Misc · Travel

Escaping from Devil’s Island

La Guyane

[Real Travel] Carinya Sharples journeys to French Guiana’s Salvation Islands to explore the empty cells of one of the world’s most notorious ex-prisons…

The most eerie part of Île Royale was the children’s cemetery. It was deathly silent apart from the rustle of monkeys in the trees and the loud chirping of crickets. The epitaphs on the crumbling gravestones were pitifully simple: ‘Jean Girault. Décédé à l’âge de 9 mois. Le 18 Janviers 1915. Regrets’. Suddenly the grim history of this strange, James Bond-esque island – with its shark-filled waters, picturesque ruins and wild nature – became uncomfortably real.

Together, Île Royale, Île du Diable and Île Saint-Joseph form the Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands), also known as the Devil’s Islands because of their treacherous surrounding rocks. This triangular archipelago lies 15km off the coast of French Guiana, or La Guyane to locals – a French overseas département perched on the top of South America. Once a refuge for 18th-century French colonists escaping malaria and mosquitoes on the mainland, the islands later became a notoriously brutal penal colony and the setting for one of the darkest ever periods in French history.

Today, the little-known islands are overgrown with lush, green vegetation and dotted with tall palm trees. On Île Royale, guinea pig-like agoutis scurry between the crumbling ruins, carrying chunks of coconut shells in their teeth, while Île du Diable has its own population of iguanas and even a few wild goats. Instead of prisoners, there are small groups of travellers, peering into abandoned cells and dodging the warning signs of ‘INTERDIT!’ placed liberally along the rocky coastal path.

I’d vowed to visit the Îles du Salut some months earlier when a friend – hearing I was off to French Guiana – mentioned Île du Diable. How could I resist a place called Devil’s Island? As it turned out, exceptionally sharp rocks prevent boats from docking on Île du Diable itself, so I settled for a two-day trip to nearby Île Royale instead. One-day trips are available but it’s worth staying overnight if you can.


Île Royale is a short 50-minute boat ride from Kourou, a coastal town best known for its Centre Spatial Guyanais. This state-of-the-art international space centre attracts many French professionals to the country, who live, somewhat uneasily, alongside the rest of the population – a fascinating mix of Maroon (the descendants of escaped slaves), Creole, East Indian, Chinese, Amerindian and Laotian, to name but a few.

I stopped off in Kourou for a few days towards the end of January, when the weather alternates between beautiful sunshine and heavy downpours. A savvy French traveller had recommended staying in the Amerindian Village at Chez Taliko, a residential house with a carbet out back. A carbet is essentially a shack where you can sling your hammock (and mosquito net) – a common concept in French Guiana and a popular option for adventurous travellers, plus those, like me, scandalised by the ridiculous Paris-style hotel prices. The carbet at Chez Taliko cost just €8 a night and was a simple structure of wood with flimsy metal sheets as low walls. It was also right on the beach.

I arrived in Kourou just as dusk was settling, with no booking – in fact, no idea where Chez Taliko was. Luckily the minibus driver knew, and when Taliko himself appeared at the door he was unfazed by my unexpected appearance, although a bit surprised I was travelling alone. Not being able to properly suss out my surroundings in the dark, I spent the night on edge. Every crash of the waves, swish of leaves and clank of the metal sheets had me imagining someone was approaching. In the morning – after little, if any, sleep – I woke to find someone had been there after all and was still perched nearby, staring at me intently… Then it squawked, and I realised my intruder was a parrot.

The next few days were spent visiting the space centre on a fascinating tour, walking along the beach and visiting a local market on Avenue de France, which sizzled with the delicious smell of rotisserie chicken and offered up a tantalising array of food, representative of the diverse populace. There was everything from fresh Vietnamese summer rolls and local honey to fresh fruit and accras de morue (a fried snack I remember from Accra in Ghana – hence the name, presumably). Another day, I wandered through Saramaca Village – a newly urbanised area populated by Saramaca (a group of Maroon people) with a strange mix of cabin-style terraced houses and roads with names like ‘Rue Rosa Parks’ – only to be warned later not to go there alone.


