We entered French Guiana expecting to pay a huge insurance bill, but instead the border police accepted our insurance cover which we had. It was a huge relief and cost saving.
French Guiana is a territory of France and part of the EU. It seemed strange in such an isolated place in South America.
The road to the Capital, Cayenne, is through thick forest, with very few villages along the way. It felt like a completely undeveloped country.
We arrived into Matoury, on the outskirts of Cayenne, and paid a visit to the Municipality to get permission to use a park to take off from for the balloon.
The staff were a bit apprehensive at first, but after I told them that I already had the flight permission, they had made a couple of phone calls and all was OK.
They took us to look at the site I requested, and I met the Mayor and various other council staff. One of the stages of the ‘Tour de Guyane’ was finishing in Matoury on the day I was going to fly, so it was all set up for that.
We visited the airport in the afternoon and had a meeting with the airport management. I had been in contact with them for a few weeks and they were very supportive of what I was doing. The area where I was going to take off from was very close to the runway of French Guiana’s main airport. They gave me special permission to take off before the airport’s airspace opened, which meant I had complete freedom in the airport’s airspace, a very nice gesture indeed. They also briefed me on the airspace, which was quite interesting because the Space Port of the European Space Agency is not too far away. I was warned not to venture into their airspace as I would be forced down. I couldn’t fly on one of the days I requested as a satellite was being launched.
We managed to find at a hotel in Matoury to park at. It had a big area out the front where locals would park their cars while they went back to France.
The following day was spent sorting out the last of the permission details and preparing for the flight. In the afternoon we went to Kourou to see the satellite launch. We were extremely lucky to be there to witness it, it happens only once a month. We met up with two overlanders there, Rochelle and Yiannis, in the carpark of one of the nicest hotels in the town. We could easily park there for the night and camp. It was great to exchange stories and compare notes, as they had just come from where we were going next.
As we were chatting, a man stopped his car and told us that the space launch was happening and that we should go and have a look. The whole launch control team were staying at the hotel, and we guessed he probably had something to do with it. I jokingly asked if he and his passenger were astronauts going up in it. The lady sitting next to him looked down and smiled. We found out the next day, she was an astronaut from Italy!
We went to one of the lookouts on top of a hill and waited with the 2000 other people for the launch. It was spectacular to watch the launch and to hear the commentary. I was surprised at the trajectory of the rocket. It didn’t go straight up, but on quite an angle.
The satellite was carrying a laser which was the first of its type and would be able to monitor wind speeds and directions more accurately. It was 10 years in the making and well over budget and time, so there was some relief it was finally being launched.
We headed back to the hotel carpark. A couple of cars had parked up and had a number of young people were drinking and listening to music. They invited us over. The others said no, but I obliged and spent a great night having a couple of drinks with them. We flew a stunt kite in the middle of the night, which was quite a bit of fun. Quite a few of them worked for the municipality.
We had breakfast in the hotel. All of the mission control team and space programme workers were having breakfast, so there were lots of interesting people around. Des was a bit earlier than us, and we think that he had had breakfast with the Mission Controller!
We said goodbye to Rochelle and Yiannis, and headed back to Matoury. I sorted out the last of the permission and got everything ready for the flight the next day.
It was an early start the next morning. The weather was perfect and the wind was as predicted, which was lucky as quite a bit of research had to go into the flight. I knew once I had taken off, there was no other landing site for 20km as it was rainforest. The angle of the wind was also important as if it was slightly off, I would end up having to land in the jungle as there were no roads for hundreds of kilometres.
A number of people turned up to watch the balloon take off, including some media.
It was spectacular taking off at dawn, crossing the hills and into the rainforest. I flew low over the river and used the winds to get to my predicted landing site. It was beautiful to see and hear the birds below. The optimum wind speed and direction was at 800ft, so it was a nice height to be at over the jungle.
Des was waiting at the landing area, along with a news film crew. Most of the area is either Jungle or swamp, so I aimed for a track to land on. It was with a sense of relief when I did land. I had flown for close to 1.5hrs. We packed the balloon in the hot, tropical conditions. Sweat was pouring off us.
When we got back to the hotel, I had an interview with the news over breakfast.
