French Guyana RAIN forest

Andy Gibb
Thu 10 Feb 2011 19:00
We are at 04:51.48N 52:16.94W. With a population of only 127,000 Guyanese in an area 1/6th the size of France, French Guyana is hardly a country. Indeed it isn't, its technically part of France, just 3000 miles away. It has one advantage - being so close to the equator, rockets use much less fuel to take off because the earth spins much faster at the equator than elsewhere.

And it has some disadvantages: 1. French 'fonctionaires' (Government bureaucrats) hate living here, so have to be paid large incentives to come, and then only stay 4 years; 2. Partly for this reason the Guyanese hate the French, but can't afford to do without French money; 3. The African Guyanese resent and exploit the Amerindians, (from Brazil and Guyana because the French largely exterminated the local variety), who do much of the manual work ; 4. They are both beaten at farming and trade by the Laotians who the French migrated from Laos to Guyana at the time of the Vietnam War; 5. The few white French who live here (usually because they are relatives of a fonctionaire and/or think they can't get work in France ) hate and are discriminated against by the Guyanese fonctionaries, and mutually loathe each other as racist; 6. The weather is mostly very humid, and most of the year is wet season with torrential rain for 5+ hours/day; 7. There are lots of malaria carrying mosquitoes. 8. For every Euro raised locally 27 Euros have to come from France, (or more accurately the EU) so the port is the most expensive in the world, and the cost of living is high; 9. Drugs originating from the Amazon delta are starting to trickle into local Guyana life, as drug smugglers exploit the 10th parallel route (west from South America to Africa then north up to London and Paris). For this reason parts of Cayenne (the capital) are dangerous at night.

Quite a tourist destination then. Well, no, the Lonely Planet says that this is one of the least visited areas in the world. But partly for that reason, it does have intriguing jungles and wildlife, and rivers far bigger than the Thames or the Seine; it also has French supermarkets, pretty good roads and the danger from drug smugglers is far less than in the Amazon.

We arrived at the port at the end of our transatlantic crossing, tired, weather beaten and keen to just tie up somewhere. Which we did at the Degrad de Canne 'marina' built with EU money - but half the money was diverted elsewhere, so while the plans were for 100 floating berths and infrastructure on shore, there are actually 50 berths and a portacabin masquerading as a shower block. There is a certain type of French who end up with little or no money, acquire a boat and live on board in any part of the world where mooring a boat is cheap or free; these boats are laden with junk that might be useful someday, and the whole marina quickly becomes untidy and run down.

But these are people who have seen all the bad things life can throw at them, and they know that if they are to survive they have to help each other - so they do; Bernard helped us tie up, then drove us into Cayennes to rent a car; Christian asked us to move Intrepid so he could move to an inside berth - but made sure to help us tie up and reserved a water and electricity connection, Charlie who is a seismic geologist made redundant at the age of 26 and is now aged 34 trying to repair an old plywood boat, made us superlative T punches when we invited him for dinner.

We drove south towards the Brazilian border 150kms away along the N2. The Guyanas are hoping that eco-tourism will revive areas that were busy with forestry, then alluvial gold mining, but are now desolate. Regina was once a thriving trading hub near the navigable limit of the Approuage, now about as depressed as its possible to be, bypassed even by the N2, I think we were the only visitors to the chic Eco museum that week. There are 2 auberges along the way which offer canoeing and bird watching, and hammocks in communnal carbet rooms (Euro 8) or open sided bedrooms (Euro 40). We stayed at L'Auberge de Approuaugue with beautiful views from a hillside overlooking the River Approuage, once filled with logging barges and gold mining, now just a few scattered plantations. We spotted yellow and white toucans in distant trees, and then walked along a remote forestry track in torrential rain photographing iridescent blue butterflies, and next day walked the Tresor trail (equally wet) but in spite of buttress trees, creepers and jungle that looks just like Sarawak, the Guyanese ambition to position themselves as a cheap safari destination still has some way to go. Maybe those involved know this, because NO-ONE smiles, the one who came closest was the waiter at the Auberge and he is Brazilian. That's another surprise, there are large numbers of foreign workers from Brazil, (ex British) Guyana and Surinam, and they seem to provide the main spark in the country - the other being the space centre.

