A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter 14 – Central America - Nicaragua

By Neil

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The Revolution and Ronnie.

“La revolución comenzó en 1978 aquí en León”, said Benito, a fighter in the Nicaraguan civil war and our guide at the Museo de la Revolucion in Leon.

Nikki and Benito on the roof of the Museum of the Revolution, used as the headquarters for communications during the revolution and a surprising addition to our tour. As you can see, it is in perfect condition!

Nikki and I had travelled up from Panama City to Managua, Nicaragua, via San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, the previous morning.


And then jumped on a ‘Chicken Bus’ for the last 100km’s to Leon. It was our first ride on a truly local bus and it was hot, crowded (standing room only for many) and cost less than $2.

The old American School Bus used ubiquitously throughout Central America and dubbed ‘Chicken Buses’ because you were just as likely to meet a chicken as a person in your travels...

“Why did the revolution start?” I asked Benito.

“The Somoza Regime, backed by the Americans, was murdering the people. We had to rise up”.

The Somoza’s had ruled the country since 1937, having been placed there by the Americans following the US occupation of Nicaragua in 1912; part of the series of US occupations, invasions and control that are now referred to as the “Banana Wars”.

The FSLN, the Sandinista National Liberation Front was formed in 1961 inspired by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and, as its activities increased in the 1970’s, the violent suppression of the people by the Somoza regime increased, supported by the USA.

Benito took us through (in Spanish) the murals, photos and propaganda material in the museum, which detailed the struggles they faced during the revolution, including a photo of a 22 year old Benito celebrating the liberation of Leon.

A mural honouring the Nicaraguan heroes of the revolution.

The kind of art work that pervades countries touched by conflict and revolution.

Us on the roof of the Communications Centre with the Leon Cathedral in the background.

Uncle Ronnie

I am referring to the highly respected “B” rate movie actor and former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

One of the most critically acclaimed films of the former President of the United States, “Bedtime for Bonzo”

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, his administration supported the “Contras”, a mix of right wing groups organised to fight the Sandanistas (the abovementioned FLSN who were pushing for revolution in Nicaragua). The Russian’s were supporting the Sandanistas. A proxy war was being fought by the superpowers. Sound familiar?

As the war dragged on the US congress wanted to limit, and later stop, US support for the Contras.

Reagan believed that support for the Contras should continue and so began the Iran Contra Affair where the Reagan administration illegally took money from arms sales to Iran and funnelled it to the Contras. Below are a couple of cartoons about the Affair.



As you can see it ended in a great scandal for Reagan and did not stop the revolution. Daniel Ortega became the president and has been in power, in one form or another, almost continuously since 1979.


Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Nik and I have met lots of fantastic people on the trip. Smart people. Funny people. Interesting people. People with great insights on the world.

One of these people was an American bloke whom we met in the Posada Fuente Castalia, our hostel in Leon. First of all, you’ve got to love a bloke who has a PhD in writing. That’s cool. If one wants to have one’s thinking challenged it’s good to meet people with different experience and backgrounds. Our new American friend threw in a great thought.

I’ve been thinking, and going on about America’s involvement in South American and Central American politics, society, and government. Our American friend pointed out that his parents worked for a period in Venezuela, prior to Hugo Chavez getting into power. He pointed out that when a countries currency becomes so worthless that citizens start weighing their money when they want to but something, something has seriously turned to custard. America didn’t get involved in Venezuelan politics and Chavez managed to turn the country into a “failed” state.

The older I’ve got, the more I realise that, whilst in most situations it is easy to do what is right, there are some where the best solution is not good, it is actually the least worst solution. Maybe sitting back and handing influence and power to people backed by Russia (30 million murdered in the Gulags), or Castro (great if you want to live in the 1950’s), might not the best solution.

Something to think about……


So, Nicaragua. First of all the highlight. Hiking up to the smouldering caldera of the Telica Volcano.

Note the sulphur clouds drifting from the volcano…


Joe, our guide told us that the last eruption was in May 2016, but it’s ok because it was only a small one.

Looking at the top of the Caldera.

