JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
WILLIAM KIMBER AND CO. LIMITED
46 Wilton Place, London, S.W.I
FIRST EDr ON JULY 1953
SECOND EDITION AUGUST 1953
This book is copyright. No part of it may be reproduced in any form without
permission in writing from the publishers except by a reviewer who wishes to
quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a
magazine or a newspaper or radio broadcast.
MADR AND PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY PURNELL AND SONS 'LTD
PAULTON (SOMERSET) AND LONDON
AYMOND MAUFRAIS was born at Toulon in 1926. He disap-
peared in Guiana early in 1950, and nothing has been heard
of him since. This book consists of the notes which he
wrote during the six months before he vanished. The manuscript
was found on the banks of the river Tamouri, at the point at
which Maufrais is last known to have camped. At the time of his
disappearance he was attempting to reach the Tumuc Humac
mountains-the Eldorado of Indian legend, of Sir Walter
Raleigh's dream, and also of Voltaire's Candide.
The first news of his disappearance was brought to Cayenne
by an Indian who had happened on Maufrais' camp in February
1950. He found there a rifle, with its ammunition, a camera, some
miscellaneous equipment, and the manuscript which is here
printed entire and intact. The last note, dated 13thJanuary, shows
him, exhausted with dysentery and hunger, proposing to wade
or swim down-river as his last hope.
The Prefet of Guiana organised an expedition in the hope of
finding Maufrais at some point on the route which he had set
himself. Nothing resulted from this: but in October 195o it was
found that he had reached a point some fifteen miles downstream
from the Camopi river (and therefore about thirty-five miles
from his last camp) and had there built a native hut. A second
official expedition was organised, but this also failed to find the
Meanwhile, in France, Maufrais' father and mother persisted
in believing that he was alive. At the cost, therefore, of sacrificing
his job at the Toulon Marine Arsenal and his modest savings,
and with the help of a body of sympathisers, Monsieur Edgar
Maufrais decided to sail for Brazil, and thence to look for traces
of his son. He sailed in July 1952, and since then has been con-
tinuously engaged in the search. Starting this time from the
PUBLISHER S NOTE
south, he effected in three months' effort a junction between the
Amazon province of Brazil and French Guiana, hitherto con-
sidered impossible. On his return journey by cruel misadventure
his canoe overturned in a rapid and he lost all his material, barely
escaping with his life.
The adventures of this workman-turned-explorer have been
almost as remarkable as his son's, but he has not yet found any
conclusive evidence that Raymond Maufrais is alive. On i5th
March 1953, Monsieur Maufrais set out from Belem on his second
expedition. The Police Commissioner of Alenquer in the Brazi-
lian state of Para had received a report that a young white man,
suffering from loss of memory, had been sighted with a tribe of
nomad Indians on the Amazon. Monsieur Maufrais has said that
he will not give up the search until his son has been found.
To an impartial observer reading the young Maufrais' own
account of his explorations, it would seem unlikely that he has
survived. Few observers, however, remain impartial when con-
fronted with this extraordinary record, and it is not surprising
that the fate of Raymond Maufrais has excited a storm of sym-
pathy in France.
From his childhood, Maufrais had been obsessed with the
spirit of adventure. Uncle Tom's Cabin and the life of Pere
Foucauld were his favourite reading; and soon he set himself an
ideal of self-reliance and individual action which he was able to
pursue during the Occupation. In 1941, at the age of fifteen, he
left home at night in the hope of reaching England; but at Dieppe
he fell on the quay as he was stepping into a fishing-boat, breaking
three ribs. Soon afterwards he joined the Maquis with his father,
and was present at the liberation of Toulon. At seventeen he was
awarded the Croix de Guerre, and subsequently became a para-
chutist in Indo-China.
In July 1946, while working as a journalist at Rio de Janeiro he
managed to attach himself, despite his youth, to an expedition
leaving for the Matto Grosso, which, however, met with a hostile
reception at the hands of the Chavantes Indians. He did succeed,
PUBLISHER S NOTE
nevertheless, in bringing back with him the relics of the Pimen-
tel Barbosa expedition, which had fallen victim to the same tribe
On his return to France he began to prepare an expedition
of his own, the object was the unexplored Tumuc Humac region
on the Brazil-Guiana border, the study of its wild life and mineral
wealth, together with the search for unknown savage tribes.
It is this expedition, for which a slender subsidy was provided by
various periodicals, that forms the subject of this book.
It is not a conventional story of adventure. Nor is it suffused
with that heroism of understatement which most English readers
expect from a book of this kind. Maufrais was not afraid of the
more lyrical aspects of his activities, and some of his soliloquising
revives a tradition which has died out of the English travel book.
The reader cannot, however, but respect the utterance of one
who, when asked why he chose to be an explorer, replied, "Be-
cause I cannot dominate my passion for the truth: perhaps also
because I think that it is man's duty on earth to remain himself."
He vanished while attempting something that had never been
achieved before: he expected to take two years over it, and to
travel alone, in an uncharted jungle, among Indians who were
reputed to be hostile. He was a scientist, but he was also a
humanist. "Adventure", he said, "means work well done; and
the harder the work, the greater the adventure."
All royalties from the sales of this book are being
devoted to the expenses of Monsieur Edgar Maufrais'
attempts to find his son.
Publisher's Note 5
Part I 13
Part II 24
Part m 99
Part IV 178
A Note on Some Rare Words 206
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Raymond Maufrais Frontispiece
Unloading on one of the Mana's 99 falls facing page 32
Hauling upstream on the rope 32
The rock-strewn Fracas Fall 33
Saramacas at work 33
A Sophie gold-miner 48
Working upstream with the Takari 48
Traversing the Big Fall" 49
A failure on the falls 49
A disaster on the Mana 96
Boat-building at Maripasoula 96
A Bosch bowman 97
Sifting gold at Dagobert 97
Dawn in the forest near Sophie Creek 112
Boat-building: fitting the crosspieces I12
Bosch girl returning from the river 113
The last photograph: Maufrais says goodbye to Zephir 113
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Paris, 17th July 1949
S o THRE it is! My luggage is ready; it's heavier-much
heavier-than the fifty pounds that was supposed to be the
most I could take for my raid on the Tumuc Humacs. I
couldn't possibly hump such a weight on my shoulders for more
than four hundred miles. But never mind! I'll just throw out
everything I don't need. But what shan't I need, when it comes
to it? I'm down to bare necessities already; and now I'll have to
nibble away at my medical supplies, my ammunition, and the
gewgaws I've bought for the Indians....
It's already one o'clock in the morning.
I've just had a farewell dinner at Doctor X's; one of Carven's
mannequins, a jeweller, and an antique dealer; I felt bored and
lonely in my armchair. I had a glass of champagne in my hand,
and as I watched the bubbles rising I listened to the animated
conversation of those exemplary men of the world-the gossip
of the Rue Royale, the latest news of society, and their plans for
"You will come, won't you? It'll be quite delicious."
Doc's going to pay the surety that the steamship company
(prompted by the Guiana Prefecture) insists upon. I'm com-
What is it I see ahead of me? Who am I? Who is it who's
thinking inside my head? I can never make out these things. It's
the oddest, most torturous thing. I'd like to know if others feel
I regret nothing of what I shall leave behind me. Perhaps this
is the effect of the Ortedrine? Perhaps, after ten days' treatment,
it no longer keeps me going?
I've got everything finished. Is it possible?
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I went to see my publisher. My editor, too. They all called
out to me: "M . ." "Thanks," I thought to myself. It's the
I've been too anxious to go. My eyes were misted over, when
I left the house the other day.
"You're becoming a man!" said someone I'd known as a boy.
Poor Mother, poor Father. The sadness of their smiles. Poor
A last moment in their arms, a quick turn of the head, and
an even quicker closing of the door. It was hard.
How long the hours seem to-night!
Every departure is a struggle, every arrival a risk. And always
looking for money, always begging it from somebody or other...
But how happy I shall be, later on, when I've rounded the cape
of these difficulties! It's then that freedom-that life itself-
I can hear an aeroplane purring quietly to itself.., and the
tick-tick of the alarm-clock. The Bastille is close at hand ....
Nothing worth noting on board the Gascogne. There's dancing
in the evening, but I'm bored.
We stop at one port after another. The French West Indies,
the British West Indies, and then ... Guiana.
The ship soon turns into a Persian market. The decks arc
swarming with Hindus, negroes, half-breeds, and Chinamen.
Fte-day at Cayenne. The Place des Palmistes has been turned
into a fairground; and people are dancing in the bars near the
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I've had a trial gallop. Sixty miles of unmanageable bush with
eighty pounds' weight on my back and nothing to eat. It went
off all right-except that I've got swollen feet and an upset
And I saw the lepers! What have I got to complain about
And Indians! The last of the Caribs....
When I lay resting in my hammock, beneath the redskins'
carbet,1 I felt at home at last.
I'm stuck now-haven't got the money to get started. So I
have to wait for an opportunity of some sort. There's a miner
who's got to go up the Maroni river-perhaps he'll take me?
Got a temperature. Working hard, though, on my Oyampis
and Roucouyennes dialects.
Map-reading, too-and I who always hated maths!
I've already worked out the line of my march. It looks very
pretty on paper!
Still at Cayenne. This inactivity soon gets me down....
A French family is putting me up; their affectionate under-
standing helpsbme to have patience.
I've stopped going out. I just work till I drop: dialects, map-
reading ... a little day-dreaming, and sometimes a twinge of
homesickness. Homesickness or fear? We'll know for certain
when the time comes!
1 The carbet is a native hut, made by driving stakes into the ground. Between the
stakes, wattles of woven osier form the walls of the hut, while the roof is made of branches
stretched across pitchforks and covered with mangrove leaves. The floor is of beaten
earth, with a wicker fence in the middle of the hut to mark the point which divides the
kitchen from the rest of the hut-which serves as bedroom, dining-room, and sitting-
room, all in one.
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It's only human to run into trouble; but trouble is the thing I
can't allow myself.
Letters from France.... From readers.... Young enthusiasts,
very young, not blasts as yet.... Thank you-you're just what
It rains and rains ... the "dry season" is wringing wet this
Someone told me a story. A story like many others: about
seventeen men who set out, in 1938, under the direction of Cap-
tain Grelier of the Eaux et Forets. Eight of them came back. The
Indians attacked them twice. Fever. Hunger. Fear.
"I was damn glad to get back alive. It was hell, I can tell
The leader of the expedition had to spend three months in
hospital. Ah, that forest! That Guiana forest! Will it be my
enemy, too? How I can make it bend to my will Should I
offer a sacrifice to Tupinamba? Or Tablaqueras? O gods of the
forests and the waters and the trees, O gods of the sky and the
earth-let the solitary traveller go freely on his way!
I have a visitor each evening in my room: a bat. What evil
augury does she bring, in her dark, diabolical robes?
The family monkey chases butterflies, and the convict tells us
the story of his life:
"They used to kill us off for a bet. They'd play belote each
evening to see who'd be the executioner. Or they'd send us off
on working-parties. Fifty of us would go off, and sometimes
ten would come back, and sometimes none at all ..."
The last letters have come and gone. I've blown my bridges.
It's me against the jungle now. Just the two of us: a fine sight!
But when you strike, jungle, do it quickly. And strike hard: I
don't want to suffer for long.
JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
3 st August 1949
While I'm waiting, I swot away at the old library books here.
Pages torn out, margins filled with readers' comments, even the
text itself scored over and crossed out-there's nothing lacking:
not even abuse of the authors!
The vandalism of it! The pretentiousness, the stupidity, the
secondhand eloquence, the pointless diatribes!
Poor Coudreau-if you knew what they've done to you!
Still, it's no worse than what you did to Crevaux.
Well-any mongrel will attack a wounded wolf, even if he's
the leader of the pack.... And there are mongrels enough among
our profession-or among the people who live by us. You
believed in the holy brotherhood ... but you didn't want to tell
them how precious was our solitude, and you were quite right:
those things can't be shared, and they'd be hateful if they could.
The more we spread the myth, the more we shall savour our own
Still at Cayenne! And it's still raining. I feel it sapping my
will, and I long to be off. I can't finish my articles for the evening
papers. The articles for Sciences et Voyages have gone off at last,
with their photographs.
I sold my Winchester, which was to have paid for the canoes.
I've sold my leather suitcase-the one I was so proud of, that I
bought in Rio, just before I left for France. I've sold my photo-
electric cell. I found by experience that it was better to trust in
oneself than in that delicate, unreliable instrument. Besides... I
had to have money.
In spite of it all, I'm completely broke again. I'm lodging
with people who've adopted me as their son; their fourth, since
they had three already. They do all they can to put me at my
But I hate to be in such a wretched position. Why did I ever
go in for this infernal way of life? You need a packet of money,
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influential friends, and a name that counts... I'm R. MAUFRAIS
My departure has been put off again till next Thursday. I'm at
the mercy of somebody who kindly offered me a lift in his boat.
I'm at his mercy both for the route and for the date of departure.
Ah, if only I had money! There's always something that has to
be bought at the last moment.
My thousand-franc notes just melt in the air. I could do with a
great many more! I shan't have a sou when I get to Brazil.
I don't dare to go to the dentist any more, because I couldn't
pay him. With the Chinese photographer it's the same story.
I can't even afford stamps for my letters. Things are really
I'm terribly anxious to get away. It's no joke to be haunted
by lack of money the whole time. I feel as if I'm wasting time,
for that reason. I'm the slave of my own poverty.
I shall be twenty-three next month! .. What have I got to
show for ite And yet perhaps I shouldn't complain. The gods
have shown me favour. My plans take an eternity to get going,
but they do get going in the end.... Well, then? ... Just that
I'm eating myself up. Just that the blood's drying in my veins.
The other day a charming lady took me for thirty-five! What
shall I look like at that age? A young old man!
Cayenne is asleep. It's one o'clock in the morning. My pen
scratches on the paper. Bobby dozes away. Poor Bobby-you've
been officially nominated as my companion on the road to the
Tumuc Humacs. Close-cropped, dirty white hair, pink belly,
black patches on that indecent, sickly pink, a lively eye, but a
nondescript mongrel face and weak little teeth. They tell me you
can smell the wild forest pig, the agouti, and that you're a
Yesterday you let the cat take all your bread-and-milk. You
were howling like a baby. You shake with fright at the sight of
another dog. When we're out hunting you're terrified of the
forest, you don't know how to get through the long grass, and
if you meet a stranger you jump up and lick his hand.
But then-you do know how to smell out the agouti! You
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may be homesick, but you put a good face on it. You re afraid
of me. I've beaten you till you know that you must come when I
call, and lie down when I tell you to, and stop dead in your
Yes, I'm fond of you, Bobby. I hate to see you go sniffing at
the garden gate, pulling on your chain, waiting for the sound of a
car.... It'll be a long time before you see your old master again,
and this house, and your friends in the square. You'll get used
to me; we'll go adventuring together; we'll share, like brothers,
the food that falls into our laps-you'll help me to find it, I hope?
You shall be my only companion. You'll see the Tumuc Humacs;
if I die, you'll die with me; you'll sleep in my hammock; you'll
drink the same water that will quench my thirst, and we'll pick
the same bones together.
So let's get going, Bobby. And please-help me to find our
daily steak, take good care of my hammock, and give me a
friendly nuzzle when you see that I'm feeling low. I'm counting
on you, d'you see?
The convict who worked in the house had an attack of some
sort-sunstroke, perhaps? China flew all over the place, and the
whole family was set by the ears.
He was serving a sentence of fifteen years' forced labour: for
murder. He was cook, laundryman, ironer, general help; a nice,
toothless, bald-headed chap who'd escaped three times and
knew a heap of improbable stories.
Two policemen took him away. Not for the first time; they'd
already had to break his jaw, when he tried to knife his employer
at the police-station. This time they'll shut him up for good.
When he went through his accounts, Monsieur X realized that
his convict had been buying himself rum, anisette, tobacco,
and a lot of expensive groceries at his employer's expense. It
seems that the people who said to me "I'd rather serve twenty
years in Guiana than five at home" knew what they were talking
JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
We talked philosophy till two in the morning.
I want to get back-to read and study-I'm terribly incomplete:
never having had time to add to my luggage, in that respect. It's
a great handicap. There's so much to learn. My philosophy is
instinctive; but Monsieur X thought it was identical with
The days fly by, but time hangs heavily upon me. Shall I be
brave enough to plunge into the fog? I must have action-and
soon, because I'm afraid of myself. I begin to doubt if I shall
succeed. And then there are all those rumours of war: denials,
confirmations, 1939, Munich... It's the same thing over again.
What'll be left of the world when I get back?
I thought I could spare my boots! Three days in the forest,
during the forced march from Manan to Iracoubo, with eighty
pounds on my back-sixty miles on foot; three days' walk in the
rain, with the leather stiffened and shrunk despite continual greas-
ing: all this made my boots as hard as rocks and as painful as
I cut them away with my razor. The result was that I had a
pair of shoes that I couldn't put on, and a pair of gaiters that I've
sewn and patched as best I could to go with the ankle-boots that
I bought this morning. Three days did for my boots, and the
rain rusted my chronograph (the watchmaker says it'll never
work again). So I've no boots and no watch; and-worst luck
of all-my revolver is in very bad condition, and the bullets I
bought at Flaubert's are too old to be any use.
I had a practice shoot the other day. I didn't get a single hit on
the target. The incompetence of it! Not one of my five bullets.
... But when I opened the revolver they were all five squeezed
together inside .... The gunsmith was in a cold sweat; it was a
miracle the thing hadn't exploded. The cartridge-cases had
split, and all the powder was dead. It hadn't done the cylinder
JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN 21
any good. You have to get it out with a hammer and.knock it
back with your fist. But it still goes, so I'll take it, all the same.
And a little hammer, too. What a weapon! I suppose I'll have a
breech-loading musket next!
I've begun to study archery. No, really-I have! You never
know where you are with these modem weapons.
Will my equipment stand up to ten months on foot in the
forest Time will tell. Meanwhile I've lightened my load by
cutting out the penicillin injections and substituting the anti-
venom serums. I'm always cutting down, cutting down....