Cayenne is an almost exotic mixture of 2 storey colonial houses now turned into Chinese baby clothes or plastic or souvenir shops, with various banks. Everything non Laotian, closes from 1pm to 3pm and longer if there is an excuse. The market is a lively affair with African-Guyanese selling sweet potatoes, semi illicit rum type drinks, long white radishes and basil competing with Laotian-Guyanese who sell lettuces, cucumbers and peppers, butchers from St Lucia (!) sell fairly fly free meat, or pigs heads and trotters, and pho noodles are slurped in the centre. Le café de Palmiste has a verandah overlooking the elegant park that could be out of some French Somerset Maugham novel, and there is a fairly strong police presence complete with 'Hotel de Police'. The rest of the capital area is ambitiously zoned into Industriel, Commercial, Artisanal etc, so that nothing really reaches a critical mass, (especially the artisanal), the result being a sprawl of disheartened shops that attempted to be classy but now have dusty French chic 3 years old, and small depots that store products from France, do minimal assembly, provide a tax loss and wait for someone to call. The main feature on the map is the graveyard near centre city, 4 hectares or so, resplendent with bright plastic flowers.

But it does have Carnaval - every Sunday at 5pm from January to Mardi Gras, exuberant bands parade down Avenue Charles de Gaulle with plastic drums and frenzied trombones, a mixed assortment of Mexican bandits, tree huggers, Mafia and lots and lots of cross-dressing - burly black men who look as though they are fit footballers dressed up in wigs, tight bikinis and stilettos. Excited crowds lined the streets, and followed behind, dodging the downpours. The most intriguing band were the only (all) white participants (the rest of the bands were all black or coffee) dressed as French Revolutionaries complete with guillotine, and a statement of Universal Human Rights - whilst the French may want the Guyanese to empathise with France on the basis of Revolutionaries 300 years ago, the Guyanese seem to prefer other symbols.

We picked up a hitchhiker (who turned out to be from Surinam) on our way back from Tresor Forest, and when I commented on a fortress like gated villa just outside Cayenne, he said it was owned by Malouda, the Chelsea and French soccer star who (apparently) comes from French Guyana. Since everyone knows to the last euro how much he earns, I suppose a gigantic gate and guards are a necessary precaution, even if he is not there he might have left some small change lying around.

Phil and Sarah flew in from UK for some winter sun - now rebranded warm winter rain - bearing various spare parts and equally welcome copies of the Economist and Sunday Times. And still it rains..we have a 'sun' awning designed and sewn for us in Phuket, which covers Intrepid entirely and functions well as a raincover - and are we thankful for it - the rain comes in an impenetrable sheet of water which cascades down our awning in streams. Raincoats are useless, folding umbrellas are useful, we carry them everywhere, and because the temperature seldom varies from 27C the rain just evaporates off quickly. When your main tourist feature is rain forest, you had better have plenty of both - and they do. There are only a few small logging trucks, mainly because the French chopped down all the primary rain forest a century ago, and the remaining forest doesn't have enough large trees to be economic - that's why they are now natural reserves.

The 'marina' is on the River Mahury, which used to take logging barges up river to Fourgassie - but a few years ago EU funds built a low bridge for the road to Kaw, so we can only go 7 miles upriver. But what a 7 miles - the last yacht that went up hit a submerged rock, and lost its keel - it Is now awaiting repair on land near us. The problem is that the river is so murky with sediment that its impossible to see rocks - and they are hard rocks, not mud-banks. However we borrowed a much photocopied French chart from Christian, (our Admiralty chart stops at the 'marina') and at high tide (to give us an extra 2 metres depth), s-l-o-w-l-y went up river at 3 knots with Phil and Sarah as spotters at the bow (until it rained when they retreated to the cockpit) dodging the 10+ rock formations on the way up until we finally anchored near Gabriel Creek, just short of the bridge.

We waited 3 hours for the torrential rain to stop, then dinghied up Gabriel creek in an exotic forest that enveloped us as the creek got narrower, only a few metres wide and maybe 1 metre deep in places, with mud and mangroves on both sides, until we tied up to a log. We admired a stunning parrot with blue head and yellow tummy (which isn't in any of our bird books), and less invitingly, a tarantula which crawled along our log, the size of a saucer, plus crabs, kingfishers, and ...more rain on the way back, so hard we ended with 2 inches of water in the dinghy - but an unusual and interesting trip nonetheless.

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