Wednesday, March 4, 2015

São Tomé e Príncipe: Mucumbli - a perfect resort

"The setting sun extinguished itself in the sparkilg ocean ....."

One can read this sort of drivel in endless pieces about endless resorts, and completely lose sight of where a particular property lies, or how it can possibly be distinguished from another. In general, I like some resorts and dislike others, and even after forty years of wandering find it difficult to explain where the border line lies.

Mucumbli, however, not only lies firmly in the “like” column, I would go so far as to say that it is the most perfect resort that it has been my good fortune to visit.

It is, improbably, in Sao Tome, a small and rarely pondered nation in the Atlantic Ocean, some 300 miles from the coast of Africa. The resort lies on the western coast, nestled one hundred metres above the sea in a rich and verdant forest. A mile, perhaps two, from shore a dozen fishermen are out in their boats, behind us lie acres of trees; flowers are beginning to show, and the cacao fruit hangs in a multiplicity of colours. The sun shines.

The resort is both simple and luxurious; not the effervescent luxury of a Global Brand Resort, but the complete feeling of well-being that engulfs one when each detail has been addressed. There are five bungalows, with a total capacity of fourteen guests; interestingly, there are thirty-seven chairs on the terrace where one takes meals, and simply gazes at the horizon.

And what marvellous meals they are too; once again, not the finest haute cuisine of a five-star restaurant, but fresh and imaginatively prepared food made from the freshest of local produce; fine soups, wonderful fish, fresh salads, and an ample wine list.

Breakfast, included in the daily rate, is of fresh fruit, homemade yogurt, breads and cold meat with the finest Sao Tomean coffee.

Above all, the property exudes peace; the staff are friendly and efficient,

The daily rate of approximately €65 for a double room with breakfast is most eminently affordable.

Sao Tome is not terribly easy to get to but neither is it overly difficult. From North America one would fly to Lisbon, and then south on one of Air Portugal’s three weekly flights; from Europe there are straightforward connections through the Portuguese capital, and combined with some day tours or a car rental, a week or ten days spent in this magical place will recharge the most depleted of batteries.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

São Tomé e Príncipe: the distant islands

Sao Tome, and its sister island Principe for one of the world’s smallest, poorest and most ignored nations. Few have heard of Sao Tome, fewer still have thought about the country and very, very few have visited. Which is a pity because tourists or travellers visiting São Tomé e Príncipe

Let me set the scene. The country lives in the Gulf of Guinea some three hundred miles from the coast of Gabon. It lies some 240 miles from the intellectually interesting but practically pointless location of 0°0’0”N and 0°0’0”E. Historically it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1470, and appear to all who have studied the matter to have previously been unoccupied and colonised pretty well consistently until independence was granted in 1975.

Central Sao Tome 

The intervening 405 years tell a tale rich in exploitation, hardship, transported peoples and the assorted horrors that accompanied this genre of history. It has to be said, however, that the land left behind is richer in culture and identity than many, probably a legacy of its isolation and lack of a desirable and sustainable export.

It has lived, economically on the export of cocoa; up to 35,000 tons of the stuff, and by all accounts some of the world’s finest, was grown and shipped away at its zenith, a crop that has now diminished to some 3,000 tons; coffee too, originally imported from Brazil in 1840 has fallen into small but first-class production and is a shadow of its former self. As one drives through this improbably beautiful island, covered in thick forest, one sees palms, coconut trees, some wild cocoa and fruit trees of every imaginable type just waiting to be nurtured and picked.

Heavy afternoon traffic
The capital, eponymously named Sao Tome, is a sleepy port town spread along several kilometres of sleepy beaches, empty roads and fine colonial buildings that are rather comfortably going to seed. It is of pastel colours and slow of temperament; the little traffic there is moves slowly and predictably, with the exception of the roads around the central market. Here cars jostle quickly, their engines heady with the fumes of fruit, salt fish and the hundreds of people buying and selling.