Everything's spread out in my room. I haven't the courage to
get down to packing-not till the last moment, and then we'll
see what's to be done.
Sunday, I th September
We're off on Thursday-or so M. Thiebault tells me. A
geologist is going with him as far as Grand Pont, on the upper
Mana. He's arriving by air on Tuesday evening. So I'm taking
the Mana river, instead of the Maroni; thence I shall join the
Itany; then the Ouaqui; and then-unexplored territory.
Monday, 12th September
Spent the day in the library; nosed out some very interesting
Tuesday, I3th September
To-morrow morning the final decision is to be made. The
Sorbonne professor who is to accompany Thiebault to the upper
Mana arrived this evening-as did the depute for Guiana.
Wednesday, i4th September
The plans we laid last night have had to be postponed. One
of the boat's motors needs repairing. We might get away on
Sunday evening or Monday morning. It's raining, and I'm
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Never anything but waiting.... Sometimes I'm in despair.
I'm afraid that I'll weaken and give the whole thing up.... I'm
only a man, I'm fond of life; and my ideal is so remote! I'mjust
like the people I despise: the same little faults, the same little acts
of cowardice. Sometimes I wonder why I keep on at it. Per-
severance, after all, depends more on how things go than on what
the person concerned is really like. Once you're in, once you've
got going, you simply can't give up.
People laugh to see that I'm still here. They all think I'm going
to give up. They feign sympathy when they ask what my plans
"No, he's not."
Ah, if I only had thirty thousand francs to pay for boatmen
and canoe! The dry season is slipping away, and I fancy that
I shall pay dearly for these delays, when once I'm in the deep
Thursday, 22nd September
It's hot. Foreseeing as much, I brought with me.two small
damp-proof boxes. But I have to leave them behind, to save
weight. I also abandon half my medical supplies, and half of the
glass baubles I'd meant to give to the Indians.
Sunday, 25th September
People in the town are saying: "That Maufrais-pooh, he's
just a fraud! He'll lie up for ten months on the outskirts of St.
Laurent du Maroni, and then he'll pay the Bosch blacks to take
him up the river to Belem, so that he can tell the world about his
If I could have laid my hands on them, I think I'd have skinned
them alive. But then-"who touches pitch ..." And, as a true
friend said to me, there is another proverb which says, "Dogs bark,
but the caravan goes on its way."
Well, the caravan isn't as big as it was, and the dogs are still
JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN 23
barking. I've also been taken for a dangerous madman. Some
people say it'll be all to the good if I die in the forest.....
What a fuss there's been about my departure! What is there
to hide, then, in the Tumuc Humacs, or on the road that leads
"Hasn't a chance in a thousand!" said one pineapple planter,
a veteran of the bush.
"He'll never get back!"
Pessimism everywhere; the gloomiest goodbyes. People are
still trying to discourage me.
Monday, 26th September
OUR DEPARTURE was fixed for five a.m. on board the St.
Laurent. Bobby marched bravely up on to the deck, not
knowing (luckily) how long a march I had in mind for
him. He's a good little dog-not much to look at, not much to be
frightened of, and not very clever: but he's my dog, and he's a
friend, and I've already grown fond of him.
"Hey, Bobby! You're going to see a lot of new things, you
know!" (He whines the whole time).
At five o'clock, people are still asleep. A few faithful friends
have come to see me off. My eyes smart.
Moving off at dawn: it's a poignant moment, and my throat
seems to stick fast. I'm afraid of showing what I feel. Am I
happy? Or afraid? I couldn't say. I'm off that's all there is to
it, and it's the climax of a fourteen-months struggle with the
problems of every day-problems that grew perpetually more
I've sold all my linen, and the damp-proof isothermic boxes
by which I had set such great store.
Monsieur B lent me a watch; my own is useless.
A grey sea. My gums hurt me. A tooth-drawn, with great
difficulty, the day before yesterday-is still plaguing me, in the
form of an abscess. A fine day to start off! ... It's stupid to get
sentimental. Departures always go deep, with me. I think of my
mother and father. They've had me with them for ten years.
Poor, dear old couple! How I long to be back with them, and to
watch them live out their lives, carefree and unharassed. Pro-
vided that Papa's health holds out, and he doesn't do anything
I was writing an article on Guiana, but I couldn't finish it. I
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wrote exactly as I thought. I didn't want to change a word. If it
pleases some and angers others... well, it can't be helped.
I was up all night, completing my luggage. I'm all on edge,
have a slight temperature, and my liver hurts if I touch it. I
drank a good deal on my farewell visits-and now I'm paying
I can see the coastline in the distance; we shall be at St. Laurent
du Maroni towards six o'clock.
It's hot; but how cold I was, earlier this morning!
All these preliminaries weigh heavily upon me. I'd have pre-
ferred to be dropped by parachute into the very centre of my
unexplored territory. Yet that would have been too easy; I'd
have felt that I hadn't really earned my success. Someone said to
"Why d'you attempt that unexplored territory, and start from
the middle of Guiana, when it would be quite as valuable and much
less dangerous if you simply explored the Tumuc Humacs from
one source to the other? If you succeed, it'll be the Tumuc
Humacs, not the unexplored territory, that people will talk
about; and it's in the unexplored parts that you'll be in greatest
danger. It's there that you'll wear yourself down, so that when
you get to the real point of your explorations-the thing
which really counts-you'll be at the end of your tether, both
physically and morally. Do give it up! Do just concentrate on
They all said the same. But my father is a man of the Beauce:
obstinacy itself, that's to say. I've decided to make this journey,
and I'm not going to shorten it by so much as a yard. In my own
eyes, and when I had to face my own conscience, I should see it as
a renunciation of myself. The work would not have been done.
I'll do both those things-and I'll win through. Yes, Messieurs
les Pessimistes, I'll win through!
Strange how one can put down such pointless things in one's
private diary. If all this were to be published, it would bore
everyone stiff. It's the first time that I've confided in my note-
book, like a schoolgirl who's troubled by the spring. Real travel-
notes are conciser, less cumbersome, less emotional: but this
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particular journey justifies this particular notebook. So I think,
at any rate.
The throb of the ship's motors seems to me to beat out the
phrase, "I'm alive ... I'm alive ... I'm alive."
Now our bows are making for the Maroni estuary, with its
islands and its many small tributaries. There's a T-shaped wharf
with gaping floorboards and a primitive railway to bring up load
after load of valuable timber: some stylish bungalows, with
bushes running wild with intoxicating red flowers, and coconut
palms that stand out shaggily against the evening sky. The dirty,
broad, slow-moving river washes up against the grass-grown hulk
of a gutted steamer that lies a few cables' length from the bank.
Red-roofed Albina: the Bosch and Boni negroes, with their
heavy-breasted women: the mysterious designs that are tattooed
in relief on their bellies.
Convicts, bone-thin under their striped pyjamas, and with big
straw hats on their heads, make haste to tie up the St. Laurent.
Gardies, the commissioner, is there; his southern vivacity blows
away the last remnants of the appalling depression that had come
over me from having waited so long.
Tuesday, 27th September
He's mad! So people say. He'd been lost in the forest for
forty-five days before he was discovered, naked, wasted and
delirious, by some black Saramacas.
"Ah, the forest! That terrible, terrible forest!"
That's all he can say. Mad! But it's the obsession with madness
which leads to madness. ... I must somehow forget that man.
"The leather will rot in your shoes, and the seams of your
clothes will come undone, and the material will be torn into
shreds. Your instruments will fall to pieces. Everything you have
will rot, and you will rot with it. Your brow will turn to water,
and mushrooms will breed in your flesh...."
Yes, he's mad, all right. But I don't care if he did rot in the
forest: I'm not going to. I'll hold out! All these facts about the
forest, these ghosts, these phantom survivors of a mysterious
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world--they're formidable enough, but they're not going to
make me turn and run. I'm afraid, all right, but I'm not going to
panic. I shall hold fast, because I want to go on living.
They do all they can to discourage me, though they know they
won't succeed. Pack of sadists!
Yes, you bunch of defeatists, I shall go on living! You can
laugh, and smile, and make fun of me. You can slander me. You
can tear at me with your teeth. I don't care a damn for your
I've got a temperature again. I must go to sleep. To-morrow
we leave for Mana.
Wednesday, 28th September
Thibbault gets busy, the professor dozes away in his cotton
skull-cap. He tells good stories, and he's a nice fellow. I like
his Belgian accent, too. It reminds me of a journey I once made
to Brussels and Amsterdam. I just scraped up enough for the
train fare by selling my articles on the Matto Grosso as best I
could, from door to door.... I thought I was earning a lot of
money. I left with three thousand francs and came back with a
debt of ten florins-due to a charming Dutch girl from The
We leave for Mana; it's the last big lap of the voyage. Mana
is a little town, lost in the sand. For me it'll be a great city, and
the last. After that: ninety-nine falls to be traversed, somehow,
with paddle and tow-rope. Mana is my terminus; after that, it's
goodbye, and the forest path....
I ought to have been on the move since July! But I mustn't
complain. The gods have been kind to me, and it's better to start
late than not to start at all.
The motor bumps about, and ourselves with it, and our luggage,
and a rather anxious Bobby in the midst of it all.
Mana! Sand: a call on the good cure, and on the unmarried
policeman with his Toulousain accent. Our boat is tied up at the
Dear Adventure! Soon I shall be able to say, "You are mine."
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The road is long, long, long,
March on as if you never could stop.
The road is hard, hard, hard,
If you're weary, remember to sing ...
That old scout song-the road up into the hills, and then into
the mountains, with the observation balloon overhead; and then
the real long-distance stuff, with a forked stick in one's hand, and
the wind to whip one's face-the healthy tiredness on Sundays....
Yes, a hard school: with spelaeology thrown in, and rock-climb-
ing and friendly fights among ourselves.
And the totem-poles, and the dances round them, and the
unalterable ritual of the ordeal by fire.....
"You shall be fearless Otter. Otter, because you swim like a
seal, and fearless, because you're ready to take risks...."
Some of my friends still call me Otter. They are the friends
whose last letters of encouragement spelt out the message:
"Balloon says... keep right on... straight ahead."
So I shall walk straight ahead, towards the south, towards those
mysterious mountains which we all dreamed of climbing. I am
the one whom destiny has chosen to make the attempt.
Our little clan has dispersed, my fellow marchers have set off
on the road of life, and we are each of us, in our own way, faithful
to our motto: not always, alas, but we keep going, and we're
strong in heart.
Baden-Powell, by founding the scout movement, gave us the
courage to live as we like-it's not always easy.
Thursday, 29th September
We were supposed to leave Mana to-day for the river. It's
nearly election-time; on Saturday the local council will be re-
appointed.... There's an epidemic of political fever, speeches
all over the place.... So we have to wait.
I have to wait, too, since I'm only an auxiliary member of the
party, until I reach Sophie Creek in the upper Mana.
A policeman who's just back from Sophie has warned me that
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you have to pay for everything in solid gold up there: a porter
costs five grammes a day.
For the five days' journey to Maripasoula I've got a thousand
francs in my pocket. I'll have to borrow some more in the name
of Sciences et Voyages.
I must get on fast now, no matter what it costs.
It's odd-but I can sense a real hostility among many of the
officials who are aware of my project, and also of a real coldness
among my companions of the moment. It's only with Ivanovitch,
the head of the shipyard, that I really get on well. Of course they
none of them imagine that I'm going to succeed. In fact they all
think I'm going to give up. It's a cold war, a war of nerves-and
in this climate it's easy to lose heart. I feel so tremendously alone.
My true and good friends, the B-s of Cayenne, were the
greatest comfort. Their tender understanding meant a lot to me.
When we said goodbye there was a lump in our throats, we made
hasty, awkward signs to one another, our heads turned away, our
smiles became grimaces, and the words poured headlong from our
People say that the Hurault mission went into the Tumuc
Humacs, and there met with a very primitive Indian tribe. I
didn't like the sound of that at all. Perhaps they'll roast me alive?
I don't really believe that they got to the two sources and followed
the line of the mountains along its whole length. But, in any
case, they are serious competitors. And they were so much better
equipped to succeed than I am.... I didn't feel at all happy at
Friday, 3oth September
Rain: mosquitoes: we're not leaving before the end of the
Saturday, Ist October
My twenty-third birthday. I thought of it this morning, and
then I didn't want to think about it any more.
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Sunday, 2nd October
Polling day. The white man was elected. People fussed round
and congratulated him. I'm bored. We leave to-morrow.
Monday, 3rd October
We leave to-morrow. The bosman isn't well.
Tuesday, 4th October
We leave to-morrow. The bosman's no better.
Wednesday, sth October
Another postponement "till to-morrow". I've no money at all
in reserve, and I owe the restaurant six thousand francs. It's
exasperating, because, once we get to Sophie, if I'm to get to
Maripasoula and not waste time, I shall have to pay a guide-porter
five days' wages (at five grammes of gold a day), and also buy a
boat in which I can navigate the Petit Inini creek: that'll mean
between three and five thousand francs.
I could leave by myself, but I should waste valuable time in an
area which has no interest from the point of view of exploration.
And I need to go fast. I am terribly behind with my schedule.
According to the itinerary I drew up in Paris, I ought by now to
have reached the eastern Tumuc Humacs or the sources of the
Kouc. It's true, of course, that the bush takes no account of time-
tables.... Anyway, I could hardly have had a worse start: the
dry season began long ago.
I've asked several people to lend me money: Sciences et Voyages
would repay them. They made the usual excuses, and I came
away with my begging-bowl empty as ever.
Should I turn back? And leave everything Not on your life!
I've got to find money; I'll get it, I know, but I'm terrified
of the dry season-I know that somewhere, very soon, the rains
will begin and I shall be stuck fast in unexplored territory.
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I myself don't much matter; but after July of next year my films
will be no good. They might last a few months longer, but in
this climate I'm very much afraid that they would be useless for
Therefore I'm the slave of my films. I've got to work fast,
and everything is against me. I ought to be used to that by now,
I rang up the Sous-Prefet of St. Laurent at nine o'clock this
morning and asked him to intercede for me and ask a Guiana
merchant to lend me money. I've hoped for an answer all
day, but there hasn't been one. I rang up again. The Sous-
Pr6fet was out in the fields.... I understood, and didn't go
I was right, too, for now it's night, and I'm tired of being at
the mercy of others. No money, no money....
These struggles wear one down. If only I had something in the
bank! ... I had these same troubles in Brazil, and now they're
beginning all over again. Will it always be so? Ah, these pre-
liminaries. ... The exploration of hostile territory is child's play
compared to the difficulty of getting started.
Thiebault's been as nice as could be. He paid my bill at the
restaurant. That's all: but it's a great deal. Once I'm in the bush
I can look after myself.
Thursday, 6th October
Two o'clock in the morning. We're off. At last! Our two
boats move off along the moonlit river. It's cool, the banks
are veiled in mist, and the mist lends a ghostly air to the dead
At 4.15 we stop for a few moments at the village of Papa
Momo. The boatmen buy vegetables and drink rum. At 5.Io
the moon sinks, the mist gets thicker, and the sky fills with colour.
Parrots fly over the river; kingfishers overtake us, frightened by
the regular throb oftheJohnson motors, perching on low branches
or flying with us, now ahead, now astern, for mile after mile of
32 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
At every bend of the river the sky takes on a fresh warmth of
colour. Across the great vistas of purest blue, dead trees and the
tall palms stand out in sharp relief-while the living trees, still
blurred with mist, are like charcoal sketches, and the drowned
masses of their foliage remind me of a Japanese water-colour.
We overtook three heavily-laden boats that were taking provi-
sions to the workmen in the Morpion creek. The black Saramacas
in their red-striped loincloths drive their poles into the muddy
banks and lean with all their weight on the long, pliable stick.
They half-kneel to give an extra thrust, and then, standing up-
right, heave their hardest on the pole Then, when the boat has
moved forward past the pole, they run to the stem, retrieve the
pole, and once again thrust it into the mud from the foremost
extremity of the prow. The whole manoeuvre is directed, one
might suppose, by an invisible sergeant-major. Another Sarama-
ca steers the boat with a paddle, from the stem.
They're like enormous canoes, overflowing with boxes and
sacks; women are sitting beneath the "pomakari", and they wave
goodbye to us as we pass, while the boatmen call out to ours in
A thick wall of vegetation hangs over the river from a height
of seventy-five to ninety feet. The rising sun reveals to us that
here and there, among the cassava, lemon and banana trees that
flower on the banks, there are small open spaces.
At eight o'clock we are brought to a halt by the first of the
ninety-nine rapids that form a staircase between the estuary of the
Mana and its source.
The Sabbath Falls are composed of two sets of rapids-not
steep, but full of sharp-edged rocks.
Our two boats pull up short, and we tie them up on a rock.
The Saramacas go over the ground in search of a channel that
would suit our boats. These channels vary from day to day, with
the level of the water; in the dry season it is naturally more
difficult to get the boats safely upstream. But they find a channel
at last; the passengers settle themselves on a narrow rock; and
the first boat is drawn upstream. One man in front, and another
behind, they pull and push, and steer with the long pole, while
UNLOADING ON ONE OF THE MANA'S 99 FALLS
HAULING UPSTREAM ON THE ROPE
THE ROCK-STREWN FRACAS FALLS
SARAMACAS AT WORK
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the others, in water that comes up to their waists, stand fast on
rocks covered with water-cactuses and tug in unison on the rope
that has been tied to the prow. The river boils and foams, the
boat sways from side to side, and the men urge themselves on
with great shouts. Their muscles stand out with the strain and
reveal them as figures nobler than any Olympic athlete. The
water that streams over their black skin dries on the instant; they
stand like statues in the spray. Anxious to take some close-ups
of them, I get into the river and swim towards them with my
Foca camera in a watertight bag that I grip between my teeth.