It was a steep hike in the sun (38 degrees) but the view of the caldera at the top made it all worthwhile! The scenery was very picturesque and the sunset was awesome!


After watching the sunset and visiting a cave full of bats, we hiked back up to the caldera to see if we could spot any lava in the bottom of the caldera. I know it doesn’t look like much, but the circle of lava you can see was quite bright and it sounded like an airplane taking off!

Photo looking down 124 metres at the lava at the bottom of the caldera


Leon itself is a pretty colonial city. It is home to the largest Cathedral in Central America, built in 1747, 30 years before Captain Cook arrived in Australia. It is cool. And big.

Our Lady of Grace Cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua.

Easter week in South and Central America is called the Semana Santa. Numerous floats are made up and carried through the streets, depicting various scenes from Easter, including Jesus carrying the cross:

Float of Jesus carrying the Cross in Leon, Nicaragua. The float is about 2.5 metres wide and about 5 metres long. It is hand carried by about 20 devotees.

The local community set up shrines outside their houses:

A shrine to the Virgin Mary outside of a house in Leon, Nicaragua.

The emotion in the crowd was palpable. For the crucifixion, there were tears, for the resurrection, applause. Below are some scenes from Semana Santa in Leon.


The form of Jesus after being taken down off the cross being carried through the streets.

Leon was a fascinating introduction to Semana Santa, but we had heard that the Easter celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala were not to be missed. So, whilst it meant that we had to travel straight through Honduras and El Salvador, we left Leon at 2am on Easter Sunday morning to ensure that we arrived in Antigua in time for Easter Sunday evening.

Honduras, I’m sure, is a really nice place but with a murder rate of 1 in 1,000 per year, the bus driver basically kept his foot to the floor for the 3 hour crossing of the country. We also waved our way through El Salvador, creating a new record of three countries in one day!

And then there was Guatemala….


Posted by capetocape2017 20:10 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged volcano santa semana roses n revolution guns Comments (1)

Chapter 12 - Colombia

By Nikki (coz Neil made her)

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Maria, our walking tour guide in Bogota, asked if we knew what semiotic symbols were, in this case she meant images or symbols that we associate with a country. The Eiffel Tower for France, beer for Germany and of course Kangaroos for Australia. There was an uncomfortable silence before Neil bit the bullet and said "Cocaine?" when we were asked about Colombia. Which was of course the point of the question. After such a long and sordid history of drug production, cartels and extraordinary wealth produced from same, cocaine has become the semiotic symbol of Colombia. As we found out however, Colombia is so much more than this perception of a country overrun with drugs and violence. Whereas Maria made sure she acknowledged the very real reality of the influence of drugs in Colombia, it also became very evident during our tour, that these issues no longer define this beautiful country, and that for the first time in 55 years, it is reestablishing peace, cultural heritage and its place on the world stage in terms of arts, tourism and food.

We didn't really know what to expect from Colombia, but both of us agree that it is the country that challenged our preconceptions more than any other. The infrastructure in the main centres is developed, we felt safe (while of course being very sensible about it), the people are wonderfully friendly and Colombia has some of the best food and coffee we have had on the trip (sorry Brazil!!)

Our introduction to Colombia was the small Amazonian town of Leticia, stranded on a tiny peninsula of territory at the bottom of Colombia.


We actually disembarked from our Amazon sojourn in the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, but the two towns have now merged into one and there are no formal border proceedings. We popped across to Leticia for the night and then jumped back across to the border on a tuk-tuk the following day to get stamped out of Brazil at the police station. We were then displaced persons for 24 hours until we were stamped into Colombia at the airport the following day. I have never experienced such an informal and porous border crossing before! There was a distinct change in entering Leticia however. Despite being a river town like the others we visited in Brazil, it was clearly more wealthy and, blessed relief, we could start speaking Spanish again!

