Imperfect Circle

THIS is not what was planned. This post is not even in the right order. But after the events of the last week, plans and order have gone out of the window.

Last Sunday, we were cycling around the old town of Cartagena, looking forward to a day at the beach before heading to a mud volcano and more of the delights of Colombia.

There would have been a post outlining the delights of our first few days in Colombia (we will get to that), the start of the final stretch of this circuit around South America.

Instead, this is being written back in England. Far away from Colombia and, seemingly, what we had become accustomed to as normal life.

It has been a pretty fraught, frantic, fast-moving seven days (apart from the lengthy bits when there was no actual forward movement) as we found ourselves immersed in the escalating health crisis which had been only on the edges of our radar in the previous few weeks.

We were aware of COVID-19. Aware it was starting to impact well beyond its source point of China.

But South America seemed an outpost away from the hotspots we were seeing on the news, back in the real life we put on hold when we climbed aboard the big yellow truck six months ago.

Right up until the point real life grabbed us by the shoulder and pulled us back in.

The first inkling things were about to change came last Saturday when news filtered through that neighbouring Ecuador was closing its borders in a bid to protect itself from the rising threat.

South America remains well behind Europe in terms of numbers – at the time of writing, Colombia has 158 confirmed cases and no deaths – but as we were about to discover, nobody was hanging around before acting.

We knew Ecuador’s decision would have an impact. It was, after all, our intended final destination for the final few days, a return to Otavalo and back to Quito to complete the perfect circle.

And a reunion with the truck which, after abandoning attempts to cross via ferry or barge from Suriname to Guyana, had made it back to Brazil ahead of a long drive to rejoin us – reuniting us with the stuff left behind as we hurriedly packed for an unspecified leave of absence.

There was a further hint of what lay ahead when local precautions decreed bars and restaurants operate at reduced capacity, forcing us to buy slightly less overpriced sundowner cocktails on the city wall than planned.

Little did those of us drinking, dancing and painting the night away (more to come on that) realise it would serve as a final evening out.

There is a corner of a foreign bar which will be forever The Shed

Sore heads were not helped by the news the next day.

Lisa’s post-trip adventure to the Galapagos Islands had been cancelled amid the first hints that getting home would become harder the longer we waited.

But by the time we headed out for more exploration of the considerable charms of Cartagena, by foot and on bike, the plan was to bide our time and wait for developments. Maybe flying from Bogota further down the road to meet the truck, collect our stuff and head home from there.

That was our thinking as we headed for pizza in the evening – right up until we ran into tour leader Danny and some of the others in a bar.

Peru had shut its borders (ending an idea to head to Cusco) and our planned trip to the beach at Playa Blanca and phosphorescent seaweed the next day had been cancelled amid growing restrictions being imposed across Colombia.

It was a quiet meal as the looming prospect of what lay ahead of us became impossible to ignore.

And by the time we rejoined those left in the same hostel bar an hour later, things had moved on apace – restrictions were being ramped up, limiting travel around the country, threatening the closure of hotels and making the final outcome inevitable.

Little more than 24 hours after the first inkling it could happen, we were going home.

Or at least trying to.

What was supposed to be a fairly relaxed evening became increasingly fraught amid the search for flights.

With connections in the USA not an option for those of us blocked from getting an ESTA by past travels and without a valid visa, the choices were slim – direct flights from Bogota to Heathrow having jumped from around £250 to more than £1,300 in economy. If you could find one.

And when you did find an alternative, affordable route, by the time you clicked on the deal it had been withdrawn. Or, for others, banking issues delayed payment and added to the difficulties.

But eventually, nearly all of us had flights over the coming days (the stragglers having arrived back in the last few hours).

Lisa and myself flew from Cartagena to Bogota the next day to hole up in a hotel before our flights home, her via Atlanta, Los Angeles and on to Sydney, mine on a simpler route to Paris and on to Heathrow.