There's a strong current; I'm unused to feats of this kind, and
it's all I can do to grab hold of a rock and instal myself
I do it, all the same; take my photographs, get back into the
water, rejoin the canoe, which is now safely above the rapids,
and then-delighted with my whole exploit-make ready to dress
I'd only forgotten one thing: to take off my watch. Although
it's called a waterproof, and was made in Switzerland, the Sabbath
Falls were too much for it. It's soaked through. I tried to open it
in order to dry out the mechanism, but it was impossible. It's
just a bit of old scrap. So I leave it behind and now I have no
The two rapids that compose the Sabbath Falls were traversed
without further incident. I'd paid my tribute to the Gods of the
Mana; and I thought that we'd get safely through to Sophie
creek-the terminus of the first part of my journey to the Tumuc
Twenty minutes later we crossed a simple little rapid, and after
that the Valentine Fall, which all but capsized us when it threw
us against a rock. Then the second boat (which had passed us
while we were just recovering our equilibrium) set up a sort of
tidal bore with its 22-h.p. engines, and we got the full force of
this when it ran over our bows. We shipped a good deal of water.
The boxes and bales that we'd stored amidships were soaked,
and our speed was reduced by the additional weight. We baled
with gourds, as best we could, and then, to get on faster, we used
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the petrol pump and pumped away without stopping, until
finally the rubbish at the bottom of the boat got into the works
and put the pump out of action.
The Maipouri Falls, the Belle Etoile Falls, the Tamanoir Falls.
... A dismal afternoon; the incessant throb of the motors wore
us down beneath the relentless sun. We dozed away, having
arranged ourselves as best we could in the narrow space that
is reserved for passengers. In the bows, the bosman, a Saramaca,
stood like a figurehead, paddle in hand, and guided his fellow-
Saramaca, the man in charge of the engines, through the channels
that he discerned in the dirty green water. The river was full of
fallen trees, logs, and submerged rocks. Behind the bosman was a
Martiniquais porter in a big hat of coconut straw; next, Volovich,
one of the supervisors of the Soci6te Minire de la Haute Mana.
I've already mentioned him: Latvian by origin, and a delightful
companion, he speaks many languages, has travelled a lot, and is
an indefatigable and brilliant talker-when he hasn't got his head
buried in one of Peter Cheyney's novels.
Next to me, an English-speaking nigger talked to himself;
he was a heavy drinker, and not much of a swimmer; but he
worked hard, and his real function on board was to bale out the
water that came in through cracks in the woodwork.
In the other boat there were: Thi6bault. He's complete boss,
in Guiana, of the Haute Mana mines: a thick-set, bearded, queru-
lous man who's climbed up the hard way. He's as tough as
they come: not a bad fellow really-on the contrary-but he
takes handling. Hard on himself-so he says-hard on others,
with hardly a good word for anyone. Albert Londres, who
journeyed with him, called the Bear of the Mana; and he doesn't
let you forget it.
With Thiebault is the old professor whom the firm has asked
to give an expert opinion on certain terrains. He knows the
colonies well and is a fount of excellent, far-ranging stories, which
he tells with the accent of his native Liege. He has the defects,
and the qualities, of the Belgians; and in addition he has been
marked by his career in Africa-in so much as he expects speedy
and perfect service. He finds fault with everything, haggles over
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everything, and measures everything in the French Empire by
the yardstick of that seventh wonder of the world: the Belgian
Congo. The creoles and the Saramacas call him "Coco Head"
because of his baldness.
There are two Coco Heads in our party-my shaven head is
even more hairless than his.
Beside the Professor is a creole woman: the cook. There is
also another creole woman, the girl-friend of a police officer
whose beat is in the interior; the creole mechanic, with his creole
assistant in the bows; the Saramaca bosman; and Thi6bault's
son, a Herculean boy of fifteen, who can look after himself and
doesn't mind your knowing it. He's a gigantic eater, brought up
in Guiana; he speaks creole like a native, is a friend of them all,
and shares their taste for endless palaver.
Towards five in the afternoon we come to a little village that
stands up on a bluff and is reached by sticky, clayey paths. It's
called "Fromager Tamanoir". The two women prepare our
evening meal, the men grease the engines and see to the materiel:
we sling our hammocks.
Rather a makeshift dinner. The night is cool, and there are no
Friday, 7th October
Left at six a.m. for "Depot Lezard", the frontier post that
divides the middle Mana from the upper Mana. It was built by
the S.E.M.I., the mining company that operates over the whole
of the middle Mana basin. Relations between Sluys and Thie-
bault are not good at all. The Professor complains that Thiebault
doesn't treat him with proper consideration. Thiebault, for his
part, says that he isn't a male nurse. Sluys confides it all in me,
but I remain neutral. My position in the party is a very delicate
one, since I am Thiebault's personal guest and he behaves nicely
to me-for the moment.
All this gives flavour to the journey, but I don't really care
about it. Every turn of the propeller takes me nearer the Tumuc
Humacs... and that is what matters to me!
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I had a slight temperature when we left this morning, and took
a double dose of quinine. I'm impatient to get there-so im-
patient that it's nearly killing me.
Towards ten o'clock we traversed the Dalles Fall. Although
this is supposed to be very dangerous, we got through quite easily
on the engines. A great many people have been drowned while
trying to get through it. It's between two and three hundred yards
long, and although the river bed is quite level, it's paved with
huge submerged rocks and the water foams and crashes its way
A few seconds later we noticed some carbets, or huts, on a cliff,
and a group of people waving their greetings to us. Several boats
were moored at the foot of the cliff, and we soon tied up in our
turn. We'd reached the main outpost of the S.E.M.I.
The main road-the only road, in fact-led to the S.E.M.I.
building. There were five or six carbets on each side of it, and
some negroes, and two Europeans. The sun was oppressively
In the absence of the director we were received by the com-
pany's accountant. He was a charming man who'd nearly died,
not long ago; he still bore the deep marks of wounds inflicted
by the sun.
"I was lying in a low chair, here in the shadow of the veran-
dah," he told us, "and I dozed off. When I woke up I had appal-
ling pains in my head, and it became red and swollen. For three
days I was nearly blind, and I suffered the most terrible tortures.
I had no doctor to look after me. As you see, the verandah
opens on to the canvas roof of the kitchen; and as I myself was
in the shade it must have been the reflected heat that gave me
sun-stroke. By great good luck-it was a rare, miraculous acci-
dent-an experienced male nurse happened to put in at Depot
Lezard. He made an incision behind each ear, and that somehow
cleared up the congestion. The worst thing was that my eyes
were so affected."
His poor face was deeply lined and covered with red blotches
and running sores. His eyebrows and eyelashes had disappeared.
His half-closed eyes were a mass of small bloodshot veins.
JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN 37
We toasted his recovery with a round of punch; and after a
glass of warm beer we set off again.
The conversation turned on thoughts of gold-for we were
now approaching the main mining centre of French Guiana.
I shall be the first journalist to have penetrated this mysterious
region, since my colleagues all stopped short at Depot Lezard.
Where travelling is concerned, it seems that the local traders
yield to no one. They make their way upstream with paddle and
takari for more than three months, after leaving the Mana to
make contact with the players of Sophie and Patience.
The return journey is slightly shorter, but the round trip
definitely calls for plenty of courage-and for patience, above all.
It's true that they don't have to face the exasperation of mechani-
cal breakdowns such as the one we are experiencing at this moment
-in the shadow of a great tree that overhangs the river, while
the mechanic gets busy with the gudgeon, and the red monkeys
keep up a deafening, barbaric row. The heat is atrocious, the sun
scorches the life out of us, and we have no shelter from its rages,
save a tarpaulin stretched on four poles. Our skin dries on our
bodies, our eyes stream with tears from the reflected light, our
aching joints cry out for mercy, and we all have a backache. And
we're inexhaustibly thirsty. Such are the drawbacks of Adventure.
At last we move off again, and by sunset we're at the Fracas
Fall. It's an agglomeration of gigantic rocks that extends for
nearly a mile. This fall, with its rapids, its sudden descents, and
its whirlpools, is a difficult business, and it's too late to attempt
it this evening.
So we pull up at the first rocks and climb the slippery slope of
a little cliff that is topped by two carbets (nothing but four poles
and a roof of palm leaves) and a Saramaca chapel. The chapel is
slightly more comfortable, since it's partitioned off with walls of
woven raffia. It stands in a clearing that makes a kind of terrace,
with a rusticated balustrade and a primitive flagpole from which
hangs a piece of white cloth. We saw a similar one on the stone
that marks the beginning of the Fracas Fall. Traditionally it
represents the God of the Saramacas-a rock inhabited by the
spirit which the Surinam negroes worship. In this, they resemble
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the Incas, who also worshipped stones that represented, in one
form or other, the spirit to which they owed their homage.
So that the stone with the white sheet on it is the God of the
Fall, and the chapel is a holy place for all the Saramacas who are
making ready to attempt the terrible "Fracas Fall". It is there
that the Grand Master of Ceremonies of each group of boatmen
spreads dried leaves and tobacco juice on the ground and begs
for the clemency of God. Meanwhile his companions lay offer-
ings of one kind and another on a table that has been specially
erected for the purpose. When we arrived, this table was covered
with bottles of rum and beer. Round each was a loop ofraffia, a
magic token destined to bring about the death of anyone who
should commit the abominable sacrilege of stealing the bottle and
drinking its contents. The Saramacas love rum, but they would
sooner die than touch a drop of the rum that is sacred to their god.
Similarly a Saramaca, even if he is dying of thirst, will never touch
a bottle of beer that has been left, deep in the forests, on the
severed trunk ofa great tree.
Beside the table for offerings is another table: God's dining-
table. It is always laid, and laid completely, with plate, goblet,
fork, spoon, knife, jug, etc....
To the left of these two tables, and at right angles to the wooden
bench which runs the whole length of the chapel, is an altar. On
the cloth of this altar are spread statues of various kinds, and holy
pictures. There is a china group of the Holy Family and an effigy
of St. Theresa, together with a sort of funerary urn in plaster,
with decorative reliefs of motifs drawn from the vegetable
Behind the tables is a wooden cross-piece covered with a
spotless white cloth. In case of need, you are allowed to sleep in
this chapel, and on this cross-piece. But you are not allowed to
sling your hammock across the breadth of the chapel. To infringe
this order is to risk death on the Fall.
The way into the chapel is blocked by a low cross-beam, from
which palm-leaves hang down in the form of a curtain. To go
in, you have to bend down and brush the leaves aside. Our three
Saramacas come to say their prayer and leave their offering;
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and then the fires are lit, the stove begins to roar, we smoke a last
cigarette, and, in the hammocks that we've slung beneath the
carbets or between two trees, we each of us think of to-morrow's
Saturday, 8th October
We left at dawn. The two boats felt their way among the first
rocks, looking for a stretch of sand where we could safely dis-
embark: for we had to remove all our cargo from the boats and
hump it to the other side of the rapids. Suddenly we heard barking,
and saw a white head with long ears struggling with the current:
Bobby! We'd left him behind at the overnight camp, and now
he was doing his vigorous best to get back to the boats. But the
boats couldn't possibly reverse to meet him. I dived in, in my
shorts, swam towards Bobby, and then, when I was level with
him, struck out sideways towards a rock. We both got hold of
it and hung on, exhausted. The current had swept us right away
from the bank where the boats were tied up. I tried to swim back
towards them, with Bobby just behind me, but the current was
too strong. At last I sighted a root that stood out from the bank.
I grabbed hold of it, seized Bobby as he went past, hauled myself
up on to the bank and made my way along it. My plan was to
walk the full length of the rapids, swim across the river itself,
and rejoin my companions higher upstream. It's not easy to walk
in shorts, with no shirt on and no shoes to your feet, when the
ground is covered with prickly branches, liana, and grasses that
cut like a razor. I got along fairly well until, eventually, after
what seemed like two-thirds of a mile, I got past the rapids and
plunged into the river again. Bobby hesitated, but he was game
enough to jump in after me. In the middle of the river the current
reasserted its old strength and swept us irresistibly towards the
rapids. Bobby vanished in a whirlpool, reappeared, and then
vanished again. I went the same way, recommending myself
to God's mercy meanwhile. No question of swimming: I let
myself be carried along feet first. A rock! I managed to swerve
round it, and then, gripping wherever I could get a hold, I
40 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
clambered on top of it. Bobby was there. I called to him, but the
noise of the water drowned my voice. Fearing the worst, I
decided to take the shortest route back to the boats-i.e. to let
myself be carried thither by the current, with Bobby in my wake.
Swimming and jumping from rock to rock, with bleeding feet and
bleeding hands, half choking at times, we reached a point at which
a stove-in canoe was pinned on a rock in the midst of a furious
We were quite helpless-trapped, hurled head-first into the
maelstrom-and Bobby had vanished. I thought I'd crack my
skull on the prow of the ruined boat, but by a miracle I landed
square on top of it and could take a few seconds' rest. And then I
saw that our boats were quite near, and our boatmen following
my comings and goings with interest.
I summoned my strength again and set off across the whirlpool.
By striking out really hard I avoided the obstacles and reached
the boats, only to be swept past by the current. Eventually I
hooked myself on to the roots of a mangrove tree. I was safe.
Bobby had already arrived, and as he squatted on his haunches,
with his head hanging and his coat dripping water, he looked at
me with a world of expression in his eyes:
"That was a narrow escape, wasn't ite"
Someone gave me a mugful of rum, and I drank it down as if
it were skimmed milk. I was quite done in, and I sprawled flat
on the sand, in the sunshine, and lay there like a lizard till I began
to feel better.
The boats had already been unloaded-except for the big tins
of petrol. These could not be manoeuvred along the narrow track
that led (by way of a tree-trunk thrown across a tributary of the
rapids) to the far end of a tranquil little wooded island. The
extremity of this island was washed by the Mana-a quieter,
gentler Mana, for all its tumult and its lingering treachery.
When I'd recovered my equilibrium I helped the others to
carry the luggage, the bags of flour and rice, the chests, the boxes,
and the guns and ammunition; everything, in the end, was got
safely to the other end of the island, and the Saramacas got ready
to attempt the Fracas Fall. The channel they were to follow was
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exactly the same as that which had led the other boat to its doom
and left it pinned like a scarecrow to an isolated rock. It all went
offwell, however. The first of our two boats got safely past the
carcass of its unhappy relative and plunged through the formid-
able boiling waters beyond. The massive Saramacas hauled it
through by main force, howling aloud as they did so. The
British negro, in his anxiety to join them, was carried away by
the current and only just escaped drowning. The first boat got
through unscathed, and the second likewise.
Congratulations all round: all aboard, and another ten minutes
of difficult manoeuvring, pole in hand, across sand and through
rocks. When we finally got on to the engines we happened, after
a few moments, upon some abandoned carbets (their owner had
died suddenly) and a Saramaca-the bosman of the wrecked
boat; he'd been waiting for a fortnight for his comrades, who had
gone to seek help from some players who lived a few days'
Under one of the carbets they'd heaped such of the cargo as
had been saved. A little cassava plantation, some sugar canes,
and some banana trees made up the little estate; it was already
overrun by the bush, and the beams of the carbets were crumbling.
We settled ourselves in, slung our hammocks and digested our
midday meal in the course of a restorative siesta.
When we woke up we learnt from one of the Saramaca boat-
men that he had killed five peccaries while out hunting. The men
went off to fetch them from the forest. After scalding the hide
and removing the hair, the pigs were cut in pieces and either
roasted, or smoked, or salted. The cooking went on into the
night by the light of petrol lamps. The good smell of grilled
flesh went through the encampment, and we ate the best bits
with great relish. After our siesta we'd been to visit the cemetery.
It was very simple, and lay hidden in a clearing of the forest that
overlooked the river. Just a few dislocated, anonymous crosses,
with liana entwined about them.
There was no feeling of death in that cemetery. On the con-
trary-we thought only of how good it would be to sleep there
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Near the cemetery there were one or two ruined carbets,
overgrown by the bush, a few crumbling household objects,
some broken bread-ovens-in fact, another abandoned Guiana
village, another welcoming halt that no longer welcomed the
traveller on the hard road that led to the players.
Sunday, 9th October
A day of rest, in camp. A day of listless hunting and fishing;
and then back to our hammocks and our daydreams of iced
Monday, iith October
Left at dawn; fog on the river; it was cold; the dismembered
pigs were stowed away in our boats. We said goodbye to the
Saramaca who stayed behind alone, and after an hour's run we
reached Continent Fall-a stretch of rapids formed by a redoubt-
able sequence of barrier-rocks. It was no easy job, and at the end
we had to replace two broken lynch-pins.
The bosman, standing upright in the prow, takari in hand,
watched for the narrow channels through which it was just
possible for us to slip. Despite his vigilance we were knocked
sideways by one big rock, the motor began to race, the Saramaca
mechanic lost his head, and we very nearly had a catastrophe.
Then we stopped once again, before a fall which it seemed
quite hopeless to attempt. The Saramacas got down into the
water and began to search for a channel. The rocks at water-
level were covered with big tortured leaves that were studded
with black prickly growths. The level of the river seems to drop
lower each day, and the landscape is impressively wild, with
blanched liana to form an ever-moving curtain in front of the
caverns of deep shade, and here and there a mass of red or yellow
flowers. The noise of water flowing across worn rock somehow
accentuates the silence of the forest. The majesty of this country!
The rushing river, the occasional, long-echoing sound of a falling
tree, the timid song of birds, and the passing clouds that we can
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watch reflected in the image, itself a reflection, of the high walls
of foliage that overhang the river.
And how calm it all is! An agreeable smell of humus, water,
mosses, and bark. The air saturated with the intoxicating scent
of the deep forest: and, mingled with that, the smell of smoked
The Saramacas found a passage at last. The boats get through
the fall quite easily, but we set off on foot, by way of a charming
little beach that gives onto a riverside path and takes us to the far
end of the fall. There is a tombstone, and then another ...
drowned men, a rusty rifle on a rock, pots and pans, dilapidated
boxes: the remains of a shipwreck such as we were lucky enough
to escape. Once past that fall, we came to another-the "Topi
Topi". The two are really one single fall, with a hundred yards
of calm water in between. We partly unload the boats, and
follow the path that leads through to the far side. This path,
which runs parallel to the river, is bordered by a quiet stream.
