at sea for shark food and from the number of deaths here they must have been very fat. Walking up the hill we stepped over the red warning tape and arrived at the prison blocks and the infamous “reclusive cells” section where the roof has steel bars and the guards used to walk on a platform above looking in. The prisoners were not permitted to make a noise whilst in their cells and were under constant surveillance. A roof went over the entire structure so they weren’t exposed to the elements but the roof has long gone. Nature has reclaimed this place and there are now huge fig trees growing through the buildings with their roots pushing through every crack.
This was the highlight of the day wandering around the cells it was here you could image the suffering and the appalling conditions in the sweltering heat. I really wanted to see this island as my most vivid memory from the movie Papillion (Starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann) is at the end where it showed the decaying remains of the prison as they stood when the movie was made way back in 1973. It was sort of a haunting end to a fairly mediocre movie (Bill Collins might disagree with me) but it sort of stuck with me. It was an incredible feeling wandering through these abandoned cells that would have been complete misery for so many thousands and now left to the elements…is this man’s evils being erased by nature?
The islands were chosen because of the choppy seas, strong currents that swept you out to sea and of course the sharks, so there was little hope of escape. The prisoners who came here had little hope of ever seeing France again even if they survived their term of imprisonment, as the French Government put no infrastructure or way for them to earn money after release to
Iles du Salut - Devil's Island
Alfred Dreyfus's (political prisoner) house on Devil's Island
Unfortunately you can’t land on Devil’s Island so we had to be content with just sailing around it. Even when it was used as a prison the only way there was by cable car from Ile Royale and this has long gone. This island only ever had a small number of the hardest or political prisoners on it and they got there on the cable car along with supplies.
It was now time to head back to the mainland so I quickly took a motion sickness tablet which I should have taken on the way here. The return trip was better for me and we sat at the back of the boat watching the three islands get smaller and smaller and the waves get bigger and bigger. We arrived back at 5.30pm and walked through town and if possible it was quieter than yesterday, had a beer at a small place. We picked up more supplies including more motion sickness tablets and went home to cook dinner. Day 422 Thursday 6th December
Today is just one of those days where nothing falls into place, we have discovered that Azul airlines has double
charged us for our flight from Recife to Belem and no matter what we tried we can’t contact them. I sent them a message through their website and we still have not heard back and the phone numbers provided only appear to work in Brazil so we are very angry and I have sent another message. You can only imagine how angry Scott is about the whole thing and has only added fuel to his fire about Brazil. Secondly the phone number we have for the Space Centre has a recorded message in French which of course we do not speak, no problem we will ask the lady at reception but it she has not been here all day. This is why I said earlier that you should book ahead, god only knows what would have happened if we turned up today we would still be standing on the street. The sign on reception says they are opened 10.00-13.00 and again from 17.00-20.00 but this has not been the case since we have been here. It looked like we would not see the space centre as we can’t book a tour by phone but finally around 6pm the woman who
runs the hotel returned and she it should not be a problem and arranged for a driver to take us out there and pick us up….or so we thought. We had wasted most of the day just trying to organise things and attempting to make phone calls but I guess it gave us a chance to chill in front of the air con and not swelter in the heat. At 7.30 we wandered downtown and had a great feed at a creole restaurant. Day 423 Friday 7th December
Yesterday was a fairly fruitless day and today was going to be an exercise in frustration. We were up at 5.45am so we could have our breakfast before getting a taxi to the European Space Station. We had opted not to pay the extra 8 Euros each for breakfast and make our own which allowed us to have what we wanted. It was so nice to have filtered coffee and a decent bowl of cereal for brekkie. At 6.50am we were standing out the front of the place when “Frank” turned up, who was the taxi driver our hotel owner had organised for us to take us to
Iles du Salut - Ile Royale
What is left of the tower for the cable car to Devil's Island
the space station. Had been told he could speak English, which he couldn’t, and thought we were getting something that would resemble a taxi, which it wasn’t. French Guiana has no public transport (that we are aware of) and are infuriatingly short on taxis so that if you don’t have your own car you are pretty much screwed. We quickly worked out that Frank may have been a guy just giving us a lift in his car whilst on his way to work and for the 10 minute journey we were going to have to pay him 20 Euros ($25).
When we arrived at the Space Centre we had a long confusing conversation with him trying to work out what time we would expect him to pick us up, which we had been told was part of the deal. He ended up doing what anyone else would have done in a desperate situation…phone a friend. Got nowhere with that approach as his friend couldn’t speak English either, and so he jumped back into his car and drove off leaving us there wondering if he was ever coming back to pick us up.