At least it was supposed to be simpler. A delayed flight out of Bogota ensured a missed connection in Paris and an unscheduled night in a hotel before a morning flight back to Blighty.

Even then the adventure was not over, my bag enjoying a longer stay in France before we were finally reunited more than 48 hours later.

We should have been in Santa Marta in northern Colombia today at the end of our detour north to a mud volcano and two more nights in a hammock at Parque Tayrona.

Instead, my hammock has been consigned to the things which will not be needed for a while bag and my bed for the night – after a few days in a hotel yards from my old flat – is my sister’s sofa. Sharing the room with a snoring Labrador.

All while largely with our warm clothing back where we stashed it on the truck heading out of Patagonia – flip flops, shorts and T-shirts are not much use at this time of the year at home.

It is not the way we wanted it to end.

Without the planned closing stretch and final night out, final bush camp, final travel day, final meal, there has been little sense of closure.

Little time to get our heads around what is happening, that what has become our life came to an end very quickly. That further travel plans needed to be ripped up.

Farewells, if said at all, were hurried. At least the two of us had some time in Bogota to come to terms with what was happening before our goodbyes.

Not sure that process has been completed, especially having landed back in a familiar world which all seems a bit out of focus.

Real life means finding a job, finding somewhere to live but that can wait – it means, above all, doing everything we can to stay healthy and help those closest to us do the same.

Some have flown into an automatic 14-day self isolation, some are imposing it on ourselves, one in a tent in his parents’ garden in Sussex. Slightly colder than Colombia.

But most importantly, we are all home safe and apparently healthy.

And that is far more important than what we have missed out on.

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Amazon Primed

IT is around 6am. In front of me, the first grey light of dawn is silhouetting the trees which have lined the Amazon for the last few days.

To my left, what was once welcome space has been filled by hammocks containing locals who hopped on board for the final couple of stops on our slow ride up the world’s longest river.

To my right you can sense the first stirrings from our fellow passengers with a few early-rising crew taking up their positions in front of the TVs by the little shop which makes up the centre of life on board – sometimes a little too loudly for those who took up residence on the roomier, breezier upper deck.

And nearing halfway down on the port side, you will find me, lounging at an angle which rises with my confidence in hammock dwelling.

Waiting for the breakfast bell to ring and spark the charge to find out what we have to fill the bread roll which makes up the bulk of the most important meal of the day.

Or the one you can definitely skip in favour of a bit longer in your hammock.

Sunset on the Amazon

And so begins another day on board the O Rei Davi, our home for six nights up the Amazon – or, to be more accurate, the Rio Solimoes – from Manaus to Tabatinga and across the border (basically a line in the road) into Colombia.

This is the part of the trip we were scheduled to be without the truck.

But instead of bidding farewell to Will and Spongebob in Manaus and rejoining them around Cartagena, we last saw them failing to get on a ferry in Suriname 12 days before boarding.

While we have wandered our way back to the Amazon, Will’s attempts to cross the river into Guyana have been scuppered by red tape and false rumours about a return to action for a larger ferry, leaving him facing more bureaucracy and a longer race to catch us up somewhere in Colombia.

More details as rumours, speculation and wishful thinking turn into reality.

What we do know is that without our scheduled transport, we arrived in Manaus in the early hours after an overnight bus trip.

Very comfortable it was, but sleep was at a premium which is perhaps behind my decision to join others in booking a night at the ballet at the Amazonian capital’s rather grand opera house, a relic from its days at the heart of the rubber industry.

It is certainly, as a morning walk around the city confirmed, the prettiest spot in town – Manaus is built for function rather than finesse, a sprawling, growing hub where two major tributaries meet to form what the locals deem the Amazon proper.

Assuming the boxes in the opera house were meant only for two people, given that is how many people can actually see most of the stage given the pillars which separate them – prompting angry words from one Australian at a photographer cutting out even the prime view.