Two more tombs: no names, no cross. Two shelving mounds
encumbered with vegetation, marked out with heavy stones, a
little statue of the Holy Family ... no more than that! Two
Saramacas lie there, who were drowned while traversing the
The boats, hauled forward on ropes, pushed on with takaris,
borne along by the great strength of our black servants, toil past
the double obstacle-only to find themselves faced with the
Patowa Fall: the Man Who Fears Nothing, that is to say. Once
again we unload the boats, and once again we pay out the tow-
rope. At two o'clock in the afternoon, it's infernally hot.
We load up again and get under way, and at the first bend of
the river-brilliant, now, in the light of the sinking sun-we
come to Big Fall. Here the whole width of the Mana is blocked
by descents of from eight to twenty yards in depth. On either
side are various minor water-courses: to the left, a noble beach, a
solitary tomb, and a path leading to a quieter tributary of this
We set up camp at that point and unloaded our bags. The
boats are unloaded completely, and at dawn to-morrow we shall
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attempt the fall. The heavy, regular beat of its tumbling waters
will put us to sleep.
Before we got there, the creoles were telling me that from the
top of the Big Fall the forest seemed dwarfed.... It was a regular
Niagara, they said. And so, once again, I learnt to be suspicious
of anything said, about a given landscape, by simple-minded,
enthusiastic natives. That way lie bitter disappointments. It's
the same with all those terribly high mountains-so high that
no human foot can hope to stand on their summits! They're
usually hills of no more than two thousand five hundred feet.
Tuesday, IIth October
I thought I'd get into training by helping the boatmen to
carry our sacks of flour, each weighing a hundredweight, over
two hundred yards of difficult ground. It warmed me up-the
dawn was cool, and the sun still almost negligible. The passage of
that fall was a Homeric affair. Those sudden slopes! That terrific
onrush of the water! The blacks' muscles were severely tried, and
they needed all their experience of the river to negotiate the
boats from rock to rock and haul them up the almost perpendicu-
lar slopes. With the water up to their chests, and their feet grip-
ping the stones of the river-bed, they had to heave with all their
strength, and at the same time to resist the current which, if it
once got hold of them, would never give them up alive. But it
all went off very well. Both first and second boats got through
without any untoward incident, and were then able to come
through to our camp by way of one of the tributary streams.
Close inshore we found the forepart of an enormous hulk-
shipwrecked, doubtless, at Fall X and carried onward by the
One of the creoles caught a big fish, which we ate with couac-
we haven't had bread for quite a while. Isabelle, our cook, is ill.
She shakes with fever in her hammock and takes dose after dose of
quinine. Young Thiebault is in trouble, too; when he's lying
beneath his carbet it's all he can do to raise a finger, but he picks
up wonderfully when it's time for lunch.
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The day goes by while we're repairing and reloading the
boats. We leave to-morrow. Something happened to-day,
though, which may have very tiresome consequences. A creole
threatened to cast an evil spell on me while I was photographing
him. He went off in the wildest excitement to fetch his breviary,
read out a lot of formulas and predicted, in front of all his com-
rades, that my camera would fall into the water and that I should
never have his photograph. He's said to be able to cast spells
whenever he likes, and although I'm not superstitious myself I
had occasion in Brazil to realise the importance of some of these
spells. It's the man, not the spirit, that I'm afraid of. Rather than
lose face after this public demonstration, he's quite capable of
causing an accident which he would then attribute to the will of
the spirits. And my camera would be broken, or perhaps would
simply vanish in the river-bed. So I shall have to watch over my
camera more closely than ever. An accident can come about in a
second-and for me it would be quite irreparable; without my
camera, my articles and researches would at once lose 50 per cent
of their value.
On guard, therefore! And may Tupinamba, the Brazilian
forest god, protect me against the evil power of the creole. They
told me in Brazil that I was favoured by that god: and Tupinamba
is an Indian chief, venerated and all-powerful in the forests of
South America. Moreover, he is a native of the area, whereas
the creole spirit is an African importation....
Except for that, nothing much: it's raining, the night proved
ideal, and in the morning, when we drew in our fishing lines, we
found an "aimara" of twenty pounds' weight on the end of one
Wednesday, I2th October
We left at dawn. Cold.
We saw a superb tapir, a maipouri who swam unhurriedly
across the river, landed up on the clayey hump of a little island
and lumbered off-as fast as one can if one is a pachyderm weigh-
ing between six and eight hundred pounds.
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Soon afterwards we crossed an absolutely wicked set of rapids.
The maps don't give it a name, and it's of little real importance,
but the whirlpools are so violent that the engines can hardly keep
the boat under control; and in the prow two men armed with
takaris lean with all their weight on the slender poles in order to
swerve past the submerged rocks which might otherwise bring
us completely to grief.
At last we get clear and pause for a minute to wait for our
sister boat. She, too, gets through quite safely.
Mist lies over the river. Seated in the stem on a narrow plank
of wood, I shiver as I take my notes. Bobby dozes.
We traverse the St. Just Fall, and then the Lopa Fall-neither
of these appear on the official map of the area, though both have
a certain importance. It's true that the most recent maps mention
only thirty-two of the ninety-nine falls that bar the Mana
between Sabat Fall to Fini Fall.
We traverse two more with no difficulty and pull up short at
Dame Jeanne Fall. The boats are partly unloaded, and we follow
a bistouri-that is to say a tributary of the river which, though
narrow and tumultuous, is perfectly possible.
All this unloading, and loading, and unloading! I join the
boatmen in humping bags and chests alike: it all helps to keep me
in training for later.
Next comes a smaller rapid, with a bistouri to by-pass it, and
the much more serious Nai Fall, with three big descents, each
barring the river the whole way across. For the traverse of this
fall the boatmen take a bistouri which has a smaller, quite passable
set of rapids leading off to the left. Once again Nai Fall does not
figure on the map.
Coudreau is the only explorer who has traced a complete
map of the Mana, with all its ninety-nine falls; unluckily, his maps
are nowhere to be found. Even the ones in his own books, in the
Cayenne library, have been snatched away by some lunatic hand.
And of course no geographical mission, hitherto, has followed
the Mana to its source; and I'm the only journalist who has
penetrated so deep into the interior. Even Albert Londres got no
further than Depot Lezard.
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There's a path in the woods by which travellers can traverse
the fall dry-shod and at their ease. The sunlight falls in brilliant
shafts across the heavy foliage, and in it we can detect thousand
upon thousand of tiny living creatures. These are pillaged by
clouds of "morphos"-butterflies of a sky-blue brilliance which,
though quite common in Guiana, are beautiful enough to sell for
thirty cents on the American market, where they are snapped up
in vast numbers for use in the cosmetic factories of Hollywood.
It's by hunting morphos that many a released convict has made
himself a small fortune.
After the Nai Fall, the Aimara Fall, where once again a bistouri
makes our passage easy. The sun comes darting down on our
boat; having no awning to shade ourselves, we roast like chickens
on a spit, and our skins turn from pink to scarlet, and from scarlet
to black. We're burnt as dark as the Indians, and the Centigrade
thermometer hesitates between fifty-five and sixty degrees. The
refraction of the light is almost unbearable. Towards two in the
afternoon the leading boat suffers a mechanical breakdown which
affords us a diversion. We tie up in the shade of the great trees
to carry out repairs. The engine is taken ashore, laid on the base
of an old tree, taken to pieces, and minutely examined.
Just then the noise of engines announces the unexpected
approach of two other motor boats. They come swinging round
the bend of the river, and they're big ones-double the size of
our own, at the least.
When they see us they slacken speed, and pull up side by side
with ourselves. Saramacas, creoles, and a woman.... We shake
hands all round, exchange news, and distribute letters. In these
parts there is no postal service, and letters are entrusted to the
good-will of people who are travelling up or downstream and are
willing to transform themselves, for the time being, into benevo-
lent postmen. In this way, letters sometimes take seven or eight
weeks to reach their destination: that is unimportant, provided
they get there; and as a rule they do get there.
Our engine is still out of order; and it's hot, even in the shade.
In the end it gets sorted out, and we set off again, escorted by
the two new arrivals, which belong to Thi6bault and are coming
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to help us get through Fall X. Together we make quite a little
fleet-something quite uncommon on the Mana-and there's
something very picturesque about the four boats, each with its
bosman, takari in hand, standing erect in the bows.
We come to Fall X at sunset. It's very pretty, with its great
plumes of many-coloured spray. We tie up at the mouth of a
little tributary and disembark on a sandy beach, covered with
dead wood, which leads to a path that will take us, at a distance
of about half a mile, to the far side of the fall.
Thi6bault glimpses a caiman in the bistouri, and fires at it with
his sporting rifle. (He loads it with buckshot.) The caiman
lashes the water with its tail and disappears. Thiebault cries out in
"I got him-he's dead!"
But how are we to retrieve it? The creoles and Saramacas
don't dare; and none of the Europeans makes a move. So then
"Well, what about you, Maufrais? Can't you go and get it?
There's nothing to be afraid of-it's dead, all right. Couldn't
be more so."
And why not, after all? And so, naked as Adam, dagger in
hand, I plunge into the disturbed water, feel for the bottom with
my foot, and then, when I'm out of my depth, dive below the
surface, try to see what's going on, and flush out each crevice
in the rocks-not without a certain apprehension-but I can't
find a thing. I surface again, take a deep thankful breath, and
then suddenly there he is! Everyone cries out. He's six feet away
from me, with his mouth open alarmingly wide. I don't like it
at all. He dives, vanishes, reappears on the surface, and makes
off. He's wounded, and has to swim on his side. He heads for
the boats, and then suddenly turns about and comes towards
me. Without thinking, I go to meet him, with my dagger raised.
And then-a strange thing-he turns back towards the boats
again, and one of the creoles, seeing that he's within reach,
strikes him again and again with his sabre: and formidable blows
at that. Just then, I, too, come into range, and I give two or three
of the best with my heavy American knife. He's dead. I grab
TRAVERSING THE BIG FALL "
A FAILURE ON THE FALLS
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him by the tail, put him on show, lay him down on a rock, and
go off to get my camera. When I come back he's vanished. But
we get him back, cut off his head, and take him to pieces. I take
the tail as my share, roast it over a blazing fire, and eat the leathery
meat with great relish: the blacks look at me with horror, mean-
while, and the Europeans don't dare to accept my invitation.
They're wrong; my liking for caiman tail dates from my time in
the Matto Grosso, where I ate it in great quantities.
After this incident-and the more I think of it, after having
examined the caiman's formidable rows of teeth, the more
frightened I am, in retrospect-night falls, and we sling our
hammocks. Mine hangs from two solid posts. I settle myself in
and am just beginning to enjoy the night-sky and the sweep of
the constellations, when I receive an appalling blow on the top of
my head, see red and green together, and find myself on the
ground, with my hammock all over me. The nine-foot pole,
weighing some thirty or forty pounds, had come crashing down
on me. I've a big lump on my head, and I feel like nothing on
earth. Except for that, a capital night.
Thursday, 13th October
Woke up, reloaded the boats, and got round the fall quite
easily, by way of a bistouri.
It all went very quickly, because the crews of the two other
boats gave us a hand.
The forest grows more and more luxuriant, the underwood is
lighter now, and the great trees stretch, ever higher, towards
the white-clouded sky. As the level of the water drops lower it
reveals the yellowy cliffs that line each side of the river-ten or
twelve feet high, and usually almost perpendicular.
Four minor falls give us no trouble, and then suddenly the
Mana narrows to a width of sixty yards at most-whereas from
the estuary to Big Fall the average width was between two and
three hundred yards.
The Grand Bafa Fall blocks our passage towards half-past four.
We unload the boats and get them through on the rope. By the
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time we've reloaded night is falling fast and we set off to find a
suitable place to spend the night. But our search is in vain; the
steep banks, fifteen or twenty feet high, are crowned-seemingly
for ever-with impenetrable bush.
The river is studded with big rocks and grows ever narrower-
twenty-five to thirty yards. We get painfully past first one set of
rapids, then another, and finally a third. The second of our boats
is in trouble for a moment. It's almost dark; the engine seems,
from its throbbing, to be as tired as we are of this fruitless search
for a camp.
It's cold; we're hungry and tired.
The immense lianas trail voluminously in the water, harbour-
ing the fast-flying kingfishers who make light of us as they swoop
to and fro with a flash of their rust-red bodies and steely-blue
wings. With their long, straight, black beaks, and the panache
of their dishevelled head-feathers, they dive at random into the
deep dirty water and there look for food. Or, when they are
tired of chasing after us to no purpose, they drop gently on to
the hanging lianas; perhaps it is there, after all, that they will
pick up their dinner.
Suddenly the river is blocked by a fall which seems quite
impassable. Just beside it, however, is an inviting little patch of
untroubled mud. Before we can sling our hammocks we have
to struggle with the mouldering branches of the mangrove trees
and stand up to our knees in soft earth. There's no hope of mak-
ing a fire: everything's too damp.
With couac and corned beef we make a dismal silent dinner.
The storm-lanterns attract cloud upon cloud of infuriating little
insects. It's cold. We're filthy. We're all out of temper. Finally
we settle in, as best we can.
Friday, 14th October
We take the Camanwoie Fall for breakfast. T- isn't well,
and gets up late. The usual loading and unloading and reloading.
We move off, and get through the Ferou Doro Fall in beautiful
style. The sun beats down. The banks begin to shelve away from
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us-the river's now between eighty and a hundred yards wide.
Plenty of submerged rocks and dead trees. We hear the hoarse,
strangled cries of the Couata monkey. A few birds sing.
Reloading my camera, I notice that the film I take out has
been stuck the whole time. So all my photographs since Fall X
have been wasted. This purely technical incident has ruined my
whole day. In any case, the heat and the damp have warped the
films, so that I can hardly get them in or out; the camera itself
is in excellent shape. I wonder what the photographs of our
journey will be like.
From the mud on the beaches we can tell that we're getting
into the schist area, though there's still plenty of granite about.
When we get to Pineapple Fall I notice some superb fluidal struc-
tures that must date from the Ice Age. There's a vein of quartz
that bites deep into the rock for ten or fifteen yards at a stretch.
It's so clearly marked that one can see that the rock, itself of the
purest granite, must have crystallised much later. The rocks we
met lower down were much coarser in grain.
The Pineapple Fall is supposed to be very difficult; the water
boils round a bend in the river, and the descent is in all some
twenty or twenty-five feet. With the fall in the general level of
the river a great many rocks have come into view, and these block
the channels which, in the rainy season, are quite navigable. We
unload everything from the boats and set up our camp for the
night. Dinner is on the way, and we make the most of the sun-
shine while washing the dishes.
At sunset, and as we can't possibly pass the boats by water,
we slide them along the mossy tops of the protruding rocks.
Our combined strength makes this not too impossibly strenuous,
and we manage to reload the boats before nightfall.
We're beginning to feel the strain of this arduous trip.
Saturday, iSth October
We get away at dawn and traverse the Capiaye Fall on the
tow-rope before being stopped by the Grand Caimarou Fall.
This is a very dangerous obstacle, and one which has unpleasant
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associations for one of our Saramaca boatmen, who has twice
been shipwrecked on it.
It forms a barrage across the whole width of the river, and is
two hundred yards long. Rocks, rocky ledges, tiny islands, and
dead trees abound. There is a layer of sand and gravel on the
river-bed which varies in depth from eighteen inches to six feet.
We unload; and our luggage has to be manhandled from rock
to rock. We jump; clamber across channels on bridges made of
dead tree-trunks; claw with our feet at the slippery moss-covered
rocks; and our shoulders ache beneath their loads. The heat weighs
heavily upon us; and as we slip and slide and sweat we call one
another every name we can think of. Once this painful operation
is completed we get through safely, though not easily, on the
A creole boatman gives thanks to God for allowing him to
remain alive. He kneels, as he does so, in the fore-part of the boat,
with his paddle bolt upright between his two hands. His muscles
glisten in the sun, and stand out the more for the brutality of
light and shade. He makes a superb picture. But if I were to
photograph him it would only give rise to more trouble; I now
have to take every precaution-to use every sort of Red Indian
ruse, in fact-when I photograph the passage of a fall. The boat-
men have banded against me and issued threats. The spell-binder
is brooding on the failure of his "piaye". In short: things
are pretty tense. They say that whenever I photograph them
I rob them of a part of their soul. I'd have to pay-and pay
dearly-to overcome their scruples. I prefer to out-smart them;
but, alas, I have to forego a lot of wonderful close-ups and
content myself with groups and general views. It's more natural,
So off we go .... And here is the Petit Coumarou: the boats
go through quickly on the rope. The engines are running well
and we dispose of a dozen easy falls without incident.
At noon we sight the huts ofDegrad Sophie-formerly named
Degrad Samson, after its founder. It stands at the point where
Crique Sophie joins the Mana. It consists of a score of huts, of
which eighteen have been abandoned; a few British negroes,
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mostly from St. Lucia; a party from the Eaux et F6rets who have
stopped off here before going upstream towards Sahul; two ram-
shackle shops, in which you pay a gramme of gold for two cans
of corned beef and two grammes for a litre of alcohol. This is
mining country. It's a new world: laws and banknotes are un-
known; there's no census; the structure of society is rigorously
simplified: the priest comes twice a year, the gendarme once every
other year, and there's neither mayor, nor local authority, nor
hospital. A male nurse comes, almost by accident, every eighteen
months or so. You feel cut off and alone-and rightly, because
if you once get ill in these parts you don't recover. The gramme
of gold is the only unit of currency. Prices are exorbitant-
ostensibly because of the high cost of transport, though the boat-
men get five hundred francs a day for their dangerous and
A few mosquitoes; overwhelming heat; cool at night; uneasy
and belated sleep.
Sunday, I6th October
Rested at Sophie.
Monday, I7th October
Alone. The boats of the Thiebault mission have just disap-
peared. The noise of their engines lingers for a moment along
Bobby looks at me with interest. "Why didn't we go, too?"
he seems to say.