On the day of my trip to Île Royale, I left the Amerindian Village at the same time as Taliko and his wife, so they offered to drop me on Avenue Général de Gaulle, a popular street lined with restaurants and bars, at the end of which is the Ponton des Pêcheurs or fisherman’s dock – my point of departure. Public transport in French Guiana is practically non-existent, other than expensive cabs and the odd minibus or taxi collectif, so I was glad for the ride. Later in my trip – when travelling through the wild nature reserves of Kaw and Tresor, the capital city of Cayenne, and Cacao, home to a farming community of Hmong refugees from Laos – I was to discover another money-saving custom of the country: hitchhiking.

I’d already booked my €39 return ticket at the Guyanespace Voyage travel agents in Kourou, opting to travel by Royal Ti’Punch’s sleek catamaran. As the departure time inched closer, its smooth, white seats were filled by a lively mix of soldiers on leave, young couples and older travellers. Everyone was French – bar the friendly crew who were Guianese. British visitors, I soon discovered, were something of a rarity in French Guiana. The ride was choppy and the military troupe, whose members had immediately stripped down to their bikinis and trunks to lie on the trampoline-like net, squealed in delight as the waves splashed over them.

From the Île Royale jetty, it was a steep, sweaty climb to the hotel with my backpack. It wasn’t until the next day, when I was leaving, that I discovered the pick-up truck that carries guests’ luggage. There are three different types of accommodation to choose from on Île Royale: the well-restored prison administration building that now serves as a hotel, where prices start at €166 (including two lunches, dinner and breakfast); the more basic former guards’ block (from €60); and the carbets, costing just €10. I’d opted for the final option, not realising that I’d be staying in one of the original prisoners’ quarters. When I peered through the heavy door, I found row upon row of army-style hammocks identical to my own – except these were actual military hammocks, owned by the 30 or so French soldiers stationed on the island at the time. Bunking down in a room full of French squaddies? Not tonight, Napoleon!

I marched back to the reception desk, explained the situation and was relieved to be given a key to my own ‘cell’. After the near al-fresco carbet in Kourou, this long building with faded pink paint and a fully tiled bathroom felt like the presidential suite. I tied my hammock to the metal hooks embedded in the wall – trying to forget that they had once held prisoners’ chains – and enjoyed a long shower, sidestepping the seed husks or insect wings (I couldn’t figure out which) that littered the bathroom floor. Maybe ‘presidential suite’ was a slight overstatement.


Île Royale covers just 21 hectares so you don’t need a guide, although tours are available. One of the boat crew had promised to show me around but then disappeared as soon as we docked (for lunch, I later found out), so I set off alone. Luckily when I’d booked my tickets, I’d picked up a leaflet with a map of the island, which proved indispensable and helped me identify all the different buildings. After happening on the disturbing children’s cemetery, I retraced my steps past my ‘bedroom’ and headed towards the picturesquely ruined former military hospital and the new-looking red brick chapel – part of the restoration project of the French government’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), which took over ownership of the islands in 1965.

Just reading the names of the buildings as I passed them was chilling – ‘le pénitencier’ (the condemned prisoners’ quarters), ‘la maison des fous’ (the mad house) and the ‘asile d’alienes’ (lunatic asylum). In 1923, journalist Albert Londres visited Île Royale and was taken to this asylum by the island’s doctor. In a later report, he would recall encountering an inmate who threw stones into the sea from the same point on the island every day. His plan, Londres explained; to build a bridge from South America to France so he could walk home. The more I read about the prisoners’ inhumane existence on the islands, the more I understood the wild desperation the man must have felt.

The first prison ship docked on 10 May 1852 and by the end of that year there were some 1,000 inmates on the islands. Between 1852 and 1862, an incredible 12,780 convicts (including 329 political prisoners) were sent from France. Soon other penitentiary units took precedence, including ones in New Caledonia, Saint-Jean du Maroni and Saint-Laurent du Maroni, a small town on the Maroni River at the French Guiana/Suriname border.

Then in 1887, the passage from France to the Îles du Salut was revived and new waves of prisoners, condemned for crimes ranging from espionage and treason to desertion and forging currency, flooded in – troublemakers and escapees were sent to Île St Joseph; common-law convicts to the colony’s administrative heart, Île Royale; and the rest to Île du Diable, the smallest but most feared of the three islands. And so it continued until 1947, when the penal colony finally closed.


While I was in French Guiana, I visited the sleepy town of Saint-Laurent du Maroni, just three hours from Kourou by minibus. Most of French Guiana’s main attractions lie on or near the 350km coastal strip, so travelling from one town to the next rarely takes longer than a couple of hours.