We had come out here today
to do a tour of the busiest space station in the world. The European Space Station was started by Charles de Gaulle back in 1964 and was built in Guiana because it is only 5 degrees from the equator meaning it takes less energy to shoot the rockets into space. Over the years the space station has got bigger and bigger and now launches the heavy lift (10 tonne payload) French made Ariane rockets, the medium lift (5 tonne payload) Russian Soyuz rockets, and the low lift (1.5 tonne payload) Italian Vega rockets. They are presently doing a launch about every 3 weeks and we had wanted to see one but missed the last one by a week and the next is in two weeks time. Had thought about hanging around in town for two weeks but French Guiana isn’t a cheap place to linger in. If you miss a launch you can do a free tour of the facilities and that is what we had hoped to do today. The website of the space station claims you have to book in advance to do the tour but the woman at our hotel claimed it should be fine to just
Iles du Salut - Ile Royale
Putting Scott where he belongs
turn up and jump on a tour, as it is only really busy on launch days. Frank had dropped us off here an hour early and so we had to wait and by the time the doors opened there was a crowd of 54 people. A bit of a scrum ensued to get security passes and when we got ours the woman said she thought we would be okay to do the tour.
First stop was the control room where all the action takes place with the banks of computers, and then we were herded onto a bus where our tour concluded. Just as we sat down Shelley’s name was called out, and you guessed it we were bumped off the tour. Apparently the bus could only sit 55 people and Michele was passenger 56. The bus only travels around the base but they wouldn’t let me stand on the bus so there wasn’t much we could do other than sulk. The woman who kicked us off was lovely about it and allowed us to visit the museum for free (it would normally cost us 7 euros each), but it was fairly annoying to be so close to something
and have it snatched away. At the time we were a bit upset but in hindsight, the guide only spoke French and I am unsure how interesting seeing the rocket hangers would have been without explanations. We were glad to get the museum for free as it is not that exciting and if we had to pay it would have been a double insult.
It was now 9am and we half guessed that Frank was returning to pick us up at the conclusion of a tour (we couldn’t do). As I mentioned there is no buses so our choices were to wait, get another taxi or walk, and for some stupid reason we decided to wait. Had this image of poor Frank waiting till 6pm for us to appear when we had already made our way home and had no way of contacting him. We sat out at the space station till midday with no sign of Frank before asking a nice guy at the security counter if he could call a taxi. “Taxi? No you don’t want a taxi, they are so expensive, just walk up to the road and (does sign of holding out thumb)”. Kourou does
have a great feel about it, but really didn’t want to hitchhike, I just didn’t want to put Shelley in a possible dangerous situation and so we were left with the only other option…walk.
It was midday and so the temperature was probably about 35 degrees and we were both in a foul mood, stomping down the road cursing Frank, the space station the lack of public transport, Bulladelah (maybe that was only Scott) and everything about French Guiana, when the guy from the security office stopped in his car and offered us a lift. It is amazing how sometimes when you travel you can get yourself in a jam or you hit an absolute low and all of a sudden someone will come along and in an instant reverse your fortune; one moment you want to call in a nuclear strike and the next you want to build a monument to the nation. The guy who picked us up drove us back to our hotel, told us about other good restaurants in town and then gave us a fist full of maps for the country. Sort of felt dazed except that I couldn’t stop thanking him as he
dropped us off, and then he was gone….what a bloody top bloke.
We wandered down to the creole restaurant for a beer to settle the dust and to take stock of the day before going back to our room. Late in the afternoon the woman from the hotel turned up and we told her about Frank not turning up and she seemed surprised especially as we hadn’t paid him yet…well we were going to pay him when he got us back home. She seemed more concerned about his payment other than us almost having to walk the 6kms home and the only explanation she gave was “he must have got busy”. Asked also about getting out of town tomorrow and she said our only options to get to the border town of St Laurent was getting a collectivo taxi between 3am to 6am, hiring a car or walking the 190kms. She tried unsuccessfully to phone for the collectivo and to find out other options for us and we were forced to wait till 8pm when she said she may have an answer for us. No answer came and so we headed into town for dinner unsure what we were
going to do tomorrow. In French Guiana they can get a satellite into orbit, but they just can’t seem to be able to move people from one town to the next. Had another great feed of creole before we went home annoyed and thankful for the day’s events and uncertain about tomorrow.
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