Not that it was too big a blow – the performance of Aladdin appeared, given the cast and thrilled family audience, to be a local production full of youngsters given their role regardless of ability and what Danny (that acclaimed cultural critic) described as “five per cent ballet, 95 per cent running around in circles”.

It was mercifully short, in contrast to our hugely enjoyable boat trip exploring the local countryside which filled most of the next day.

It certainly started on a high as we plunged into the warm waters of the Rio Negro and swam with pink dolphins.

Well, they swam, under, around and, at one point, pretty much on top of us. We just sort of floated and splashed around with huge grins on our faces as another one emerged from the black water alongside one of us.

Our full day saw us head to a local village to watch traditional dances, fight in vain with huge arapaima fish in a tank (not physically fought, there would only be one winner, just badly on the end of a line), devour a huge buffet and meander through side channels spotting caiman, osprey, iguana and, high in a tree, the sloth we had waited to see.

Danny gets beaten up by a dolphin. Think the look on my face is because one has just swum between my legs

And we capped it all off with a trip to the confluence of the black, warm Rio Negro and the brown, cooler Rio Solimoes where they run side by side for several kilometres as they form the Amazon.

A day to savour.

The Solimoes became our home as, having spent the final day in Manaus shopping for essential supplies, doing laundry and steeling ourselves for what lay ahead, we made our way down for an experience we had been anticipating and dreading in equal measure since the need to take this detour around Venezuela became inevitable.

And for the bulk of the six days on board, it was fun – a relaxing, enjoyable change of pace. 

So much so, Lisa and myself largely ignored the bijou cabin we had arranged to alternate with Izzy and Brad, opting to spend all of our nights in our hammocks, only using the facilities to shower, charge gear and for storage.

Only in the last 24-36 hours did the novelty wear off, two night stops seeing the space eaten up by new passengers and we had to be sharp to stop someone slinging their hammock between ours, which had already been moved to the point they were touching.

Then we did retreat to the cabin for some peace until it was time to hit the hammock.

But that was the final stretch, until then the top deck had been largely limited to the foreigners and crew, leaving enough space for us to sit around, read, watch movies, play cards, catch up on photo organisation, reach for whatever drink you had to hand or make return visits to the bar for a cold beer.

Or just lounge around a few feet off the floor – the higher the better for a comfortable night’s sleep,  although not for ease of entry.

We fell into a routine, largely based around three meals served downstairs – breakfast sometime around 6am (bread with egg or mystery meat to go inside it, a cup of porridge if you were lucky and some crackers), lunch around 11am and dinner before dark at 5pm.

The meals also fell into a pattern, giving rise to the game of guessing which mystery meat or fish would be served with the ubiquitous spaghetti, rice and beans – not that we were always able to work it out once we had eaten it.

All served up with a drink in your commemorative cup handed out on arrival. Unless you lost it.

By that final night, space was at a premium for any card games or the evening gatherings at the rear of the boat (at one point it was impossible to walk down the side of the boat from the bar to my hammock) and the countdown was on to the final destination at the port of Tabatinga – complicated by various reports of our scheduled arrival time and bouncing back and forth across time zones as the river meandered along the borders of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

But early on that final morning, we took down our hammocks, did our best to shove them back in bags and returned to dry land and taxis for the short journey (not that short when we had to retrace our steps on foot in blazing heat for immigration) across the border to Leticia, Colombia.

And 84 days after first entering Brazil, we bade farewell for the final time.

Or for the first of three final times that day, but we will get to that next time.

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Rum, Manatee & the Mash

THE rising sun found its way through the canopy of trees along the riverbank before filtering into the mosquito nets which surrounded our hammocks.

Not a bad way to be woken early from a comfortable night’s sleep, swinging on the porch of the huts which made up our jungle lodge home.

And, considering some of the options we experienced in terms of transport and sleeping during our crossing of Guyana, waking up early in the jungle to the sound of howler monkeys and the local birds – think chickens crossed with vultures – hopping about us was pretty normal.