As the main processing point of the penal colonies, Saint-Laurent du Maroni is best known for its Camp de la Transportation (Transportation Camp). Although you can enter for free, you don’t get access to all areas unless you go on one of the guided tours – and for €5 a pop, it’s worth it.

The camp contains a chapel, clothing store, court and even an anthropological room, where prison doctors once studied inmates to put together a ‘criminal profile’. Some of the former administration buildings have been restored and, somewhat bizarrely, now serve as a public library and theatre.

But it’s the prisoners’ quarters that proved the most fascinating – and disturbing. The long blockhouses, which officially housed around 40 men (although often held double), are lined with long stone ‘benches’, each with iron bars embedded on top. While the individual cells drip with water and decay, the wooden planks that once served as beds still fixed with feet shackles. After years of abandonment, the walls are black with mould, sprouting with moss and missing their doors – though conditions probably weren’t much better when they were in use.

Cell number 47 caused everyone the most excitement, as it is believed to be where Papillon (see boxout) had been detained at one point. Clearly a highlight of the trip – I hadn’t known who Papillon was until about five minutes before – the rest of the group snapped away. Inside, we took turns to see where the name ‘Papillon’ had been scratched into the stone floor. I dutifully photographed it – fully aware that the chances of it being an authentic ‘tag’ of the infamous escapee were pretty low.

At the far end of the complex, our Amerindian guide led us to a stone circle flanked by cells. This was, he told us, where the guillotine once stood – a constant, visible reminder to all the convicts that their lives hung in the balance. The kitchen, he pointed towards a building nearby, was where their final meals would have been prepared. We looked on solemnly. I tried to stop picturing what my final meal would have been.


Back on Île Royale, I continued down the coastal path – strewn with coconut shells and palms – to a square pool formed by rocks, which turned out to be the prisoners’ swimming pool. The next turning took me to a rocky cove scattered with sunbathing tourists and soldiers with regulation haircuts and tropical tans. I’d already been warned that the rocks were slippery but still managed to lose my footing and end up sitting down rather forcefully with a wet thud. Still sitting, I gradually edged my way forward until just my head bobbed above the powerful waves. After a while, I slid my way back up to dry off in the sunshine and look out for the sea turtles that live off the coast.

Later that evening, as I was sitting in my hammock eating the rations I’d bought in Kourou – baguette and butter, bananas, papaya and biscuits – there was a knock at the door. It was one of the soldiers from the first ‘salle de hamacs’ inviting me to a birthday do they were holding. I’d already planned to visit the hotel restaurant, but watching other people tuck into fresh fish, grilled chicken and mouthwatering desserts while drinking a €2,60 can of peach iced tea turned out not to be much fun, so I headed back towards my room and on the way got sucked into the party.

A barbeque had been set up, the smell of sizzling sausages filled the air and a long table of drinks was being steadily consumed by the chattering troops. I was plied with fruit juice, sausages and breadfruit, before being joined by a welcoming party wanting to find out why I was on the island and keen to list everything they knew about England – which mostly seemed to consist of Mr Bean. Turned out they weren’t soldiers after all, rather the French equivalent of the Royal Marines who had recently finished a tour in Afghanistan. After their questions and my French had been exhausted, I decided to turn in – not entirely reassured by their parting promise to shoot any monkeys that came to my room.

The next day, I continued to explore the island, escaping a sudden burst of rain by taking refuge in the museum located in the former Director’s House, where I discovered a series of fascinating displays (in English and French) about the history of the islands and their most famous prisoners.

I emerged after the rain had subsided to find everything looking even more lush and green than before and headed back to browse the hotel gift shop before joining some of my new military friends for a final lunch of fish soup. On the way down to the shoreline I got chatting to a Chinese-French woman travelling with her boyfriend and another couple, only to discover I’d missed a morning expedition to Île Saint- Joseph. She described it as even more wild and rundown than Île Royale, and I was gutted to have missed out. At 4.30pm, the catamaran pulled away from the jetty and we began the return trip to Kourou, sipping complimentary glasses of red punch and watching the islands until they sank back into a sea of memories. ■

[BOXOUT] Devil’s Island’s famous inmates


Convicted murderer Henry Charrière’s autobiography chronicling his daring escape from Île du Diable captured the attention of the world. The book, entitled Papillon after his nickname (meaning ‘butterfly’), was later adapted in the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Although now thought to have incorporated experiences of other prisoners, Papillon’s adventures continue to fascinate, and a remake of the film is said to be in the pipeline, with Robert Downey Jr. and Philip Seymour Hoffman tipped to play the lead roles.


