We left French Guiana, crossing the Maroni river to arrive in Suriname. The ferry, which takes about eight cars, only runs a couple of times a day, so we made sure we arrived in good time.
The entry into Suriname was simple enough, but being the only country to ask us for an International Driving licence (it had expired), we were only given a two-week permit to drive. Not a problem, as our goal was to head into Guyana, then back into Brazil. Off we drove and it took a while before I realised they drive on the left here and all the cars are right-hand drive.
A note about our intended route to Manaus, Brazil. We were aware as we entered French Guiana and then Suriname that the car-ferry between Suriname and Guyana had been out of action since May, blocking our route west. We continued in the hope/belief that the ferry would start again or there would be an alternative transport to cross that river-border. Information was sketchy at best, so we headed for Paramaribo, the capital. It was a decent road and an easy drive, but one thing became immediately obvious - logging. From clearings and openings on either side of the road came logging trucks. The trunks of huge trees being carried away. The constant sight was a little concerning.
Arriving In Paramaribo, we had lunch and a quick look around. There are plenty of Dutch Colonial buildings to be seen, some well preserved and others in danger of collapse. The Presidential Palace and government buildings are reasonably impressive. Anyway, due to the heat, almost all businesses appear to close by 3pm, so we headed out of town to camp by a marina fronting the Suriname river.
Suriname is a cultural/ethnic melting pot. It is visually colourful, from buildings to boats, bold colour everywhere. The main Mosque in Paramaribo is next to the Synagogue, is close to the Church etc.. This is probably the most ethnically mixed population we've seen on our trip - Indian, Maroon, Creole, Javanese, mixed, Chinese etc., and we had the impression that everyone seemed pretty chill with each other, except maybe the Chinese shop-keepers, who seemed to go through life as if everyone was intent on stealing their stock... very amusing and they may have a point.
The President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse, is a bit of a boy. Between 1980 and 1987 he was the de facto leader following a coup and in various notorious incidents he had his rivals murdered, and I don't just mean a few. He was also convicted in 2000 by a Dutch court for Drug Trafficking (500kg cocaine) and sentenced in absentee to 11 years’ imprisonment. With an International arrest warrant out there, he needs to be careful with his holiday travel choices. Guyana to the east is an option, French Guiana to the west is not! Anyway, he's been back in power since 2010 and I suspect that the timber seeping from the rain-forest is destined for China.... Well they have built the new roads.
We visited the Volkswagen dealership and made an appointment for the following week. The suspension noises were troublesome.
We then decided to visit Brownsbeg Nature Reserve. If the suspension was a little suspect, this little journey wasn't really the best move. The climb up to the plateau and camp-site was tortuous and more suitable for a high clearance 4×4. A vehicle rescue up there would have been a pain, but we made it and the views from the plateau were fantastic. We saw monkeys, beautiful birds and some frogs. We took a few of the walks, one taking us to a waterfall. The Reserve, which had been inaugurated some 50 years ago, hasn't had too much money thrown at it since. It is a little care worn, but great nonetheless.
After two nights on the plateau, we set off back down the bumpy track. Happily we made it to the main road without incident.
We drove on to Atonji to try to get a boat up the Upper Suriname River. Rachel had booked a lodge, a few hours up river. Atonji was buzzing with life, concentrated at the river bank, where lots of colourful boats sat side by side, awaiting passengers. There were boatmen and lots of people waiting with luggage and supplies. A lot of people were travelling with song-birds in small cages.
We do not speak Dutch or the native languages, so it took a while to work things out. We found a boat and were told it would leave around 2pm. The van was parked opposite the local police station, with an assurance it would be fine.
Surprisingly on time, we were called to our boat and off we headed. A journey passing small communities and villages, with rain-forest all the way. We went up through various minor rapids with the occasional wreck of similar boats sitting on rocks. For the communities, the river is where you fish, cool-off, bathe, clean the dishes and wash the clothes. Most of these communities are the descendants of slaves who escaped the coffee and sugar-cane plantations, fleeing up river.
Our boat dropped us at Pikin Slee, our home for 24 hours. We took a walk along sandy tracks into the village, where we happened upon a craftsmen workshop. We chatted and admired some of the work. The indigenous museum was closed but its garden was open. On our return to the lodge it was time for a swim. Later we went on a frog hunt in the dark.
Next day, at 8am, we were on a boat heading back to Atonji. We got chatting to a guy, who was off to find work in Paramaribo. He had his caged song-bird and a little luggage. When he realised we had a van he asked for a lift to Brownsbeg, so once back in Atonji we set off with our passenger, who was very interesting. First stop was at his mum and dads, where we met one of his kids, the others, older live in Paramaribo, for schooling. Our fellow traveller did not have a high opinion of the president. We got talking about logging. He said that the Chinese build the roads, which are pretty good and, as Suriname has no money, they then log the timber for payment. As previously mentioned, there is evidence of logging everywhere. To our cynical, untrained eye, it seems the Chinese just build the roads inland to bring the trees within easier reach. The Chinese even build reinforced bridges using magnificent trees so that they can carry the weight of the logging trucks. You often even come across a rather sad sight. A huge tree in a clearing, twice the size of anything around. That was rain-forest and that tree is protected so it wasn’t chopped down but now has a lonely existence, the surrounding forest gone.
Back in Paramaribo, the Volkswagen garage worked on the van - new front ball joints, while we visited a former coffee plantation, now a nature reserve abundant with wildlife and just across the river from the capital. The rear suspension needed new bushes but some parts were not available.
We also had the final answer regarding access east to Guyana. The car ferry across the Corentyne from Suriname to Guyana, a crossing of some 4km, was still not working and there were no alternatives, so there was no way we were going to be able to continue on towards Manaus by land. There was a rumour that it would restart at the end of September, but we didn't have any certainty or a month to wait and one further factor was preventing progress east: a barge had hit the bridge in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital and all traffic east and west was cancelled. The passenger ferry was the only way to cross. I guess this one was not meant to be!
So, time to head back to French Guiana (via Volkswagen for those missing bushes) and back to Macapá in Brazil.