Or as normal as things get at the moment.

We have, via delays, illnesses, change of plans, sleeping on the move and a spot of carnival, made it to the sweltering Brazilian city of Manaus – capital of the Amazon – pretty much on schedule.

We are here for three nights (complete with trip to the ballet) before heading off on a boat to Colombia for five or six days and catching a flight to Cartagena which, hopefully, will bring us a reunion with the truck.

Spongebob tries to hitch a lift
Picture: Will Dreyer

That last bit was always part of the plan – Will and Spongebob heading overland while we drifted down the Amazon to catch us up somewhere in northern Colombia.

What was not part of the plan is them being an entire country and several days behind us before we even board the boat.

The latest news, following the truck being a touch too tall to fit on a replacement ferry, is they should finally break the magnetic pull of Suriname and start catching up tomorrow.

Fingers crossed. Touching wood. Stroking any good luck charm you may have to hand.

While we were enjoying the delights of Georgetown (and the comforts of an extended stay in relatively luxurious hotel rooms) and finding our own, idiosyncratic way back into Brazil, Will and Spongebob have been going nowhere fast.

Finding a barge to cross was sorted relatively quickly, raising hopes of a swift reunion.

But with paperwork and immigration issues over arriving at an unofficial crossing port, complicated by a national holiday and a looming election, things dragged on.

And on. And on.

When we finally thought everything was in order and the green light was given, all of a sudden it turned to red, permission was withdrawn and Will was heading back to Paramaribo to await the proposed return to action of the original ferry which was tied up, out of action as we boarded its replacement.

Complete with troublesome arch.

Which is where you left us, the remaining 18 of us crammed into a minibus alongside all the luggage we had grabbed to last us until a reunion with the truck – or everything for the four leaving us in Georgetown and two who depart in Manaus.

We did our best to lighten the load by breaking into the duty free supplies, helped by the driver buying us beer due to the total absence of local currency between us.

We had managed to load up on Guyanese dollars at the hotel before the first of several trips to the Red Bar down the road – via a hole in the wall cheesy chips place – with one of Danny’s contacts.

Buying the round is simple – one bottle of local rum (very nice it is too), one bottle of Coke, a bucket of ice and cups for everyone. Repeat to fade.

It all made Lisa and myself grateful our flight to Kaieteur Falls (cancelled, then moved to another operator after a terse email exchange – remind me not to get on Lisa’s wrong side) had been shunted back a couple of hours.

It would have been a shame to have too foggy a head for such a natural wonder, well worth the hour flight each way over dense jungle.

Kaieteur Falls

The Falls may not be in full flow – dry season is something we would come to appreciate – but the 226m single drop is still spectacular, however close to the edge you choose not to stand.

Or sit for that oh so daring Instagram pose.

Throw in sightings of the small but deadly golden frog and the colourful cock of the rock bird and it made for a great day out, rounded off by a trip across town to a T20 cricket match to kick off the holiday weekend which was more notable for the antics of the colourful, if sparse, crowd than the actual contest.

Georgetown itself is very much part of the Caribbean – rum, cricket and speaking English may have given that away – and comes with a different, if slightly rundown, feel to its continental neighbours.

A group of us spent much of the next day exploring some of its delights – the chaos of Stabroek Market, the cathedral with touches of Olde England, drinks on the seawall and an afternoon feeding the charming, huge manatees who live in a lake in one of the city parks.

A manatee in search of an easy meal

Punctuated by a trip to hospital for a few tests on one of our number. Not the last test for dengue fever in the group over the past few days, although only one back in Europe has come back positive.

The night could have ended relatively early but popping into the bar for just one drink when that one drink is a bottle is unlikely to end quietly.

Which made for a slow start to Mashramani – the annual Guyanese celebration to mark becoming a republic in 1970, four years after independence from the UK.