In 1895, France was captivated by the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was condemned of treason and sentenced to life on Île du Diable. He was kept in solitary confinement, confined in the day and shackled at night, for four brutal years before finally being found innocent in 1899.

View PDF: Escaping Devil’s Island

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Gaborone

Detail from illustration by Jim Spencer

(ARISE magazine, issue 17) Hip hop artist and Channel O awards nominee Zeus tells us where it’s at in Botswana’s chilled-out capital, from the coolest club to the unofficial business hub

Mokolodi Nature Reserve
Most people come to Africa expecting to see wild animals everywhere, which is just silly! There are areas in Botswana with freely roaming wildlife but not usually in cities, towns or villages. There is, however, a small game reserve in Gaborone where you can enjoy a game drive or a braai in the picnic area.

This amazing place connects aspects of Setswana culture and lifestyle. They sell art, sculpture and other ornaments made by Batswana artists. Its courtyard restaurant specialises in local cuisine served in the traditional manner – down to how the waiting staff assist you in washing your hands before a meal. It’s also a popular live music venue and has hosted some first-class acts, including Oliver Mtukudzi, Salif Keita and yours truly!
Plot 20716, Magochanyama

Mafia Soul
For a more urban shopping experience visit one of the five Mafia Soul stores. The branch in Riverwalk Mall is the place to go if you live the hip hop lifestyle. Check out latest hip hop fashion trends, flick through magazines, buy music or debate the latest song, beef or your favourite MC with owner Molf and manager Prince. They man the floor, giving first-class service.
Riverwalk Shopping Mall, Unit 25/27

National Museum
Located next to the old mall in the city centre (formerly known as the Main Mall), the museum gives travellers an appreciation of the history of the relatively young city and the country as a whole. It brings back memories of primary-school field trips for me, and is captivating for all ages.
331 Independence Ave

Thapong Arts Centre
Located in the charmingly lazy, residential area of Village, this centre exhibits works by local visual artists. It’s testament to the resilience of Batswana artists, who haven’t received the support they deserve but still manage to produce breathtaking works.
Plot 21965, The Village

There is a local snack served with tea or coffee – or alongside chips, fish and Russians (a type of sausage) – which is known as magwinya or fat cakes. They are an oily, unhealthy but delightful [fried dough] treat one should enjoy every so often. Stop by here for one and some snoek fish – you can work it off later.
1873/4 Kgopo Close Ext 4

Dot Com
Formerly known for hosting business executives and political hotshots, this popular ‘beer after work with the guys’ spot mixes professionals, socialites and entrepreneurs in a melting pot of boyish mischief. Talk ranges from football, cars and ladies to business. If you want to bypass a lot of gatekeepers and meet key influencers and decision-makers, this place might serve you better than the business district.
Matima Crescent, off Maputo Drive

Khwest Cafe
For sundowners, Khwest is where it’s at. A very sociable joint smack in the middle of the oldest mall in the city with a lovely balcony, it’s a setting for soulful house music sessions, poetry recitals and stand-up comedy.
Queens Road, Ext 2

Sanitas Tea Garden
A nursery that houses more than plants and ornaments, Sanitas Tea Garden has a chilled restaurant with a great homestyle menu – complete with homemade lemonade and ice-cream. Perfect for a lazy afternoon or mid-morning when you want to escape from the routine of a dull day.
Gaborone Dam

Fusion Entertainment
Fusion Entertainent caters to a house and hip hop market. I’ve hosted some great parties there, including the debut of my Champagne Music video and my birthday. It attracts an ‘I wanna party, no BS’ crowd and on the right night it’s electric inside – with the balcony serving as a half-time rest stop for the city’s party rockers.
Mowana Park, Phakalane

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Casablanca


(ARISE magazine, issue 16) TV presenter Simo Benbachir guides us around Morocco’s largest city, from where to eat the tastiest couscous to the best view in town

Located in an 18th-century bastion, Squala has a rustic interior and a delightful garden, surrounded by flower-draped trellises. Their traditional Moroccan breakfast is mouthwatering; the fresh fruit juices are wonderful and the tagines are fabulous, especially the lamb. I go at teatime to escape the stress of Casablanca and on Fridays for its legendary “couscous time”!
Boulevard des Almohades

