French Guyana Kourou St Laurent and the 200th Ariane Launch!

Andy Gibb
Wed 23 Feb 2011 10:54
We are at 05:30.41N 54:01.89W anchored off St Laurent de Maroni.
The guidebook and map said that Kaw is reached by road - so it was a bit of a surprise when we drove there to find that the road turns into a river 3 kms from Kaw. Kaw is an old settlement in the middle of wetland and marshes, partially drained 100 years ago, and now a haven for birds and water buffalo and caimans. Our rental car doesn't float very well, so we waited in the rain for an hour or so, photographing kingfishers and humming birds, when a boat turned up and Francisco took us into Kaw - which was as quiet as a funeral - which in fact it was, a resident having died a few days previously. Imagine a small settlement of 60 houses, declining for the last 100 years, 60 miles from town, surrounded by 3 kms of water, and you have Kaw. There is an EU funded solar 500 sq metres, but demand went up so much when it was first installed in 2000, that it became irrelevant, and a new investment from the EU was needed in 2008. The village must survive on grants, the people don't like being photographed, but we spotted more birds on the way back, and then a pack of monkeys overhead, when we walked into the jungle overlooking the wetlands.

We missed the caimans - a smaller type of crocodile, they only come out at night, when you can see small pink eyes just above the water - apparently - we never did spot them, in spite of staying overnight at the pleasant Camp de Caiman, (where it rained so much it hid even the Caimans).

The Hmung refgees from Laos came in 2 ship loads of 500 in 1978, and there are still only 2000 in Guyana, who nonetheless produce 80% of Guyana's agricultural produce, and are now quite prosperous with an excellent EU funded road going to Cacao, (60 kms from Cayenne) where they have settled. Faced with the prospect of death or something similar to the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, the Hmung spread out worldwide, (there are still 6 million in China and even 70 in Germany). Interestingly their cultural tapestries which had always been geometric changed in the last 50 years to include people, and the story of their flight from Laos. Their Sunday market in Cacao is a favourite place for French Sunday lunch, although we arrived early to buy the best produce.

Kourou where the Space Centre is located is 50 miles NW along the coast - but the whole coast is so shallow that even Intrepid had to go 10 miles out along the dredged channel at high tide, then along the 10 metre contour, then rather alarmingly surfed back in through really quite dangerous surf along the Kourou dredged channel only 50 metres wide, to the Kourou River where there are 2 small jetties filled with vie-a-bords and fishermen from (ex British) Guyana. And Gregory a Russian from Brazil who illustrates quite how dangerous sailing can be.

Gregory was sailing his newish Beneteau from Brazil, hit a gale so furled in his genoa, and the genoa halliard snapped. He started his engine, and the trailing halliard wound round his propeller and stopped his engine. He was now drifting helpless in large surf towards the shore where he would have capsized and drowned. He phoned his family in Moscow to say good-bye who phoned French Guyana - who said they could do nothing - but then he managed to clear his propeller a little, and limped into Kourou. He kindly let us raft up alongside, so I diagnosed his halliard problem - it was poorly rigged and was wrapping around the forestay when he furled so in the end it had to snap. I then hauled him up to rig a replacement. Then a thoroughly objectionable and significantly weird catamaran owner objected to our rafting up, so we spent the evening in some tension, in case he did something stupid like cutting our mooring lines. Sailing can be idyllic, but at times we feel like a nomad gypsy traveller, with all the hassles.

I managed to get an invitation for us to the 200th Ariane rocket launch on 15th February - so we were just about to leave Intrepid when the obnoxious catamaran owner started trying to run his boat into Intrepid to demonstrate just how much he hated yachts and trying to scare us into leaving the pontoon. Since we had to be at the launch centre very shortly there was only one thing to do - face him down, and luckily Sarah with great presence of mind spotted 3 gendarmes, who we alerted to what was going on. They went to 'have a word' with him while we went off to the launch in a state of some anxiety.