The Central Market rush
The market lives at a different pace; here trestles are piled high with t-shirts from “Western Australia” and shorts with German sports logos; well used dresses and the odd discarded cardigan from a mid-western closet. Here the thousands of tons of clothes, cheerfully donated to schools, churches and food-banks wash up on shore adding complete confusion to the local clothing cycles. Gone are the days of repairing clothes, carefully using shredded garments in the construction of new, now for a few pennies, discarded western-wear is available to all.

Where your t-shirts end up!

Move back from the market and the pace slows; the streets are cleaned consistently if a touch ineffectively, women walk purposefully around with baskets of goods piled high on their heads, and men lounge at street corners playing backgammon; school children, sharp in their cream and blue uniforms mill together and jostle for their peer’s attention as they head to or from their next

classes. The city has its rhythm, and its laughter.

Central Sao Tome City !

The long-haul boats, with a day-dreaming son
Two miles along the shore lies the timeless fishing village of Pantufo. Wooden boats, some with outriggers that will sail some 200 miles away in search of the right catch, lie on the shore waiting for their call to action; women sell a few fish; kids play and lie on the boats, the waves lap the shoreline and the sun beats down on small knots of villagers chatting about fish, football and the government.

Pantufo - the village fleet
It too, is a village in slow motion, but here in São Tomé e Príncipe, it is right on time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

TACV: An airline of spectacular indifference

I should first admit that airlines are a passion of mine, and their operations in remote and tricky locations of particular interest.  I should also point out, in the interest of fairness, that my own international flight (Fortaleza to Praia) with onward connections to Mindelo via Praia worked like a charm; my second attempt at inter-island travel, however, did not, and a one-hour journey became a twelve-hour slog.

Sadly, however, for reliability, TACV (Transportes Aereos de Cabo Verde) is, however, in a league of its own.

When it comes to scheduling, adherence to these timetables, indifference to their passengers, and let’s be honest, sheer thoughtless incompetence, TACV are the gold standard. In comparison, carriers that service Canada’s Arctic, the Scottish or Greek islands, the remote South Pacific are paragons of virtue, but let me expound.

The Cape Verdean islands are a group of ten islands, eight of which have airports; of these, three are serviceable by large jet aircraft, and the others by ATR turbo-prop equipment. The three major points are Sal (the holiday island), Mindelo (the cultural capital) and Praia (the country’s capital city). Traffic between these three islands is heavy due to the lack of alternative ferry options, and flights are regularly full; flights to the smaller islands are heavily used as well, but not to the same degree as the main line points.

The inter-island flights are used, of course, for a multitude of reasons. Straightforward inter-island travel, of course, but also the thorny issue of connections, and it is this latter usage that is the most concerning.

When an airline publishes a schedule that indicates that a flight will operate between Point A and Point B at (say) noon, given the vagaries of the weather and destination, wiggle room of an hour or so is reasonable, and connections or other arrangements can be made accordingly. What is entirely unreasonable is to then confirm 72 passengers on a 42-seat aircraft, with no further flights that day. Further, when the previous day’s overbooking is taken into consideration, there could well be a further 40 passengers on a “waitlist”, also hoping to travel.

Logic would determine that in instances like these, the cream of the TACV fleet, one of their Boeing 737 aircraft with 160+ seats, be pulled in to operate an extra section and clear the backlog; bearing in mind that the stage-lengths are only about 150 miles, and a complete rotation from Praia to Praia could be achieved in about 90 minutes (if, one must add, there was a degree of order in the boarding process) and passengers would be generally happy.

Alternatively, their ageing ATR42 aircraft should be traded in for a more suitable ATR72 plane, offering thirty more seats.

But no; neither their leased, Slovakian aircraft, complete with friendly, competent staff, slightly bewildered by the African Way, or their Cabo Verdean-crewed Boeing 737-800, complete with flashy winglets that seem altogether too advanced for these islands, would be brought to service.

