Space Oddity

Back in Europe

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.

The final stretch – and final bush camp – of Brazil. For now

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.

Accident clearing waiting to happen

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.

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.

Colourful Cayenne

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.

A war memorial in Cayenne – complete with cockerel

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.

We were in Europe. In South America. Eating Asian

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.

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

Kourou, we have a problem – ground control

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.

European Space Centre

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.

Devil’s Island

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.

The island residents were either welcoming or threatening, hard to say

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.

Tiring work this entertaining the tourists

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.

Not sure we needed to get the large one – Vietnamese pho in the market at St Laurent
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