French Guiana: Space. Jungle. Back in Europe.

French Guiana (FG) is officially a part of france and different to Suriname or Guyana hasn’t opted for independence. We spent just under week there and came across a few unusual things …

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Laura’s 👧🏻 comment: On this trip we had a new member with us – Carsten from Germany. On the first day we started our tour with a visit to the Kourou space center and after many hours finally managed to find a pretty house to stay in the capital Cayenne. We visited Kourou again to experience something incredible – a rocket launch. A unique moment together with new friends from Kourou. Other than that, we again visited the jungle and this time saw many animals.

Paramaribo to Albina & FG river border

Every tour in Suriname begins or starts in Paramaribo. So we found ourselves once more in a by now familiar neighbourhood. We enjoyed mobile network, gambled a bit in one of the many casinos alongside chinese gamblers and Venezuelan staff (yep, we lost our EUR20 stake…) and by chance met a familiar face from our previous trip to the jungle (Suriname 🇸🇷: Jungle life near Raleigh falls & Volksberg) – Carsten from Germany.

He had planned to visit FG too and so we teamed up to travel together. We took a 12.30 bus, the only one on sunday’s, to Moengo and from there a taxi on to albina – the main border town on the river. 3h in total. Not bad.

Our accommodation was basic yet sufficient. We had a snack in town (there was not much to do frankly) and played some strange card game carsten taught us. He won twice 😐

French Guiana basics
FG is a French oversea territory (in fact, its second largest region) and since Belize’s independence in 1981 the only EU territory on mainland America. It has 280000 inhabitants and the highest GDP/capita in South America. Economically it remains very dependent on france and unemployment frequently sits at 20-25%. FG voted against autonomy in 2010.

Back in Europe without a flight …

We jumped straight into on of the many boats that go back and forth between Suriname and french guiana (EUR2,50 one way). There were zero passport checks (though there are checkpoints on the main road either side of the border) with the positive side effect that we would not need to purchase the EUR35 entry visa to suriname again.

On the other side we were officially back in europe. Mobile data and calls come out of your normal plan, you pay with euro’s, the infrastructure and cars looks immediately much better though their remains plenty of craziness.

The border town is called St Laurent du Maroni and is the second largest town in FG. There wasn’t much to see other than the transportation camp where prisoners passed through before ending up on a nearby prison island. Historically, sending prisoners here from france was pretty prevalent.

We jetted off to Kourou in our tiny rental car 🚘

Guiana Space Center (Centre Spatial Guyanaise – CSG)

Our first main stop was at the space centre that is situated here. It launches vega, soyuz and ariane type rockets and most commercial satellites nowadays are launched from here roughly once a month. Its location close the equator allows for lower fuel cost and more payload than at other stations. For the time being, no humans are propelled from here. It is operational since 1968 and was built as a result of the independence of Algeria in the 50’s and the subsequent loss of the (just finished) space station there.

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Different rocket types launched from CSG

Before visiting the interesting space museum we got some great news – the following day a vega rocket would propel a Moroccan satellite into orbit. Brilliant… Especially having missed out on the ariane launch right at the beginning of our time here.

Negative impact of rocket launches

Depending on rocket type, aluminium (ariane/vega) and carbon monoxide / dioxide (soyuz) are released at launch. The french space agency created an environmental measurement plan after the infamous first Ariane V launch of 1996. The launch ended in disaster when the launcher exploded 36.7 seconds after lift-off. Nobody was injured, but the explosion highlighted the possible impact of launches on the local environment. So far, studies (arguably commissioned by CSG) suggest just a limited impact on nature about 1km around launch sites.

Vega launch – live!

We returned to Kourou to meet a couch surfing contact of Carsten and had a BBQ at his place. He studies his master in tropical botanics in Kourou alongside many french students, interns, PhD researchers etc. Really fun evening with plenty of interesting conversations of a field i am hardly familiar with.

By 22:42 it was time to watch our first rocket launch – here the video. We watched from the beach rather than the official observation point (that requires a minimum of 2h advance check in). Quite an event as the rocket lit up the night as if it was daytime (well, kind of) and a few mins later the rumbling noise spread from the space center.