Passengers are simply left to rot. Their onward connective issues are met with industrially-sympathetic smiles, and in the most egregious case some Significant Tutting, but to no avail. Even trying to get a letter from TACV indicating that the passengers were stranded through no fault of their own, a document that insurance companies require and TACV should be printing by the tens of thousands is impossible.

Surely it should not be too difficult to anticipate traffic loads and schedule the appropriate aircraft; surely it should not be too difficult, given the indifference displayed, to prioritise those passengers with connections to services that only operate on a weekly basis; surely TACV should by now, with decades of experience, be able to streamline the process of denied boarding and compensation.

There is no competition. TACV is government-owned, and vastly over-staffed, spreading through the “benefits” accruing to their staff and their extended families a patriarchal comfort. Revenue passengers’ needs take second place, it seems, to the needs of the staff, their families, and (should one be so cynical?), their votes. Competitors come and go, but competing with a government agency with deep pockets has, for years, been a problem with the global aviation industry.

There are extremely valid reasons for governments to have a significant role to play in the provision of aviation in regions and countries that are completely dependent on such service. There are, however, even better reasons for excercising this control through regulation rather than ownership.

These reasons, however valid, in no way obviate the requirement to operate in a professional and reliable manner.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cabo Verde; When things go wrong!

“The best laid plans”, it has been said, are not immune to change, and nowhere is the more true than on the remarkable islands of CaboVerde. Tourists and travellers to this island nation really fit into one of two groups, those who stay put and those who wander. I am of the latter.

One curiosity of Cabo Verde is the paucity of inter-island transportation; the national airline, TACV, flies between the islands with an imaginative schedule, an almost complete disregard for punctuality and a flair for the dramatic. Competition is non-existent, and those who have tried are driven from the market rather unceremoniously. The islands are, one imagines, rather too widely scattered for an adequate boat service, and the waters in this part of the Atlantic a touch choppy for sensitive stomachs.

There is also the wind. And here one needs to be frank; the winds of Cabo Verde are relentless, sometimes a mere “heavy breeze” that cools the African sun, and sometimes a sandblasting wall that brings dust from the Sahara and liberally scatters it over the islands making flights rather precarious. In fact, on one day of this past two weeks, all flights in the islands were cancelled because of the strong winds, and yesterday, the Harmattan wind from the mainland scoured the islands with desert sands once more interrupting the best laid plans of mice, men and visitors.

So it was a week ago that the decision was made not to travel to the remote island of Brava and its neighbour, Fogo, the volcanic island. The weather was reasonable, but with the Praia/Boston flight operating only weekly, and the possibility of being stranded was not insignificant, the decision was made to remain on the main island of Santiago instead, and explore without the risk of becoming marooned in the shadow of an erupting volcano.

The important thing here is the ability to change plans at the last moment, and travelling to Cabo Verde, an endeavour that I would heartily endorse, really requires some delicate planning, and the assistance of a very understanding and competent local agent.

Firstly, the order of events needs to be established, with the riskiest being placed at the front end of the itinerary; secondly, the ability to change without recourse to an insurance company needs to be assured. If one cannot travel to Fogo because of some climatic or technical surprise, the credit from the unused hotel in Fogo should be transferrable to another property elsewhere. Finally, of course, tourists to Cabo Verde need to believe that there is someone watching over them, ready to alter course when necessary.

Fortunately, in our case, we were able to change plans without difficulty; I feel for the small guesthouse operator in Brava who lost out on three nights’ revenue, but one supposes that over a season as many people get stuck in situ as fail to arrive. As tourism is an important part of the economy of the country as a whole, and the small islands in particular, their long-term success will only be assured if visitors can be secure in the thought that itinerary changes will not be punished.

It is, of course, the same everywhere. As many of you know, I am heavily involved with tourism in Canada’s Arctic, and this too is a region beset with climatic peculiarities that can shatter the plans, laid as best as one can, into tiny pieces. An understanding of this, and attention to this issue by regional government and trade associations is a very important factor in developing higher visitor numbers to peripheral regions.