Thankfully, things did not kick into gear until the afternoon, by which time things were very hot, very colourful and very, very loud if you got anywhere near the competing sound systems.

It is, essentially, one long carnival – measure it in hours – with every suburb, town, village and organisation in and around Georgetown out to make the biggest impression.

Those who were not taking part seemed to be lining the sides of the road and, if some members of our group were anything to go by, joining in at every opportunity.

For those still nursing the after effects of a few rums, it was all a bit much after a few hours and we sloped off for a quiet night.

Which turned into a quiet extra day, night, morning and most of an afternoon as things gradually eased back into life after the holiday, plans were redrawn and we finally headed out of Georgetown around 5pm in two small minibuses heading for the jungle.

There was a reason we did not see any roads when we flew over the jungle – they do not really exist.

There is one rough, unpaved road which would eventually carry us all the way to the border town of Lethem.

Thankfully it is dry and we made good progress, often at fairly rapid pace, to reach our overnight stop near a ferry around 1am.

We were woken from what sleep you can grab in a minibus four hours later to catch the first ferry and make the short journey to our rendezvous with the boats from the Rewa Eco Lodge, which carried us the two and a half hours back up the river, spotting caiman, otters and assorted bird life, to our home for the night.

And the waiting hammocks which we seized on gratefully to catch up on lost sleep.

Most of did make it up for one venture out of camp – four of us spending a very pleasant sunset hour or so at a secluded lake filled with giant lily pads and bird life.

There was little delay in heading back to the hammocks in the evening and, having pulled ourselves out for breakfast, we were shuttled back up the river for another cramped minibus journey on rough roads.

Thankfully, Lethem was just a couple of hours away.

Wish there were tales of exploring what it had to offer, but even the guy at the hotel – who defied his local accent by claiming to come from Hull – admitted we would be lucky as we headed out in search of a meal.

He was wrong, we did find one.

Whether that was really lucky is another matter.

Settling in for a night of luxury on a bus
Picture: Danny Taylor

Our stay in Lethem and Guyana was ended just after lunchtime as we rolled over the border and back into Brazil, waving goodbye to cramped minibuses and welcoming more roomy, comfortable coaches.

If the one which whisked us from Bonfim to Boa Vista was pretty standard coach fare back home, the one which carried us through the night to Manaus was on a different level – double decker, reclining seats, WiFi, power sockets.

Who needs Spongebob?

We do. 

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Crossing The River Material

IN a trip encompassing an entire continent, thousands of miles, seven months, a string of border crossings and a fair bit of political unrest, a few inches is proving the most significant and most troublesome.

The few inches in difference between the height of our truck and the archway on the back of the stand-in ferry which provides the only way out of Suriname into Guyana.

And the few inches which means we have spent the last few days holed up in Georgetown enjoying the national holiday which is making alternative arrangements – for us and the truck – even harder.

Sure over the course of the past 23 weeks the entire group has not stared so intently, hopefully and forlornly at anything as we did from behind the ferry terminal fence as Will attempted to get Spongebob on board the once-a-day boat across the Corentyne river.

Sneak through and we were on our way, ready to savour a long weekend in the Guyanese capital as its inhabitants celebrated Mashramani – the party to mark becoming a republic in 1970, four years after independence.

Find our way blocked by the metal arch on the back of the ferry and we were unloading our hastily repacked bags, making our own way to Georgetown and leaving Will with the task of finding an alternative solution.

All that complicated by the fact he has no visa for French Guiana, the only realistic (if lengthy) option to go over land and meet us in Manaus or, more probably, in Colombia in a few weeks.

At least the truck is stashed full of nuts, handed out free in huge bags with our duty free purchases.

Our home for the night. The lack of communication and poses suggests it has WiFi

Early pessimism as we camped out overnight at the front of the ferry queue at the South Drain terminal (seriously), moving our tents from the grass to concrete after warnings of venomous snakes, was replaced by a bout of optimism when a lorry came off the arriving boat which appeared roughly Spongebob’s height.