Vega program

Vega are a joint European and Italian program. Its rockets have been launched 13 times (100% success) from here since 2012. It is the smallest rocket of the three at 30m hight, 3m diameter, 137 tons and about 1.4t payload (ariane up to 10t) using a three stage propel its load 700km high into orbit. One launch costs about USD37m.

Shopping in FG – now that’s crazy!

We went shopping several times, for our airbnb and the BBQ in Kourou. The prices were shocking! One of the key issues is that most products are imported by plane from France – many of which were imported to France itself be it from asia or countries neighbouring Suriname like Brasil.

A lot of this has to do with EU agricultural regulation. The latter, as i know well, is often designed to protect EU producers from non-EU competition and FG is probably the biggest loser of this. I mean paying the equivalent of EUR25 for a water melon 🍉 when the same costs EUR2 in Colombia is simply insane. Another reason is not so fertile grounds and the many insects (the pesticides required are one reason why it cant be produced under EU law).

However, my conversation with the agronomist suggests it is possible and there are more local businesses coming to the market like the one of Anne we met in Suriname or as evidenced by roadside vendors of melons and other fruit / vegetables.

Cacao – a distant piece of Laos & self-guided jungle trek

On of the day trips led us to Cacao – 75km away from Cayenne. There lives a small Hmong community from Laos that arrived in the 70s/80s following displacement due to the Vietnam war and continues to live in their typical stilt houses. Best to be visited on sunday for market day.

We also went for a self guided jungle hike nearby though only 6km of 18km total for time reasons. The walk was refreshingly challenging yet animals largely elusive. Back home … Beach & party time. And sweet dreams carsten 😴😉

Cayenne – not that much to miss

Cayenne is official home to some 60,000 people and about of all FG population in the wider metropolitan area. You can cover the main sights in one afternoon like the fortress, botanical garden and historical center with colonial architecture, but you wont miss much if you don’t.

Carbets – late discovery of the real way to travel in FG

After Carsten had left us to travel back to Paramaribo to catch his flight home we weren’t quite clear what to do. I checked out a link our airbnb host had provided (http://escapadecarbet.com). It has loads of outdoor tips and a superb overview of carbets in FG – covered shelters where you can put up your hammock or even get a room. This significantly improved the accommodation options, which are otherwise pretty slim or expensive.

We picked a free carbet near Sinnamary (passing many rusty car wrecks roadside) right in the jungle and with a few basic food and beverage items moved in. We weren’t alone on the first night with two other world travellers also staying there, which made for interesting travel conversations around the fire.

The spot was great for animal spotting from the large ‘blondie’ spiders and their countless kids, jungle rats who came along to pick up dinner, a huge iguana, birds, butterflies and a frog. Additionally we frequently enjoyed the monkey concert.

Daytime was to relax now that we were alone. Bath. Talk. Eat. And… Some driving lessons for laurita. She did really well once she got a little feel for the clutch and succeeded in parking between two water bottles. Who can stop her now 🤔😉🚘

Back to Paramaribo … Oh no, flat tyre… 😕

cof

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Elbe paddle (day 2): Decin to Stadt Wehlen

Today: 38km |Total: 62km

Yet again i am completely exhausted while writing this. Only difference, it’s a few hours earlier. It goes without saying that both Alex and myself slept pretty well last night (despite the random fireworks of a campsite neighbor). By 6am day 2 was underway (for daddy at least).

Relaxed breakfast and packing up. Takes all a little time with an 8y old and also for me with the extra gear (i go obviously much lighter on hiking trips). On top, the gate closest to the river was locked until we got out 8.30am. 15 minutes later we were paddling again (the plural form arguably incorrect). From Decin it was about 16km to the last Czech village – Hrensko. Funny enough we saw the rivercruiser ‘river allegro’ … My dad used to be the capitain. Here is him performing Jonny cash’s ‘I walk the line’ to his passengers. 

 

I remember the place too well for cheap petrol and cigarette shopping when i was younger. No such interest today. By lunchtime we were paddling in German waters and were greeted by the mighty sandstone hills of Saxon Switzerland… HEIMAT.