I digress, however; remaining on the island of Santiago has been fun and interesting. The village of Tarrafal in the north of Santiago has the most beautiful beach setting in the country and a couple of pretty nice, if architecturally eccentric hotels. 

Tarrafal, Santiago

There is an interesting prison camp, a stark reminder of the brutality of the Portuguese dictatorships and the savagery of its colonial wars, there are wonderful roads driving through valleys carved by eons of caustic winds, and seascapes that will take one’s breath away.

Solitary Confinement
A reminder of the recent past

Finally, there is the remarkable community of Cidade Velha, the first European settlement in the tropics founded in 1463, and still offering visitors a mosaic of glimpses into the fascinating 500 year history of these captivating islands.

"Banana Street", the first European housing

I head away tomorrow to São Tomé, another formerly Portuguese island some five hours flight to the southeast; my Lusophilia is far from satisfied, and the two weeks spent in Cabo Verde have simply whetted my appetite to return to this complex and fascinating island nation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cape Verde; São Antão, the mountainous island.

In the argot of today, and the overuse of superlatives, it is difficult to describe an island as remarkable as this; São Antão, the most northwesterly island in the Cabo Verde archipelago, is quite simply stunning. It is beautiful, it is remarkable, it is friendly, it is simple and beyond all, it is quite astonishing that it has remained off travel radars for so long.

It is, however, probably a good thing.

No worries about trade marks here!
São Antão offers visitors some unique opportunities for travel, in particular for hikers, and those seeking destinations with little or no time for the vagaries of mass tourism. There is scenery, some rather picturesque villages, a curious cobbled road system, some dramatic seascapes and one hears, in the summer, beaches. There 
are small guesthouses, a couple of larger “resorts”, and some friendly local restaurants.

The Ribeira Grande valley
There are no international chains, there is limited English spoken, although French is widely understood, and although there are some guides, it is an island to explore on one’s own to a great degree.

I absolutely love it. It is awkward to get to since the airstrip was closed due to regular and brutal cross winds, so access is by ferry from the neighbouring island of São Vicente; once here, one can rent a vehicle as I have, or travel by the local “buses” that criss-cross the island. For those seeking peace, quiet and an opportunity to hike in the dramatic hill country, no vehicle is really necessary.

It is an island for whom time appears to have stood still; houses lie half or one third completed, time seems to have a different dimension and folks spend a great deal of their time talking and enjoying the locally produced grogue.  It is a poor island; some agriculture and grogue-manufacture, and oddly the export of local sand apparently perfect for the manufacture of cement are the local industries, and now, of course, tourism. There is talk of resorts, new hotels and other investments, but it is an early stage, and one wonders if the implications for the society who call São Antão home have been considered.

The village of Pombas


Pombas, a local bar
All too often, tourism fails to bring the promised benefits to the local communities, and its profits are dispatched elsewhere leaving only menial work and the promise of souvenir sales to boost the local economy. And besides this, the island’s very core attraction, its peaceful and natural environment, would be indelibly changed with too many more tourists.

We will see.

The Carnival in Pombas

Today, however, and I think for the foreseeable future, the island is a destination that should be considered by any traveller wanting to get off the beaten path, yet who want a veneer of familiarity, The island is African; it lies off the coast of Senegal, its people are indisputably African and yet due to its long association with Portugal retains a slight sense of Europe in the architecture, food and language. It is, however, not European, and the vibrancy of its culture, so evident in its music and in particular during one of its many festivals, is distinctly African.

A coutry road

The fishing fleet in Cruzinha da Garca
And that is its core charm; while we are lured into believing that we understand the country, we don’t. Each turn offers another surprise, each encounter a new idea; it is like hearing a different language spoken, and believing that one hears a string of English words lying within. It is understandable yet mysterious, and its charms will fail to embrace any visitor arriving with an open mind and a desire to seek a new, charming and culturally sophisticated country.

Tiggers like São Antão!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Brazil; Amapa in the far North East

It has to be said that few tourists get to Amapa; fewer still arrive by pirogue, a motorised canoe, from French Guyana, and sadly those who do, do not linger.