Alone.... In spite of myself, I'm sick at heart as I go to my
carbet. A few old negroes: and myself, the more alone for their
Sophie is the springboard from which I shall start on my great
adventure. I'm at the real beginning now: with no one to help-
not a friend in sight, except Bobby.
As far as money goes-I've a hundred francs in my pocket.
As for food: two cans of corned beef, two cartons of milk.
54 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
The day passes slowly-mooning about, writing notes; but
the heat puts a stop to my inspiration.
An old woman comes to offer me some bananas: a dozen for
one gramme of gold. I give her a can of corned beef in exchange
for six bananas and send her away: she was trying to get tobacco
and medicines out of me.
This is gold country, and if you haven't got it you'd better not
look to anyone for help. You pay, in these parts, or you die of
It's raining, and the air is heavy. I drag my discontentedness
through the slippery mud, and watch the stream flow slowly past.
Smoke rises from the Saramaca village.
I explore the village: a few paths, very roughly marked out;
a group of wretched hovels; fences that have long fallen to pieces;
a general air of fantastic abandon. The whole place is deserted.
Nothing ever happens here. "Effort" is a word without meaning.
It's each for himself.... The inhabitants complain that no one
does anything for them, but it's they who do nothing for them-
selves. They don't keep up the paths that hold the village together,
they don't build a bridge across the creek-they'd rather splash
across in the mud or clamber on the dead and slippery trees.
Their homes are tumbling down, grass grows in the street, and
the river that leads to Didier is full of dead wood. Does anyone
think of clearing this wood to make it easier to get to the village?
No. They're afraid of working for the community. In fact
they're afraid of working at all. They've no initiative. It's not
even picturesque; it's dead country, soul-less country, will-less
country. That apathy of the creoles is amusing at first; later it
makes you lose heart. Even the towns on the seaboard are not
much better: St. Laurent's dying, Cayenne's stuck fast, Mana is in
its last phase....
People say: "If you can live on nothing, why bother to work?
Why give yourself the trouble?"
Well, all right.... Let's leave them. But why do they com-
plain-since they don't need anything-that the public authorities
are indifferent to them and their miseries-those miseries that
they do nothing to avert?
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In front of my carbet there's an old man who's come to beg,
in tears, for food and medicine. One of the village gossips has
kindly tipped me off:
"You know-he says he's in a bad way, but there's a box
buried beneath his hut, with more than two pounds of gold
Tuesday, I8th October
A Saramaca comes over in the early morning.
"Captain! You ka vini, ki mo fond Sophie!"
One of the British creoles is leaving for Didier (now called
Sophie Village). He'll take me with him. My bags are ready-
off we go!
We feel our way with the takari along the Sophie river, which
is a mere tunnel in the forest, encumbered every ten yards with
dead trees, prickly bushes, sandbanks, and rocks. We have to go
very carefully, and the boat ships water the whole time. Wedged
in among the luggage, I bail away in the stem. The Britisher
guides the boat, while the Saramaca pushes it forward with an
immense paddle that also serves as a rudder. A caiman dives
in from the bank; a wild hen flaps away on heavy wings.
The air is brisk. The sun, newly risen somewhere behind the
trees, is hidden by mist. After two hours' paddling, we stop at
the Milok Fall-a hundred yards long, narrow, foaming, studded
with black rocks. The boat goes through easily without our
luggage. Two hours to go. The sun is high above us now, and
The first mining village. An old woman does her washing
seated astride a half-submerged tree-trunk and wearing a big
conical Chinese hat of plaited straw. I can see a clearing, and a
few carbets at the bottom of the hill, and then the river again,
and a larger clearing, and about four-score huts huddled anyhow
in a narrow space above the river. This is Sophie Village.
To get to it, we have to climb a steep, slippery slope. A dog
barks. There's almost nobody about in the tortuous alleys-
just a few big-bellied naked children, dumbfounded at the sight
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of a European. I put my things in an empty carbet and lie down
to rest. I have a slight attack of fever which leaves me fit for
nothing for the rest of the day.
Somewhere in the village there's a noise of pounding that
simply won't stop. It beats through my head till I have an appal-
ling headache that keeps me restless for a great part of the night.
Wednesday, 19th October
The fever's gone. When I wake up Sophie doesn't look so bad
at all, with the sun shining gently upon it. Some of the British
creoles prove very hospitable and show a great interest in my
"We're civilised," said an old nigger from St. Lucia. "But
the Indians of the Tumuc Humacs-they're savages."
They give me some rum and ask for news of the next war.
They never heard about the last one; but this next one frightens
them. They're scared that they won't have enough to eat....
That's to say that the tinned foods might stop coming from the
coast. In these parts, that would mean famine, for there is little
or no game, the harvests are poor, and hunting and fishing yield
Meat costs a gramme of gold for every two pounds. You can
see the little scales for weighing gold in every shop-in every
carbet, in fact. It's amazing how dexterously they break down
their little pieces of gold (it's still mixed in with mercury, and
comes apart in one's fingers). It's dirty gold, that doesn't shine
yellow at one's touch. You give a gramme, or two grammes, or
two and threequarter grammes. They've no change. The customer
gives the exact amount, and his "wallet" is a little flask, kept
carefully stoppered, or a little aluminium box, or a screw of
How minutely they weigh it! The miner's big fingers deal in
the tiniest imaginable particles of mineral in order to make up a
gramme, and the shopkeeper tips and taps the balance in order
to get every grain of the precious powder into the square of
paper that he then folds into four and puts away in his till.
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Gold is worth 375 francs a gramme in the current market here.
A few months ago it was selling for 280. Made into jewellery, it
goes up to 800 francs a gramme, and the Guianans look back with
regret to the time, not so long ago, when it was worth ten francs,
and their wives went about plastered with extravagantly heavy
barbaric jewellery-or with those wonderful chiselled ornaments
(gold lace, you might say) which were the speciality of the Guia-
nan goldsmiths; the taste for these is giving place, alas, to the
taste for imitated European styles. But you can still see the thick
rings with a single nugget for their centre-piece, and the ear-rings
made from lumps of gold which Nature alone has worked, accord-
ing to her whim.
Here, the miners will rarely make up their minds to sell their
nuggets. To do so is almost a sign of bankruptcy. And yet what
is bankruptcy-if not this rough work, so ill-rewarded, on soil
which was once rich but has now been exhausted by generation
after generation of greedy prospectors? Only with reluctance
does it yield up its last particles of the precious metal; but there
are still plenty of people foolish enough to be tempted to go on
with the search. They it is who work away with pick and shovel
at the hundreds and hundreds of cubic yards of earth... although
the same amount of work, if directed to some ordinary farming
activity, would make their fortune and set them free from their
It was Paoliono the half-breed who, in 1854, discovered a
nugget of gold and started the rush.
In 1855 the Inini territory, and more especially the area of the
upper Mana, was invaded by hordes of men from Brazil, from
the British West Indies, and from the entire Guianan seaboard-
which was, in fact, deserted in an instant. In 1856 the first exports
totalled 16 pounds. In 1860, 164 pounds. In 1864, 410 pounds.
In 1874, 2,864 pounds. In I884, 3,850 pounds. Atthe peak-period,
in 1894, the figure was 9,670 pounds, with an average of 5,2oo
pounds of undeclared nuggets.
Since that year, the export of gold has continually diminished
and is now quite insignificant. There are several reasons for this.
In the first place, gold fetches a better price in Surinam, which is
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not far off; and the miners, knowing this, smuggle it out of
Guiana. It would not, of course, suit them at all to declare it to
the French customs. And then, also, the same sites have been
exploited since I855. Searches have gone deeper and deeper,
and the best sites have already been exhausted. Where a miner
could find thirty to forty grammes a day in 1856, his successor in
1949 gets two or three-and those not every day.
The miners of Guiana are like white-collar workers, in that they
are most of them established family men, with many children and,
paradoxically enough, a great fondness for family life, and for their
village, their friends, their settled habits.... For routine, in fact.
The sites themselves, like a peasant's small-holding, pass down
from father to son; but, unlike our farms at home, their yield is in
inverse ratio to the amount of work put into them.
There's nothing adventurous about it, nothing picturesque;
it's a dismal, mediocre life. The miner has grown respectable.
He's frightened of adventure, frightened of the forest, and fright-
ened of the Indians and their spells; for him to leave his village
is something extraordinary, to which he consents with reluctance.
He always comes back to the same place. His argument is that,
in order to go elsewhere and find a more rewarding terrain, he
must provision himself; and he can't do that unless he has either
cash or credit.
He has neither one nor the other. Adventure for its own sake,
risk, chance, famine, the forest-all these terrify him, and he
lingers on in stagnation. He's dying to leave, but he never does.
He knows that he'll be ruined if he stays, but he hopes for miracles,
where no miracle has ever occurred. You never catch two hares
in the same trap.
In Brazil the diamond-hunters and other prospectors are
unscrupulous toughs with nothing to tie them down. They are
men who will take a canoe, a gun, a pick, a shovel, and a wash-
trough, and start off, not caring about food or shelter, into the
hinterland. They penetrate ever deeper, shoot up the untamed
Indians, live the life of nomads-haunted by the desire to make
their fortune; they don't often do it, but at least they try, and
they're real adventurers.
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There's nothing of that here. More's the pity-the whole of
Guiana is going to pot, because of the semblance of organisation
which kills all initiative. They know the law, however remote and
ineffective it may be, and they respect it. Every shopkeeper has
his licence, and every hunter a permit for his gun.
All this is death to romance, death to the future. New York
was a Far West before it had its skyscrapers. In Guiana there was
never a Far West, and there'll never be any skyscrapers; to impose
a preconceived order on a new country, instead of letting it
develop in its own way, is the best way to ruin it and destroy its
Order is born of disorder. Canada, Brazil, and the U.S.A.
are new countries, rich countries, countries that have worked
out their own destiny; they've all had-or still have, in some
areas-their Far West. They're none the worse for it, and they
see no reason to be ashamed of it.
All this is to explain why I was disappointed in the Guianan
miners. If I wanted the feeling of adventure I'd have been more
likely to find it among the miners of Lille. These people here are
just a pack of navvies.
I went out with two brothers, both miners. Their plot is
quite near Sophie-half an hour's walk away, through the forest.
There's no path, of course-nothing but a vague trail that leads
across creeks and ravines.
One of the brothers went ahead, sabre in hand, bare-footed,
gaitered, with his katouri on his shoulders and his pipe in his
mouth; the other, behind, had a brotherly likeness . to his
own brother. In the distance we heard the red monkeys and a
parrot or two.
"There," said one of them, "that's where we work."
There were large excavations on the side of a hill. A good deal
of quartz had been got clear. The caves were fifteen to thirty-five
yards deep, and beside each of them was a primitive hut, designed
to keep their food and equipment dry during the rainy season.
That was all. Some of the diggings were abandoned and full of
water; there was no gold there-perhaps there'd never been any.
But there's another, twenty yards away, where men (the same
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who'd abandoned the other) have been digging for weeks, hoping
to strike lucky this time. If they'd gone on enlarging the first
one, the result would have been much the same!
As if to keep up the family feeling, all the holes are near to one
another. Nobody wants to branch out on his own, when it's so
convenient-only half an hour from the village!
The sun was not yet up. The mist rose to the top of the
highest trees of the forest. They were all streaming with water.
A man was singing in the heavy silence, and from time to time a
listless bird or two would give an answering cry.
The morning was still cool, but the two brothers stripped to
the waist and soon they were panting in time with their picks as
they tore at the heavy red earth. The picks rang out against
quartz, and the brothers tested it out with a hammer. I noticed
the clear squeak of the spade as the miners threw the rejected
earth clear of the hole. Already this was visibly bigger, and it'll
go on getting bigger until, by sheer dint of digging, they'll un-
cover the seam itself. It means a week, or two weeks, or even
three, before they see even a gramme of gold. For the moment,
the search is all.
The mist still lingered in the forest. The liana hung in rigid
arabesques; trees and foliage seemed quite unreal. In the big
clearings, dead silhouettes stood erect, laden with crows'
The sweat ran down the brothers' bare bodies; the older of
the two stopped for a moment to fill his stubby, well-worn pipe.
"You see what it's like."
He took a piece of quartz, rubbed away the earth that clung
to it, broke it with the hammer, spat on the inner surface and
peered closely at it in search of a tiny speck of gold. His steel-
rimmed spectacles had been patched with sticking-plaster.
He tried ten times, twenty times-and at last he found it. On
the dull smooth surface of the broken quartz I saw something
yellow that sparkled. That's what gold is: nothing more. But
to make a gramme of this precious metal, how many tons of
quartz must be broken down at home, in the evening, with a
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The sun had swept the mist away. The forest was alive with
song. In every hole, the miners worked away in silence; their
picks and shovels set up a uniform chinking; and in the ram-
shackle hut, soup was brewing. It was lunch-time. Rice, couac,
smoked meat, and a pipe. And then, under the blazing afternoon
sun, work begins again. Shovel, pick-axe and pick dig deep,
discard, pursue their search....
Five o'clock. Time to go home. Tools are put away, katouris
shouldered, and then, sabre in hand, the miners form a long
procession and set off for the village.
One of the brothers coughed from time to time.
"Have I had it long? Only for the last ten years."
"It's just a cold."
Thursday, 20th October
Yesterday evening, when we got back to the village, I watched
them break down the day's spoils. Usually they wait till the end
of the week before working on the quartz; the miner brings home
his katouri full of stones each evening, and they're heaped in a
corner of the carbet. Sometimes his women-folk fill in their
leisure hours by working on the pile. That's why you can always
hear, in a mining village, the sound-reflected by the floors of
beaten earth-ofthe quartz being hammered in an iron mortar.
The two brothers sat on wooden boxes in a shed which ad-
joined their carbet. On the floor was a rectangular fosse, the
bottom of which was formed by a large flat stone. On this stone
was a little heap of quartz. The creole took up a pestle and set
to work to break down the quartz. When it was reduced
to the consistency of gravel, it was put into a box, and the second
miner began to pound it in an iron mortar.
There remained a fine, impalpable dust, and this was put
into another box. As the work went on, the heap of quartz
grew smaller and smaller and the boxes slowly filled. The
noise of pounding, heavy and regular, went on throughout the
The brothers went off with the box to the river, taking with
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them a wash-trough, a funnel-shaped cone of dished plate, and
two "couias", or rounded iron cups.
And they washed the powdered quartz-first in the couias
above the wash-trough, and then in the trough itself, the bottom
of which is of mercury. The double movement of balance and
rotation serves to divide gold and gravel from one another.
When the mercury turns yellow it is put into a square of cloth,
and carefully folded and pressed, and then heated to the point of
evaporation. When the cloth is unfolded it reveals a tiny piece of
gold which, though full of impurities, will fetch the current price
of three hundred and seventy-five francs a gramme.
At Sophie village this unusual method of extraction is due to
the presence of eluvial strata resulting from the deterioration of
the auriferous formations. These strata are found on the sides of
valleys or in the immediate vicinity of rivers. They run laterally
to the alluvial deposits and to the outcrops of the auriferous
formations. The strata divide themselves into two categories,
according to the degree and depth of the deterioration of the
auriferous formation. The first comprises strata of earth which,
in the strict sense, is vegetable; i.e. characterized by the complete
decomposition of the formation which gave rise to it.
These strata assume the following characteristics when ex-
amined by the prospector: a layer (six to nine inches) of humus
or red or black clay, with roots of grass or trees running through
it; at five feet from the surface there is still no gravel, but this
grows thicker in the clay towards the "bed rock".
The strata of "vegetable earth" in the strict sense are found on
the flanks of the steeper hills. Their gold-content is about one
gramme to the cubic metre; nuggets and auriferous quartz are
The strata of ordinary vegetable earth display a greater degree
of decomposition of the original rock. These strata are the ones
that are most usual in Guiana and most characteristic of the
They are found at a place which is ninety minutes' walk from
Sophie-at the players of Dagobeit, where I shall shortly be
going. Their content is a gramme to the cubic metre, though this
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increases when the hill is steeper; for the gold is found only in
the layers of gravel.
The players of Sophie belong to the second class of eluvial
strata: the mountain-earth strata. The original auriferous forma-
tion is more deeply, and above all more irregularly, affected-as
one may see from the seamed rocks, in which there are veins of
These strata are more numerous and more important than in
the strata of vegetable earth: the gold content is very low but has
invaded the whole thickness of the rock. There are in all five
classes of alluvial strata.
En route for Dagobert. It's five in the morning; I'm leaving
with two miners who came in to Sophie yesterday to stock up
Outside the village we cross ground that has been cleared
recently. Trees have been burnt and sawn, dead branches lie
everywhere, and among the confused vegetation the planters
have sown cassava. It grows up somehow, by the grace of God.
It's a bad track. We cross the river by means of a dead tree
which stands twelve or fifteen feet above the water and is seven
or eight inches wide. And so we come to the first village, which
stands at the foot of a "mome": that is the name the Guianans
give to hills.
There's not even a footbridge to link these two villages,
though they've been there over a hundred years! Nothing but a
We climb the steep side of this first hill, only to find another
on the side; so it goes on for a long while.
The whole country is covered with these hills, roughly a thou-
sand feet high. Between them squat muddy little creeks that you
have to cross, like a trapeze artist, by means of fallen trees; or
else you just step into the sticky mud and wade across, knee-deep
in it. The hills aren't easy to climb, and the iron in your soles
makes you slip on the fallen leaves that lie thick on the slopes.
The path, if you can call it that, is a narrow trail, discernible
only by the leaves that have been trodden into the ground by
your predecessors. You need a Red Indian's eye to follow its
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meanderings and the feet of a mountaineer if you're to keep your
hold on the slope and not to fall backwards down the two or
three hundred yards of precipitous hillside. It looks, from above,
as if you might fall head-first into one of a succession of enormous
barrels, each filled with some precious essence and quite unlike
any of the others.
You often go down on your bottom, anyway, because you're
falling the whole time. After an hour and three-quarters' quick
march through this chain of "mountains", after crossing one
little creek after another, and after inhaling the damp, fetid air of
the underwoods, we came to the outskirts of the village of Dago-
More gymnastics: we have to climb over, or along, the enor-
mous tree-trunks that have been felled in every direction: one
or two little hills, where the deforestation is complete, are a
gloomy sight, outlined before us in their nakedness.