The Tour de Guyane was on, so I went to the finishing line of the cycle race. I was impressed with how much it was like the Tour de France. There was a big procession of cars. It is live on TV, and widely followed nationally. I was spotted by one of the municipality workers and was invited into the VIP tent to watch the awards ceremony.
I met with some of the airport staff and controllers that evening at a restaurant. We had a really interesting chat about how everything worked there, as well as living in French Guiana. Most of the guys were in French Guiana temporarily from France.
French Guiana is very expensive and civil servants are paid 40% more than their counterparts in France to counter this.
It was a very enjoyable evening
We looked around Cayenne the next day. It’s an interesting place with quite a few French-style wooden buildings. French Guiana only has around 280,000 inhabitants, 150,000 of those living in Cayenne.
We had a look at one of the beaches and climbed a small hill to get a view of the city. Life has a much slower place than mainland France, but everything is up to EU standard, (more or less). You can find Carrefour supermarkets there for example, roads are good, (the few that there are) and EU standards, (and bureaucracy) apply.
We headed for the border town of Saint Laurent du Maroni the next day, stopping by the Space Centre along the way. We also had a good lunch at a roadside food stall in one of the small villages. Traffic is light and getting through the country is very easy.
We met up with a friend of a friend, Rudi, and his Family, in St Laurent late in the afternoon. He made us a very nice dinner. He had lived for a good number of years in the jungle by clearing an acre of land and building a house on it. He now stays in town for his children’s education, and runs the Fablab, a small-scale workshop offering digital fabrication for the general public to use.
We looked around the town the next day. It feels like a relatively sleepy town, but is fast growing. They are even predicting 100,000 people living there in the not too distant future. Hard to believe, but the economy and opportunities are growing very fast there.
We went to Rudi’s jungle house in the afternoon. We were impressed by how nice it was. I was expecting a shack, but it was anything but. It was beautifully finished and a real labour of love to make, completely off the grid. We had to take quite a bumpy track to get there.
We also visited a friend of his who lived close by. Also a beautiful house in the middle of the forest. We spent the evening there and walked into the forest after dark to listen to all the forest creatures. A great experience.
We caught the ferry to Suriname the next day. A lot of people go between French Guiana and Suriname illegally. It’s very easy to do and no one is ever stopped it seems. They call it the ‘back track’. We took the ferry, which was expensive for the short trip it was.
On the ferry, we met Olrik and his Wife. They were from Suriname and had gone to French Guiana to do some European grocery shopping. He saw the truck and was interested to find out what we were doing. It turned out that he owned a big mechanical workshop in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. We were incredibly lucky to meet him as he was exactly the person I was looking for. I needed new shocks for the truck, and I was hoping to import them from The Netherlands as there was a direct flight from Amsterdam. He gave me his card and said that he could arrange it.
We arrived on the other side after about a 20 minute trip. We were met by two Ministry of Tourism staff, as we were being hosted by the Ministry of Tourism as part of their new ‘Think Tourism’ campaign. One of the staff, Reina, had got in touch with me a few years ago asking if I was coming to Suriname and to get in touch if I was, so I did. Reina was now the Director of Tourism for Suriname and said she would host us while we were there.
We got through Immigration and Customs very easily and headed for Paramaribo. Cars drive on the left side in Suriname, so it was nice to be driving on the correct side for a change. The road was perfect and we made good time, arriving in the late afternoon. We were put up in a very nice hotel, which was a nice change from living in the truck. We had a good steak that night at a restaurant down the road.
I got in touch with Olrik and took the truck into his workshop, which turned out to be enormous, as they worked on big machines. The shocks were ordered and I was told they would be there in a few days.
The following days were spent arranging the flight and meeting various Ministry of Tourism staff, including the Minister of Tourism. I gave a presentation on ballooning at the Chamber of Commerce and attended some very nice dinners with the who’s who of Suriname.
It was a lot of work to get the flight permission as I was taking off from Independence Square in the middle of the city. I was helped by a local airline owner, Amichand, and his company, Fly Always. We had a couple of dinners together and some interesting chats about aviation in that part of the world.
I spent a lot of time at Olrik’s workshop too, modifying the suspension and making sure the truck was right for a really bad road which I knew was coming in Guyana.
We were also invited to his man cave, where he and his friends hang out and work on cars. There were some beautiful cars and do-up jobs they were working on. We spent a couple of evenings there.
