the French Amazon
19 April 2012 | French Guyana
We anchored in the muddy river just off a dilapidated dock packed full with about thirty something French sailboats, many of which had been there for years, and it showed. We were surrounded by jungle with no facilities and only a dirt road leading away from the dock that we were told lead 8 miles to French Guiana's capital Cayenne. A jolly Frenchman named Michele gave us a lift in, explaining how a slice of France populated with run away Caribbean slaves (known as Maroons) came to exist in the South American Amazon jungle.
In town the colonial wood shuddered balconies told of better days as many hung on only one hinge, but the laughing rasta locals, some with bright red dreads, didn't seem to mind. Having just sailed from Africa it was interesting to see so many Africans now on this side of the Atlantic speaking French, making the usual French gestures as though we were in Paris and dressed in the latest European fashion (Molly, the hipster among us, was constantly commenting on the brands of glasses and footwear). Even their names are super fashionable with two of our new friends being Axel and Hansel. We waited in line at one local bakery with a rasta man (bare feet and speaking eloquent French) to buy croissants, pao de chocolats, and begets that are a staple of the local diet. French cheese and wine can be purchased in any corner shop, but at a cost priced in Euros which is far more than normal Latin American prices.
Just an hour's drive away outside of the town of Korour is the European Space Agency's only rocket launching site (surprisingly they have none in Europe) and the busiest rocket launching site in the world with over half of all launched satellites departing from here. We went on a tour of the launch pads, control center, and construction hangers which all seemed oddly out of place amidst the lush jungle. We stood on the pad where they send up groceries to the astronauts at the International Space Station as well as take out the trash on the return trip. There was a noticeable Russian presence at the base and we were told this was a recent addition and increasing.
Wanting to get to some pretty water and out of the muddy river water we decided to head to Ile de Salut (the Salvation Islands). Just before sunset is a dangerous time to leave a group of French sailors as everyone we bumped into as we walked down the dock on the way to the dingy offered to open a bottle of wine for us, but we somehow managed survive the gauntlet and get on our way. Once out at sea on our night sail, we came within feet of hitting L'enfanct Perdu (the Lost Child) which is a dangerous stand alone 300 foot rock protruding from the sea several miles off the coast. We nearly hit it on my watch and showing the moonlit breakers to Steve kept him more awake on his. Arriving at one in the morning our engine failed to start as we were setting to anchor and so we tacked in around a French navy battleship, but with the strong currents running amongst the islands it took us an hour just to make a few hundred feet to where we wanted to be. Finally hooked we slept well.
We woke in the morning surrounded by palm studded islands and a turquoise ocean water color we hadn't seen in weeks. Ashore we learned that these islands were actually an old French penal colony and the inspiration for the movie Pappillion starring Stephen McQeen. Walking amongst the old stone prison cells now overgrown with jungle we saw monkeys, macaws, and dog size rodents known as agoutis in a paradise setting that was anything but that for its former residents sent here by Nepoleon III. In the famous prisoner Alfred Dryfus's solitary confinement cell we walked a figure eight just as he had for so many years, going mad as he pondered his predicament (an innocent man wrongly imprisoned for his political beliefs). On Ilse de Diable (Devils Island) we had to swim ashore and time the surge to land on its jagged rocks as there is no suitable dingy landing and a reminder to us why this island was selected for the worst criminals. The Gendarmerie showed up in their boat and informed us that no one was allowed on Devils Island. Fearing for a bit they might put is one of the old cells they instead came aboard Bubbles for a look and hearing that we were sailing around the world one officer told us in his coolest English that we were 'f$%#ing lucky mate.' Hearing a french police officer use both the 'f' bomb and calling me 'mate' in casual conversation threw me off a bit, but at least they didn't give us a fine.
The only other boat amongst us was a single handing Italian named Roberto. We quickly added him to our posse and after doing some graveyard exploring on Isle St. Joseph our two boats decided to set sail together. Suriname here we come!