Picture of stone steps up a hill surrounded by palm trees and jungle

The Salut Islands French Guiana

Dear Squeak

After a bit of a trying trip, we have arrived in the Island paradise of the Salut Islands just off the Coast of French Guiana.  There was a big nasty swell again as we left the coast of Brazil. We also had lots of torrential rain squalls with quite a lot of wind in them.  Sails up, sails down, canopy open, canopy closed, it was a busy trip for us both.  We are so pleased to arrive in this little paradise to relax for a bit.

The islands were first called the Salut/Salvation islands by the missionaries who came there from mainland French Guyana to escape the plague.  Later during the time when the islands like much of mainland,  were used as a penal colony, the Islands were referred to as the Devil’s islands. In those days the place may not have seemed like the paradise they are to us today.

Famous Place

The Salut Islands gained notoriety because of the Dreyfus affair.  Lieutenant Dreyfus was sent there in 1894, convicted of treason for leaking weapons information to the Germans.  He was of Jewish origin. Due to a fair bit of anti-antisemitism among the ranks at the time the finger was pointed at him.  He continually maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration and wrote hundreds of letters to protest this during his time thee. These letters are the essence of the memoir his son Pierre wrote about him in 1937. The book was called “Souvenirs Et Correspondance”  and has been translated into several languages.  The true spy was eventually convicted, but  the army was reluctant to admit its mistake, so Dreyfus was pardoned rather than acquitted.

Joseph Conrad also wrote about the Salut islands in his story “An Anarchist” but the islands became truly famous due to Henri Charriere’s book “Papillon” and later the film that was made of that book starring famous names Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.

close up of butterfly with turquoise blue flashes, orange triangles and a black background

 In the book it is claimed he was called “Papillon” because of a big butterfly tattoo he had on his chest.  Others say he was not much liked during his time in Iles du Salut and papillon in French as mariposa in Spanish refers rather to the fact that he was gay. Perhaps both are true.

The French authorities are very upset about Charriere’s portrayal of the place and the treatment the book says he received there.  They claim that many of the incidents that he describes are untrue or did not happen to him, but happened far earlier.  They say that conditions had been much improved on the Iles du Salut by the time he was brought there in 1933.

 Reading  the potted history of all the high profile prisoners that served time there, it seems that Henri Charrier cherry picked all the juicy bits from all of the stories and goings on that he could. He wanted to make his novel into a “best seller” so he may have embellished a few details here and there.  What he did was write a good story that would keep him in royalties for the remainder of his life. 

I don’t think so

The part that we, as sailors, find most difficult to believe, is that he escaped from the Islands on a raft made of Coconuts. Apparently he managed to drift to the shores of Guyana.  We have sailed those choppy waters and the tides and the currents take you nowhere near the coast of mainland South America.  He would have been lucky to pitch up in Barbados with only the current and the wind to help him. Without food or water he would have been dead on arrival.  We think he must have been picked up by a boat somewhere, but that doesn’t make for such a good story.

OOPS!

The waters around the Salut islands have very strong currents and are full of sharks so not ideal for swimming or trying to escape.  I did swim just a little, to clean off the bottom of the boat and didn’t have any encounters with any sharks.  I got in trouble from the Gendarme for being in the water though.  He came all the way out in a little rowing boat  to chastise me  but let me off as long as no-one else could see me. steve also got in trouble from the Gendarme for flying the drone. That was two bad strikes against us in one day. 

It seems the big hungry fish only come out to play in the evenings. The first night, just as we were settling down to dinner, there was a loud bang against the hull and then another one.  When we went up on deck with a torch to take a look what was making the  noise. We looked into the water and there were big fish chasing each other and slapping against the side of the hull.  I don’t think that has ever happened to us before. Obviously something even bigger that we couldn’t see was chasing them.

big green lizard sitting on a stone wall

So much Wildlife

Ashore there is still lots of evidence of the island’s history as a prison camp. The old buildings and the isolation cells are still there. Some have been sensitively restored to leave you the impression of what it must have been like in former times; others are being rapidly reclaimed by nature and the voracious jungle.  We saw photos of the early days when people first started to settle on the island and it was pretty bare, with only a few trees.  In that part of the world though, you only need to spit the seed from a fruit you are eating and in a few short weeks a tree will start to grow. 