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is at an altitude of 1800m above sea level, and you can feel it! However, we didn't mind puffing a little once we got lost in the streets of La Candeleria, the old town sector of Bogota. Cobbled streets, beautiful colonial architecture of brightly coloured buildings with dark wood balconies, soaring churches and palatial public buildings are interspersed with galleries, theatres, bars and restaurants. We spent three days wandering the city, including a fantastic walking tour that included trying Chicha, cocoa leaves and of course Colombian coffee! Nearly every city has a walking tour and most of those in South America are ‘free’, with a donation expected at the end – well deserved on every single one that we went on!


But for as much fun as we had in Bogota, on both visits, the highlight of Colombia was our time volunteering with Manos Amigos in Ibague. Ibague is 3 hours west of Bogota and most travellers only know it as a brief stop on this bus journey to Cali or the coffee growing region of Armenia. We spent 10 days here with an amazing grassroots organisation whose goal is to prevent the local children from dropping out of school and getting involved in the very prevalent drug industry. In Colombia, children go to school either in the morning (6.30 til 11.30) or afternoon (1 til 6). The two Manos Amigas centres provide an alternative place for them to go to when they are not in school. In the mornings and afternoon sessions the staff and volunteers ensure that all the children do their homework for the next day and provide educational activities, as well as ensuring that the kids have somewhere safe to play and a meal.


There is no question as to the good that this program is providing to both the children and the community. The centre in San Juan Barrio sits across from a park which for the entire day is full of adults and adolescent taking cocaine, sniffing glue and engaging in prostitution. It is incredibly confronting to think that these children need to only look out the window to see this. That said, the time in the centres is full of fun and the children clearly enjoy themselves, as well as the love and affection they receive from everyone involved.


We stayed with the woman who runs the program, Berenice, and her family while in Ibague and we received such a warm welcome that it was hard to leave. We lived and worked in Spanish, so our language skills improved out of sight, especially with the wonderful patience of our hosts and the staff at the program!

Our stay at the program was not all work of course! We had a great night out playing Tejo with the staff and volunteers. Imagine quoits, but throwing heavy metal weights at a clay target, instead of innocuous hoops at a pole. Oh, and if you hit the target just right, it explodes. Yup, fun the way it was meant to be had - beer and explosions!


We also spent a weekend in Salento, the coffee region, 3 hours north of Ibague (3 hours in Colombia is only about 150kms due to the conditions of the road and traffic). We glamped in a tent at an eco-lodge with amazing views over the coffee plantations and hiked to a local plantation for a guided tour of the coffee making process. Apart from the bug bites (4 weeks of blisters and itching!) it was a great place to visit with a lot more to be done that we could achieve in our one full day (like the Corocon Valley).


Saying farewell in Ibague was incredibly hard, especially after the children from both centres put on an amazing concert for us, including dancing, singing and the presentation of hand made letters and posters from each of them. And the very special Manos Amigos t-shirt, to be treasured if it survives the trip home!


Due to our rather ambitious itinerary we only had one more stop in Colombia, being Cartegena on the coast, where we planned to catch a boat to Panama. Cartegena was a beautiful old city, which felt incredibly safe to walk around both day and night. Your greatest risk was being accosted by one of the hundreds of touts selling Panama hats and sunglasses. It was the first time we had run into this sort of touristy hassle on the whole trip! We didn't go to the beaches, that are apparently very beautiful, as we had quite a bit of organising to do for our next leg to Panama, but wandering the old city for a couple of days, walking the city walls at dusk, and finding a gin bar made it a fabulous stay anyway!



We missed out on Medellin, Tayrona and all of the other absolutely amazing places that we had had recommended to us on our way up to Colombia. But we are saving those for our next visit....

Posted by capetocape2017 14:35 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Chapter 13 - Central America - Panama

By Neil

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After 100 days it was time to say goodbye to South America and move onto Panama.

The 30,000 km Pan American highway runs from Alaska to the bottom of South America continuously. The sole exception is the Darien Gap.

Map showing the Darien Gap, an area of rainforest and swampland between Colombia and Panama.

In our travels, many travellers that we met said the way around this technical hitch was to catch a boat from Cartagena, Colombia, to El Provenir, Panama, passing, on the way, so they said, the incredibly beautiful San Blas Islands.


The boat we took was called the Amande, a 52 foot sailing yacht.

Captain Nikki !


