Words and photos by Brett Goulston
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I watched the movie Papillon with my parents at the local drive-in theatre in North Ryde. The Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman classic left a huge impact on me as a young boy so almost 50 years later I was really excited to visit the islands off the coast of French Guiana where the movie is set.
Kate and I arrived in Cayenne after driving from neighbouring Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and crossing the border at St Laurent. We were collected by Mike, our driver, and Gwen, our guide, at the transport station where many of the convicts from France first arrived. The drive to Kourou, from where you depart for the islands, is about two hours through jungle. The town itself is a big nothing (it exists primarily as a base for the European Space Centre) but the trip to the islands via catamaran is a gem!
There are three islands with the main one being Isle Royale on which our guide walked us around all of the major sites in about two hours. We visited the museum where, among other stories, you can read about the injustice of France’s General Dreyfus, the old jails including the solitary confinement cells, the officer’s quarters and hospital. There’s also a cemetery but this was not for the deceased prisoners as they were just thrown into the water (with weights attached) for the sharks to feed on!
The highlight of the day-trip is St. Josephs Island, which technically we were not allowed to be on as it is not open to the public. The buildings and other infrastructure on this island have not been repaired at any stage so it is more authentic – and frankly, more spooky - than the others! Walking through the ruins and seeing the prisoner’s tiny cells where they may have spent most of their life, you can’t help feel for them regardless of their crime.
In the late 1940’s the then US President started to put pressure on the French Government to close the facility due to its barbaric nature, likened to Hitler’s concentration camps. After much pressure, the islands ceased being used as a prison in the 1950’s.
I really enjoyed my visit to these historical isles. You can join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to the Guiana’s departing early 2019. Click here for more details.