Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rockets in the Rainforest?

Greetings All,
Our return trip up the Maroni River to Albina was less eventful than yesterday's trip down the river. We were traveling with the wind and waves so we were able to keep mostly dry and see what we missed on the trip out when we were hidden under the tarp.  The river was lined with forest and mangroves and our boatman spotted two Pale-throated sloths, a species of  three-toed sloth, hanging out in the trees.

Can you Find the Sloths?
We completed exit formalities at the Suriname border station in Albina and Tio took us across the Maroni River to drop us off in French Guiana or "Gayene" as it is frequently and confusing called by the locals.  Here is a map of French Guiana showing the places that we will visit.

Map of French Guiana

Just offshore was the shipwrecked British steamer Edith Cavel which partially sank in bad weather in 1924.  It is so overgrown with trees and shrubs that we almost mistook it for a natural island.

Edith Cavel Shipwreck
We were met by our guide Regis and quickly passed through the immigration and custom formalities. French Guiana is a department of France so technically we had entered the European Union.  We took a quick tour of St. Laurent du Maroni including the Camp de la Transportation.  Founded in 1858 it was the arrival point for prisoners destined for the notorious penal colonies of French Guiana.

Remnants of the Dock at Camp de la Transportation
We drove east for about 2 and a half hours to the city of Kourou and our hotel at the mouth of the Kourou River.  Next to the hotel was the Dryfus Tower used as a communication link to the Salvation Islands 11 km off shore.  

The following morning we woke to sunny skies, an unexpected treat as we were traveling during French Guiana's rainy season.  Today we were scheduled to visit the Space Center but asked Regis if we could take advantage of the good weather and visit the Salvation Islands instead.  Doing so would mean missing our tour of the Space Center so we opted to do both in the same day.  Regis was able to arrange for a private boat to take us to the islands after our visit to the space center.  Yes, a real Space Center in South America!  When I first heard about it I thought it was a joke or a theme park but it's the real deal.  France chose this site in 1964 as its spaceport for two main reasons, it's close to the equator and it has uninhabited area to the east (Atlantic Ocean) so that lower stages of rockets and debris from launch failures can not fall on  human habitations.

Life-size Model of Ariane5
In 1975 France offered to share its spaceport with the European Space Agency which has 23 member countries.  About one rocket per month is launched from this facility using European Vega and Ariane rockets and starting 4 years ago Russian Soyuz rockets.  It cost 250 million dollars to launch a satellite into space and this doesn't include the cost of the satellite!

Soyuz Launch Pad

After our very interesting visit to the Space Center we drove to a tiny pier on the Kourou River for our 30-minute boat ride to the Salvation Islands (Iles du Salut), so called because 18th century colonists went there to escape disease on the mainland.  Later, the islands became the site of a notorious penal colony.  The name of the islands was never changed to reflect their more sinister past.  The group is comprised of 3 islands including the infamous Devil's Island.  It is here that Henri Charriere (Papillion) a convicted murderer escaped from after being imprisoned for 12 years.  He wrote a book entitled "Papillion" about his imprisonment and subsequent escape.  In 1973 his book was made into a film in which Steve McQueen played the role of Charriere.  The book's title is Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest (papillon being French for butterfly). The book is now thought to be more fiction than fact.  According to prison records, Charriere was never imprisoned on Devil's Island.  It still makes for a great story and movie!

Devil's Island

Captain Alfred Dryfus was imprisoned for treason on Devil's Island from 1895 to 1899.   The hut in which he lived still stands.  Today it's too dangerous for tourists to land on the island but we got a good view from our boat.

Dryfus Hut on Devil's Island
We did visit the largest island, Royal Island (Île Royale), which was for the general population of criminals of the penal colony.  The remains of the church, hospital, warden's houses and some of the prison cells still stand.  
Prison Cell on Île Royale

On a lighter side it was nice to see that the island is now overrun with Red-rumped agoutis, Peacocks and Brown Capuchin monkeys.  All were introduced to the island years ago.  They were much more pleasant to photograph.
Brown Capuchin Monkey

We didn't have time to visit the third island, Île Saint-Joseph, which the worst of the criminals were punished in the silence and darkness of solitary confinement.  Over the course of 100 years (1852 to 1952) 70,00 prisoners were sent to this notorious penal colony, most of whom perished here.  Some would say it's morbid to visit a place where so many people suffered and died.  I must admit when I saw the solitary confinement cells it made me queasy.  We didn't stay too long.  I guess remembering the horrors from our past should serve to prevent us from committing atrocities now and in the future. Too bad we can't seem to learn from our past. 
Before heading back to Kourou, we had to wait for our boatman to pick up 4 guys from a ship which is used to track satellites once they are launched from the Space Center.  The Space Center has actually purchased the islands as they are below the flight path of the rockets.  They have to be evacuated before every rocket launch.  We were entertained by Marc trying to photograph a Green sea turtle swimming along the shore when it came to the surface the breathe.

Green Sea Turtle
The next morning we continued our drive east toward Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.  We stopped at The Mont Grand Matoury Nature Reserve to do a short walk in protected primary rainforest.  Not far from the trailhead Regis spotted a Pale-throated Three-toed Sloth hanging out in a tree next to the trail.
Pale-throated Sloth

We saw a few birds and Squirrel Monkeys on the remainder of our Boucle Paypayo loop hike but not much else.  We arrived in Cayenne after lunch and settled into our hotel.  Early the next morning Regis picked us up for the hour and a half drive southeast to the Kaw Wetlands, a Ramsar Site for wetlands of international importance.  Originally we were booked on a group tour but asked Regis if he could arrange a private boat for us so Marc could take pictures.  We were happy to have a private boat when we arrived at the boat landing.  The parking lot was overflowing and the boat we had originally booked was packed with 27 people!  We had the same size boat for just the 3 of us plus Ricky the boatman and we had a roof to boot.  The draw here is the bird life.  Marc was able to get some good photos.

White-headed Marsh Tyrant

Black-capped Donacobius

Cocoi Heron
We had lunch at a floating restaurant in the marsh.  You can spend the night here in hammocks if you wish.  It began to rain and the boatload of French tourists showed up soaking wet.  We continued our exploration of the wetlands after lunch.  Ricky was determined to find a Hoatzin for us.  We've seen these prehistoric-looking birds before including last year in Brazil but they are always fun to see. Finally, Ricky spotted one sitting on her nest in the pouring rain.

Hoatzin on her Nest

We weren't so lucky with the Giant River Otters.  We went in search for them near a cattle farm but they were no where to be seen.  There is a small population of Maroons still living in the Tresor Nature Reserve.  They raise cattle here which seem comfortable grazing in water up to their necks.

Cattle grazing in the Wetlands

We had a free day in Cayenne, so climbed a small hill the site of an abandoned fort to get a view of the city.

Cayenne, French Guiana

We wandered through the Place des Palmistas, a large palm-lined plaza before returning to our hotel to get packed up for a flight out the following morning.  French Guiana is a land of contrasts.  Dense rainforests shelter centuries-old indigenous villages while 21st century rockets zoom overhead, launched from the country's lucrative Space Center.  Where else in the world can you see Rockets in the Rainforest!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

No comments: