Category Archives: Suriname Overlanding Blog

So… Suriname!

Suriname, Suriname… where exactly is that? Near Vietnam? Nope. Next door to Ghana? Errr, no. It’s on the north coast of South America, above Brazil, snuggled comfortably between French Guiana and Guyana. It’s in the northern Amazon basin, so it’s hot, humid and – at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious – jungly!  We’ve been here a month now and one of our highlights has been entertaining jungle kids with their first ever drone sighting (click here). But Suriname has some history, great wildlife and other stuff to see too, including some interesting ‘bird-cage culture’. Here’s the Suriname travel blog…

So... Suriname Paramaribo

Colonial

Arrival Suriname

Arrival Suriname

We drove off the Maroni River ferry from French Guiana following our new friend and fellow overlander, Erick from Costa Rica. In the river-side town of Albina we noticed some significant new features. First, a sign reminding us to drive on the left. Okay… we haven’t done that for a while. The road quality is okay here, but noticeably worse than in French Guiana. Then there’s the language… Dutch is the dominant language, although there are local indigenous languages too, and many people speak English if prompted. Then there’s the food culture. It was 08:00 hrs as we arrived, but in Albina we saw not one single café with tables full of locals lingering long-time over coffee. So that’s another difference from French Guiana then!

Paramaribo beers

It would be rude not to try the local beer

Once upon a time Suriname was known as Dutch Guyana. It’s the bit of land that the Dutch managed to hold onto when, in the early 1800s, the Brits, French, Portugese and Spanish each nabbed a share of the original Dutch colony of Guiana. Unlike French Guiana next-door, which is still a fully signed-up Department of France, Suriname has since 1975 been very much independent from The Netherlands and is doing its own thang.

Old town ParamariboWhat Suriname does have in common with French Guiana is a huge, marvellous melting-pot of migrant cultures. Much of the population is of Afro-Caribbean origin, but the colonial legacy means that The Netherlands contributes most of the European immigrants. There are many people of Indian and Asian descent, but by far the largest proportion of the traders are the Chinese. There is scarcely a business of any kind that does not feature a huge Chinese language sign outside. Food, car-parts, clothes, hardware, electronics… you name it, they’re enterprising and have cornered the market.

Paramaribo CathedralThe local beer is Parbo and it’s pretty good. Much of the food is tasty creole-based, whilst much of the attitude is a relaxed Caribbean-style ‘Yeah man’!

The capital city of Paramaribo has a lovely historic centre with a distinctive blue and yellow cathedral (allegedly the tallest wooden structure in South America, but it’s not the only place claiming this accolade!). The streets are packed with beautiful colonial-style homes, in a better or lesser state of restoration and repair.

Outside of this down-town area, the historical attractions that Suriname has to offer are suffering somewhat from the classic ‘vicious circle’: not many people visit them, ergo they receive minimal financial support, ergo they’re not well maintained, ergo not many people visit them 🙁 .  That’s not so say they’re not interesting, you just have to use your imagination a bit! Fort Nieuw Amsterdam with its greatly overgrown fortifications, is a classic example of this.

Dashboard off

Hope he can put it all back again 🙂

Touristy-stuff aside… life on the road isn’t all about sight-seeing you know! We do have some boring admin things to do as well occasionally: cleaning, laundry, shopping, blah, blah, blah (just thought we’d put that out there and wait for the messages of sympathy to come flooding in 🙂 ).  Photo sorting always seems to take way more time than we expect (p’raps we shouldn’t take so many then!) Then of course, there’s Blog writing and maintenance on Cuthbert too.

The air-con in the front cab has been less-than-sparkling over the last few weeks, which is really just not-on with this heat and humidity! Marcus had to take the whole front dash-board apart to get to the bit to fix, but it was worth the effort! We now have a lovely cool cab for the long-haul drives 🙂   Marcus has also noticed that the rear shock-absorbers are past their best. Cuthbert-spec shocks aren’t available off-the-shelf in most countries, but we find a local supplier in Paramaribo who can import these from Europe for a very reasonable price. They take a couple of weeks to arrive, but it saves us a lot of hassle that we would certainly have had importing them ourselves. Marcus fits the new shocks and Cuthbert is now bouncing along nicely!

Bird-cage Culture

One of the interesting pass-times that we have noticed amongst locals in this region, in French Guiana and here in Suriname, is that of keeping song-birds in small cages (yes, I know… controversial… but they do). The local chaps – and it does seem to be only the chaps – take their pet song-birds for walks carrying the cages around town. They often take them to work and hang the cages in a convenient location nearby to keep an eye on them whilst they work. But the fascinating bit, is to watch the song-bird competitions. Well… I say ‘fascinating’… it has a strong curiosity value, for a while! Here’s how it works…

Song-bird Battle

Let Song-bird Battle Commence!

