Backstory - From Suriname to French Guiana

Devil’s Island is well-named. With that as backdrop, I was forced to do at least a dozen takes. Fire ants crawled up my trouser legs. The wind pummelled the microphone. And then it started raining. But in spite of that, I loved this tiny archipelago off French Guiana’s coast with its dark history. I even left my camera on shore and went swimming.

Another one of my favourite places was the river running between Suriname and French Guiana. International borders are generally some of the most difficult places to film but with the River Maroni acting as the frontier, this one was easier than most. I had time on either bank -- and aboard my hired motorboat taxi -- to film the entire crossing. Not even one uniformed guard asked me what I was doing.

The most frustrating part of my trip was a delayed rocket launch from the Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. I had organised my trip around the lift-off of Ariane 5 which was to carry the Herschel telescope and Planck cosmic background mapper into space. This dual satellite was to be one of Europe’s most ambitious with the hope these powerful instruments would send back signals to earth to teach us more about the beginnings of time and the origins of the universe. Technical hitches had delayed the launch twice but I rearranged my trip again and again around the new schedule. Finally, I was forced to depart. It could be weeks or longer before the launch would eventually took place. In fact, I had only travelled as far as Trinidad airport when the countdown to lift-off happened, and the engines finally fired.

The other consequence of visiting French Guiana around a launch date was that I was unable to join the French Foreign Legion on one of their jungle exercises. Most of the contingent were at the Space Centre -- protecting the launch site -- and jungle exercises were all put on hold. I pledged to return both to witness a rocket launch and to train with the Legion (which my grandfather had joined during World War II).

The unsurpassed highlight of my trip was one I unfortunately was unable to film. On the beaches of Montjoly, French Guiana and Galibi, Suriname, I watched leatherback turtles digging their nests and laying eggs in the sand. Sometimes this phenomenon happens early at dusk when there might be enough light to catch it on film but the two times I witnessed this remarkable event was under the cover of darkness. Turtles are very sensitive to light so using artificial lamps is out of the question. Instead I burnt the experience into my mind and promised myself to share it in print some time.