It was a truly beautiful place unspoiled and I’d like to say peacefull but the jungle there is chock full of wild life. There are  many kinds of birds singing away. There are crickets and other insects singing at full volume too, and howler monkeys shouting to be heard above all the other cacophony of nature sounds.  It was actually really noisy and difficult to sleep at night.  Fortunately no mosquitoes, What a blessing!

As we wondered ashore within the first half hour we saw a ton of wild life.  Lizards, interesting spiders, agoutis like the small cousins of Capybara  from the Guinea pig family, tiny  blue swallow tailed humming birds , ring tail monkeys, and lots of beautiful butterflies.  Over the week we spent there we saw so many different species of animals. Critters just kept popping out from behind every bush.  The amazing thing was that many of them didn’t seem to be afraid of humans and you could get right up close to them.   For us it was interesting to visit a place with so much history. I’d have loved to bring my nieces and nephews here. Not for the history though, but to see all the wildlife up close and personal. All those animals  in their natural habitat not in cages or behind glass. 

Out of Food

We’d have loved to stay a lot longer, but after a week in that paradise plus the 9 and a bit days it took us to get there, our supplies of fresh fruit and veggies were almost completely gone.  We were even down to our last onion.  A change in the wind direction and a bit of lumpy and exciting night with anchors dragging made us decide to brave the shallow channel and head into Kourou.  We were also looking forward to a tour of the space station that launches our GPS satellites into the sky.   We had to dredge most of the channel for them on the way in but we managed to bump our way over the sand bar without any incident.   It wasn’t very far but we needed the tide to help us in so we had to wait for a while.

Once Loved Boats

We anchored again in a spot just above the pontoons which have no space for visitors, barely even for your dinghy. Sadly the pontoons are chock full of French relic sailboats that are mostly half sunk or sadly neglected and barely afloat.  It looks like a boat grave yard. Such a shame!

We managed to find a place to squeeze in and headed into town on a quest for ice-cream.  As my new year’s resolution was to give up booze for the year, it’s the first ice-cream parlour we are always in search of when we go ashore, not the first bar. 

Well dear Squeak I hope you are enjoying the Campo in spring.  We have to go now as the place wants to shut. We have to take our internet where we can get it these days.  I’ll write to you soon and tell you all about our trip to the space station.

Lots of love Ally and Steve

Miss you lots! x

Quay and palm trees drone shot looking out to sea on Ile Royal Salut islands

To see a little of the place and the wildlife we saw in the Salut Islands why not check out our Youtube Video”Devil Monkeys Jail Break”

Collage of Caves, a Crator and Cacti taken on our Island tour of Lanzarote

Island tour – a Change is as good as a rest

How many times have I quoted the old saying, that the Cruising life = fixing your boat in Exotic places?  Well we finally got to see a little of this exotic place in which we now find ourselves fixing our boat and it was fab! Lanzarote  the most easterly of the Canary Islands is a bleak and barren place  peppered with  volcanoes  some of them active as recently as 1824 which has left  more than a quarter of the island  covered with lava and ash.  A lot of the island looks more like a moonscape than regular earth. This landscape combined with the fact that they only get on average 16 days of rain a year on this island, makes it a very dry and dusty place.  In no time at all, every inch of the boat, especially the forward facing surfaces that are blasted by the wind while at anchor were caked in ochre dust and after only one day we could write “also available in white” all over the boat. 

In spite of its dust and bleakness the island is incredibly beautiful and the people give it real character and charm.  Although the volcano ash makes for very fertile ground, very little grows there because of the lack of water.  A very few weeds manage to populate the landscape despite the harsh environment. In the north there are fields and fields of cacti formerly for the cochineal beetles surrounded by dry stone walls made of lava rock.  In the centre and south of the island grape vines have been planted, each surrounded by its own little wall on three sides to give it protection. As Lava rock is porous it soaks up what little moisture they do get and gives it up gradually but pretty much every speck of green on the island needs to be watered.