The “Amande”. The sailing boat that we took from Cartagena, Colombia to El Provenir, Panama – via the San Blas islands.

There were 11 passengers and 3 crew on the boat. We thought “Hey, we’ll get a double cabin with a private bathroom. That will be nice”.

You’ll notice from the map above that before we reach the San Blas islands, there’s a bit of sea to cross. It wasn’t that rough but let me ask. Have you ever slept, or tried to sleep, in a tumbling tumble dryer on high heat ? That’s what the cabin was like. There were two tiny windows to the outside, it was hot as Hades, and the room was corkscrewing. I lasted about 2 hours on the first night before having to get up and get some air. The other 4 nights I didn’t even try; I just slept on the deck. The trip across the open sea was only 36 hours and once we’d arrived the sea was calm, although I still slept on the deck. Nikki was ok sleeping below decks, as was the rest of the passengers and crew. However,…..

Arriving at the San Blas islands; a group of 315 islands off the north coast of Panama, we understood what the other travellers had been saying:







And Nikki's toes...

We had 3 days on the islands; one day for each of the 3 islands we visited. We even saw an even more desolate island:




Altogether, a magical experience. However, after washing in the sea for 5 days, and sleeping on the deck, we were rather looking forward to a good shower and proper bed. First, however, we had to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific. When we did this in reverse, from Antofogasta, Chile to Buenos Aires, it took about 3 days. This time, it was 2.5 hours.

The bed was awesome ! And a proper shower !

Our Apartment in Panama City


Panama. Of course, the first thing that comes to most peoples’ mind when you mention Panama is the Canal. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that, prior to the first ship going through in 1914, you had to sail around Cape Horn if you wanted to get from Europe to the Pacific. This took a long time and was dangerous. When the Panama Canal became operational it had a massive effect on world trade.

It all started with this bloke, however, in 1513:

Vasco Nunez de Balboa – The first European to see the Pacific.

The importance of this potential crossing was recognised early on. It took a long time to come to fruition. Partly because the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, and French were all having a bun fight over the New World. Well, actually, to be more precise, over the gold the Spanish and Portuguese were stealing from the indigenous populations and transferring to Europe. The Brits, not wishing to open up a war with the Spanish and Portuguese directly came up with a cunning plan. They decided that they’d sort of back the Pirates and they became called “Privateers”. Ie Pirates that would try to extract the gold from the Spanish/ Portuguese.

One particularly enterprising Privateer was called Henry Morgan…

Sir Henry Morgan - Welsh Privateer

He ransacked Panama in 1671 and left it in ruins. But came away with a Kinghhood and the Governorship of Jamaica.

Panama City was rebuilt a few kilometres away and the original town was left in ruins for 250 years but now the original colonial architecture is in the process of being rebuilt and the city is beautiful. And the climate is a little less humid than Cartagena in Colombia.



Lots of people use the old city as a location for taking photos. Like this ballerina....


And here are some photos of our hotel:


Photos of our hotel in Panama


The Panama Canal

The building of the Panama Canal started in 1881. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the develop and builder of the hugely profitable Suez Canal succeeded in setting up, and getting investors to invest in, the (French) Compagnie du Canal de Panama. De Lesseps estimated the cost at US$400 million (a heck of a lot of money back then). The picture below shows the final set up of the Panama canal. However, the French originally thought that it could follow the pattern of the Suez canal and not have locks. This turned out to be a complete disaster from a technical viewpoint. The amount of earth that needed to be moved was colossal.


However, more of a problem was the Health and Safety problems. At AGL, the company I work for, the target for employee injuries is Zero. The actual measure of Lost Time is 1.8.

In the building of the Panama canal by the French, the mortality rate (the number of employees dying) was, in 1884, 200 per month ! The culprit ? This critter.

The Aedes Aegypti Mosquito.

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito carries Malaria and Yellow Fever. The death rate was not helped when, in order to try to stop ants crawling into the beds someone had the bright idea to put the bed legs into bowls of water. Which became stagnant. And bred mosquitos.