Skybar is classic and very elegant. When it’s hot I have a drink at the lounge by the pool or at the bar. It’s home to Casablanca’s jet set – locals and tourists stay there until 2am having fun. The music’s great, from hip hop to house.
Boulevard de la Corniche

Le Carré
After a drink at Skybar, if I want to stay out I go down to Le Carré: a club with good music and good vibes. It’s better to go midweek as it’s packed on the weekend. On Wednesdays the DJ plays hip hop remixes – I can dance all night. It’s a bling-bling place, so be sure to have plenty of cash in your wallet.
Boulevard de la Corniche

La Suite
La Suite isn’t far from Twin Center, Casablanca’s new downtown. I go there for after-work parties and happy hour. As the owner and chef are French, the menu is too, and it’s delicious. Although I also like their hamburger. It’s a good place to meet your friends for a quiet dinner or to dance in the mojito bar. I give it two thumbs up.
Rue Jean Jaurès, Quartier Gauthier

My best friend is Spanish but has lived in Morocco since she was a kid, and she introduced me to Spanish culture. I go to Lizarran because I love the tapas bar with great sangrias and wines. The selection is extensive and a waiter comes around every so often to offer tapas fresh from the oven as well. I like dining downstairs then ending with the DJ upstairs.
Boulevard d’Anfa

Relais de Paris
I go here for lunch. There’s an elegant terrace, with a view of La Corniche, the beachside promenade. The food is excellent – modern brasserie style, with superb desserts. At midday the cream of Morocco’s business world arrive for lunch. It’s great for a romantic evening too or a night with friends or colleagues.
Boulevard de la Corniche

SKY 28
If you’re in town for a visit, Sky 28 is a must for the view alone. It’s located in the Kenzi Tower Hotel in the heart of Casablanca, with a breathtaking view of the skyline. It’s a wonderful location for afternoon tea and pre- and post-dinner drinks in the bar, listening to live piano music, before the DJ takes over.
Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni

Rick’s Cafe
Rick’s Cafe, the mythical saloon from the 1942 film Casablanca, is set in a mansion with a courtyard in the Old Medina of Casablanca. The restaurant is intimate, with a view of the fishing port, and it has an international menu that specialises in Casablanca’s fresh fish, vegetables and fruit.
Boulevard Sour Jdid

Le Cabestan
I’d recommend this place for couples, as the atmosphere is quite intimate. If you’re seated by the huge windows overlooking the ocean I’m not sure you’ll ever want to leave. The bathrooms are one of a kind, very spacious with a big couch. It has excellent service, great food, a fine wine list and is open all afternoon – perfect for a business lunch after an interminable meeting.
Boulevard de la Corniche

Saveurs du Palais
Saveurs du Palais is an authentic Moroccan restaurant. Here the chef pays attention to detail: the couscous is done as it should be, the pastries are fresh and tasty and the mint tea is homemade. The owner is such
a nice person and takes care of you personally.
Rue Jallal Eddine Essayouti

African arts, culture + politics · London culture · Travel

Land of my father


(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Richard E Grant lives in two timezones: “I wear my late father’s watch on the left, set to Swazi time, and one my wife gave me set to GMT on my right. It’s both sentimental and practical.” It’s also a sign of the strong hold Africa still has over the actor, who spent his formative years on the continent.

Born Richard Esterhuysen to a South African mother and his education minister father, Grant grew up in the British Protectorate of Swaziland, which became independent in 1968. In 1982, after studying at the University Of Cape Town (UCT), Grant came to the UK and five years later made his name as Withnail – the narcissistic, acerbic, out-of-work thespian of Withnail & I.

He’s gone on to play many more scathing anti-heroes; from George in Gosford Park to Larry Lefferts in Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence. But while he does a good line in English toff, Swaziland still looms large in his life. He documented his childhood in the 2005 film biopic Wah-Wah and returns every year. Despite a reputation for satirising Hollywood – his book With Nails: The Film Diaries Of Richard E Grant is full of candid anecdotes – Grant is always in demand. He voiced Cecil in new South African 3D animation Zambezia, and joins comedy duo Kath & Kim in the upcoming Kath & Kimderella.

