New Year’s Eve on the Iles du Sa lut then on to St Laurent du Mar oni
Date: Written on 11 January 2013 but covering 21 December 2012-31 December 2012
Position: 05:30.367N 054:01.975 St Laurent du Maroni
New Year’s Eve on the Iles du Salut then on to St Laurent du Maroni
I had been told that for the small hotel on Ile Royale in the Iles du Salud, New Year’s Eve was a busy night. We went ashore after dinner and made our way up to the hotel and found the large dining area crammed with revellers. As this was a night for celebration we went to the bar and ordered Devil’s Island rum punches which we found to be almost undrinkable. As midnight approached the DJ cranked up his powerful sound system and we twisted and cavorted the New Year in before stumbling down the jungle path in the darkness back to the dinghy to crack a celebratory bottle of champagne.
As I sipped the champagne in this tropical paradise, it seemed hard to believe that a year ago to the day, we were untying from the Micalvi in Puerto Williams, donned in our polar gear, to head south past Cape Horn to Antarctica. What an unbelievable year. We have sailed more than 8,500 miles crossing 80 degrees of latitude. We have sailed in water temperatures ranging from -2C to more than 30C. We have endured hurricane force storms, had ugly encounters with ice and beautiful encounters with whales in some of the most isolated and extraordinary cruising grounds in the world. It has been a humbling and exciting adventure.
On New Year’s day we went ashore for the Downstairs Skipper, Linda and John to marvel at the monkeys, parrots and agoutis in the equatorial jungle and, visiting the many prison buildings, to reflect on the misery that the islands must have witnessed when it was a feared penal colony. During the day, we were surprised to see a large Turkish gullet, the Albatros feliz come into the bay and anchor.
We stayed over the following day and visited the other accessible island, Ile St Joseph. The small island has no remains of the prison buildings but did have an interesting cemetery (for the warders and their families – the bodies of the prisoners were simply tossed into the sea to be devoured by the circling sharks). There is a track round the edge of the island with good views over Devil’s Island and the small house in which Dreyfus was held prisoner, and we passed the pool that had been dug by the prisoners out of solid rock and which they used as a tidal swimming pool.
After lunch on Mina2, we weighed anchor for the overnight 130 mile passage northwest to St Laurent du Maroni, a town up the Maroni River which marks the border between French Guiana and Suriname. We arrived at the entrance to the river at 0700 the following day, and made our way gingerly towards the shallow bar at the entrance to the river. The river has navigation buoys to guide boats in. There should have been pairs of green and red buoys like gates you go through you, marking the deep water passage but, unhelpfully, the first two were more than half a mile apart. One of them was out of position but there was no way of telling which one. We edged towards the red starboard buoy. The water got more and more shallow. All around us the metre high rollers were breaking over the shallow sandy bottom. I bottled out and retreated to safe water before heading towards the green port-hand buoy. Again, the water got uncomfortably shallow and, again, tossed around by the breaking waves, I bottled out. Meanwhile, we noticed that Albatros feliz was coming up behind us. Max, their owner and captain, was full of confidence. “It’s that way” he shouted as he passed us, pointing to the green buoy, “Follow me in!” Confident that his depth was greater than mine (which I subsequently discovered was not the case) I followed him through the crashing waves, but it was heart-in-the-mouth stuff. Once over the bar, the waves subsided and the water got deeper, and we made our way peacefully 20 miles up the river past the mangrove lined banks to the town of St Laurent. Just off the town, lying across the river, was the rusting hulk of the Edith Cavell. History doesn’t relate the circumstances in which she met her end but now, with a forest of trees growing through her decks, she makes a splendid breakwater behind which we anchored, protected from both tide and wind.
The border river is at this point about a mile wide, and there was a constant stream of pirogues – long, pencil-thin canoes with large outboard engines - shooting backwards and forwards between French Guiana and Suriname with passengers and their cargoes of boxes and crates. There appeared to be no policing of this traffic until there was a commotion and we saw a “Gendarmerie National” skiff with three well-armed policemen ushering in a pirogue to the town beach alongside our anchorage. A Gendarmerie van pulled up to the hard, a load of crates were heaved off the pirogue and put in the back of the van and, with much gesticulation, the pirogues crew were given a grilling before being taken away.
Given that French Guiana only has three towns of any size, the difference between St Laurent du Maroni and Kourou is considerable. Kourou is a modern town built principally for those who work at the European Space Centre. Spectacular rocket launches and the Melina family aside, it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. It lacks architectural merit (totally) and has all but no personality. St Laurent, however, has personality in abundance. It was established as a penal colony in the late 19th century and was built by the prisoners, for the prisoners. The Transportation Camp dominates the town. With its high walls and austere prison blocks one is reminded of a concentration camp. In the 65 years that the French sent its prisoners to Guiana, more than 70,000 people passed through the camp. The hard cases, political prisoners and loonies were sent to the Iles du Salud, but most of them stayed here to be ravaged by epidemics of yellow fever. Their rations were just sufficient for survival under a regime of hard labour, but once the guards had corruptly stolen part of the rations to sell for their own benefit, many of the prisoners died of starvation. But the town having been established, it also attracted traders who settled here and the town is full of old French colonial buildings in varying states of decay.
In St Laurent du Maroni there is a buzz that was lacking in Kourou. The varied racial mix of French Guiana: the maroons – the escaped and freed slaves; the native Amerindians, the Chinese and Vietnamese and a few Europeans are all here. It has the feel of the border town that it is, not least along the river bank where the dozens of pirogues are tied up alongside sticks, reminiscent of Venetian gondolas, the owners rushing around touting for your business. We went for a long walk around the town and up the river before hiring a pirogue to take us back to the town beach where we had left our dinghy. We loved it all.