Arrival in Oiapoque

It is a pity really; travelling overland from Suriname to NE Brazil was the idea, and from all of the research that had been done, and frankly there was not a great deal to digest, Macapá, the regional capital, was not recommended as a place to linger. Hints of its darker side, and the potential danger that tourists would find, made us book a quick passage out, and across the giant Amazon Delta to Belem, and apparent safety.

Macapá, however, was actually really rather nice.

I digress, however, and need to rewind to Cayenne, the dopey provincial capital of French Guyana, the improbable French department snuggled between Suriname to the west and Brazil to the south and east. Cayenne is rather a lovely place, its dopiness translating into a pleasantly laid back approach to life, and a general air of mañana; not that there really is a word in the argot of French Guyana that carries the implied sense of urgency that mañana does, but there you go; it is a department that relies almost exclusively on the substantial revenue that the Kourou Space Centre generates, and for the rest, well ….

Le Palmistes, an important cafe!


So after unwinding there for a couple of days, we hit the road by “taxi” to St. Georges de l’Ayapoque, the French border community. This was just fine, and the three-hour (€40 each) ride brought us to the town at about 1.00pm; in the middle of the French lunch-break.

Naturally, the customs post was closed for their requisite two-hour meal, and would not reopen until 3.00pm; “or perhaps 4.00”, we were advised. So with this in mind, we booked into a simple hotel and decided to stay for the night.

The St. George's Bar & Restaurant

St. Georges is lovely; it is so slow that it has almost stopped, and it retains the air of a river town out of  a novel by Somerset Maugham or Evelyn Waugh. The road from Cayenne was only completed in 2008, and to that point, all access was by river and thus limited to necessities and the Ways of The Water.

The Oiapoque River

Sitting, enjoying some pleasant rosé wine, we were in France after all, watching the river flow by, and admiring the periodic canoes crossing back and forth to Brazil was very pleasant; when dinner time came, we were advised that all of the meat was “viande du forêt”, or basically, armadillo, peccary and that sort of thing. No problem, and washed down with a touch more rosé we mellowed, and forgot about the twelve-hour 4WD or sixteen-hour bus ride that we had planned for the following day.

The Demon Drink!

Waking with a sluggish head in the morning we vaguely remembered trying the local rum at some point in the evening, and laughing rather a lot about something that now completely escaped us. However, we had prudently had our passports stamped the evening before during a rare moment of activity at the border post, as so we crossed to Oiapoque on the Brazilian side of the river.

It was actually a fairly long ride as we headed some ten kilometres or so upstream to the much larger and more frenetic Brazilian side. There, the border post was no simpler to work with as firstly it was about a kilometre and a half from the dock, and secondly it operated to a similar temporal beat to the French. Fortunately, despite feeling the results of a slight over-refreshment on the previous night, we were out early, and had our passports duly stamped, and thence to Macapá,

As it turned out, getting a ride was simple. The bus would cost 90 Reis ($30); to take a seat in a 4WD would cost 150 reis ($50), and so we decided to splurge and buy the four seats for the two of us for $200, thus ensuring that our luggage would be inside and not getting drenched during the inevitable rain.

We set off expecting the worst, and after about 50kms of paved road we found it. The asphalt turned abruptly to red mud and rock, and the recent rains had done little to improve the surface. We bounced, slid and bullied our way south, our driver clearly having made this trip many times between the various spells in prison that we deduced from his alarming tattoo collection.

The road was not good; it was, or at least should not have been, fast, and after some three hours or so, we swung of the red mud into the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  Buffets, priced by the weight of your choices, thus pricing rice and stew equally (which says something about the stew), are the order of the Brazilian kitchen. So fortified with some food, we climbed back into our Hilux, and sped back onto the mud.

The road to Macapa

To our considerable surprise, only a further twenty or so kilometres, the mud turned to asphalt, and a newly laid and perfect road lay before us all of the remaining 450kms to Macapá. The road had been completed within the past couple of years, and now the journey was only eight hours, and within what seemed to be the blink of an eye, we were arriving in the Amapá capital in time for dinner.