Bodycheck: That i am a novice paddler goes without saying. Hence i can feel muscles i didn’t quite know exist. Despite gloves the hands feel the strain and so does my bottom… Somehow i wonder how it will feel on this tiny saddle during my Sultan’s trail bike trip in September. 😲 The other bit is the constant sun exposure. There just no trees on the river 🤣

 

Before we even stopped for lunch we met granddad again. Bodo had some business in the small village of Krippen and came to greet the canoe team. We agreed where Alex will go off-board today.

Finally lunch (pasta carbonara out of the bag) and a little stretch in the city of Bad Schandau. There is a spot with sandbanks near the Toscana Therme. Really relaxing.

 

From there it was only a little more than an hour to my hometown of Koenigstein with its iconic fortress towering on the hills. Mum and dad came to pick up Alex and I was off for my solo section. Only 9km to go for today.

Waterlevels (Pegel) vs. Speed of waterflow – the higher, the faster (but current pegel is only 60cm and falling)

  • Pegel 100 cm = 3,6 km/h
  • Pegel 240 cm = 4,4 km/h
  • Pegel 300 cm = 4,6 km/h
  • Pegel 410 cm = 5,4 km/h
  • Pegel 550 cm = 6,1 km/h
  • Pegel 750 cm = 6,7 km/h
  • Pegel 800 cm = 7,2 km/h

P.S. All for Pegel level in Dresden

The last stretch takes you through arguably the prettiest part of the national park – Rathen and the Bastei. Thankfully the waterflow was decent enough for a little passive paddling to take in the scenery. Simply stunning.

 

And then i had reached todays target – the campsite of the german canoeing association near Stadt Wehlen. By air, the village i grew up in (Naundorf) is only a stonethrow away. For many years my football team SV Struppen joint forced with the youngsters of Wehlen and on numerous occasions i walked here on mens day (=drunk 🙃). A trip down memory lane.

Good night. Tomorrow off past Pirna and Dresden towards Coswig. So for me the last time in known waters.

Gute Nacht! 🏕 🍻 🍲

The boys are back in town: Chamonix calling

Alex’ christmas holidays started pretty early this year leaving a whole week before x-mas eve would arrive. Given my apartment is rented out anyway I figured time (&money) is much better spent on the slopes than trying to kill time in London cinema’s or Museums. Alex loves Chamonix anyway – the place of his first time outdoor rock climbing & canyoning (see here) and home of Mt Blanc. Many happy memories for him.

The trip was arguably at the cost of my first year almost without a x-mas lunch had it not been for my good friends Sara & Paul who I visited on the one night i had between Colombia and Chamonix. Both kids including my godson Bobby were thrilled and we had a great time together. In the morning the kids could even reunite with Alex … the only small disappointment when i rocked up alone the night before.

The way to Chamonix wasn’t too bad though with some delays and heavy bags given i carried my snowboard on top of winter clothing and presents. No one was happier than my little prince when we finally got to our destination … temperatures well below zero and loads of snow. Alex wasted no time getting his gloves wet (although he had an entirely different perspective on this). Thankfully the girls from ‘Chalet le Chatelle’ picked us up quickly and soon we hit the bed. I was devastated having had my last full nights’ sleep in a bed 4 days prior in Colombia!

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The next days were simply great fun as usual. After 15cm on Monday (read: no sun), we were blessed with great conditions and few other skiers. 3,5 days of good snow action! Alex on ski’s (we’ll try snowboard in Austria in Feb’18) and me on snowboard. His first red run (le cornu in Brevent) still caused some tears, but I know his level and by day two the piste had become his favourite). No issues after that one run, as he rediscovered his confidence. We spent time mostly in nearby Brevent and la Flegere, but also Grand Montets – dominated by red pistes and with a great run all the way down into the valley.

Evenings were usually dedicated to a Tartiflette at ‘elevation 1904’ (tasty & good value at eur11) or the odd raclette in town, the chalet’s hot tub (his russian soul coming to the fore big time ;o) and movie time. Quality boys time!

Boarding & Banter in Chamonix: Video Log

Children of winter never grow old.