A staggering 22,000 people died during between 1881 and 1889 when after moving only 22 million metres cubed of earth, the company, having spent US$287 million, went bankrupt.


Did I hear the bugle of the American 7th Cavalry ? Yes. Whilst all the above was going on Panama was part of “Gran Colombia”, a conglomeration of Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

The Americans kind of wanted the canal and started discussions with Gran Colombia which were fruitless so the Americans decided to back Panamanian Independence in 1903. Well, sort of independent. The US would have rights to develop the canal and perpetual sovereignty over the canal and 8 km’s either side of it.

So, after buying the work and equipment that the French had put in for US$40 million, working on the yellow fever and malaria issues (sanitation, water quality, roads, sewerage), putting in US$335 million, in 1914, the steamhip Ancon made the first crossing of the Panama canal.


In 1977, Jimmy Carter agreed that the Panamanians would gain sovereignty over the canal at the end of 1999.

In Jun 2016, the first ship made it through the parallel path of the Panama Canal that was wider and deeper to all for bigger ships. Achieved and a cost of US$5 billion.

The annual income from the canal is now US$2 billion with a profit of about US$1.3 billion/ year.



Photos of the Panama Canal and the historical monument for the Canal


Manuel Noriega, Operation Nifty Package, the Vatican Embassy, and Rock as Psychological warfare

Manuel Noriega was the Panamanian dictator in Panama from 1983 to 1989. He was a bad man.


Then he stopped paying the USA the fees from the Panama Canal. So the US launched "Operation Nifty Package" to get rid of Noriega. (I'm not making this up !).

He ran away to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, also known as the Vatican Embassy to seek asylum.

The Americans resorted to using the ultimate psychological torture.


Yes. They played, at ear splitting volume, "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns and Roses, "I Fought the Law" by the Clash, "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die" by Jethro Tull.

After 10 days Noriega gave himself up and is now in a jail in Panama until 2031when he will be 97 years old...


Posted by capetocape2017 10:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged islands san sailing panama colombia blas Comments (0)

Chapter 11-Brazil 2 - The Amazon, Deforestation, & Climate

By Neil

rain 32 °C
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I reckon that, if you want to get a real perspective on a country or continent, then it is best to travel by land. This is absolutely true when considering the mighty Amazon and the Amazon basin.

The statistics beggar belief.

It is 80% of the size of Australia – 6 million square km’s


The size of the Amazon basin compared with the size of the USA.

Of which only 60% is in Brazil.

The rainfall is about 2,700 mm per year (Melbourne is 670 mm/ year, London is 590 mm/ year)

It’s incredibly flat. The Amazon only rises 80 metres from the coast at Belem to Tabatinga, 2,500 km’s to the west.

The width of the river is between 200 and 300 km’s at the mouth of the river, 2 km’s at Manaus, and about 1 km at Tabatinga.

It contains 20 % of the worlds fresh water.


Because Nik and I wanted to catch the launch of the Sentinel 2B satellite from French Guiana, we had to fly from Cayenne in French Guiana to Manaus, 1,500 km’s west of Belem in Brazil.

Manaus is known as the gateway to the Amazon. It is also where the Rio Amazonia (River Amazon, 22 degrees C, a speed of 5 km/h, and a pH of 7.1), meets up with Rio Negro (Black River, 28 degrees C, speed of 2 km/h, and pH of 4.4). Here there is one of the worlds greatest visual phenomena; the Amazon is brown and the Black River is, funnily enough, black. Due to the difference in temperature, speed, and pH, the rivers take several km’s to mix, causing this:


Joining of the Rio Amazonia and the Rio Negro at Manaus, Brazil

When we were first researching the Amazon, we were expecting Manaus to be a small town, but actually its population is 1.7 million; the size of Perth, Australia. In the late 1800’s Manaus was a very wealthy town due to rubber and a massive opera house was built where world famous artists like Enrico Caruso, Jose Carreras, and Sarah Bernhardt have came to perform.



Inside and outside of the Manaus Opera House in Brazil.