Macapá, it must be noted, is one of only two Brazilian towns of any size to actually lie on the Amazon, and the other is Santarem; Manaus is on the Rios Negro and Solimões, and Belem lies on the Baia de Marujá, at the end of the Rio Tocantins.

But that evening, such cartographic pedantry was forgotten as we enjoyed a fine dinner at one of Macapás many riverside cafes; watching the local folks out on their roller blades, and whizzing around in rapid storms, enjoying the gentle air we really rather forgot that we were in a dangerous place. I wish that we had stayed for at least one more day.

But I didn’t.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cabo Verde: Fascinating islands in the Atlantic Ocean

Cabo Verde is a very odd place, which is possibly the best reason to travel to these islands. It is an country that is comprised of ten islands, each of which purports to offer visitors a very different experience, and from an initial and hasty overview, they are correct. Tourists to Cabo Verde, and astonishingly there are many, may be disappointed if they only go to Sal, the primary island; it is from exploring the others that an appreciation for the distinct Cabo Verdean experience will be drawn.

It is not quite Europe, and nor should it even be considered fleetingly to be so, although I am sure that many arrive here thinking that it is a sort of “Southern Canary Islands”, but it isn't; it is not really Africa, although their football team plays in the African Cup, and geographically it most certainly qualifies. It is, above all, another fascinating Atlantic Island.

I am currently in Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente, the island where the fine singer Cesaria Evora was born, and after whom the international airport was named. She would, I am sure, be delighted.
Driving around the island, an achievement that can be attained in about three hours (thoroughly), was odd; long, inter-community cobbled highways, empty villages looking abandoned by, one thinks, holiday-makers away from their second homes. It was easy to realise how the Martian Rover must feel, slowly driving around in search of life.

Then suddenly there is life. A small village practicing hard for the upcoming carnival; kids young and old, drumming and dancing in the streets, buildings painted in some day-glow pastel colours or simply of plain breeze block, fishing boats along the shoreline and all around the rather ghostly landscape of brooding volcanic rock.

It is a cross, I think, between Iceland and a Caribbean island. There are the mysterious landscapes with high peaks coated in clouds, dark highways and lush valleys that seem to have found life; there are agricultural patters obvious in the country dating back centuries but now abandoned, leaving one to wonder where this knowledge went, and what it was. Communities are scruffy but somehow cheerful, with their buildings, or perhaps a quarter of them, painted in distinctive coral, blue and the ever-popular orange, but all too a vivid degree that lightens one’s senses and brings a smile.

The road along the eastern shoreline

Every so often a café or restaurant; some open, some not, offering the usual fare of fresh fish with vegetables. The fish is delicious, the vegetables can be monotonous (just how much boiled cassava can a chap eat?), but there is hope, and more restaurants to try.

Fine, fresh fish

 There is little work beyond the usual government employment in education, maintenance and, of course, “governing”; work in the tourist industry is here, but so many Cabo Verdeans have left to find work abroad, and thus the direct flights to Fortaleza in Brazil and Boston. Portugal, too, is home to a large expatriate population who, like diasporas everywhere, like the money but miss their homes terribly.

And still tourists arrive; the airport in Sal sported four Tui flights as I flew to Sao Vincent; direct charters from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Helsinki in two hours one afternoon, and they are not alone. Thousands of Europeans arrive here, and Sal is renowned for being one of the primary kite-surfing destinations in the world, but kite-surfing requires wind, and tourists not here to bounce on and off waves find the wind of the windward islands a touch overpowering.

But only 30 minutes to the west  lies Sao Vicente, with its wind-breaking mountains, and yet farther west, well out in the Atlantic Ocean lies the island of Sao Antao, my next destination.

From my short experience, I like Cabo Verde; we will see how the next ten days, and the exploration of Sao Antao, Fogo and Brava unfurl …

I can’t wait! Tiggers like Sao Vicente.