Then there's a path, a large clearing on the side of a hill, some
fifteen carbets, and three women fast asleep. Dagobert is not a
scene of brilliant animation.
The panorama extends across the surrounding hills and the
curly, frizzy outline of the virgin forest. All the men are out at
work. My two travelling companions, after stowing away their
provisions in a wooden box that serves as cupboard, sideboard,
and chest of drawers, set to work to prepare our breakfast. The
carbet has a family likeness to all the other carbets in Guiana: a
framework of stakes thrust into the ground, walls ofplaited willow
between the stakes, and a roof kept in place by beams poised on
forks and covered with mangrove leaves. The floor is of beaten
earth, and the hut is divided into two parts by a wicker partition:
on the one side the kitchen, on the other the dining-room, bed-
room, and general all-purpose room.
In the kitchen a square block of terra-cotta and two big stones
constitute the hearth. In the other room four forks laid on the
ground in the form of a square, and two planks with two others
beneath them to raise them off the ground: those are the bed. A
box: that's the table; and in a corer a jumbled heap of picks and
spades, a wash-trough, some bottles of mercury, and a lot of
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empty tins that lie all over the place and serve as tobacco-jars,
sugar-basins, or containers for coffee, rice, and couac.
It's not an elaborate breakfast; two of the local Jerusalem arti-
chokes, boiled in plain water, and a little dried fish with a drop of
The two men set off in front of me. The road was quite easy
and we were at their work-place in five minutes. Their com-
panions were already on the job and seemed amazed to see me.
Barefooted, with a patched shirt and harlequin trousers-the
miner's working-dress the world over-the face black or sallow
beneath the faded felt hat . There's not a European in the
There was a time when the ex-convicts-it was they who
exploited most of the seams-settled more or less everywhere;
and it was widely believed that a European can work as a gold-
miner without damaging his health. But since then the miners
who had escaped, or been released, from prison have disappeared;
with their heads full of fabulous stories they managed to feed
the overheated imagination of the newspapers, creating any
number of diminutive El Dorados and inspiring quite serious
books and articles which (after a fashion) were "fully docu-
Not one of them came back to the seaboard as a rich man;
and those whose pockets were well weighted always lost it
within three weeks....
The convicts have gone, but souvenirs of them remain every-
where, in the shape of the appropriate names that they gave to
their sites. Discovered by accident, or patiently sought over a
long period, these are called, for example: "No Luck", "Heaven
or Else", "Memories", "Patience", "Dead Ox", "Last Hope",
"Bankrupt", "Paradise", "Ten a Penny", "Cookhouse", "Thanks
Be To God", "Elysium", "About Ship", and there are also
many women's names-Jacqueline, Paulette, Huguette, Ghislaine,
and also the names of towns and suburbs-St. Nazaire, La Villette,
Republique, Bordeaux, Mont Val6rien, and others.
There are still some convicts who choose, when they are
released, to become gold's prisoner, and there are others who,
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after serving their time, prefer to take their chance and head for
Brazil or Surinam. But round here there are no whites at all.
They work in the open; in the big clearing, the white sandy
surface of the rejected matter sets up a blinding refraction. The
sun beats down. The men work in silence, mechanically, not
wasting a movement. Each has his job to do, and knows it.
The alluvial gold comes from the slow decomposition of the
seam-heads that accumulated at the time of the great erosions
of the secondary period. It lies upon a layer of clay which itself
lies immediately above a bed of rock that they call "bed rok"
[sic]. The ease or difficulty of extracting the gold depends upon
the depth of the topmost or vegetable stratum. And before he
begins his real work, the miner takes a sounding, discovers the
depth of this stratum, and calculates how long it will take him to
reach bed rok.
After choosing his ground, he makes a trial dig: first with his
long, heavy mud-shovel, and then with what he calls his "crimi-
nal" scoop-a long narrow tool with sharp sides that cut away
any roots that may linger below.
And then, with a pick-axe, he removes the heavy rocks from
the surface, taking care not to touch the gravel that lies next the
puddly clay at the bottom of the hydrostatic level.
It's then that he experiments with the wash-trough-that is
to say that he washes a little of the gravel and verifies its gold
content. If this is satisfactory he calls to two or three of the other
men and begins to build a Long Tom: a wooden canal in three
sections. The first is the floor, a shallow tank placed under a
water-chute fed by a little tributary of the nearest river; second,
a grille that serves to stop the bigger stones; third, the trough
proper, which receives the sand and the amalgam of gold, and
is situated below the "floor" and at an angle of sixty-five degrees
to it. In this trough are the riffles-slotted pieces of wood, with
mercury in the slots. These riffles bar the way to a long wooden
canal called the "sluice".
In the Dagobert sites this Long Tom stands on a pile founda-
tion. It traverses, in fact, the large deep hole where the men
shovel the auriferous earth.
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The water washes away the clay, the gravel, and the big stones
that get no farther than the grille.
One man has to rake away along the "floor"-tearing non-
stop at the earth which is thrown up by his comrade below.
From time to time he bends down and clears the grille, throwing
great handfuls of stones to right and left.
What remains goes into the "production-tank", after passing
through the riffles of the sluice; there's a wash-trough, also
containing mercury, beneath the production-tank, and this
gathers together the gold that has got through the ordeal of the
sluice. The water flows on freely through a canal that has been
built through the excavations; it's one man's job to keep this
canal working, despite the continual increment of alluvial matter
from the "floor".
One of the miners blocks the overflow from the river, the water
stops flowing, a lot of mud gets left on the floor, the miner below
stops shovelling the earth, and the floor is cleared by a last gush
of water from the river.
Another miner, squatting on his haunches and armed with a
tiny broom, cleans up the sluice; little by little the mercury leaks
down to the trough, while the clear water flows on and the
mercury shines a delicate yellow.
A stone slab is heated on the fire, the mercury is put on to this
slab, it evaporates, and there remain two or three grains of gold.
The operation takes a whole morning. It's noon, by the sun.
I'm dying of heat, after having run hither and thither to get the
best and most varied angles for my photographs. The clouded
sky has meant continual changes of exposure. The film won't
unwind properly, because of the heat, and in the end I get sick
of it all and go off to another site that they point out to me.
Bobby, covered with mud, is at my heels.
After an hour's march I arrive at an enormous site, where
fifteen negroes, ankle-deep in mud, are struggling to open up a
terrain covered with soft clay. The sun beats down and it's
beastly work. They're hunting for the seam, and the hunt has
gone on fruitlessly for several weeks; meanwhile two gigantic
Long Toms stand idle, awaiting their quota of auriferous earth.
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A little way away are two or three ramshackle kitchens. Two
of the miners get the meal ready: Jerusalem artichokes in a pan.
They haven't even the money to buy rice or couac; as for meat,
you never have it, because they're all too busy mining to go out
and hunt for it.
The miners occasionally find some quartz among the rejected
earth; and when this happens they bring it over here and Gomes
Robert, a veteran of ninety-three, has the job of breaking down
the quartz and reducing it to dust. His dark, lined face breaks
into a smile as he pours out his memories for my benefit. He's
been at Dagobert since 1902 ... when Dagobert was really worth
coming to. Ever since then he's been looking for gold. He's a
native of the Antilles. Has he made his fortune? Yes, at least
"Sometimes I ate well, and sometimes I didn't."
His carbet stands next to a hole sixty feet deep, and half full of
water and brushwood.
"There's a very rich seam in there," said the old man. "I can't
work it myself, and they won't any of them help me with it.
Besides, you'd need money to buy pumps and get that water out
and bring up your equipment.... I'm too old!" (He sighed.)
"But there's a man coming from Cayenne-a big man. He's
going to bring money-a lot of money!"
And the old man went on standing guard-over a submerged
seam that nobody coveted and nobody believed in.
"Why d'you stay here?" I asked one of the young miners. He
was quite played out, and took a drink of water from a can that
hung on the wall of his carbet.
"Oh well-perhaps one day..."
They believe in luck ... their own private luck. Perhaps they
try to believe that the veteran in their midst is the living symbol
of the miner's universal dream.
"You see," said the boy to me, "for three weeks we've been
digging away to find the bed rok . three weeks without a
gramme of gold. We may have another three weeks before we
strike lucky, and three more before we really begin getting the
gold out... and when we come to share it out there may be only
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a gramme each. But there may be ten.... That'd be fine-and all
for nine weeks' work. But nobody gives us credit any more, so
we're dying of hunger."
I've heard the same complaints and the same hopes among the
diamond miners of Aragarcas, in Brazil. There, here, elsewhere-
miners are the same the world over. What a waste of energy it
all is! And how powerful is their obsession with gold and
I was exhausted when I got back to Sophie. As I drew near to
the village I heard the same dull thudding: the women were still
breaking down the quartz.
I found my friend P on all fours in his shop. He was trying
to scoop up, with a little spoon, pea-nut oil from a broken
His girl-friend was kneeling on the floor with a basin, and P
was gradually transferring the lakes and rivers of oil that made
up the map of the creviced earth.
"It's still all right," said the woman, after she'd dipped her
finger in the oil and sucked it.
P isn't married. He lives with H.
That's how it is, in mining country. And in almost all Guiana,
as a matter of fact. The latest figures give 18,235 unmarried
men, as against 2,772 who are married. Of the latter, 37 per cent
have no children. The birth-rate is low, and infant mortality
is up to 24 per cent. Syphilis alone, according to the Pasteur
Centre in Cayenne, is responsible for 22 per cent of the deaths;
malaria causes between 5 and 6 per cent, and intercurrent diseases
-leprous in origin-another 5 per cent.
Alcoholism also does a lot of damage: the annual consumption
of tafia is eleven and a half litres a year. That's the official figure,
which should really be doubled. The miners drink heavily, of
course, and it costs them a lot of money. Two grammes of gold
for a litre of bad spirit, made from sugar-cane .. more than
seven hundred francs, that's to say, whereas in Cayenne it costs
between two hundred and two hundred and fifty.
"It's drink that keeps us going," the miners say.
"It's the only way not to get fever," they say in Cayenne.
70 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
Tafia is certainly the only really prosperous industry in Guiana.
Everyone, without exception, drinks one or more glasses of
punch with his meals.
The miners are quite steady, in their sexual attachments, but
it's quite common for a woman to be kept by two miners who are
neither of them rich enough to have a woman for himself.
It's quite common, too, to see a woman leave a man who's
dying with hunger and set up with someone who's had better
luck. (And she'll have taken all his gold first, by the way.)
There's always a woman at the bottom of every quarrel between
miners. The women manage to ruin their men in the end, and
then they're never seen again. A lot of shopkeepers have been
ruined in that way.
They're good-looking women, but unbelievably avaricious.
I knew an Arab on the Maroni, a shopkeeper, who had two wives
... real ones, I mean. It cost him dear, though; his till was soon
The goldminers of Sophie and Dagobert are called "the
Marauders" and "the Handymen". And rightly, really, because
they work on sites that don't belong to them. They know per-
fectly who the rightful owner is, but he lets them do as they like.
Even if he didn't, they couldn't be stopped.
As a matter of fact, the lay-out of the various sites is completely
haphazard, and more than one proprietor has told me that he
doesn't know exactly where his holding begins or ends. The
reason is that the authorities can't be bothered to send anyone
to measure it all out in the undergrowth. You just draw a rect-
angle on the map-taking in a few rivers on the way-put your
name to it, and there you are: the official proprietor. They take
your word for it; you've gauged the boundaries as best you can-
by the number of days' march from such and such a point, or
simply by ordinary guesswork.
As for stopping the Marauders from taking over your land,
or the land next to it, you haven't a hope. You'd need an army
of policemen-gamekeepers. So you just have to accept the fact
that the country belongs to everyone. The miners work it as
best they can, but there is an inevitable loss of about 50 per cent;
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with their primitive methods of washing the soil half of the gold
that could be extracted by modem machinery gets thrown out
with the refuse. In any case, the difficulties of transport are so
great that I doubt if really modem equipment could ever be got
to the site. At most, a few light and ineffective machines could
be got through, piece by piece. The price of transport is terrify-
ingly high-up to seven hundred francs a hundredweight. For
this reason the chief mining companies in Guiana (there are three
of them: the Elie Co., the S.E.M.I., and Thiebault's S.M.H.M.)
have hardly tackled the problem at all, and their output is in-
significant-as may be seen from the figures for the export of
gold from Guiana.
The gold vanishes, as a rule, when it is smuggled out of Guiana;
or else it goes the round of the shopkeepers-a very little finds
its way into the banks.
In principle the gold produced by the main companies goes
to the banks in Cayenne . and it's said that the Banque de
France fixes the production at a level which, in the directors'
opinion, might well be very much higher. There's something
very capricious about the politics of finance!
Tired out by my march to Dagobert and back, I was lying in
my hammock, dressed, Indian-style, in nothing but a calimb6,
when someone knocked at the door of the carbet: a white man,
an acquaintance from Paris, Dr. Sausse. He was bronzed, had
grown a moustache, and wore his hair very long.
"How are youe"
Sausse was attached to a mission of the National Geographical
Service, led by the young engineer-geographer J. Hurault. He'd
just come back from the Tumuc Humacs. In fact the Mission
had made its way up to the sources of the Maroni and touched,
at one point, the famous range of mountains. They had not
penetrated it, however, and had made their way to Sophie along
And there, too, was J. Hurault, whom I'd met in Paris at the
Service Geographique. He was just the same. He wore battle-
dress and had several Bonis with him. They made themselves
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at home in my carbet without asking my permission to sit
I'm bound to say that Hurault and I had had more than one
sharp disagreement about my projects, and also about the Indian
"You know what you called us in Paris Presse," said the doctor
with a smile.
"No, it wasn't quite like that. I criticised your methods,
"It boils down to the same thing."
We were off again.
"Well ... and what about your exploration?"
"This is it."
And I spread out the map, on which my route was marked in
"You're crazy," Hurault shouted.
I was waiting for that. He'd said it in Paris and repeated it in
Cayenne ... and now he was saying it again.
We had a terrific argument. But I was rather sick of the whole
thing, and in fact hardly replied, feigning to agree, which
made the discussion more pleasant. We finished the evening
together beneath an awning, with a big meal in front of us, and
eight interested spectators: the Roucouyan Indians whom J.H.
has had with him since the Itany. He means to take them to
We all enjoyed ourselves; they described their journey.
"It was tough, all right!"
It's Hurault's second expedition in Guiana. He's getting
tired of the Guiana rivers: Oyapok, Maroni, Itany. He's seen
everything except the Tumuc Humacs, the white patch on
the map that fills all my thoughts, the unexplored region I'm
Settled in Hurault's folding chair, with dates and Nescaf6
before me, and real cigarettes within reach, I listened to the doctor
as he tried to dissuade me.
"Come on, Maufrais, why don't you come back with us to
Cayenne, and then on to Paris. You've done quite enough here
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already.... With the rainy season coming on, it's too late for you
to start, anyway."
"All right, then, if you insist ... just go as far as the Ouaqui-
Tamourijunction-no one's done that since Leblond, in 1700--
If you can do that, I'll take off my hat to you. We had to turn
back, this time, and we and the Prefet went back the way we'd
come. We were well armed, well equipped, well victualled
... and we had porters as well. If you go alone you've an even
chance of not coming back; if you do get back, I can testify to
what you'll have achieved."
"Perhaps you've read my articles, Dr. Sausse?" I said. "D'you
remember what I said? That I'll reach the junction of the Ouaqui
and the Tamouri; that's understood, and I'm leaving for that
now; but also I'll reach the junction of the Oyapok and the
Maroni! And by way of the Tumuc Humacs, too! You don't
think I've got a hope, do you? Well, you'll be proved a bad
It's night now. The sleeping village is bathed in moonlight.
The miners are at rest. What do they dream of, when they're
asleep? What are the stories that have passed from mouth to
mouth, in village and site-the stories that keep them awake far
into the night as they sit in the light oftheir petrol lamps ? Alone, or
with their woman companion, they talk of the man who dropped
his pipe as he was walking along a familiar track; and of how,
when he stooped to pick it up, he noticed the trace of gold, went
quickly and in secret to register it as his own site, dug away at
the spot and extracted thirty pounds of gold in three days....
Gold, gold.... There-are thousands of stories like that. And
every evening the miner dreams that he will soon be the hero of
the next one. That he'll find an "orange basket" beneath his
pick: a hole full of nuggets the size of walnuts!
The miner dreams-of the bills he'll have to pay tomorrow
(no use hoping for sympathy from the shopkeepers) and of the
mercury at twenty francs the kilo, without which he can't work
at all. Not so much as a "ouaille" for weeks: and yet how much
is a "ouaille"e The merest, tiniest speck of gold.
74 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
The gold-washer's measures haunt the miner's dreams, and he
sees before him the "ouailleur", or "shepherd", with its heavy
gold content. Formerly that was worth a sou of gold; and then
there are the "deci", the "two decis", the pinch of gold ... and
finally the "orange basket"; a pocket which, though rich, is
soon exhausted, for only the spangly grains of gold-dust point
to a soil whose alluvial deposit is uniformly rich.
Sleep on, miner... dream your dreams, miner.... I shall take
the road to-morrow. I don't envy you your lot. If I am rich,
it's in space that my riches lie, and in the certainty of discovering
something unknown and inviolate; your riches are infinite ...
Goodbye, miners... and good luck!
Friday, 21st October
Early this morning Hurault went off on the trail with eight
Indians and two creoles. He's going to follow the route which
was once in regular use by the miners and is now almost derelict.
I shall take the same route and eventually arrive at the Maroni
by way of the Petit Inini creek. I've engaged a very expensive
porter: twenty grammes of gold for the journey to the
I had to sell my revolver to get some gold. I got fifty grammes:
not expensive, I must say. I bought some food for the journey
and some gewgaws for the Indians. I'm laden with luggage
which won't be any use to me till I'm on the Maroni and the
Ouaqui. After that, I shall set off on my real exploration, and my
load will be lighter-hardly more than what I expected: twenty-
five kilos, that's to say.