We had arranged to spend 3 days at the Amazon Turtle Lodge. This involved getting down the Amazon,


Fish market at Manaus port, Brazil

Getting on a boat across the Amazon,

Leaving Manaus port

Getting a people carrier taxi (an old VW Combi) to another river, via a look at the giant lily pads,

Giant Lily pads on the way to the Amazon Jungle stay

Then onto another boat taking us up a tributary to the Amazon Turtle Lodge.

Boat up the resort to the jungle resort.

The most striking things about the trip to the Lodge were firstly, just the enormous quantity of water. The river at Manaus is 2 km wide. The high water mark on the trees was 5 metres above the water level when we were on the river. Most transport is via boat. If there are roads, and they are to be all-season, they’ve got to be very high. Our last boat into the Lodge was a one hour trip. In the dry season, it’s half an hour because you can drive closer to the Lodge. The wet season last from January to June and the Dry Season is July to December. Hence the river was rising during our stay.

The Lodge consisted of numerous cabins spread out from the access to the river and a great restaurant bar.


The first day consisted of getting to the Lodge and then a boat trip out to see the wildlife.

A couple of Caipirinhas and beers in the evening followed by a morning walk through the very hot, very mosquito infested rainforest. We went a bit native….

Moses, our jungle guide, weaving.

It was 18 months ago following a trip to Bhutan that I was hospitalised for a week with a, to this day, unidentified tropical infection. During the hospitalisation, I was tested for just about everything and it was found that at some point in the past (Cameroon ?), I’d caught malaria and dengue fever. The malaria is not that much of an issue; I’m taking malaria pills and if it flares up, I get to hospital and it’s all ok. Dengue, however, is a bit trickier. There are 5 strains, of which I’ve caught one. If I catch the same strain again, it’s not such a big deal, but if I catch a different strain, it can lead to “Dengue Haemorrhagic fever” which is bad. Definitely hospital bad. Possibly intensive care bad. So the tropical diseases doctor at Medical One in Melbourne’s advice was firstly, don’t get bitten. So lots of mosquito repellent and cover up. The next thing is know the symptoms of Dengue, and if I get them, don’t muck about. Get to a hospital.

So, whilst we enjoyed the Jungle Walk, the concept of a night time walk or, as some people were doing, a 3 day, or even an 8 day walk in the jungle ? Yeah, No.

Also there is how Nikki feels about “butterflies”. The 8 legged variety. Sometimes called spiders. Nikki really doesn’t like them at all. She was living in an apartment once and there was a spider in the kitchen. Nikki closed the door to the kitchen, taped it closed, and ate take out for 3 days until a friend came over.

Suffice to say that, whilst I told Nikki that there were no “butterflies” in the Amazon, that might have been a bit of a fib. Whilst on the jungle walk, the guide, Moses, asked Nikki to go 10 feet away and showed me a 6 inch hole in the ground and poked a stick into it to get the spider, that I reckon was 7 inches across and very hairy, and Moses said was very poisonous. (By the way Nikki reads these blogs before they are posted and all of this paragraph was blacked out when Nikki read it….. )

In the afternoon, we went piranha fishing. Well, Moses and I did. Nikki, being a vegetarian, didn’t want to hurt defenceless animals. It absolutely threw the rain down.

Piranha teth.

On the way back to Manaus, Moses was incredibly sharp eyed and spotted a Sloth !

It’s a sloth in the wild !

We were back in Manaus overnight before jumping on the express boat for a short 1,100 km, 36 hour express boat ride up the Amazon to Tabatinga on the Tri-State border; Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.

Map showing our little boat trip from Manuas (a) to Leticia (b). 1,100 km’s. 36 hours.

Amazonian sunset. Yes, that’s a river, not a lake.

Our Brazilian odyssey drew to a close. Brazil is amazing. An incredible country. Great people. Beautiful. Awesome nature !


Deforestation of the Amazon.

As I wrote earlier, the Amazon is huge. Imagine Australia not as a land of many deserts but as a land where 80% of the country was covered by thick forest. Travelling 1,100 km’s up the Amazon, it all looked green. There were trees. But we’ve heard a lot about deforestation of the Amazon and how it’s really bad. So I thought “Is it bad ? How Bad ? What does it mean for the climate?”.