Friday, February 6, 2015

French Guyana; Papillon - Fact, Fantasy and Fiction

The Kitchen Block
French Guyana is not known for much. Its history is shady, its current politics virtually unknown, but the country does have an icon for tourists, and that is the penal colonies, and in particular the character of Papillon. The story of Papillon, Devil’s Island and the amazing escapes immortalised in the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen has fascinated us for decades, and is a very strong lure to this very interesting, but rather remote country.
An old cell block - Isles de Royale

Devil's Island, seen over the convicts' swimming pool
Devil's Island

France used these brutal places both to hide the most incorrigible convictsalthough some of the deportees might not really fit that bill, but also as a rather weak attempt to colonise their bit of “The Guyanas”.

The Guyanas, either three, four or five of them, depending on how one counts, are bits of land that were conveniently ignored when in 1493 the pope carved up Latin America between the Portuguese and Spanish. Papal edicts carried no weight with the Protestants in the North East, and they have squabbled and swapped land pretty well continuously for the past five hundred years.

Convicts sentenced to serve their imprisonment in one of the distant colonies (Nouvelle Caledonia was another with a significant penal colony) would sail from Europe to the reception centre at St. Laurent du Maroni, and then spend the balance of their sentences in either a logging camp, the prison in St. Laurent or on one of Les Isles du Salut. The idea of the islands’ powers of salvation comes from the fact that the climate there is so much easier than the mainland, and the possibility of actually living through one’s sentence; and if one actually survived, those sent for eight years or less were obliged to spend an equal time in the colony, the principle of doublage, and those sentenced to more than eight years were obliged to remain in South America for the rest of their lives.

Only the guards were buried

The death cells

No wonder that folks tried to escape, and although rarely successful, some did manage to get away. The most famous in North America and Europe was Henri Charrière, known as Papillon, and whose escapades have left readers and viewers speechless with wonder and perhaps admiration.

Cell blocks - Isle St. Joseph

But here’s the thing; the book Papillon was almost completely untrue. Charrière, himself, was a small-time pimp who was accused and convicted of an underworld murder. He certainly served time in St. Laurent, but was never on the islands, and seems to have lived a fairly bland life in this hideous environment.

The book, however, was a blockbuster. It is, however, very difficult to separate from the fine work by Rene Belbenoit, Dry Guillotine, which was published in 1938, and for aficionado’s of the whole Papillon story, and the French penal system, it is a magnificent book.

Belbenoit himself, credits a number of escapades to other prisoners, but did, himself, escape from the islands, and with several others washed up on the shores of Trinidad some seventeen days later.
The islands, and French Guyana itself, hold a strange attraction; spending time on les Isles du Salut is a truly moving experience, and one that I recommend to all. Nature is speedily reclaiming the prison, and watching the roots of giant trees slowly enter and crush the hideous cells cannot fail to fascinate.

The dormitory of Le Reclusion; Silence at all times

In addition to the islands, there is a great deal of history in the river community of St. Laurent du Maroni, the site of the penal administration, and the landing port for all convicts arriving from Paris. The town in unmistakably designed as a colonial centre; the architecture of the old camp, the staff buildings, the hospital and the fine mansions for upper management are all visible today, and the community itself has embraced tourism and interpretation of these sites.

I love St. Laurent, and appreciate the slow nature of this river town; wandering through the camps, looking deeply into the eyes of the convict whose statue “Le Bagnard” sits outside the tourist office, listening closely to the sounds of the forest unchanged for two hundred years gives a powerful sense of the despair and isolation that  all who worked or were imprisoned here must have felt.

The Convict - St. Laurent du Maroni

The history of the penal system in French Guyana is fascinating, the landscape surreal, and the islands, while today they lie peacefully in the tropical breeze, offer sudden and jarring glimpses into their dreadful past. Images and sounds flood one’s imagination, and only by stepping back a pace or two, and glancing at the blue sea can you realise how simple it is to step from one century to another, and perhaps from one life into a completely and utterly different existence.