And as Will rolled down the ramp, the roof dipped below the arch and we began to get our hopes up.

Right up to the point where he levelled out, rolled up to the arch and reversed away, those few inches too much for deflating the tyres to make a difference.

So as the hunt for alternative arrangements began, we unloaded as little as possible for up to a few weeks without the truck or, for those leaving in Georgetown or Manaus, the entire contents of their lockers.

Lugging rather more bags than packing light would imply, we joined the queue of foot passengers and trudged on to the waiting ferry – passing the stricken normal vessel tied up alongside which the truck could have rolled on and off without a second thought.

And so we headed off slightly into the unknown and swapped Dutch for English on the final leg of our multi-lingual crossing of the Guianas.

Our crossing of Suriname had also started with a ferry crossing, a pre-dawn departure to get to the front of the queue at St Laurent du Maroni doing the trick once the French immigration officers had got their heads around a British passport still having European Union written on the front.

A brief stop on the other side to load up with breakfast, a packed lunch and duty free and it was a relatively quick run to the capital city of Paramaribo.

The I Love Suriname sign pictured from the correct side.

It is not the biggest and not necessarily the most beautiful city and has a gritty edge, but it possesses a certain charm – slightly to very worn wooden buildings and an interesting mix of its European heritage, Caribbean neighbours and a touch of Africa.

It is different to anywhere else we have been and that is always a good start to make it stand out.

As well as its sights and history – its president is a former dictator convicted for his role in killing opponents – we explored its bars (one down by the river in particular) and restaurants.

One left us perusing the menu for 15 minutes before informing us they only had the set Valentine’s Day meal while one rib restaurant provided a meal which could fill a blog post all of its own.

May be diplomatic to leave that one for a while.

We headed a bit further afield in search of dolphins, finding a few breaking the surface on our sunset boat ride towards the mouth of the Suriname river.

But you cannot head too far afield in Suriname, it just is not big enough and we were back around the capital on our return from a couple of nights even further up the river at a jungle lodge.

Wish this post could report on adventures into the jungle and encounters with the local wildlife – some did head out on foot with a guide and mainly learned about the trees which enveloped us – but spent much of the time relaxing and soaking in the surroundings.

Just a horrible spot in the jungle

While not swimming in the river or doing our best to make dents in the duty free supplies which had made the boat ride up the river with us.

Not that much made the return journey as we worked our way back to Paramaribo and a camp at a yacht club.

Or a bar with a car park for our tents next to the river which had a couple of yachts tied up nearby, depending on how you want to look at it.

It did come with the added bonus of the distant orange flame as the satellite launch we had seen being prepared eight days earlier in French Guiana made its way out of our atmosphere.

If only getting the truck free from the gravitational pull of Suriname was as straightforward.

  • At the time of writing, we remain in Georgetown awaiting details of our departure by alternative transport later today. There are worse places to be stuck, but we’ve been here long enough.

    The truck is… somewhere behind us. We know it got on a barge, but with things only just reopening after the holidays, quite when it will catch up is unclear.

    Will keep you posted when we hit internet again.
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Space Oddity

ECUADOR, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil… France?

Bucking the trend back home, we abandoned South America for a week or so to return to the European Union. And toilet paper you could flush.

For the confused (and it took a bit of explaining to some – the EU bit and the toilet paper, but we will get to that), our lengthy first stay in Brazil was followed by a shorter crossing of French Guiana.

Despite being wedged between Brazil and Suriname and sitting on the cusp of the Caribbean, it is an overseas departement of France and so part of Europe and the EU. 

Pretty much from the moment you roll up to the border crossing, things take on a peculiarly Gallic tinge, complete with the first Brexit gag to the British passport holders from the French border officer.

He at least knew how to deal with his departing EU colleagues, the immigration officer seeing us out of the country a week later taking one look at the words European Union on the front of my passport and going into meltdown.