When we look at the deforestation of the Amazon, this is what it looks like:


It doesn’t look that bad. Until you look at the rate of deforestation. If 1970 is taken as a baseline then Brazil has lost 19% of it’s forest in 45 years. However 10% of that loss has been in the 25 years since 1991.




Why did it increase significantly in the 1970’s ? The Trans Amazon Highway.


It opened up high swathes of the Amazon to development. Fortunately, it is yet to be finished.

What does this mean in terms of climate? Exactly what you’d expect:
- The Amazon acts as a massive moderator of heat. When the forest isn’t there (or is replaced with pasture), the daytime heat increases and the night time temperatures decrease.
- The Evapotranspiration, or recycling of the rainfall in the Amazon decreases resulting in massive decrease rainfall, runoff and health of the local climate (eg the massive drought in the Sao Paulo area in 2013, 2014, and 2015).
- The Amazon absorbs billions of tonnes of Carbon each year. If the forest is destroyed, not only is this not absorbed, but the carbon held in the vegetation is lost. And because most of the land is used for cattle, and cattle produce a lot of methane that is 21 times worse for the environment than CO2, you can see this is an incredibly serious problem.

Just thought you’d like to know…..


However, now on to Columbia !


Posted by capetocape2017 17:45 Archived in Brazil Tagged the change amazon climate deforestation Comments (1)

Chapter 10 - French Guiana - Prison Camps and Rocket Launch

By Neil

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I reckon I must have been about 15 years old when this book first entered my life.


It is a heart in mouth, jaw dropping tale of Henri Charriere who, according to his book, was erroneously convicted of the murder of a pimp in Paris in 1931. At that time France had a penal colony in French Guiana. Papillon is Charriere’s story of his life, escapes and eventual freedom from the prison in French Guiana and his return to Paris.

Whilst the book was fabulous, the 1973 film, also called Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, was, is, absolutely, one of my favourite movies of all time.



It was 1763, after The Seven Year War with Britain, in which they had lost Canada, the land east of the Mississippi and Louisiana, that the French said “Merde! We’ve got to get us a bit of South America or we’ll be left with nuthin!”. So they sent 12,000 people out to colonise the small province north of Brazil that we now known as French Guiana.


After 75% of the 12,000 people died of malaria, yellow fever, and lots of other nasty things within the first year, the remaining colonists sailed off the coast to the Iles de Salut (Salvation Islands), in order to, er, get salvation from the nasty bugs.

Later, this bloke...


My, that is a rather fetching waxing of the moustache….

…presumably after seeing that less bread was being stolen in the UK after the bread thieves were expelled to Australia, decided to set up a prison colony in French Guiana for baguette thieves. In 1852, the first prisoners were sent to the Iles de Salut.


The Iles de Salut

Between then and 1952 when the prison colony closed, 80,000 prisoners were sent to these now infamous islands. Most died of disease, brutality and overwork.

The sentence for trying to escape was solitary confinement in these cells:

Cellules des Reclusionnaires – Entrance to the cells for solitary confinement.

Doorway to the Solitary cells. The only light into the cells was the barred “window” above the door.

A Solitary confinement cell. Note the metal frame for the bed.

Confinement in the cells was for 23 hours a day. The prisoners were allowed out for 13 minutes exercise per day.

Henri Charriere tried to escape at least 3 or 4 times and after each escape was sentenced to solitary. One of the most amazing parts of the film was Steve McQueen’s physical degradation after being confined to long periods of solitary confinement.

From the film Papillon, showing Steve McQueen’s degradation from the start of the film to the end

Those who’ve seen the film (or see the film) will note the “head through the door scenes”.

Steve McQueen, playing Papillon, in solitary.

Neil, playing the fool, in solitary.

The Iles de Salut are made up of three islands; the Ile Royale (Royal Island), Ile de Saint Joseph (St Joseph Island), and Isle de Diablo (the infamous Devil’s Island). It was from here that Henri Charriere made his final escape. He made a raft of coconuts in sacks tied together. He threw it in the water. It was smashed against the rocks. Then he saw that every 7th wave was bigger. He threw another raft in after the 7th wave. It was taken out to sea……. So he jumped into the shark infested water on the 7th wave and escaped.



