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Sailmithril: The voyages.

To Devil's Island
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HISTORY, TOURISTS, WILDLIFE AND TECHNOLOGY

Salvador is considered to be at the very limit of places in brazil from which you can sail back northwards as the winds turn more north east as you go southwards along the Brazilian coast. With this thought always on the edge of our weather eye we listened carefully to the coastal weather forecasts hoping for a south easterly slant on which to leave. Even so we still had a fairly uncomfortable close reach for the first week. We had to motor sail north-eastwards for the first 36 hours to get well off the wide continental shelf where we had to fight a strong counter current. Once in deeper water the current slackened off, the waves stretched out and we were able to sail. Easing the sheets at the corner of Brazil we turned north-westwards, picked up a favourable current which, unlike many of the other great currents in the world, seems to be nameless. You stay well offshore here too as the outflow from the Amazon has shallowed the water over the millennia and also there is a risk of rather large flotsam. For the next week we flew along averaging about 160 miles a day. Every night the Plough rose higher in the sky and every night I measured the distance down from the pointers waiting for the moment I would see Polaris once again above the horizon. Theoretically this should be when you reach the equator but there was generally too much haziness at the horizon until we were about 5 degrees north. This was our sixth crossing of the equator and happened in the middle of the night so no celebrations this time. We were happy to celebrate rather catching a tasty fish. We had quite a few stripeys but as many of you already know we don’t bother keeping them if we can release them alive. We caught a fine dorado and later a lovely yellowfin tuna. The waters close to the coast of French Guiana are also very shallow and murky but we had been here before and had kept the small photocopied chartlet we had so knew what to expect.

 

Les isles du salut are about 10 miles off the mouth of the Kouru river which is the home of the European space agency launch site. The islands are also owned by the agency and are used to house a cinetelescope for watching the launches. From the anchorage off isle royale we could see the massive rocket which was launched at the beginning of March carrying parts for the space station. We were last here 14 years ago and then it had been our first taste of a tropical island. We enjoyed it immensely from the wild bananas and coconuts to the scarlet macaws and monkeys in the jungly undergrowth. The whole of French Guiana was a prison colony with the hard cases being sent to the offshore islands. Some of the old buildings are gradually being restored while others fall into complete ruin. You know you are in Europe by the number of pointless official signs – attention emboulements was our favourite – falling rocks. One new addition was a small museum which had information on some of the most famous prisoners on the islands. Years ago we’d read the book Papillon about a guy who escaped from Devil’s island on a sack of coconuts with the help of the bigger than average hundredth wave. We’d stood for hours on the rocky shore marvelling at how he managed it with surf spraying us in the face. We were very affronted to now find that he hadn’t escaped after all – he hadn’t even been there. He was a prisoner on the mainland opposite and was describing conditions of 20 years earlier on the islands. Just goes to show you can’t believe anything you read – except this of course.

 

On our second day there we woke up to find not one but two gi-normous cruise ships anchored behind us with people being ferried ashore by small boat. Now we knew what the new pontoon was for. 14 years ago the only visitors were day trippers a couple of times a week who waded ashore from an amphibious landing craft. Now as well as the cruise ship tourists there were daily sailing catamaran trips and a fast ferry. To avoid the crowds we dinghied across to isle St. Joseph which also has old prison buildings and a big graveyard. The climate was so unhealthy that people dropped like flies and to save effort they only buried guards and their families. The bodies of prisoners were thrown to the sharks. We wandered among the prison ruins where French soldiers were cutting away the overgrowth ready for conservation work. Some of them looked like the old photos of convicts we’d seen in the museum with their gray camouflage suits and floppy hats. We strolled along the network of cobbled roadways that crisscross the island. With lots of cheap labour and all the time in the world the authorities were able to achieve wonderfully elaborate designs with different coloured and sized stones. Deep drains at the edges were built of carefully pieced together rocks now choked with palm fronds and grass.

 

For a small island that had about 2000 people trampling over it all day isle Royale was surprisingly unaltered when we went back. Council workmen come from Kouru every so often with brush cutters and lawn mowers. But someone had eaten all the bananas and mangoes. The coconuts were mostly left for the monkeys. We settled ourselves among the trees at the highest point of the island and waited for the troupe of monkeys to visit. One sat just above me with a big coconut which it banged repeatedly on a knobbly bit of branch until the outer husk cracked a bit. Then he got his sharp pointy little teeth at it and ripped away a section big enough to get a paw into. He slurped the sweet juice from his paw and pried sections of meat off with strong fingers. He was a very messy eater though and dropped juice and meat to the forest floor. Here it was picked up by a gathering of agoutis who had been attracted by the banging of the nut in the first place. They scurried around fighting each other for titbits. An agouti is like a sort of large guinea pig but with some very marsupial features. They also like to eat mangoes and congregate under the trees in the hope a monkey will dislodge some fruits. There certainly weren’t any near enough the ground for us to reach. As well as the large monkeys there are some very tiny ones which are much less timid and will continue to perform their acrobatics around the coconut palms while you stand there taking photos. They only really get distracted when a dozen people come streaming up the path shouting to each other – have you seen any monkeys? I don’t think there are any; I haven’t seen any. Then the monkeys swing through the canopy using tails legs and arms and disappear completely from view.

 

At that point you might as well go and visit the auberge where there is the only little bit of commercialisation on the island. You can buy a 250 cl beer for €3.50 or a menu du jour for €22 excluding drinks. For free you can visit the peacocks and pheasants in the cage, look at the chooks scratching in the undergrowth, sympathise with the poor caged toucan who hops from perch to perch in a very agitated manner like a little neglected dog chasing its tail. Here we found the macaws who had previously flown free all over the island. They weren’t caged and they could still fly but we don’t know how much. Presumably they are fed regularly and maybe they have had their wings clipped. Last time we were here I had monkeys throw coconuts down to deter our presence. This time I had a macaw peck at my feet to get me to go away. Yon beak is very sharp too I can tell you. I don’t know whether it tried to bite my toe or just poked his bill down onto it and I was wearing plastic clogs not open sandals. I reckon they’ve learnt that tourist toes are very vulnerable and a good peck is the quickest way to get rid of nosy parkers.

 

Our time was up on the island now anyway. We’d spent a week re-visiting old friends and had found that the isles du Salut can still charm and entertain just as much as any of the many other wonderful sights we’ve seen in the last 14 years.

 

 
Photographs of les isles du salut.

copyright Geraldine Foley 2008. "sailmithril ocean sailing adventures."