My luggage for the raid itself: films and papers of various kinds
in a metal case: 5s kilos. Hammock, mosquito-net, axe, rain-
coat: 42 kilos. Medicines: I- kilos.
For the Indians: 2y kilos. Ammunition for my rifle: 61 kilos.
Miscellaneous-tobacco, matches, rope, knapsack: 7 kilos. In all,
281 kilos-a load I can easily carry on a slow march oftwo or three
miles a day. But what with the extras for the river-section of my
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journey, the extra gewgaws, woodmen's axes, etc., for the
Indians of the Itany, whom I hope to visit before leaving on my
exploration, the total load, spread over two knapsacks, means
some thirty kilos for the porter from Martinique and as much
again for myself.
From the beginning the porter is very uncooperative-saying
that I ought to have paid him more for such heavy work, that
the road is too long, and the load too heavy....
It's ten in the morning. We hung about in Sophie, instead of
leaving at six, as I'd planned; but my porter, having no katouri,
had to get one. That meant a lot of talk. Then he loaded his
wicker-bag in front of a crowd of commiserating neighbours.
And that meant a lot more talk. Then he ate a large meal, while
his wife, his mother-in-law and various supernumerary relations
gathered round, in readiness for what now seemed a hero's leave-
taking. More talk. They gave me a lot of dirty looks, and I felt
quite remorseful.... Poor boy! What a brute I am, to make him
carry thirty kilos for twenty difficult miles-and all for thirty
grammes of gold!
We got away at last, and there we were, right next to a little
river, and rather out of breath at having straddled, or jumped, or
climbed over the hundred or so dead trees that litter the outskirts
of the village. We hadn't come very far.
The porter put his katouri on the ground, wiped his forehead,
"No go further. Too heavy. Go fetch friend."
What could I do? I couldn't find another porter within sixty
miles. He went off, and I sat and waited.
A "can can" paused for a moment on the branch of a tree. I
fired, killed him, removed his feathers and lit a fire. When he
was roasted I shared him with Bobby; he was tough. It was then
noon. Time was passing, and my nerves were on edge.
And then they arrived. They were quite open about it all.
Either I took on his friend, whom he'd fetched from the mine,
or he'd leave me in the lurch. It was very well planned-doubt-
less they'd arranged it all the day before.
"How much" I asked.
76 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
I was to give him a few grammes, and the Martiniquais a few
more, since the new man was going to take some of the weight
off both our backs.
We settled for nine grammes, and the little box in which I
stored my gold became perilously light. So much for my sighs...
we unloaded, reloaded, and generally sorted ourselves out. Two
o'clock: we got going at last, each with twenty kilos on his back,
and I with my rifle slung on my shoulder. We set off at a good
But just then one of the katouris fell to the ground. A broken
strap: more talk ... but eventually the repairs were over.
Off again: this time for good. We marched without pausing
till sunset. The heat was intense, and the track indecipherable-
unless you know how to follow the trail of the tiniest animal.
Fallen trees lay everywhere, with a prickly overgrowth all about
them. And everywhere, too, there were creeks that you had to
balance your way across, on rotten trunks that collapsed beneath
you or sent you slithering. And on the dead leaves that formed a
soft carpet on the ground there were tiny tape-culs that turned
the carpet into a skating rink.
I was wearing tennis shoes, for comfort's sake. I was to pay
dearly for that comfort.
The deep forest was in perpetual darkness; only where the
fallen trees formed an occasional open space did the rays of the
There was never a clearing-just an infinity of trunks-trunks
and liana, enormous trunks between whose roots you could
build a Crusoe's hut and shelter a whole family; only the ap-
proaches to each creek were covered with thick brushwood that
had to be cut away with our sabres before we could get through.
Elsewhere, the underwood offered few obstacles.
Shrubs, liana, "awaras".
The red monkeys made an infernal din the whole night long.
I know their music by heart. It begins with three loud hoarse
"Ba... Ba ... Ba..." and ends, after a series of groans through
the whole register from soprano to bass, with three more well-
spaced "Ba... Ba... Baaa..."
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Then there's a heavy silence. Through the mosquito net we
can see the glowing embers of our camp fire. Bobby curled up
by himself, and the porters asleep on a buccan.
Saturday, 22nd October
We could hardly see the lightening sky. We started the fire
again and I held out my hands to it, for it was cold-and, besides,
the tall bright flame reminded me of other camp fires.
I was awakened with a start, during the night, by the porters,
who were howling like men possessed. They lit the fire and
complained that vampires had bitten them. Blood was flowing
from their toes.... It was nothing, really, but they might have
made it their excuse for demanding an indemnity: an "accident
sustained in the course of their duties"!
Before leaving, I removed one or two "chigoes"-nasty little
growths that had started up in my toes-a tiny black spot, in the
middle of a white target the size of a shirt button. I plunged a
pin into this black spot, gave it a twist and-if I was quick
enough-off came a little lid, composed of thousands upon
thousands of tiny curdled white specks . chigoes' eggs that
develop with alarming rapidity and can lead to serious accidents
if they aren't removed in time.
A doctor who'd been working at St. Laurent du Maroni decided,
when his term was over, not to interfere with a chigoe that had
settled into the little toe of his left foot. He'd take it home to
France, he thought, and show it to his friends. Well, he arrived
in France, and so did the chigoe. But the doctor's friends never
saw it, because it was taken away, and the foot with it: the foot
had to be amputated, for fear that the gangrene would spread to
the whole of the leg.
These chigoes are a real danger, and you have to be very
careful to get rid of them when you examine your feet. There's
quite a deep hole, after you've taken one out, but if it's done in
good time it doesn't hurt. The hole is quite impressive, though.
The chigoe can rot away as much as half the afflicted toe, and
there's room enough for the end of your little finger to rest
78 JOURNEY WITHOUT RETURN
quite comfortably in the hole. If you've really got rid of the
chigoe, the toe heals itself; if not, the whole thing starts up again,
and you have to have another dig. Also it must be disinfected
In any case, one should always examine one's feet every day.
The smallest abrasion may suppurate and form an ulcer. Mush-
rooms begin to form: the continual dampness of the forest makes
them grow all the faster. One's legs become covered with red
blotches and pus-filled pinheads; and if one wants to get out
alive, one must never neglect these tedious but indispensable
Now we're on our way. I try in vain to recover the tracks of
Hurault's party. Like ourselves, they crept through the forest
as best they could. It's uphill work... the road to Dagobert was
a paradise, compared with this one. It's hard going, with the
knapsack dragging on one's shoulders, the rifle that gets caught
in every tree, and the espadrilles that fall to pieces on one's feet. We
work round the side of the hill that calls itself "Big Mountain";
we go downhill, into the unending marshland that we traverse
as best we can-with mud up to our thighs, or at best up to our
ankles. We balance ourselves on logs-there's never a bridge,
and sometimes not even a fallen tree to help us across the streams.
Then we just walk across, with water up to our chests; or else
we follow the sandy bed of a shallow creek, rather than clamber
over fallen trees or sink deep into the marsh.
And then the road goes uphill again. Roots, twining in and
out of the humus, form an uneven and treacherous staircase.
We climb from root to root, slipping, staggering, catching our
feet.... Then the root gives away and we find ourselves on the
ground. But at least the roots are there-useful, indispensable,
in fact: forming the rungs of a ladder when we're going upwards,
and a steep staircase when we're going down. They help us
across the marshes, and even sometimes across the rivers. They're
everywhere-colossal, menacing, monstrous even; each sprouting
a hundred smaller roots that form a kind of net to catch the loose
earth that gets carried along during the rains. And, when that
earth moves on, there's a hole, and a hole that your feet is bound
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to get caught in. It's as if you'd stepped into a fox-trap: you
feel as if you'd sprained your ankle, or fractured it, and you use
language unfit for decent ears.
Except for that, nothing extraordinary to report. The crude
green of the foliage is wearisome and exhausting. You long for
a clearing, or a plain that stretches to the horizon: and you long
for colours. Other colours. The green comes down like a funeral
pall. You find a thousand nuances of green; the sunlight shows
you things you never dreamed were there. The sun makes the
forest come alive, and vibrate, in the most splendid way; but
the sun stops at the very top of the trees. Only in the rare clear-
ings does it penetrate lower. Elsewhere half-darkness is the rule,
and trunks block the view on every hand. If you train your eyes
on any particular one, you'll have to give up from giddiness
before you're a hundred feet from the ground; yet it's only there
that the first branches begin. You've up to a hundred feet of
bare, smooth, many-coloured trunk.
Bobby surprises an agouti in the act of crossing our path. It
moved quickly, with one enormous leap after another. It was as
red as a fox and its tail stood upright. I hadn't the courage to
fire. We went on our way.... We came to Pineapple Mountain,
and then there was another creek, and a burnt-out carbet. And
always uphill, and downhill, with the marshes up to one's thighs
as the only variation.
When I was crossing one of the creeks by way of an obliging
tree, the tree snapped and the weight of my knapsack made me
fall on my back. I was soaked, as was the knapsack. No matter:
I went on my way....
And then suddenly there was an open space, with four carbets
in it; it was the general rendezvous for all the miners along the
river. We'd got half-way. I was filthy and fagged out. I dried
myself beside the big fire that had just been made; it was still
early-barely three o'clock-but we'd go no further to-day.
There was a conference between the two porters, of whom one
spoke no French at all and the other only a French patois. I
know one or two creole words ... They wanted more money
before going on.
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"Go on, then-you ask him!"
At last they make up their minds.
"Plenty big work, Boss!"
"Big work two days .. three to-morrow . more money
"Boss . .
I began to get sick of it all.
They talk it over ... Four hundred francs each for the extra
day! Time passed.
"What is it?"
"No more rice.
I gave them some, and slung my hammock.
"No more milk, Boss!"
I gave them some milk, but when they began asking for
tobacco, I told them fair and square what I thought of them.
They didn't understand, but it shut them up. I lay down in my
"Boss! Hey, Boss!"
I was up in a second. They were Hurault's Indians, in red
calimbes, with their chests gleaming with pearls and their
long hair streaming over their shoulders. Bowed beneath the
weight of a katouri, they leant on sticks.
"Tafia, hug. . ."
I hadn't got any. They love drink, those fellows. There are
two of them: Malapate de Tamouchi (that's to say, the cacique)
and Coco Bel Oeil, who is Malapate's "peito", or vassal.
Coco Bel Oeil-so named because he has lost one eye and now
wears an expression of perpetual amazement-gave me a friendly
thump on the back.
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They'd killed a pig and began to smoke it. Malapate kindly
offered me a piece, and then offered one to the creoles, who were
astonished that they didn't have to pay. These Indians, whom
people take for savages, are savages with fine manners, like
something out of Chateaubriand.
And quite suddenly, thanks to the arrival of the two Indians,
the camp became a delightful place. The other Indians are due
to arrive at any moment. The miners are out at work and won't
be back before evening. The porters are preparing their meal,
the Indians are singing in their hammocks as they lie beside the
fire on which their pig is cooking.
It's almost dark when the filthy and exhausted figures of
Hurault, his six Indians and the two creoles come into view.
"It's tough going," says Hurault to me, "but the road's marked
out much better."
We eat our meal together and discuss our plans till far into the
night. The hours pass pleasantly and Hurault seems much nearer
to me-more of a man and less of a civil servant. He has his
character; I have mine. It's the Tumuc Humacs that stand be-
The rain drums all night on the awning above my hammock.
Sunday, 23rd October
Coffee with Hurault, and a last goodbye. He'll be in Paris in
two months' time, and I in eight... if Providence allows!
"We'll meet in Paris, then."
"Do be reasonable-give up this journey!"
The gold-washers have just arrived. They're amazed to find
so many people here.
We make excellent headway, with my two porters.
I've cut myself a strong stick, as the Indians do; it helps me to
climb the series of steep hills that we have to tackle painfully,
hour after hour.
In spite of my stick, however, I was overbalanced by the weight
of my knapsack and fell into the marsh. The rotten branch I was
treading on had quite given way. So there I was, in the mud. It
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wasn't easy to get out, and I was covered with mud from head
to foot like a puppy.
We crossed Maxis Creek, Maxis Mountain, Big Creek, Death
Mountain, and then, in Tenecoeur Wood, we called a halt. We
were quite out of breath. The overgrown forest was streaming
with damp. A smell of rotting vegetation rose up to where the
sun had set the foliage steaming. We assumed that the sun was
quite high, but we could see neither sky nor horizon; the trees
hid everything. Diminutive creeks sneaked in and out between
the rotting trunks and vanished into the deep brushwood. When
I tried a short cut to rejoin the porters I suddenly sank up to my
thighs in soft mud.
The track became more and more difficult-nothing, now, but
swamps and steep hills-but I was delighted to look down and
see a tiny river making its way between two dark-shaded moun-
tains. There was something brutal in the opposition of that
black and that green: these fierce colours reduced man to his
proper proportions. He foundered in that ocean.
An attack of malarial fever compelled me to give the signal
for another halt. I took three shots of quinine and two aspirins
and rested for an hour or two. I was shaking and sweating and
fit for nothing.
All the same, we had to get on. The last few miles were tough
work. We'd reached an area which was relatively flat and open;
but the scrub was so fantastically thick that you could guess,
even before you saw it, that the ground had once been cultivated.
And in fact there were a few wild banana trees, a lemon tree,
some sawn-up trunks. . Not a single carbet, though. The
woods had collapsed, and the bush had effaced Ouapa village....
After Ouapa Creek, very near to the site of the former village,
we came to Brazil Mountain, and then to Cordelle Creek, where
one of the porters lost his footing and fell into the mud, and then
to Dioukali Mountain.
Suddenly we smelt something very strong, there was a far-
echoing roar of thunder, a great grunting and trampling, and a
ponderous headlong cavalcade.... A herd of peccaries went past.
I fired, and one of them fell. It was a female, and a big one; the
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bullet had gone through its belly. It wasn't dead, so one of the
porters finished it off with his sword. They bound up its feet
and began to drag it towards the abandoned katouris in order to
cut it in pieces. But suddenly they dropped the rope and ran
away. More than that: they waved their arms like windmills
and began howling and shrieking at the tops of their voices. I was
very intrigued. Having loaded my rifle, just in case, I went over
to join them. But suddenly I too began waving my arms and
shouting. I was being stung on the cheeks, on the shoulder, on
the hands, everywhere at once, by an enraged squadron of Indian
flies. These were merely the advance-guard of an immense
colony that we had roused against us by accidentally treading
on their nest at the foot of a tree. The bites burnt into my flesh
and were very slow to cool off. When the pain did eventually
die down we were covered with nasty little swellings. And
meanwhile the peccary was infested with thousands of angry flies,
every one of whom left its sting in the dead flesh.
After half an hour's struggle, and with the help of a slip-knot
that we'd fixed on the end of a pole, we got the pig away, cut it
in pieces, and loaded it up. Each of us had a huge chunk of bleed-
ing meat on top of his knapsack. The traces of all this were
clearly visible behind us as we walked.
Off again: it was a heavy supplementary load-thirty or forty
pounds of meat for each of us-and when we came in sight of
another herd I didn't think it was worth while to shoot. It would
have been a pointless act of murder; and perhaps later I shall be
very glad to meet that same pig on the road.
Swamps, swamps.... A cloud of flies harassed us-the smell
of fresh meat had magnetised them.
After "How Are You" Mountain and "Good Morning"
Mountain, we began to go down. In a large clearing, with a river
beside it, we found two rows of neat little huts, any amount of
good, clean, warm sunshine, and five black women. These were
the only people in the village of La Grave; all the men were out
on the sites.
We lived again.... Somewhere a cock crowed.
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Monday, 24th October
I've been offered a boat. The hiring fee is six grammes of
gold (a day). Yesterday evening I got two eggs and a little rice:
the old black woman asked at first four grammes, then three, and
then two.... And I'd already given her my share of the peccary
in return for one small helping, when it was roasted. I said no,
and gave her some tobacco. They haven't had any for the last
month.... I'm in luck.
In the end the porters offered to transform themselves into
boatmen and take me to Cambrouze village, on the Petit Inini
The women came and asked for more tobacco. I refused. I'm
sick of being held to ransom-looted, in fact-by people who
simply see the traveller as a good Samaritan, a goose to be plucked
as they please.
In Brussels the famous geographer Elisee Buclos ran through a
legacy of ten million francs from his beautiful Polish admirer.
He was constructing a terrestrial globe at the time, on a scale of
I : Ioo,ooo; and, being a man of illimitable kindness, he was also
helping the poor, or the pretended poor. He kept a whole crowd
of parasites and professional spongers; and his staff robbed him
to a man, from the manager down to the humblest cleaner. All
the same, his legacy lasted him ten years; here in Guiana six
months would have been enough.
I was in the midst of these bitter meditations while the canoe
was cautiously making its way through the many obstacles that
blocked the river. In some places we could creep through a gap;
elsewhere we had to saw and cut, or put all our luggage on the
bank and fill the boat with water, so that it slipped, submerged,
beneath the enormous trunks. Then it had to be baled out and
The sun soon got us down. The boatmen jabbered unceasingly
among themselves. I knew what was coming; and, sure enough:
"Boss... it's hard work, Boss..."
"I know. But we've fixed your price."
"We do it because we like you, Boss..."
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What beggars they are! The one of them wants a shirt-he's
had his eye on it since we left; and the other some of my rifle-
oil. They both want a bonus and extra food.
I won't give in. And so, of course, they slack off. One of the
black women at La Greve told me that it takes three hours to get
to the Petit Inini creek. But it takes us a whole day. And, of
course, it's just a coincidence that, whenever I'm taking a photo-
graph or writing my diary, the boat goes right inshore at top
speed. I then have to lie down flat in the bottom of the boat if I
don't want to have my face bashed in by a tree. I had several
narrow escapes of this sort. And then there are the overhanging
branches, and the overhanging liana, and the unexpected splash-
ing of the paddles. So I got angry and threatened them with this
and that. There are two of them, but they don't like quarrels.
They soon quietened down.