So of course, as part of the Big Trip, French Guiana was top of my list.

Then, when we were reading the Lonely Planet guide book, we found that French Guiana is the location of the launch site for the rockets for the European Space Agency. A bit of googling revealed that there was a launch on 6th March! But there was a bit of a technical hitch. To get from Fortaleza to Cayenne in French Guiana was just going to take too long by land. Nik took a look and, by taking to the air, we could make it on the morning of the 6th! Piece of cake.

It was back in 1992 (Good Lord! Is that a quarter of a century ago?) that Dave and I were stationed by Guinness to their brewery in Cameroon in West Africa. Like French Guiana, Cameroon is just north of the equator and, whilst French Guiana is still part of France (and the currency is the Euro), Cameroon is independent. But, when Dave and I were there, there was still a very large French influence.

Getting into French Guiana was great from so many perspectives. Firstly, it felt safe! We had had to be paranoid about safety in Brazil, but in French Guiana it’s just not the case. Secondly, but perhaps most importantly, the food is just fabulous. The cuisine is French, with many ingredients imported from France. It made it more expensive, but completely worth it! On our first day, we went out for lunch. Snails for me. Real French goats cheese for Nik. The happiest of happy days. And then there was the language. My French is pretty good and, after two and a half months of Spanglish and Spangugese it was so nice to be able to understand what’s being said. In short, we loved the place. We even felt safe enough to rent a car for the 3 days we were there. Well we had to, there were no buses…..

Nikki’s lunch. Real French goats cheese !

Half a dozen snails for lunch !


I’m incredibly excited about space. The advances being made into rocket technology by Ariane, Space X, the Chinese, Soyouz, NASA, is amazing.

In 1890, Melbourne Australia was the fastest growing and richest city in the world. Primarily due to the gold rush and sheep.

We are on the cusp of a “Space mining boom”.

If you want to get stuff into space more easily, it’s best to use the Earth’s centrifugal force to “throw” stuff into space. The centrifugal force is highest at the Equator. Whilst there are launch pads in Cape Carnaval, Russia (Kazakhstan), and China, they are nowhere near the equator as French Guiana. That’s why, since 1992, 80% of the satellite’s launched into space have been from Kourou in French Guiana. To get a satellite into space from French Guiana uses up to 17% less fuel.

So at 10.49 pm on Monday 6th March, this got launched:

The Vega satellite launch vehicle with the Sentinel 2B satellite. This was a remote view from the Carapa viewing site.[/I

[i]We have ignition!

We were about 7 km’s away and it was beautiful. Nikki teared up. And so fast! 88 tonnes of fuel burnt in 2 minutes. Awesome.

The launch was for the European Space Agencies Sentinel 2B earth monitoring satellite whose aim is to improve environmental monitoring.

Very, very cool. I’ll put a link into Facebook and into the email.


Having seen the rocket launch, Nik and I jumped on a boat to the Iles de Salut the following day.

We were not the only ones who wanted to take a look and the catamaran was almost full, despite the very inclement weather….


In the tropical climes, the buildings on the islands are slipping into decay. It felt appropriate to be there in the rain, seeing firsthand the extraordinarily difficult conditions that the prisoners experienced every day.

The hospital on Ile Royale


The Childrens cemetery. Only the children of the guards were buried on the island. The prisoners were fed to the sharks. Well, only when they’d died….

The infamous Ile de Diablo, Devils Island.

It was great to finally, after 40 years, get to see it. Even if, it has to be said, that Henri Charriere used a little poetic licence when writing the book. It was a hybrid of not only his escapes, but also those of others!



The following day we tried to visit a Sloth sanctuary.


But there had been a death. Not of a sloth but the President of the French Guianan sloth society. So the sanctuary was closed and we beat a path to the nearest pub.

But more on sloths in the next instalment….

Posted by capetocape2017 14:44 Archived in French Guiana Tagged de rocket vega sentinel iles launch papillon salut 2b Comments (1)

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