(Warren Miller Entertainment)

Boys weekend in Chamonix

Getting to Cham from London started really well. Early at the airport and on time departure with BA. Sadly, neither wi-fi nor mobile hotspot were sufficiently quick to download the latest lego star wars anime. Back to ‘Brave’ for Alex, which he still enjoyed very much (any movie will do ;o). We landed 10mins early in Geneva, but then hit the delay as our friends at #Alpybus didnt live up to their promise of having a departure every 30mins. I guess they advertise flexible departure, but this is really subject to busses getting filled up. If not, the service is delayed. We left 11.10pm having spent more time at Geneva airport than London! Should have listened to my host Davide and take the easybus (or just rent a car).

On the bright side, they drop you off right at your destination, code for the outer door I still had from last time and Davide (already out at Chamonix social club – highly recommended) had thankfully left the keys for us the get in. He even popped over briefly to give me my board before he disappeared into Chamonix’s nightlife again (he returned after 10am next morning – big night). We didn’t have trouble to sleep.

We didn’t get up until 9.30am or so. Then off to town to fetch ski’s for Alex and have breakfast. A bakery and the maxi pain au chocolat they sell were all too inviting. We quickly picked up my board & boots at home and off we went to Brevent lifts – literally just a little further up the hill from Davide’s apartment.

The four-hour ticket for the two of us was only EUR33, but excluded the Brevent lift higher up. This makes sense since from there only black slopes lead down – a touch too early for Alex. Unfortunately there weren’t many slopes open in the remaining section. So we ended up trying our skills at the BIG Airbag. Stuntman Alex at work! Daddy’s big air video evidence didnt wirk out … pity!

Food as expensive as ever: For lunch we ordered (a pretty poor) pasta Bolognese at €16.50 together with Evian water at €3,90 at restaurant ‘Altitude’. That is Cham for you and next year they’ll slap another 5-10% on top (because they can). But hey, I don’t want to get into a debate on real life inflation here and at least service was prompt as the slopes were pretty empty. In return we enjoyed great scenery and were watching paragliders take off.

Back down in the valley we headed straight to town. Since I would take my board home for the first time, I needed a carrier bag. Now options are plenty in Chamonix from cheap to high-end brands. The choice is yours!

  • Technique extreme: cheap clothes & gear (bought €15 bag here)
  • Snell sport: all round shop with top class gear all outdoor sports
  • zeroG good for snowboarding equipment (got my Burton boots and bindings here)

Afterwards we treated us and Davide to a hot chocolate & nutella crepes in l’atelier cafe (recommended). I had a citrus-mint infused tea and once more learned that the non-alcoholic drinks menu is pretty short of options. A nice raclette dinner followed in ‘Cham’s best place for cheese’ (Restaurant la Caleche) – according to Davide anyway. Tasty stuff! Nice interior too!

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Pretty filled up we headed home. Alex ended up discussing girls in his school with Davide (or Dave as he refers to him). Two pro’s in conversation. Paragliding had fascinated Alex all day and the sheer presence of a paragliding kit in the flat must have stirred dreams. Davide tried to satisfy them to a degree with plenty of go-pro footage of his own jumps. Alex would have been ready to jump on the spot! Bed time ensued. All of us exhausted.

Note to the host: What do you need a blow dryer for with your short hair ;o)

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Next day we managed a slightly earlier start at 8.30am with some spelling and reading homework for Alex (thanks dad!) and ‘Milchreis’ (rice pudding). Alex was ready to ski again and even prepared to give big airbag another go! Off to Grand Montet today!

The ski-bus departed only a few mins walk away. Always great. We met a UK family in the bus. All first timers (Brexit anyone?) who were well impressed by the scenery and are here for a week. Have fun guys!

Skiing atGrand Montet was great, the sun was shining and we had some fresh snow (rather than pire ice 3w ago). Memories came back to me of my first Cham boarding with Cedric during a KBW ski trip years ago. Each bar has its own story here. Be it with Tully, Steve or Holly. Been a fun weekend (well, I dont claim to recall everything …).

Alex had a great time even though some blue slopes are steeper than the average. I would say Cham is generally steeper than pists in the Austrian alps. But fun nonetheless. He even managed another bunch of jumps on a small ramp. Bravery has no boundary on a boys weekend ;o)

Sadly, mid afternoon we had to leave the mountain. Back home, change, pack, pick-up (Alex can’t wait for a bit of movie time & Bose sound ;o). That’s it. It’s great as ever.

Thank you Davide! See you in February and keep us in the loop re Namibia trip.

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