"All a joke, Boss!"
"Mo ka no joke schadap."
Three taps of a paddle: time for a rest: and time for talk, too,
it seems. God give me patience! In a rage, I shot at, and killed, a
crocodile that was wallowing in a pool of mud. One of the
porters, as if in reply, sighted a hocco, got down on to the bank
and killed it. It was a magnificent bit of meat.... Then they
had their meal. Couac, corned beef. It took all of an hour. We
set off again. The hours dragged, and so did we.
The river widened, and there were fewer obstacles. The sun
was like molten lead. There's as much game in the forest as anyone
could wish for; but, as the afternoon was already far gone, we
moved on without bothering with it.
Two blood-red macaws poised on a dead tree stood out against
the blue sky and made a dazzling picture in the harsh light.
A tree blocked the river. We got out, hacked a passage through
the brush, dragged the boat on to the muddy verge and got it
through-not without difficulty.
I noticed the orientation of the river. In obedience to some
instinctive law we turn left when the rocks are on the right bank,
and right if they're on the left. The river, boxed in between the
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low hills, has eaten into the base of these hills-but wherever
the current has met with real opposition it has retreated towards
the other side. Consequently we can always tell, from a consider-
able distance, if we're going to turn to right or to left.
While pondering this explanation of the twists and turns of
the river, I saw a long red shape shining and slithering on a mound
an inch or two from the bank. The canoe was moving fast and
steadily; I had a shot at the agouti-aiming at the back of the head,
so as not to mess it about if I hit it. As luck would have it he
turned three-quarters towards us as he watched us pass, and
shook his nasty little head at us. I fired, and he unwound his coils
and fell gently into the river. We stopped, drew near, and debated
the situation. The boatmen don't like it at all; they consider the
snake very dangerous and are in a blue funk about it. He's said
to be very poisonous. He frequents the river-banks, lives for
preference in the leaves of the banana-tree or the big awara palm,
and likes the scented fruit of the "Marie Tambour", a passion-
fruit of which most reptiles are very fond.
The agouti snake is brick-red in colour, with delicate nuances
of chocolate-brown. He's at least five feet long. The blood of
my victim was flowing from a little wound just below the head:
by a miracle the bullet had struck exactly where I had wished it to
He wasn't quite dead. In fact he was only just harmless; his
coils were writhing in a most disagreeable way. But, as I wanted
above all to keep him intact, I took care not to finish him off. I
picked him up, very delicately, between two branches, and put
him on board in a big stew-pan. Suddenly he flew into a rage,
jumped out of the stew-pan, and vanished among our luggage.
In the twinkling of an eye, and with perfect team-work, we all
three jumped overboard: we didn't like the situation at all,
though. We next saw him slithering along the deck. Should we
finish him offer No: it was only a last agonised leap. He was too
badly wounded to do any harm.
The boatmen were still in the river as I climbed along a trunk
towards the boat, clambered on board, and took a firm hold of
the snake by its tail. I had a machete in my hand and was ready
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for anything. Nothing happened, though. The tail wound itself
unpleasantly round my hand, and then the long body slithered
along and coiled up in the stew-pan. I put the lid on it and
weighted it with a heavy stone.
All was then well, though it was only after a lengthy palaver
that the boatmen consented to reboard the boat. They had
forgotten to bring their anti-snakebite medicine and took a lot
"It's bad, Boss, bad...."
I knew the snake was poisonous. That was why I wanted to
keep it and send it to France as soon as possible: from Mari-
pasoula, that is.
The creole remedies against snake-bites are not complicated,
though the formula remains a mystery; basically they're made by
steeping the heads of various reptiles, together with herbs from
the forest, in rum.
You drink the mixture, and they say that you're sure to be
cured. Another remedy is made from the Coumana liana, which
is as thick as your arm and has on it hoop-shaded pods, about
three inches across. These have light brown beans inside them.
Another variety, the Grand Coumana, has finger-shaped pods,
about six or seven inches long, with big red beans inside.
The little Coumana is for little snakes, and the big for big
ones. You remove the thin skin of the bean and grate it in a very
little cold water. You apply two of these kernels to the wound:
the remedy is applied externally, in fact, which acts spontaneously
and cures without either pain or fever if it is put on at once. In
any case the cure is completed within two days. No one knows
where this plant comes from, but the Oyampi Indians cultivate
it and use it as a remedy against snakebite.
For myself I prefer my intra-muscular injections-Io c.c. of
The Petit Inini Creek suddenly opened out before us. It's a
broad, majestic affair, with a heavy sun bearing down upon it
and a strong current to polish its surface. Then the sun began to
go quickly down the sky. As it vanished behind the high banks
of the river it was suddenly and abruptly cold. We got nimbly
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through a little set of rapids and found ourselves faced with a
few huts that stood on a cliff, a handful of boats moored below,
and some black Boschs who gave us all their attention ... This
was Cambrouze, where an English merchant made me very wel-
come and I was able to rest after our exhausting journey.
Dinner was a real feast, with Portuguese wine to wash it down,
and plenty of fish and game.... Perhaps I ate and drank too
much: anyway, though I slept very well, I felt bilious when I
woke up, and a liver attack compelled me to spend the day at
Tuesday, 25th October
The Bosch village is composed of a score of straw huts dis-
posed anyhow on a patch of open shelving ground.
I do what I can for some people who have bad rheumatism,
and almost the whole village comes, either from curiosity or from
real need, to be dressed and massaged. So I find myself trans-
formed into a doctor-taking the pulse of a sick baby, prescribing
tisanes, cachets, and diets, and forbidding tafia and pimentoes for
The agouti snake fills these blacks with terror. They watch it
from a respectful distance; and, knowing that I am looking for
snakes to send home, they tell me that there is an immense
anaconda not far from here, in a hollow in the river-bank. But
then a discussion follows, and the older citizens won't let them
reveal where the anaconda lives-because, they say, he is in-
habited by the spirit of the Bosch god.
Meanwhile the agouti snake is bottled-not without difficulty
-and steeped in tafia.
Two of the Boschs consent to guide me to the Maroni for
five grammes of gold. They get it, but once again my purse is
If all goes well I shall be at Maripasoula this evening.
The boat, swept forward by a master's hand along the broad
monotonous river, makes rapid progress. The husband in the
stem, his wife in the bows-and she as strong as her husband,
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doing every bit as much of the work, and setting a man's pace
with her paddle. A lot of granitic outcrops, and flat patches of
The day passes slowly, and the sun strikes like an arrow.
As evening comes on we sight the Itany: broad, majestic,
many-islanded. The customs officer on his promontory only
holds us up for a few moments:
"No gold to declare?"
"No gold left to declare."
The customs-man, a creole in threadbare shorts, is suspicious
of us; but, after scratching the back of his head, he gives the wel-
come, magical word:
"All right... On your way!"
Twenty minutes later we're on the Maroni, in sight of Maripa-
soula, the administrative centre of the region.
There's an infirmary (two carbets), with a nice ex-convict in
charge of it. The district H.Q. is another large carbet, with a
flagpole and the tricolour and a little open space in front of it.
A gendarme whose leave is three months overdue; and very
impatient he is. Six hutfuls of black Boschs. .... That's what
Maripasoula amounts to. The post takes seven weeks to arrive,
in normal times, and three months at others. There's no
Installed in the infirmary annexe, I prepare my articles and
put my bags in order.
Thursday, 27th October
The whole night long a man was groaning and moaning and
crying out in the adjoining room. He's an old creole who was
working for a big landowner-the proprietor of a lot of the
auriferous land near the Petit Inini Creek. He suddenly became
paralysed and couldn't work any more. So they abandoned him
without a penny on the infirmary steps, one day when the man
in charge was out on his rounds-just as the unmarried mother
leaves her baby on the steps of a church. But whereas these
unhappy women sometimes have an excuse-that they lost their
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heads-the landowner in question has none at all. He's a creole,
greatly liked at St. Laurent, prominent in the local government
and an important member of the town council.
When he'd dropped off the old miner at the infirmary, he
himself set off for St. Laurent. There's a hospital there; but it's a
long journey, and the old man would have been a nuisance.
So now the poor old fellow is full of his woes.
And the gendarme and the man in charge of the infirmary slave
to satisfy the smallest whim of this exacting invalid.
And that's the end of another miner....
He can't be got down to St. Laurent. The Boschs won't take
him, because their religion forbids it-unless there is someone
with them the whole time to look after the sick man. They've
even been known, I hear, to get rid of a sick man on a stretcher
by surreptitiously dumping him in a creole village or in a corer
of the bush. That means certain death. At Bostos, on the Ouaqui,
a few weeks ago, the gendarme found an old man dying of hun-
ger and thirst; he'd been left like a dog in an abandoned carbet,
though the village was full of creoles.
The old man, having run out of gold, was left to die. Nobody
paid any attention to his cries, and two days later, in the infirmary
here, he died of exhaustion, despite all the care that was lavished
upon him. It was too late.
The sequel to this story was confirmed by the official report of
the gendarme at Maripasoula who told me about it.
When the old man died, several creole miners were being
looked after in the infirmary. But they vanished in a second-
rather than help with the burial of their colleague and kinsman.
So the policeman and the hospital orderly turned carpenters,
knocked up a coffin of a sort, and then acted as grave-diggers in
order to give the old man a decent burial.
So if ever you come to gold-country, Reader-if ever you
find yourself in Guiana, and you haven't enough gold to get
yourself looked after, get ready to die. Don't cry out for help:
you'd only exhaust your strength to no purpose.
On the road here I've met exactly two creoles who were
hospitable and unmercenary-and both of them were British.
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Friday, 28th October
Typed out my articles and wrote letters.
Saturday, 29th October
The Boschs are building a canoe. How clever they are! They
dig a little trench through the forest from the felled tree to the
bank, and pave it with logs that make it easier for the boat to
slip along. On the bank they rig up a rough shelter, so that neither
wind, rain, nor sunshine need deter the workman from his task.
Axe and knife in hand, he works away at the wood, which is
greyish in colour and streaked with angelique. The work goes
forward slowly but surely. First the prow, then the poop emerges
roughly from the block; then he patiently hollows out the trunk
with fire or an adze; the sides of the future boat are carefully
thinned down to an identical thickness. The boat takes shape:
as an Indian canoe. But the Maroni blacks are not content with
that. They build a fire ofpalm-leaves beneath the canoe. The heat
makes the wood open out, the sides stretch away from each other,
and the boat is turned this way and that like a roast on a spit.
Sometimes the wood begins to crackle; and in that case they
rub it with a sort of pad made of bamboo soaked in water. When
the heat has made the wood supple, and the stretched sides allow
of it, wooden cross-pieces are forced into place, so that the sides
open even wider.
Broad and strong, with tapering ends, the hull is now complete.
There remains the planking. Axe and plane are applied to two
long planks until they are quite equal; and then they are adjusted
to fit the boat from prow to poop, and fixed in place with nails.
Next come the definitive cross-pieces which encircle the inner
hull much as staves encircle a coop; and then the seats, each of
which has been incised beforehand with geometrical designs-
and there's no mistaking the skill of those drawings.
Stem and stern are then tapered further by means of wooden
end-pieces, prepared in advance and reinforced with iron or
copper: these too are elaborately decorated.
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The inevitable cracks are caulked with mani and vegetable
glue. The joins likewise. And then the boat is launched.
The canoe, light, beautifully made, and impeccably finished,
leaps smoothly forward under the impulsion of the solid, carved
oars. Every oar is a museum piece, and often they are painted
in brilliant reds and yellows and greens.
Built for work on the Maroni, the boat goes off in search of
cargo to be taken from one village to another.
It takes only one week to build such a boat; and then carbet
and workshop are burnt, as a sign that the work is completed.
I went in one of those canoes to the village of Wacapou, an
hour and forty minutes from Maripasoula. Facing Wacapou, on
the Dutch bank of the river, is Benzdorp, a mining village that
belongs to a big Dutch company.
The two villages looked much alike. You can go quite easily
from the French to the Dutch side of the river, but at Benzdorp
there is a customs post, painted green and white, and customs
officials in magnificent uniforms. Next door, the company's
shop is wonderfully well stocked. Naturally the French villagers
do their shopping there.... The only drawback is that you have
to pay in Dutch money. And so the florin is the master currency
on the Maroni, and fetches two hundred French francs on the
Gold and the florin are the only currencies in use. The franc
is accepted with repugnance; anything sold for francs, in fact,
is sold as a favour.
"I simply can't do it, you know. ..."
And there you are-left with your wretched notes in your hand
and a blush of shame on your face. A lot of use, those bank-
Just lately the shopkeepers went so far as to refuse to accept
our national currency. It took a special order from the Prefec-
ture to make them change their minds. But even then, if they
don't want to sell, we're helpless.
And of course prices are absurdly high, and the shops are half-
empty, anyway. The Boschs are all out hunting and there's been
no traffic on the river for the last three months.
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Without the Boschs, supplies of food don't come up the river.
Without the Boschs, transport stops: none of the creoles would
risk his skin on the river. So that all trade is dependent on the
kings of the river ... and the shopkeepers will await the Bosch's
pleasure till the end of November.
You might say that but for the Boschs, the Saramacas, and the
Bonis, the interior of Guiana would be a no-man's-land and the
few villages that populate it would disappear.
And these blacks live in perfect freedom. They tolerate our
gratitude, but having no laws to live up to, they do just as they
please in every way.
Luckily we have the Dutch on the other bank, and we buy our
food there-provided we can pay in florins.
The only French official on the river is the policeman at
Maripasoula; and he, like his colleagues on the other rivers, is
victualled by a Guianan company. This company is the king of
the market, for they it is who send food to the interior and fix
all the prices. Their rule is absolute and invulnerable. The entire
administration is the slave of this company, which takes their
money, sends them their food, issues monthly accounts, and has
everything-credit, transport, petrol-in its hands. The ad-
ministration has fallen completely into the hands of this company
and will always be too poor to escape.
Benzdorf has also a radio receiver and transmitter. It's from
there that telegrams are sent to Cayenne.
At Wacapou the houses are carbets raised on stilts-for at the
peak of the rainy season the village is overrun, and the inhabitants
take refuge on the heights ofl'Aoua, a little village nearby.
It will soon be All Saints' Day and the shopkeepers-Arabs,
mostly-are selling candles to light up, on that occasion, the
cemetery which is situated in the middle of the village. It's not
enclosed in any way; in fact, it's in such a mess that the dogs come
to sniff at the bodies that lie in it.
And so I came back to Maripasoula proper, after a brief visit
to Maripasoula village-to see Abdullah, a trader who keeps two
wives and has served a term of seven years for a murder of which
it seems he was innocent.
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But what a village! A few huts by the river-like every other
village in the interior.
Sunday, 3oth October
Maripasoula. Bored stiff. Fifty degrees Centigrade in the
Can't get on with my articles.
Sent a telegram to Bernard, asking him to lend me fifteen
thousand francs, repayable by my paper. I'm stuck here without
Monday, 3 Ist October
Went to Wacapou and Benzdorp in the hope of getting out
of this fix.
Tuesday, Ist November
Absolutely fed up to-day. In France people are dying of cold.
Here they're dying of heat.
Wednesday, 2nd November
Slow, painful progress with my work. They kindly lent me
the official typewriter, but it's in bad condition.
Thursday, 3rd November
Benzdorp. No answer to my telegram. Fed up.
Friday, 4th November
It rained. Worked for S. and V. Nothing to eat. Made myself
soup of a kind on a wood fire.
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Saturday, sth November
It rained. Went to Benzdorp. Still no telegram. The old
miner next to me gasps for breath night and day. The black
women keep up their squawking and singing. The trader will
lend me the money, but I have to repay him twenty thousand
in return for his fifteen. It's nice of him.
Sunday, 6th November
It rained, and I was fed up.
Monday, 7th November
The rainy reason is on its way, and no mistake. Grey skies;
the air heavy and damp.
Benzdorp. Bought an alarm-clock (not having a watch any
more) and some food for my river journey.
One of the Wacapou miners shook his head and said:
"You can tell them about Guiana-you know what you're
Tuesday, 8th November
Rainy and windy. I wrote my article in longhand, the type-
writer being out of order.
Wednesday, 9th November
Rained. Went to Maripasoula village, to Abdullah's. I still
haven't got a boat. What am I to do? I'm sick of all this.
I'm not quite happy about the future, this evening.
I now owe sixteen thousand francs for an indispensable
handful of food. Things look bad. Oh, these problems of
To-morrow I'm leaving with Bourreau, the policeman, for
Ouaqui. He's getting the papers ready now.
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The days have dragged by here, while I was waiting for the
Alone here, with the paralysed miner next door, I do my cook-
ing as best I can. The results aren't very good. I'm disgusted
with myself. I'm thinner, tireder, and more depressed. Money,
money, money ... it's always money that punctures my excite-
ment. This period has been harder than anything that can happen
to me now.
I send off my mail; perhaps I can get my articles finished
Thursday, Ioth November
It rained all night. I thought of Paris, of the asphalt that
sticks to one's feet, of the Metro, of the smell of the late-night
final, of life, of my parents.... I was homesick.
I didn't sleep all night. I finished my articles for S. and V.
Ouf! It was tough going.
I began getting my bags ready at dawn. .. Off to the
Ouaqui at last! And yet I've a load of trouble ahead. I've still
got to find the boat, and buy it, and pay for it. And I've
twenty-five francs in my pocket! Laugh, Pagliacci! Laugh at
Everything is ready, except for the mechanic who went to see
his girl-friend and hasn't come at the appointed time. Not that I
mind: I've got used to such things. I feel neither sadness nor
genuine joy at leaving Maripasoula. . I'm just rather bitter
and slightly surprised. I wonder why-I ought to be used to it
all by now.
The Boschs are working in their huts: some make paddles,
some drums, some combs.
They're wonderfully skilled in the use of their primitive tools:
the axe and the penknife. Some of the paddles are slatted and
carved like ornamental shutters.
Their art is, alas, restricted in its inspiration. The same motifs
recur in all their sculptures, so that in the end all sense of origin-
ality is lost. It's almost like mass-production . They like the