How did you get involved in Zambezia?
I was in Johannesburg for a couple of days finishing a BBC documentary about the history of safari and was asked to record the voice for this cartoon character. The bonus of doing a voiceover role is that it gets done quickly, doesn’t require costume or make-up and is very enjoyable to record. Playing an ugly marabou [stork] was a good laugh.

You have retained a strong connection to Swaziland, what draws you back?
I usually go once a year as my father is buried there and I still have many friends from my childhood. I was last in the country for the Bushfire Festival [in May], which was a real pleasure. I was good friends with Jenny Thorne, whose sons Jiggs and Sholto created the House On Fire open-air theatre in Malkerns, and they asked me to be a patron. It was my first taste of the festival – and unforgettable.

After graduating, you co-founded the Troupe Theatre Company, described as ‘multi-racial’ and ‘avant-garde’. Was it unique for the time?
We founded the company in 1980 at the People’s Space theatre [now The Space Theatre] in Cape Town. The opening production was David Hare’s Fanshen; about the Chinese communist revolution. This prompted the censors to fly down from Pretoria to decide whether we were legally allowed to perform. It put us on the theatrical map. Working with actors I really trusted was an incredibly important grounding for me.

How vibrant is the film industry and theatre world in Swaziland now?  
Since the advent of TV and the exodus of British expats the once-thriving amateur scene is a destitute shell of what it once was.The House On Fire is now the epicentre for all things artistic in the kingdom.

You directed Wah-Wah in Swaziland. What was the country like as a film location?
No film had ever been made there before so everything had to be imported. We had crew and cast from England, France and South Africa, as well as trainees and crowd extras from Mbabane. We had full co-operation from the government and police departments, which made it possible to complete the film on schedule and on budget.

Media coverage of Swaziland tends to focus on King Mswati III’s wives, the Reed Dance and its high HIV rate. What do you make of it?
The politics of Swaziland are very troubling. How the king can justify buying a private plane and amassing an army in the smallest country in the southern hemisphere – and purportedly be worth £150million – while asking for more loans from world banks I find very depressing. Hopefully the Jasmine Revolution will filter south and the decades of dictatorship and despots holding their countries to ransom, while amassing fortunes stashed away in Switzerland, are numbered.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m making a documentary about French impressionists for the BBC, then start filming in London this October on Dom Hemingway, with Jude Law.

[Boxout] R.E.G.’s 5 Swaziland must-do’s

1 Take a drive through the mountains of Piggs Peak past the Maguga dam
2 Buy anything you can afford from Coral Stephens handweaving shop
3 Climb Sibebe mountain in Pine Valley
4 Swim in the hot springs in the Ezulwini valley, called the Cuddle Puddle
5 Visit the House On Fire venue for music and food at Malandela’s restaurant and spend some nights at Mkhaya game reserve

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Blantyre


(ARISE magazine, issue 15) DJ, rapper and Big Brother Africa 2011 contestant Lomwe gives us a whistlestop tour of the hottest spots in and around Malawi’s largest city

Mustang Sally
This is a really nice club on the way to town. It’s got a tropical garden, two bars and a swimming pool – you can’t use it but when it’s lit up at night it looks really cool. During the week they sometimes have a live band but I don’t go then – that’s for the mature crowd, the older folks!

This sports bar is about five minutes’ drive from Mustang Sally. People usually go there to watch the Premiership games; anywhere you sit you can see a screen. They have good snacks as well – I particularly like the grilled beef strips called linunda. They come with this amazing hot sauce, which they make themselves. I don’t know what ingredients they use but it tastes real good.
Mahatma Gandhi Road

Club Makokola
This holiday resort, north of Blantyre and next to Lake Malawi, is a really popular place to go to get away from town. I last went there with Zeus [who Lomwe collaborated with on hit single Double Wowza] for a photo shoot and we went snorkelling – there are hundreds of different fish to see. You can also take a boat to Bird Island and see fish eagles in action. I’d suggest going on a Friday and coming back on Sunday – and if you go, you have to try chambo. It’s the most popular fish and only found in Lake Malawi. You can eat it in lots of ways; stewed, or served with nsima, which is made of maize.

Chichiri shopping mall
This is probably the main mall in Blantyre. It’s a good spot to meet someone: there are so many things at a short distance from each other – internet cafés, fast food places, restaurants. There’s a place called Café Rouge, which
is pretty cool, a sports shop, some clothing stores and a supermarket – a chain from South Africa called Shoprite – where you can get your groceries.

