My Trip to French Guiana

GEO Illustration Challenge 2013 Winner Tells His Story of the Sentinel-1A launch

When gazing down at the coastline of French Guiana just before your plane touches down, it can be hard to believe that your destination is home to one of the most modern space launch centres in the world. You see houses and narrow roads here and there, but the landscape is otherwise dominated by the rainforest. Tucked away in the surrounding wildlife, Félix Eboué Airport leaves you with the same impression.

During last year's Copernicus Masters competition, I submitted an entry to the GEO Illustration Challenge "Traces of Humankind". I was fortunate enough to be awarded first prize: a trip to French Guiana to witness the launch of a rocket. This overseas department of France is also the location of the aforementioned Guiana Space Centre, a major ESA spaceport. The centre can be found near the city of Kourou, whereas our accommodations were in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. I arrived there a full two days before the other invitees to the launch - plenty of time to explore the city and its immediate environs on my own. Along with a colonial-style city centre and its beautifully designed Botanical Gardens, Cayenne boasts long stretches of beach that are not used for tourism. All things considered, tourists are not a common sight in the city. French Guiana itself, meanwhile, has a population of less than 250,000 and a territory larger than Bavaria, which gives it a generally low population density - one of the lowest in the world, in fact, at 2.65 people per square kilometre.

On the evening of my third day in Cayenne, I met the ESA delegation at a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Its members mainly included national representatives furthering their respective countries' Copernicus interests within ESA. At our Novotel on the banks of the Mahury River, we wiled away the evening hours and got ready for the big day ahead.

Launch day started bright and early with a bus trip from Cayenne to Kourou, a journey of around 60 kilometres. Upon our arrival, we took a tour of the ESA facilities. The premises support launches of three rocket types: Vega, Sojus, and Ariane. Due to their varying sizes, most launch systems for these rocket types are assembled independently of one another. This gave us the chance to tour the corresponding facilities - control centre, vehicle assembly building, launch pad - for each of the three types.

The following afternoon, we made our way to the observation platforms for the launch. Each of us had the choice of watching the event either from the control centre (Jupiter Control) at an elevated position or from the Kolibri observation point - at ground level, but closer to the rocket. I opted for Kolibri, which would prove to be the right decision due to the greater visibility it afforded.

At a distance of five kilometres from the launch pad (the closest observers are allowed to be), Kolibri offered a direct view of the already upright rocket thanks to a swath that had been cleared in the nearby rainforest. Apparently I was in luck: others on hand told me that this aisle through the trees was a recent development. Prior to past launches, onlookers hadn't known in which direction to watch for rockets taking off.

Just before the launch, things got a little hectic. In order to take home a nice picture of the event, I'd unpacked my camera gear right after arriving and set everything up just as I wanted it a bit further away from the main building. My delight in framing the rocket between sections of rainforest was short-lived, however: a few minutes prior to launch, a fair number of other observers arrived on the scene and ended up on the side of the frame. I decided to gather my things and find a new position just before showtime. The parking lot proved to be a good location, but while I was still setting up, the rocket launched behind me. Nevertheless, I ended up with a number of quality shots of the rocket slowly rising up and away from the picture-perfect rainforest.

Compared to the sight, the sound of the launch was fairly unspectacular. My previous cinematic experiences had led me to associate these events with deafening booms and plenty of flames. I'd anticipated feeling something like a solid punch in the stomach when the Sojus rocket took off, but it was relatively quiet as it rose from the launchpad - about as loud as the average thunderclap, if you like.

After the rocket disappeared from view around three minutes later, my fellow observers and I started to get our things together. We rode back to the hotel with a sense of satisfaction and spent the rest of the evening at an after-launch party. The Sentinel-1A satellite our rocket was to carry into orbit has since reached its desired position and begun transmitting radar photos to Earth.

The entire ESA premises were closely guarded by a contingent of French foreign legionnaires stationed in Kourou. All of the access roads were blocked, and some of them were even secured by tanks.

On the next and last day of the ESA-organised trip, we drove back to Kourou. Our destination: the restaurant Carbet des Maripas, which lies hidden in the surrounding rainforest further away from the city. There, we feasted on an expansive buffet of local delicacies. We then went took a ride on a traditional pirogue (a type of small boat) on the nearby river.

Following the end of the ESA trip, I stayed in French Guiana for another week, spending the first three days in Kourou. The uninhabited Îles du Salut, which lie around 15 kilometres off the coast of Kourou, are definitely worth mentioning. Early in the morning, we set out for these islands by catamaran from the city's harbour. Upon arriving, we found overgrown prison facilities dating back to the French colonial period. I was also surprised to find capuchin and squirrel monkeys living on the islands. Having grown accustomed to tourists, they jumped on our heads and climbed up our clothing.

The last stop on my onward journey was the northernmost city of French Guiana, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Its location on the Maroni River puts Saint-Laurent right on the border to Suriname. The region is primarily known for the richness and individuality of its nature.

There are no public means of regional transportation in French Guiana; only taxis, including shared variants, are available to ferry passengers between cities. Space is often only available at unusual times (four in the morning, in the case of my departure). As I was preparing for the journey, this meant having to spend a good deal of time on supposedly secondary matters, like transportation. This in turn left me too little time to organise outings in Saint-Laurent. When I arrived, it quickly became clear that this was a mistake: without a car, there aren't a lot of sights you can see. Since my age prevented me from renting a vehicle, I came to terms with spending the rest of my trip at the place where I was staying. On one of my ventures into the city, however, I came across Saint-Laurent's forestry office, where I had the good fortune of meeting a very friendly, German-speaking forest warden. It wasn't long before he offered to take me along as he went about his work. We drove into the jungle together the following day and covered a series of waypoints in a rectangular section of rainforest.

After spending an exciting week in French Guiana following the ESA launch, I travelled back to Cayenne to catch my flight home via Paris.
On the day after that, I rented a bike and rode to Saint-Jean, a city located around 15 kilometres south of Saint-Laurent. From there, I had my choice of hiking trails of varying distances through the rainforest. I opted for the eight-kilometer trail. Despite these trails being one of the main attractions in Saint-Laurent, I didn't meet a single soul during my three hours of hiking. Also, anyone planning this kind of excursion in French Guiana should always be sure to take along plenty to drink. With the temperature and humidity as high as they were, I finished my 1.5-litre bottle of water in no time.

Text and images by Alexander Popp

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