The shocks came and were installed, and it made a huge improvement to the handling of the truck. They also modified the suspension. A massive thanks to Olrik and his company, Traverco, for working tirelessly on it, even after hours. He only charged me more or less for parts too, so it was extremely generous of him.
The weather was perfect on the morning of the flight. Quite a few people had heard about it and a crowd gathered to witness the launch. It was beautiful to fly right down the middle of the city.
A lot of people were waving out below.
I found a new subdivision to land in. Like in French Guiana, the surrounds are very swampy, so you have to be careful where you land.
A crowd of people came from the neighbouring houses and helped to pack the balloon.
I was bombarded with messages for the rest of the day, which I replied to. A lot of people saw and heard about the balloon and wanted to fly in it.
That evening I put the balloon up at a street party. A local, Leon, recognised the truck and introduced himself, saying that he and his friend would be happy to help us put the balloon up. It was a bit breezy, but with the help of everyone, (including 3 big security guys) we got it up.
It was an enjoyable evening with various entertainment.
We met Leon and his family for a dinner at his place a couple of days later for his Daughter’s birthday. It was great to meet him and his Family and get a sense of local life. They looked after us very well.
Suriname, with a population of only 600,000, is an interesting jungle covered country. It was a Dutch Colony, so the national language is Dutch. It also has a lot of indigenous people living in the forest which have a rich culture. I didn’t manage to get out into the interior, but Des was taken out on one of the days and shown around by some locals. He loved it.
After Paramaribo, we continued on to Nieuw Nickerie, close to the Guyana border. We did it at night as we worked on the truck at Olrik’s place until 8pm.
We stayed at a hotel there before leaving early the next morning for the flight. I was intending to free-fly there, but the wind wasn’t constant, and going towards the ocean, (which was only a kilometre or so away). The truck also got stuck in the field, so it wasn’t going far either. We took the balloon out and decided to take all the kids on a tethered flight. Kids from two orphanages attended, and I managed to fly them all. We also shared postcards. It was a great community event.
The truck was pulled out with a big tractor after I did the tether.
We had a good breakfast, then went with the Ministry of Tourism team for a lunch and a boat tour to the largest lake in the area. The boat had to be moved across a small dam between the fresh and salt water. On the lake there are lodges on poles where you can stay. It’s a very interesting and serene place to stay. We were out there for an hour or so before going back again. It was a very enjoyable day.
We said our goodbyes to Reina and her team that evening.
The next morning we were shown around the town by the local youth MP and Ministry of Tourism representative. We met the mayor and was presented with a T-shirt from the local football team, as well as going to the market and to see the sea wall. It was an easy afternoon doing some shopping and planning for the road ahead.
We headed to the border at 7am the next morning, preparing ourselves for a challenging border crossing into Guyana. I’d heard lots of people spending a lots of time there and getting bogged down in bureaucracy on the Guyana side.
We turned up to the Ferry, which is again another expensive way to get across a river, around US$120 for the 30 minute crossing. Leaving Suriname was relatively straightforward, and much to my surprise, Guyana was relatively easy too. They were very keen on finding the chassis number on the truck, which took the most time.
From entering the Paramaribo border and leaving the Guyanese border, it took 4 hours, which is much better than the 6hrs I was hearing.
We stopped in the town after the border to change some money as I couldn’t withdraw any from the ATM, (as we found out out later, only Scotiabank works). I asked a local where a money exchange was. I was directed to a private person’s house, (quite a mansion). The old couple in the house were surprised I was there. I think it was quite common that locals exchanged there, but not tourists.
We headed to the Capital, Georgetown, stopping in New Amsterdam for lunch. We scouted the flying area too and found a school which looked suitable to take off from. I asked a guy on the street, Travis, if he knew someone who worked there. He took me around the corner to one of the teacher’s places, who in turn gave me the contact details of the Ministry of Education.
We arrived into Georgetown at dusk and parked at a shipping container yard, arranged by a friend of Rudi’s, (from French Guiana). Not a very beautiful place, but safe.
I had been put in touch with the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority and had a meeting with them the next day. They were very supportive of what I was doing and sorted out the flight permission for me. We also met Stacy, (the friend of Rudi’s) for lunch.
