Call it a taste for adventure, call it a masochistic whim — Simon Lee takes off for the island known as “hell in paradise”

Illustration by James Hackett

If you’re a “been there, done that” kind of person, you’ll grasp the impulse
that took me to one of the eeriest and furthest-flung spots in the Caribbean
region. If you have a sadist’s humour, or the slightest taste for irony,
the name of the place should appeal: the Islands of Salvation. These three
outcrops of black volcanic rock, lying a few miles off the coast of French
Guiana, are better known collectively as Devil’s Island, the real location
for Dustin “Is it safe?” Hoffman’s starring role in Papillon.

During the 19th century, Ile Royale, Ile St Joseph, and Ile du Diable acquired
a dubious reputation as France’s premier penal colony, reserved for the most
desperate criminals.

I think it was the “hell in paradise” tag that got me going. I’d surfeited
on white sand beaches, dazzling coral reefs, and pristine rainforests; suffered
architectural indigestion in the oldest city in the New World; climbed Martinique’s
sleeping Mt Pelée, and braved the lower slopes of Montserrat’s active
Soufrière Hills volcano. True, I hadn’t yet met a manatee, or even
Fidel, but paradise was beginning to pall. It was definitely time to check
out hell.

Before travelling, the right frame of mind was encouraged by a life-threatening
experience. Aptly enough, I got into a furious argument with my good French
pal as we circumnavigated the world’s largest roundabout, the Queen’s Park
Savannah in Port of Spain. Returning from a lengthy session in St James,
the rumshop district that never closes, we were happily at each other’s throats
when we slammed into some late-night lovers’ car, parked unsuspectingly on
the inside lane.

I left my French pal to continue the argument with the police when I noticed
blood pumping from the artery in my ring finger. Some friendly vendors scooped
me up when I passed out en route to the general hospital. Installed in the
accident and emergency ward, I whiled away the wee hours in small talk with
broken collarbones, stab wounds, and weedkiller tipplers. Waking on the operating
table in broad daylight, I found the young doctor halfway through stitching
my finger and busily flirting with a nurse, while my life-blood seeped in
an ever-widening pool towards the door. Politely yet firmly, I interrupted
the love lyrics long enough to get stitched up and discharged.

If ever I needed a portent, this was it. It was high time to escape to Devil’s Island, before I got all washed up in paradise.

Within the week I was in Cayenne, French Guiana, where I was to fine-tune
my escape plans. I stayed with another friend of the volatile Frenchman,
but fortunately this bon viveur had a dove’s disposition, and his girlfriend was a nurse who promised to take charge of physiotherapy for my finger.

Monsieur et Mademoiselle Dove thought the best therapy was a night on the
town. We visited an English-style pub which served the strongest European
beers, all of which I was obliged to sample, while listening to the proprietor’s
extensive jazz collection. The sampling or the jazz was so uplifting that
by the time we reached the Brazilian nightclub I was inspired to improvise.

I was probably catching some vibes from the nearby Kourou rocket launch station
when, instead of entering by the door, I flew in through an open window,
sailed over the pianist below, and landed (to no small applause) on the dance
floor. Unfortunately, at this point my improvisational skills gave out. A
Brazilian chiquita who felt I could dance as well as I flew was quickly corrected
by my obstinately errant feet. While she insisted she could teach me, I silently
reminded myself that escape was only a few hours away.

I caught the Kourou ferry much the worse for wear, and docked at Ile Royale
totally dehydrated. Never mind, I told myself, Papillon had it much harder
than this. A leathery foreign legionnaire offered me a dinghy ride over to
St Joseph, where I’d be able to view the infamous cachots, the tomb-like
solitary confinement cells where constant offenders and failed escapees were
banged up.

I wandered the jungle-infested corridors of the cells, stumbling over massive
tree roots, ignored by translucent three-foot-long iguanas, conversing with
the spirits of long departed murderers and assorted desperadoes. Now I was
getting somewhere.

This was nothing like paradise, but it was certainly as hot as hell. I toured
the small cemetery with its sad tombstone inscriptions, and then took the
short boat trip back to Ile Royale, where a lugubrious guide pointed out
the almond tree under which the guillotine used to stand. “How many heads
has that tree seen roll?” he intoned, like a gothic stooge.

I looked through the palms across the narrow strait to Ile du Diable, Devil’s
Island itself, the smallest island of the archipelago, where political prisoners
— including the wrongfully accused Alfred Dreyfus — had been held. It was
off-limits, the guide told me.

“Too bad — I’ll just have to swim,” I replied, undaunted.

“Ah, but the sharks . . .”

Graciously, I conceded that, although there is indeed hell in paradise, I would not be escaping to Devil’s Island.