The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

French Guiana: Ariane 5 Launch

I was in French Guiana, to see the VA259 Ariane 5 launch from the European Space Center at Kourou.

I managed to snag the best launch viewing ticket available to the general public, at the IBIS viewing deck, but that still put me 13km (8 miles) away. It was still a very fine launch to see!  As usual, it started with odd plumes of smoke and flame that made me briefly fear an accident, then a fine fiery ascent.  Even at 8 miles, it was notably bright.  Hurrah!  Not a Soyuz, but still fun!

Here are a couple of snaps, with my telephoto zoom from 8 miles through a slight haze…

Look at this charming Tropical Island! A palm-filled paradise, complete with the rustic “Cabin Dreyfus” to house visitors!
OK, the name “Devil’s Island” may deter some travelers.  That plus the strong currents and hidden rocks that have caused the authorities to ban boats from trying to land.  Details, mere details.  I’m sure someone will build a holiday resort soon.
I’ve been visiting the former French penal colony in the Îles du Salut, off the shore of French Guiana.  The prison was spread over the three islands and was a notorious hell-hole, but back in the day the islands were actually regarded as a healthy refuge from the fevers and horrors of mainland French Guiana.  Which was where the main hell-hole prison was.  We got to land on two of the islands, but Devil’s Island itself is off limits because of the currents and rocks.

Cell block on Île Saint-Joseph

Indonesia: Dragons

I’m in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia.  I successfully took a speedboat tour over to Komodo Island, to see the famous Komodo Dragons.

I got there early, ahead of the main tourist rush, and met up with a Park Ranger guide.   Fairly near the harbor we encountered our first dragon.  This one was clearly well habituated to humans and looked like he was the “dragon on duty”.   But he was a real live Komodo Dragon and a very big one, with a massive neck and a flickering tongue.

My guide kindly took a photo of me behind the dragon.  The photo makes it look as though I was quite close, but actually I was a safe 8-12 feet away.

As we were getting ready to leave this one, the ranger spotted another large dragon nearby.  This one was very clearly a wild unhabituated dragon and he ran away very quickly when he saw the nasty evil humans heading towards him.  We tried to follow but lost him.

We strolled through the woods, seeing occasional wild boar or deer.  The dragons typically dine on deer.   The ranger told me that sometimes the dragons build their own nests for their eggs, but often they will coopt a nest built by megapodes (a local bird species), which build very large nest mounds over many years.

We visited a viewing platform where in the past they had fed the dragons and tourists had been able to see lots of visiting dragons.  But that has been discontinued.

As we returned towards the harbor we saw another large dragon.  This one was sitting in the shade, as it was starting to get too hot for them.  This one was also well habituated to humans and let me get some good shots.

So three dragons in total.  Hurrah!  But we actually saw no dragons in the main section of the hike, perhaps partly because the wild unhabituated dragons try to avoid people.

Indonesia: Hobbits

Since I was in Flores, I took a trip out to the Liang Bua “Hobbit” Cave, where they found the first of the Homo floresiensis (aka “Hobbit”) skeletons.

The cave itself is tall (maybe 40 feet?) but quite shallow.  More of a deep alcove than what I think of as a true cave, with grotesque stalactites dangling from the roof.  At the back there are opening down to smaller inner caves, but I believe all the fossils were all found in the outer cave.  There are signs of archaeological work, including the protruding ends of plastic sheets which are presumably covering re-buried areas.

Replica “Hobbit” skull

There is a small but useful site museum.  They have good signage explaining the fossils and their context.   The signage notes dryly that there has been considerable scientific controversy over the status of the Flores skeletons and they quote Tolkien, saying:

The hobbits “suddenly became, by no wish of their own, both important and renowned, and troubled the counsels of the Wise and the Great”.

They have a replica of the first “Hobbit” skeleton.

I was the only tourist there.  From their log book they got no-one yesterday and only a couple the day before.  So I guess this is less of a tourist magnet than I had expected.

I’m in Newfoundland, Canada, out at the L’Anse aux Meadows archaeological site.  This is the only confirmed Viking site in North America.  Since I’ve recently followed the Vikings from Norway to Iceland to Greenland, I found the pull of Vinland just too strong to resist!

Parks Canada vigorously assures visitors that Leif Erikson himself landed here. Which is probably true, but Leif or no Leif, there was definitely a Viking outpost here, with archaeologists finding various bits and pieces from Greenland and Iceland, and the remains of Norse-era iron smelting.  They also found butternuts, which aren’t native to Newfoundland and were probably found on voyages further South.

There are only outlines of the buildings remaining, but it was still fun to see. There’s a good visitor center and also a full-scale reconstruction of the main buildings, with various in-character Viking guides. Naturally I tried out some traditional axe throwing. 🙂

Nearby, there is a fine statue of Leif Erikson (See! See! He was really here!) which is an exact twin of the one I saw in Greenland, near Eric’s farm. That one faced Vinland. This one faces back towards Greenland.

I’m now in South Greenland, visiting Norse Ruins. I made it out to Eric the Red’s Farm!

For me, part of the allure of the Greenland Norse Ruins is the idea of the “lost colony”.  Eric the Red arrived in 985 and the Norse prospered in Greenland for four centuries, establishing over 200 hundred farms, 7 churches, even a tiny cathedral. Then decline set in and contact slowly faded out. When Denmark tried to re-establish contact in the 1700s, they found only abandoned ruins. What happened? Where did they go? There are plenty of theories, but no-one really knows.

Today I was at the village of Qassiarsuk visiting Eric the Red’s farm of Brattahlíð. It’s a nice piece of green farmland, probably the best in all Greenland. This is where Leif Erikson grew up and there is now an idealized statue of Leif on a hill, staring South-West towards Vinland. The farm site has scattered ruins from the 10th c and also the foundations of a later Norse church.

A discreet distance away is the site of the first tiny church in Greenland, Thjodhild’s church, which (according to the Sagas)  Eric very reluctantly allowed his wife Thjodhild to build, on the condition that he didn’t have to see the stoopid thing from his farm, gods damnit!

Earlier this week I took a boat out to the Hvalsey Church. This is from around 1300 and is by far the best preserved Norse ruin in Greenland. It’s small, but strongly built. I was the only visitor.  I also made a visit to the scattered ruins of the little 12 c. Garðar Cathedral, at Igaliku. Yes, there was an actual Catholic Bishopric here in Norse times!

Hvalsey Church

Garðar Cathedral

Footnote: Some historians argue that Eric’s farm might have been at a slightly different location further down Eric’s Fjord.  Naturally the citizens of Qassiarsuk indignantly reject this ridiculous idea.  After all, they have an actual statue of Leif Erikson!  Fortunately for them, the scholarly consensus, supported by recent archaeological work, still strongly favors Qassiarsuk.