Chap A turns up with his caged song-bird and hangs it up in the centre of the competition venue (mostly market squares). Chap B hangs his caged song-bird alongside. Chaps A and B then retire to a distance away from their birds. At a small desk close to each competing bird, sits an independent tweeting-judge (that’s the original tweeting, not the social media version 🙂  ). The tweeting-judges each have a button with a digital counting-display in front of them. Their task is to listen intently to their designated song-bird and press the button on the digital counter each time the bird tweets. A round begins when the adjudicator starts the clock, and ends after 6 minutes when he blows a whistle. The winner of each round is the bird which tweeted the most times during the 6-minute round. As I said… fascinating to watch… but only for a while!

Free-to-fly (or roam)

Dragon-fly SurinameAnyway… notwithstanding the  entertainment of competing song-birds, the ‘free-to-fly’ (or roam) wildlife is one of Suriname’s greatest attractions. The laboriously slow sloth crossing the road, the glistening colourful frog in the leaves, the extraordinary scarlet ibis amongst the Bigi Pan mangroves, snakes, spiders, lizards, dragon-flies… it’s so easy to find amazing nature here. We’ve added into the Suriname Photo Gallery below, a few of our favourite wildlife pics taken across the country.

Next, we’re off to South American country No.9. Watch this space for Cuthbert’s report from Guyana!

Suriname Photo Gallery

Suriname: 21st Century Jungle

Suriname has rather a lot of jungle. In fact, it’s pretty much all they’ve got here. Best we take a peek then. Last blog we had the thrill of a live rocket launch in French Guiana, now we see the jungle kids’ thrill of seeing their first drone! We’re heading far in-land, well beyond where Cuthbert our camp-truck can take us. Here’s the story in our Suriname jungle blog …

Suriname jungle blog - critters you find on the ground

Winching and Falls  

Suriname jungle blog - winching a fallen treeThe road ends some 200km inland from Paramaribo at the tiny village of Pokigron, but on the way we do a de-tour for a couple of days into the Brownsberg Reserve. Here we plan to do some short hikes to waterfalls, but we hadn’t banked on having to winch a huge fallen tree out of the track  to get to the trail! Overlanders often question the necessity of fitting a winch to their vehicle… well, we’ve found ours handy not only for vehicle recovery.

suriname jungle blog - brownsberg fallsAnyway… when we get to Pokigron we join-up with Erick, a friendly Costa Rican traveller who we’ve happily been bumping into a lot over the last few weeks. Pokigron is teeny, a real ‘one horse town’, but it’s a bustling little place. From here, many dug-out long-boats ply up and down to the riverside settlements and we’ll need to seek-out one of these to get further into the jungle. The nice surprise when we arrive is that Erick has already done the hard work and secured a boatman to take us all up-stream. What a nice chap!

Heading deep into the rainforest (as you do!) one might be forgiven for expecting to find settlements populated by native Amerindians. But the guys here have a very different heritage. They’re known as Maroons, and they’re African. How so?

African Heritage

suriname jungle blogWell… around 300 years ago, a brave band of slaves rightly took umbrage at their unimaginably despicable conditions and escaped into the jungle. They moved east until they came to the river, which seemed a good place to stop. South America was a new continent for them, but ‘jungle survival’ is what today’s business gurus might term a ‘transferrable skill’. The slaves chummed-up with the native Amerindians, learned about the particular nature of the Amazon, and here they are today… small but thriving Maroon communities dotted all along the banks of the Suriname River. Don’t say we don’t teach you a bit of culture and history here folks 🙂

Numbers now visiting the area are still very small, but the Maroons are understandably keen to capitalise on an increasing curiosity about their lifestyle. A handful of Maroons are now making a living as guides/cooks, and cabins are popping up along the river to host tourists. We’re spending four days at one called Menimi, spending time on jungle walks and visits to the local villages with a guide.

suriname jungle blog - subsistence living

Subsistence living – pounding the rice

So what is the Maroon lifestyle? Well… to start with, it’s subsistence-living. Although they have frequent boat connectivity with the ‘real world’, very little is brought in from outside. They grow all their own vegetables, pound their own rice, hunt their own meat. There are no shops and almost no trade amongst them, although we did spot one barbers and one bar (who doesn’t like to look good when they pop out for a beer, eh? ).

