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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Suriname 🇸🇷: Cycle trip to Peperpot & Nieuw Amsterdam

The dolphin trip made us hungry to see more of the Suriname outside paramaibo. There were several one day tours on offer, but instead of paying up for what generally seem high prices over here, we rented bikes ourselves and headed for Peperpot reserve and afterwards Nieuw Amsterdam.

About Suriname

At 164000 sqkm it is the smallest sovereign state in South America. French Guiana is smaller (91000sqkm), but belongs to France. Some 500000 people live here made up of 27% east indians, 22% maroons, 16% creole, 14% javanese, 4% amerindians and a lot of mixed and other smaller ethic groups. Religion reflects the mixed population with 40% christian, 26% hindu and 19% muslim. Tribal spirituality also plays a major role for maroons.

The country was the last outpost of dutch colonial history until 1954 (originally swapped for manhatten /new york with the english – driving is still on the left hand side). This was followed by a 21y period of self governance before suriname became independent in 1975 – a moment many 50y+ aged surinamese used to resettle to holland.

Total population (‘000)

The president is pretty much a criminal with outstanding warrants for drug dealing in holland and for killing 15 regime critics in the December murders in 1980 – but law was changed in time for his renewed presidency to escape sentence.

The route led us out of town until a steep bridge crosses the Suriname river. Definately not made for walking nor cycling, but with great views of the city, river. And harbour from its top. Laura was sweating. From there you quickly turn left into a more rural street and suddenly cycling was a pleasure.

Peperpot

Peperpot is an old coffee plantation and now a nature reserve. We arrived one of the alternative park gates and cycled the c3km hiking trail through the forest. Nice ride though the only animals we saw were sadly on signposts on the wayside barring a few birds 😐

By the main entrance you then find a little info center (if you speak Dutch, otherwise pictures only) and, more importantly, cold refreshments 😊. Those were well deserved after some 12km in dead hot conditions.

Nieuw Amsterdam

The city is located on the riverbank opposite of paramaibo and a 12km cycle trip from pepperpot. To be frank we actually didnt see much here. The hot conditions called for immediate refreshments and later on a riverside lunch at Het Bastion.

The pricing was more or less Europe like and in USD with 10% mandatory service charge. But a very nice setting as we had the place to ourselves. Further, much to Laura’s liking there was an option to cross the river by boat and thus avoid the bridge we had to cross in the morning.

So all good until we had to pay. While we had checked that visa is fine, it didnt work with their card machine. I left my email and accommodation details and sorted the bill later – giving the cash to my guesthouse who had it taxi’d over to the restaurant. Hopefully the waiter didn’t get into too much trouble for his incorrect information 😬 (he would not remain the last one to make that mistake…).

By 5pm the water taxi arrived and we crossed the river (SRD40) to head back to the guesthouse. Time for a shower and dinner at yet another upmarket place – Bodega & Grill de Waag. Nite, nite…

Back to Colombia – then the Guyana’s

Two days in London proved loaded with catch ups – cedric, hubert, yash, per, dan, bernd and a few locals. The rest of the time i spent sorting gear & clothing to get ready for the the next trip.

It was almost exactly one year ago that i visited Colombia for the first time. By now my Spanish is not bad and i have a colombian girlfriend. What difference a year can make! I am really looking forward to hang out a bit in Santa Marta and Bogota, hit the beach and meet new faces.

Off to North East South America: The Guyana’s

However, it is also time to explore some other parts of South America. I have picked a somewhat more unusual and not well travelled part – the North East of the continent. It is made up of the three countries and former colonies Guyana (english), Suriname (dutch) and French Guiana (french) followed by a stint on Aruba to learn kite surfing (fingers crossed). So i won’t get to practice Spanish in public too much.

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Why not so well travelled?

Well, there is the big issue of transport. The amazon jungle to the south, (no-go) Venezuela to the west and water on the other sides making plane travel into the region essential. There are, however, only few options such as usually one flight from the former colonial power (say Amsterdam – Paramaribo) & one from Aruba, but no direct flights from hubs like Bogota.

The other issue, partly going hand in hand, is price levels above your typical budget for backpackers. In fact, french guyana is reportedly the most expensive place in SA being effectively part of France / Europe (eg you pay with Euro’s). Many products have to be imported.

Why is it worth going?

Well, we will see but the cultural mix of locals, former runaway slaves, Caribbeans, colonialists, asians etc is truely unique in the world as is the countryside itself that is dominated by the Amazon covering some 4/5th of the surface and provides for a high degree of biodiversity. There is also the chance to spot satélite launches in French Guiana.

Exciting! Let’s see how it goes.