The islands beauty comes from the different shapes and colours of rock formed by exposure of different minerals or different rates of cooling when the volcanoes erupted thousands of years ago.  Most of the beaches on the island have black volcanic sand, though we did anchor off of Playa Blanca for a few days. This beach is rather obviously named because it is one of the few beaches on island with white sand that shows its original topography before all the volcanoes poured their mayhem over most of the island. 

We hired a car for a day and did the tourist thing. I have to warn you that Steve and I have both done a lot of travelling in our lives and seen some stunning places. Because of this we are very picky sort of tourists and have become rather hard to impress.  Tourist attractions have to be going some for us to give them the thumbs up for wow factor but on Lanzarote our thumbs are definitely up. 

We bought a ticket that allowed us to see three places on the Island for the handsome sum of €21 which seemed like a good chunk of cash but at the end of the day We feel we definitely got our money’s worth.

We visited the Cueva De Los Verdes, the green caves that were in fact ochre and red and yellow and white and every shade of brown and grey in-between.  Actually the caves were a huge array of colours due to the iron oxide, sulphur and mineral salts seeping out of the rock. The only colour they were not, was green. The name green comes from the family that made the caves their home many years ago. The caves have offered shelter to many of the Islanders who used the caves as a refuge from the marauding pirates in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

These caves formed by air pockets trapped between the lava were very different to the normal stalactite, stalagmite formations in all the other caves we have seen. These caves were by far the biggest and longest, we have ever had the pleasure to visit. The caves start at the centre cone of the volcano and run all the way for 6km down into and under the sea. We were able to visit about a kilometre of it and it was truly impressive.  In some of the caverns you could see three stories above and below you.  For the benefit of tourists like us, the Cabildo of Lanzarote, in collaboration with the artist Jesus Soto very sensitively installed lighting, sounds and footpaths to make it into a spectacular visitor attraction. The deepest part of the caverns where it seems you can look down deep into the bowels of the earth is a surprise all of its own.  Very impressive!

Our second destination was the cacti garden.  The garden is a gorgeous space which was created by the artist Cesar Manrique that beautifully blends art and nature. Hundreds of different species of cacti from all over the world are planted in a big tiered bowl, reminiscent of an old quarry.  You can look down from each level and admire shapes and colours below.  There was lots of inspiration here for my garden back in Portugal when we return.

Our final tourist trap was the national park of Timanfaya the site of the most recent active volcanic eruptions on the island between 1730 and 1736 and again in 1824.  The park covers a huge area and you are taken on a bus tour on a tiny windy road with spectacular views down steep ravines and into crators through the ash scattered land.

It was a bit of a surprise to be herded onto a bus, but in hind sight we were very glad not to have had to negotiate all those hairpin bends ourselves. The road seemed rather treacherous in places but fortunately the bus driver knew it well and was able negotiate the tight steep turns with seeming ease.  Being driven meant we were able to just take in the awe inspiring views all around us and the commentary in multiple languages was very informative.

  Back at the visitor centre a few bore holes have been drilled, into which they pour water; and after a few seconds, a huge boiling hot geyser spurts out of the hole into the air.  This shows how just under our feet, the volcano is still ruminating and could erupt at any time.

 Also at the visitor centre there is a restaurant which we didn’t eat at, but their menu offers a selection of barbequed meat and fish dishes cooked by the volcano. They have a huge hole in the ground with a wall around it that looks like a big water well with a grill over the top. The heat of the volcano cooks your dinner at a temperature of about 285 degrees.

We wound our way back through the moonscape land, past some of the islands larger vineyards to the marina after a busy day full of lasting impressions. We didn’t have time to visit any of the bodegas that day but we did sample some of their produce and I must say the local wine is very pleasant indeed! We can’t let you taste the wine but we can give you a flavour of our day out in our latest YouTube video  that accompanies this blog. 

Why not go there next and take a look? 

Cacti Caves & Craters       Click to view