Inevitably we find ourselves comparing the Maroon communities to similar places we visited in Africa. The big contrast is that in the African villages, with the rare exception of the Himba village in northern Namibia, we found packaged commercialism to be well established. The imported supplies bring associated packaging: tins, plastic bottles and bags. Of course, the suppliers bring with them no means of, or education regarding, waste disposal. Consequently, the communities suffer badly from street litter and large festering mounds of refuse. Attempts at burning the piles of waste-plastics serve only to bathe the villages in dense clouds of black, toxic-looking smoke, which small children inhale as they play around the fires. The Maroons of Suriname suffer from none of this. They live free of litter and enjoy a diet of locally sourced produce – some of it cultivated and some naturally occurring in the jungle – with minimal waste.

21st Century Droning

suriname jungle blog

Every little boy was a little poser! The girls not so much!

So it’s an eco-friendly place. So far so good. But another admirable thing about the Maroon subsistence lifestyle is that it doesn’t prevent them from moving into the 21st Century in other ways. They have solar-power (topped-up by generators when necessary). Cell-masts are installed periodically down the river and they have 3G connectivity. Although they can’t all afford smart-phones, the children are all familiar with these. Posing enthusiastically for photos, they eagerly want to know whether they will be famous on the ‘eeen-terrr-nehhht’ 🙂

Despite all the connectivity however, they’re really not prepared for the next 21st Century gadget we are about to unleash upon them. Maroon people of Suriname… we present to you… THE DRONE!!!

suriname jungle blog

We are travelling with a first-generation DJI Phantom drone which we love and use when conditions permit. But Erick has invested in one of the latest ‘all-singing-dancing’ models. It has super-easy touch-screen controls and a real-time feed from the camera down to the controlling iPad screen. Our guide isn’t sure what the villagers will make of this and first seeks permission from the village elder. His explanation that Erick has brought a flying machine to take pictures from the air is met with looks of humorous disbelief, but a small contribution to local funds gains permission to fly the drone in the village.

Word of a ‘flying machine’ spreads quickly around the houses. In the two minutes that it takes Erick to un-pack the whirly-bird from its case, a curious crowd gathers around him. As the drone buzzes, beeps and takes to the sky, the villagers gasp upwards in awe. The drone disappears from view and they jostle around Erick to see the live-feed pictures on his screen. They’ve obviously never seen their village from the air before. After a few minutes they seem to be wondering whether the flying machine will be coming back. There is a rabble cheer from the children when it finally comes back into view.

Erick brings the drone down and hovers it a meter or so out of reach above the tallest children. They leap around excitedly, shouting, jostling each other, jumping up trying to grasp the under-carriage. When they realise that they’re being filmed from above, they start dancing and posing in front of the tiny, suspended camera. The whole event is a marvellous scene. It’s a real privilege to witness a new step in these people’s awareness of our world. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the video of the excited kids!

So, after four days with the Maroons we’ve learned much about their way of life, their culture and beliefs, their foods. Oh, and their boat-building too! It’s been fascinating. Our boatman takes us back home to Cuthbert. Now the task of sorting the many (many) photos and writing up the Suriname jungle blog.

One teeeny detail that we hadn’t realised when we left Cuthbert in Pokigron is quite how soft the ground is around there! We return to find Cuthbert sitting at a rather unusual angle. The locals, having witnessed the gradually decline were fearing for the worst and thought we might be stuck! Time for the winch again? Noooo… it’s amazing what low-range gears and a few diff-locks can do! Cuthbert is straight out… no problem… off to the next adventure.

Suriname Jungle Blog Gallery

Suriname time-out

Suriname RiverTeeeny update… So we’ve been parked up for a while, doing not a lot, chilling-out by the river in Suriname with a different type of traveller! These guys are taking some time out from sailing around the world. Yup… across the high seas in those little boats. Makes overlanding look a bit tame by comparison! If you want to see some awesome video diaries of their life on the ocean waves, see www.seachangelog.com.

Arduino Due projectMarcus has been doing a bit of geekery… building and programming a computer system to replace the Iveco computer controlling  Cuthbert’s diff-locks (Afam computer  replacement). Any brain-boxes out there who can work out the square-root of a jar of pickles might find the write-up interesting 🙂

Click on the picture for link to page.

Heading off for a week of jungle-exploring. If we don’t get eaten by a caiman, there might be an  interesting update soon 🙂

Link to next blog: Suriname: 21st Century Jungle    Link to full South America Blog