Scottish National Trail: Hanging out in the hills (days 16, 17, 18, 19)

Today: 124km | Total: 720km

Four more days lie behind us and we are now in touching distance of Cape Wrath having completed more than 700km. The last few days were kind weather wise with lots of sun and only occasional showers while walking. By now we are hanging out in the largest hunting estate on the island owned by the Duke of Westminster (the largest overall estate is owned by a Dane though) and deers have become a normal sight for us.

 

Laura’s comment: Desde nuestra salida de Ullapool el viaje se tornó un poco difícil, llevar comida para 6 días no fue fácil, por lo cual sólo podíamos caminar pocos kilómetros. En el segundo día encontramos un hermoso Bothy para pasar la noche, mi primera vez en este lugar, y fue una experiencia muy agradable, el lugar es muy cálido y lo sientes como un pequeño hogar.
Cada vez el camino se hace un poco más difícil, pero las vistas son increíbles y a medida que avanzamos al norte a nuestro ultimo destino, sé que será aún mejor. 😉

Leaving Ullapool with a heavy load

Having learned the art of hitchhiking on my way into Ullapool, we used that skills to get us the 7m to our trailhead. From there on foot. In our bags we had food for the remaining 6 days given no further resupply options on our route. Man were they heavy! First stop after 1km (seriously). Red wine had to go first 😂.

 

After a healthy lunch the path continued up before eventually a new valley came into sight and we decided to sleep near the river. Walking by now was completely off trail, hard, wet and slow. Anyway, great camping location, but loads of midges! Thousands and thousands! At first no firewood in sight (no forests about), but then we found some. Life saver!

 

Cutting through the hills

The next day started with… Midges. No fire this time. RUN!!! We were looking to reach one of the two bothys on the path for lunch and did so after a tough bit of hiking. No path, up and down, wet… Lunch was great and had the bothy had firewood we might have stayed. Eventually we opted to move on to the next bothy – the schoolhouse.

 

The path by now was more like an off road track and good for hiking. The sun was out too. By the time we reached the bothy it was not too late in the afternoon. A group of mountain bikers were in the house and we briefly chatted before they continued to our lunch bothy.

 

We in turn had time to sort gear and ourselves with a refreshing river wash before retreating to the bothy for a little time in a lot of space after all the nights in our tent. We even had a movie handy. Great.

Hitching on…

The third day started with good weather though late as we enjoyed the comfort of the bothy. We had some 7km to walk to the next village where a pint of lager was waiting. From there we hitched further north.

 

First with an older english couple. Then, after a brief time in proper rain, with a young english/scottish couple. They dropped us off at the only bar/restaurant in Kylesku. Nice views from there while we sat out the rain.

 

But we had to move on and find a camping spot. We did, eventually, somewhere on the estate of the duke of Westminster – the richest english man. Thanks dude. Really great views from our campsite on the hill to which we rescued ourselves amidst ☔.

Exploring the rich man’s lands’

We managed our latest start yet.. At midday! Rain was constant all night. Tent held up. Same in the morning… So we just waited with breakfast and a movie in our campsite with a view. Nice.

 

As we hiked up the hill we met two fellas part of a hunting group. They told us a few things about the duke & his family. You can at times hunt here yourself. £500 a stag. You pay on success only. Not a bad deal i think. Loads of deer about.

 

From there we went off track down the hill, through the forest, across rivers… Amazing time. Thankfully with lighter bags now.

 

Back on the road we hitched to Rhiconich. First with two older anglers (well-connected guys to get permission for that here) and then with two dutch ladies from Eindhoven. A little practice for my Dutch. Dank je wel for the lift!

Now off to the pub! 🍻 🍲

Scottish National Trail: Over to Loch Ness (day 12)

Today: 88km | Total: 424km

My first solo day while Laura enjoys a few well deserved rest days. We will meet in Ullapool soon. Di kindly gave me a lift that provided me with a good headstart and hence let me catch up on the schedule. But still 39km on foot. Pain levels very high towards the end of the day.

Having skipped the relatively short Kingussie to Laggan leg, my hike today took me across the Corrieyairack pass to Fort Augustin. It is a pretty little town strongly frequented by tourists as a gateway to Loch Ness. I guess i don’t need to say much more. 🐲 🐍

Meanwhile in Grantown-on-Spey … The ladies are enjoying themselves on bike & relaxing at home. 🚲🍷🏡😁😊🚿👧🏻

I got shopping for the coming three days done (including half a kg of haggis…will use all my gas to cook… 🙄😣🙄) and caught the bus to Mandally. This stretch seemed not overly interesting running in most parts parallel to my route into Fort Augustus today.

From there i managed another 6km or so before tired legs and nightfall demanded a rest. Probably my worst camping spot yet… Directly next to a forest road (busy in the morning as i know by now). Anyway, got my haggis cooked (35min) and will half a kg in my belly went off to dreamland 😴 😴 😴