The launch count was agonisingly slow, everyone watching seemed almost as tense as the control room people, 7 minutes, 6 minutes, 5 minutes, 4 minutes - which turned red -launch cancelled. So in a state of anti-climax we returned to Intrepid, and next day went out to anchor - we had no desire to have the dubious satisfaction of suing an imbecile Frenchman for damaging our boat. The launch was to send an ATV (Automatic Transfer Vehicle) to the International Space Station, carrying 4.5 tonnes of fuel to raise its orbit (it drops 100 metres everyday) and other supplies. So it had to be at the same time next day or miss the window - so next day we returned to the launch viewing this time worrying about the strong flowing river hoping that Intrepid's 2 anchors would hold - and this time it was successful - the 200th launch from French Guyana. Night really did turn into day before the Ariane rocket disappeared into thick cloud, and we heard successive explosions as the 1st and 2nd stage rockets ejected. We celebrated, Intrepid's anchors held fine, and because they evacuate Devil's Islands offshore Kourou before a launch, this also enabled the next adventure to Devil's Island.

Remember the 2nd advantage Guyana has? Or Dreyfus? From 1850 to 1955 France used Guyana as a high security prison to which were sent people who organised the communes, the barricades and all the other political opponents of the rulers of the time. The rulers had been through the French Revolution, and knew how easily a terrifying revolution could be organised, and decided that the only way to prevent this was to construct such a terrible prison experience that even the most determined organisers would think twice. So political opponents and other hardened prisoners were shipped in batches of 500 to Guyana, where more than half died of guillotine, malaria, overwork, malnutrition or sadistic prison guards (who also died in large numbers). The most dangerous high security prisoners were sent to Devil's Island 15 miles offshore Kourou, including Dreyfus, a French Jewish Naval Officer who caused a scandal around 1900 that still reverberates around the French elite. He was accused of writing a letter to the Russians with naval secrets, and became the catalyst for opposition to the Government. The Government was determined to make an example of him, and he was in solitary confinement on the most remote island with 14 guards who aimed a pistol at his head whenever a ship was sighted. Eventually the scandal of the forgery - for such it was - brought down the Government and Dreyfus was (eventually) pardoned. Another prisoner was 'Papillon' who escaped and inspired the major movie of the same name.

The abattoir on the beach plus corpses of prisoners thrown into the sea attracted sharks, and fierce currents sweep around the 'Isle de Salut' which makes escaping (and anchoring) difficult. Half the prisoners died in 1940's and the prison was only shut in 1955, since when it has been transformed into an Auberge for the Space Centre (and probably an evacuation centre if there is a revolution in Guyana) and a holiday resort. The island is still owned by the Military Police. The guide book's comment that the welcome hasn't improved much since the prison is a bit unfair, we were asked to move Intrepid but apart from that it was OK. We toured the grim isolation cells with manacles even in the hospital. Clearly there was spare money that had to be spent from some space budget, because there has been significant investment to make over and maintain the old prison, and create the auberge from parts of it, and there is a gruesome museum, where the French in effect say 'Look how awful we were to our celebrity prisoners - we now have different ways of doing it..'.

Gregory followed us out to Isle de Salut, and was so keen to have some company after his terrifying sailing experience that he asked us to keep a VHF watch for him. Saturday we set off and encountered the same NW current that flows along South America, and quickly we had to think of more and more desperate ways to slow Intrepid down so that we did not arrive at the entrance to the Moroni River 100 miles away before dawn, (the Moroni has a reputation for shifting sandbanks and buoys). We succeeded (next to no sail) but dawn is not a good time to enter either, as the lights on the buoys go out, yet there is insufficient light to see the unlit buoys. We finally sorted out the buoys ¾ mile from their charted position, avoided the sandbanks, and anchored in the idyllic creek de vaches miles from anywhere with jungle on both sides.

Next day 7 miles further up river we found St Laurent, the largest prison in French Guyana - still standing complete with discipline block, isolation cells, manacles built for a capacity of some 4000 - but thankfully now a historic ghoulish relic, complete with site of the guillotine, and graphic descriptions (in torrential rain) of what months in solitary confinement could do. But the town itself is now a sleepy backwater frontier town (the river Moroni is the border with Surinam), with a full size submarine improbably stranded 20 metres offshore. Phil and Sarah rented a car to get them back to the airport at Cayenne, and Nicky found a dentist who refilled her tooth, refused all payment, and smiled! Jean Claude on the neighbouring boat welcomed our invitation for a beer, he is ill but cheerful and now lives on Euro 420/month social security and changes river every 2 years or so.

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