Casa MIA
This restaurant is in a nice, leafy area called Sunnyside. It’s got a cosy atmosphere and great food. The owner is English and there’s a mix of European food on the menu. I’m not really into wine otherwise I could tell you all the good wines they have. I’m more of a beer person, and if it’s not a beer then it’s probably a gin or a brandy.
Kabula Hill Road

Robin’s Park
This theatre recently opened and has only had a few shows so far. It has a capacity of around 2,000 with an arena that has the stage in the middle. I’m thinking of doing the launch show for my mixtape or another of my projects there.

Protea Hotel Ryalls
I usually go to Ryalls to use the wifi. It’s a big, comfortable, modern hotel in the heart of town, with a small bar where you can use the internet. A lot of people go there and it’s a nice place to have a coffee or business meeting.
Hanover Avenue

The Blue Elephant
This bar has been in Blantyre ever since I can remember. It has a mini dance floor and a DJ every Friday, Saturday and Wednesday – on Wednesday they have a band and a DJ who take it in turns to play. During
the weekend lots of people go there – sometimes too many. They play a lot of African and international house music – a lot of people in Malawi like house music. The dance that goes with it is kwasa kwasa.
Kidney Crescent

Kamuzu Stadium
The stadium is named after the first president of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda. I go there with friends when there’s a big international game on – I don’t really follow the local league. It’s a good, fun day out and everyone really gets
into the football.
Near Mudi Estate

Lomwe’s new mixtape, License To Kill, is available now on http://www.lomwe.com

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Kinshasa

Detail from illustration by Christina K
Detail from illustration by Christina K

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Director of Congolese thriller Viva Riva!, Djo Tunda Wa Munga zooms in on the top hangouts in his native city – including locations from his award-winning film

Chez Ntemba
What I like about this nightclub is that it has a really African identity. Of course you have Congolese music but you also have South African music and music from West Africa… At the same time, Chez Ntemba is modern and contemporary. I think they’ve opened something like 10 of these clubs in Africa. I go there to hang out, stop for
a drink and watch the dancing.
Rond-point Forescom, Gombe

Chez Maman Colonel
This restaurant is known for its chicken – especially the chicken and plantain, which is very good. It’s my favourite place to go for something to eat. Kinshasa has a lot of restaurants but you don’t have many new places like this, where someone has said “we’re going to make chicken and it’s going to be delicious”, and that’s exactly what you get.
Avenue Bayaka, Kimbondo

Place Commercial
My office is right next door to Place Commercial and at the end of the day it’s nice to go out, sit there and have a beer or walk around. It’s in the suburb of Ma Campagne, where we shot many of the scenes from my film Viva Riva! It’s a cool and relaxed place with a lot of trees, but at the same time urban.
Ma Campagne, Ngaliema

Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel is this old, old hotel. Everybody knows it, everybody goes there – they go for drinking, showing off… making sport! All the city likes hanging around there. Located in the residential Gombe area, the hotel also has great views of the river and the city.
Avenue Batetela, Gombe

Le Bloc
You’ll find Le Bloc in a neighbourhood called Bandal. It’s like a long terrace with lots of bars where you can sit and drink beer. I love stopping by here. It’s pretty noisy any day of the week but at the same time it gives you a real flavour of Kinshasa.

The Congo River
Kinshasa is built right on the Congo, which is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile. If you look across
it, directly opposite you can see the city of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. For the best views
over the Congo I’d always suggest a visit to National Museum of Kinshasa.

Place du 30 Juin
This new area in front of Kinshasa’s Central Station is a bit of a people magnet. It’s under construction at the moment – on one side you have a Chinese building, on the other a piece of Arabic architecture and then there’s the old Place de la Gare. The space has a nice atmosphere and I often go there with my daughter in the morning.
Central Station, Gombe


Time travel


(Escape, Jan/April 2009) Carinya Sharples steps into the past at Acton Scott in the South Shropshire hills, discovering the charms of a unique Victorian holiday cottage, the subject of a new BBC television series

The closest most of us come to time travel is jetting over time zones on holiday. But amid the rolling green hills of South Shropshire, visitors can turn back time and live like a Victorian farm labourer. Forget widescreen TVs, microwaves and radiators; in fact, forget electricity and plumbing – guests at Henley Cottage cook and heat their water on a Victorian coal-fired kitchen range, store food in a pantry and take hip baths by a roaring fire. This unique project is the work of Rupert Acton, who manages the estate, and his wife, Louise.