The rest of the time in Georgetown was spent looking around the city and visiting a mechanic recommended by Olrik to get the 4×4 fixed, (which wasn’t engaging on one side), and to get the wheels aligned.
I was still sorting out the permission to fly from the school the day before the flight with the Ministry of Education. In the end it became too complicated, so I decided I’d find a farm to take off from. We did find one with much difficulty. The whole place is full of rice paddies and canals. There is hardly a dry piece of land anywhere.
The farmers were very nice and they even graded the field for the balloon with their tractor so it would be more smooth. They owned some rice paddies, as well as contracted their machinery to the surrounding farms. We had a good chat with them in the evening, especially Des, as he also had a contracting business in New Zealand at one stage.
They offered us Iguana meat and eggs, which were quite tasty. We parked at their place for the night.
It rained heavily for a short time overnight, so the field was a mud bowl when we went out in the morning. Luckily I have a big tarpaulin, so the balloon didn’t get dirty. The basket was put on a couple of pallets, so all in all, it worked well. Quite a few people turned up as the word got around quickly that a balloon would fly from there. Travis was also there to help out.
I flew one of the sons of the owner. We had arranged for their tractor and trailer to be the retrieve vehicle, as I knew my truck would get bogged immediately if it went off the road. It was the muddiest place I’d ever seen.
It was beautiful flying over the rice paddies. The sea wasn’t far away either. It was an impressive landscape.
I was aiming for a particular place which I knew was dry, but the wind was so slow, that after a while I had to look for an alternative, (which wasn’t easy with all the mud and rice paddies around). I spotted a clean track on a farm they contracted at, and aimed for that. We landed there, stopping just before a huge coconut tree. I was very happy to be in such a clean and relatively dry spot. We called the others and told them where we were. They came on their tractor and picked us up. It was quite challenging to get back, even with the tractor. The track was so uneven and boggy and we really had to hold on at times. I was worried the balloon might fall into the stream, which ran alongside the track. But we made it out and loaded the balloon onto my truck.
Des was looking a bit muddy. He was holding onto the crown rope, which guides the balloon up as it’s inflated with hot air. He slipped and went frontwards down into the mud. All the spectators laughed a lot. Luckily he was wearing overalls.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to Georgetown. We went to a bar at the motor racing club and had a good evening with Stacy and the guys from the club that night.
We tackled the infamous Linden to Lethem road for the next two days. I knew it was really rough, and it lived up to its name. We bounced down the road, which was very wet and muddy in places, and stayed at a small village in the middle on the way.
There’s a barge in the middle where tickets should be bought in Georgetown, though I have heard of them selling tickets on the spot. We had been warned and bought them prior. I didn’t want to turn around just because I hadn’t bought a ticket.
Some of the mud holes along the way were hard to judge as you don’t know how deep they are. I got one really wrong and went straight down into the hole. The mud was above the bottom of the windscreen and we were looking straight into mud. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get out. But luckily with the 4×4 fixed, and with Des’s guidance, we reversed out. Amazingly two 4×4’s were coming in the opposite direction and we saw a safe path to traverse the mud hole. In most cases we had no idea how deep they were and it was just guessing, or following others’ tracks. A few of the bridges were questionable too. Amazingly, Toyota Hiace vans were getting through, but I have no idea how.
At one of the most difficult bridges we met a guy nicknamed Tall Boy, a veteran of the road. He was in an 8×8 truck and carting fuel to his service station in Lethem. We had a bit of a chat and he invited us to park at his place when we got to Lethem, (we were faster than him).
The road was smooth and good right at the end leading up to Lethem. Perfectly graded.
We got to Tall Boy’s service station in the evening and had a good feed that night. Tall Boy arrived in the middle of the night. He had got a puncture along the way. He showed us around the town and we had a great chat. He had been driving the Georgetown to Lethem road once a week for 30 years, and loved it. In the wet season it got challenging. I can’t imagine doing it in the wet season.
We had lunch together, then crossed into Brazil. Border procedures were very easy. The road to Boa Vista was perfect asphalt. A pleasure to drive on.
We arrived at a friend of a friend’s place, Waldisio, and stayed with him and his family for the night. He was part of the skydiving community, and for the coming few cities we were being hosted by the skydiving community thanks to my friend Roberto in Belem, (who we had stayed with a few weeks prior).