Cue a delay and much consultation of a computer screen to work out how to deal with these pesky Brits.

Travelling may not be the same again.

European Space Centre

So which French side has turned up?

Pretty much what you would expect although, like most things French, it is not quite the same away from home.

It all looks sort of familiar with the same road signs, Carrefour and a plethora of Citroens, Renaults and Peugeots (bonus points for spotting all three parked in a row). 

The shelves are full of baguettes, cheese, pastries and French wine. A lot of the gendarmes and officials are on secondment from the mainland.

And after weeks of notices warning us against flushing our toilet paper, it came as a bit of a shock to find French plumbing able to cope with what we take for granted back home – it just took a bit of convincing that we were meant to do what once came natural.

Word of warning if someone visits your house after a South American overland trip. Do not leave a bin in the bathroom, just in case we act on instinct.

But there’s a distinct twist to this Gallic enclave, all a bit rough around the edges and with a rather more laissez-faire approach to life than you would expect closer to home.

Things were certainly a bit rough around the edges for the final 100km or so of Brazil as the tarmac petered out and we faced our first lengthy section of unsealed road on the trip, broken up by a bush camp on the side of the road.

All a bit of an African flashback, magnified by the presence behind the steering wheel of Steve Newsway who drove the other truck on my previous long overlanding adventure and was pressed into service through French Guiana with Will unable to get a visa without heading home to South Africa.

And having negotiated the rough stuff and the shiny new bridge and border post back into Europe, our progress was halted in pretty dramatic fashion.

The road was winding its way through the jungle to the province’s largest city Cayenne when we stumbled on what we thought was a police checkpoint with plenty of shouting – right up to the point we rounded a corner into the aftermath of a recent accident.

A military vehicle had overturned on one of the bends, throwing out several of its inhabitants who were being tended to on the side of the road by their colleagues.

Our resident nurse Bert – who, being Belgian, handily speaks French – sprang into life as we ferried the truck first aid kit and water to help out and directed traffic before backing up to wait for the ambulances and helicopters to ferry the injured to hospital.

Reports of the accident online in France said a dozen people were injured, three of them seriously. The worst seemed to be a woman with several breaks and fractures while others looked to have suffered back and head injuries.

Devil’s Island

Delayed by the rescue operation, we were late into Cayenne for a quiet night (for most) of street food and a quick drink.

Much of the next day was given over to exploring the city, which was rather more time than was actually needed. It is interesting enough and has a bit of a gritty edge, it is just not that big, especially when you take out the wrong side of the tracks which we were warned not to explore.

There is a good market complete with Vietnamese food stalls selling excellent, filling bowls of pho which tided us over until the evening celebrations for two truck birthdays.

Turning down the chance for more exploration of the city offered by a late departure, we headed the short distance to Kourou, home to the European Space Port which was our destination after a quiet day or so trying not to get our tent blown away or waterlogged on the beach.

And a fascinating trip it is too as we were shuttled around the launch areas and mission controls for the three separate launch systems run by the agency.

While that is the present and future of this small part of France, its past is rather less salubrious.

Originally intended to ape what the British had managed in Australia, French Guiana was a penal colony with more than 70,000 people shipped out here up to the 1950s.

Most notoriously, they sent infamous prisoners – think Papilllon and Dreyfus – to the Iles du Salut off the coast of Kourou.

While you cannot visit Devil’s Island, the harshest of the three three island jails, the trip out to the main Royale Island was well worth it. Although with no guide available and it only taking an hour or so to walk around, not sure we needed to be there so long waiting for the boat back.

Thankfully, the monkeys, agouti and the peacocks around the restaurant kept us entertained.

We did get a guide the next day around the transportation camp at St Laurent du Maroni – after an even bigger bowl of Vietnamese pho – and very enjoyable and informative it was too. 

Just not sure some of his jokes and smiling were quite in tune with the less than pleasant subject matter.

C’est la vie.

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