Compulsory Evacuation From Devil ’s Island
Position 05:08.85N 052:38.822W Kourou, French Guiana
Date: 20 December 2012
Compulsory Evacuation From Devil’s Island
The Iles Du Salut consist of three islands in a small triangle about 10 miles off the coast of French Guiana: Ile Royale, Ile Saint Joseph and the most famous and smallest of the three, Ile du Diable – Devil’s Island. All of them are shrouded in a forest of tropical trees, fringed with palms. Over the constant chorus if cicadas, one can hear the raucous shrieks of monkeys and parrots. After chilling out on board after our four-day passage, we went ashore in the dinghy to the main island, Ile Royale. Leaving the dinghy tied to a smart floating quay, we could see large turtles in the water, lifting their ancient heads above the water for a gasp of air before submerging back into the murky silty water. An iguana a metre long slunk across the rocks as we made our way along the pontoon to the shore. We climbed up the heavily wooded slopes along well kept tracks which were constantly being crossed by large rodents which looked like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel – but with no tail – called agouti. Chickens roamed freely through the woods, clucking and pecking contentedly. Also contented was a monkey, one of many we saw, who had found a newly laid chicken egg and was very carefully tapping it against a tree trunk until he had made a small hole in one end, from which he sucked the contents. We passed a number of old French colonial style buildings until we reached the summit where the finest of the buildings had been converted into a hotel with spectacular views from the welcoming bar over all the islands and over the sea to the mainland. It was all utterly charming.
In the souvenir shop we bought a couple of booklets giving a history of the islands. Reading them over a refreshingly cold beer, we were chillingly reminded that the islands were not always a beautifully manicured ecological park with enormously diverse wildlife. For over a hundred years the islands were the site of one of the most brutal penal colonies run by the French. Housing political prisoners, deportees, the most hardened and violent criminals and lunatics, the conditions were appalling and the life expectancy was short. If not in solitary confinement, the prisoners were forced into hard labour, breaking rocks to build the many buildings on the islands. There was no relief from the unrelenting scorching equatorial sun as all the trees had been cut down to avoid any prisoners from building a boat to escape. Those desperate enough to try to escape by swimming the ten miles to the mainland never made it. They were sucked away from the land by the strong two-knot current and eaten by the sharks which patrol the strip of water between the islands and the mainland. These were the Devil’s Islands made famous by the book and film “Papillon”.
Whilst almost no buildings remain on Ile du Diable, and few on Ile St Joseph, many of the old buildings remain on Ile Royale and are being restored: the hotel at the summit used to be the prison warders barracks and mess, and many of the prison blocks, the hospital church, mortuaries and cemeteries still stand as a reminder of the islands brutal past.
French Guiana is not a French colony or protectorate. Extraordinarily it is actually part of France – a “department” in its own right – and therefore it is part of Europe. Standing head and shoulders above its South American neighbours in terms of economic wealth, this wealth is largely derived from it being the home of the European Space Centre, an enormous complex surrounded by razor wire and electric fences and policed by a 2000 strong contingency of the French Foreign Legion. It is from here that all of the European Ariane and Vega space rockets, together with Russian Soyuz rockets are launched, carrying cargoes of satellites for communications, surveillance and defence. Between them there are about ten launches a year. During a launch, the Iles du Salud are completely evacuated as the trajectory of the rocket passes over the islands. A French coastguard cutter anchored in the bay and we were told that a launch was to take place the following evening and we had to leave the following morning. So at first light we weighed anchor and Sally, Lawrence and I enjoyed our last sail together as we made our way the 10 miles over to the mainland and up the River Kourou to anchor off the town fishing quay.
Since leaving Rio on 12 November we had covered 2,850 nautical miles. On the plus side, we’d had fantastic sailing almost all the way and, despite the numerous delays, we had visited three of the most extraordinary islands: Fernando de Noronh, Ilha Dos Lencois and, finally, the Iles du Salut. However, we had also suffered more mechanical failures than in the previous 35,000 miles put together. It had been the breakdown cruise to end all breakdown cruises. On several occasions it looked like the breakages were show stoppers and that we wouldn’t be able to make it to French Guiana in time for Lawrence and Sally to catch their planes home for Christmas. But it seemed as if each set back stiffened our resolve even more. We were damned if the bloody demons were going to grind us down. With a combination of ingenuity and hard work, Lawrence and Sally were invaluable in getting the show back on the road. Without their help and support, it would have been an impossible task. In addition, they carried me through my period of worrying and totally incapacitating illness (which some are now suggesting might have been Dengue fever, although I still believe it was an unusually extended bout of heat stroke). I owe them both a great debt.
So, for all of us, it was with a feeling of enormous relief that we dug our anchor in to the muddy silt of the River Kourou and opened a bottle of champagne for our last anchor nip together. We’d made it, against all the odds, and damn the demons.