Rupert says: “Henley Cottage aims to appeal to those who would like an adventure. If you are searching for a simpler way of life – water hand-pumped from a well instead of turning on a tap and light from candles and oil lamps as opposed to flicking a switch – then this is for you.”

Stepping back in time

Set in the picturesque landscape of Acton Scott, Henley Cottage is one of a pair of 19th-century farm labourers’ cottages. Because it was never modernised and then left abandoned in the 1950s, it remains a rare example of authentic Victorian life – walk through the aged front door, and it’s like stepping back 150 years. It has its original quarry tiles, worn oak floor boards and sturdy beamed ceilings and, at the heart of the cottage, the coal-fired range. As well as being used for cooking the meals, the range is a great source of heat and all the rooms are surprisingly toasty. Oil lamps, sitting in sconces on the walls, provide lighting, and upstairs the two bedrooms (one double, one twin, and an extra single, if needed) have wrought-iron bedsteads and traditional linen sheets and are warmed by open fires in a coal grate or wood-burning stove.

The attention to detail is fantastic and includes period furnishings, a jug-and-bowl set for washing and even a commode should you get caught short in the night. On arrival, guests receive instructions on how to use all the cottage’s domestic bygones. In fact, the only compromise to authenticity is the addition of a modern toilet and shower, tucked out of sight in the garden next to the original earth closet loo.

Available from April, Henley Cottage is about to find fame in a prime time BBC2 television series, Victorian Farm, which was filmed at Acton Scott and is due to be screened from January.

Around the houses

As well as Henley Cottage, Acton Scott currently offers two other properties: Henley Farmhouse (ref: RJJ3) and The Shooting Lodge (ref: RNP). The Actons originally let out only the 18th-century stone-walled section of the farmhouse, before deciding to extend and renovate the 16th-century timber framed and brick side. The property now offers 10 bedrooms and nine bathrooms, most of which are en suite. “Already we’re getting repeat bookings,” says Rupert. “It’s so satisfying, especially as it was such a risk to take.”

Rupert’s passion for careful restoration is obvious as we tour the estate and he is supported by a team of artisan craftsmen. “I believe strongly in the need to keep alive traditional skills, conserve historic buildings and preserve the natural landscape,” explains Rupert. “These are the principles that I have been brought up with. It can be expensive and it can be time consuming, but the results are worth it.”

The Shooting Lodge was carefully restored and refurbished eight years ago. Today, guests come to enjoy the rural isolation with all modcons and make the most of the entertaining opportunities provided by the banqueting room (a former cow shed with a large open fireplace), which can seat up to 18.

Set in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in the South Shropshire hills, the Acton Scott estate has been owned by the Acton family for over 800 years. Its 1200 acres hold a number of small farmsteads, stone and timber-framed cottages, ancient woodland and open pasture. At its centre is Acton Scott Hall, a Grade II* listed, Elizabethan mansion of 1580, that is the Acton family’s residence.

The local area has twice received the royal seal of approval. Prince Rupert, King Charles I’s nephew, is believed to have stayed at Acton Scott Hall during a skirmish in the Civil War and HM Queen Elizabeth II spent a night on the Royal Train stationed on the railway line at Henley, during a visit to the area, shortly after her coronation. The historical significance does not end there – an archaeological dig of Acton Scott’s Roman villa, an Ancient Scheduled Monument, is currently in progress nearby.

At home on the farm

Acton Scott is also the location for the Historic Working Farm, a favourite visitor attraction for families. The original concept of keeping the farming practices of 1900 alive was conceived by Rupert’s father, Tom Acton, in the 1970s. Open to the public from April to October, it provides a fascinating insight into life on a working 19th-century country estate.

Traditional breeds of animals are stocked while the surrounding land is worked with heavy horses. Milking by hand and butter making are demonstrated daily in the dairy and there are weekly visits from the Wheelwright, Farrier and Blacksmith. Young animals, such as the Tamworth piglets and the farmyard poultry, are hits with children.

Getting involved

The Historic Working Farm has a souvenir shop, café and educational centre and children can lose themselves in the willow maze or dress up in 19th-century clothing for a photo. Acton Scott is also starting courses in rural skills, such as animal husbandry and hedge laying, using the facilities of the Historic Working Farm and the estate at large. Participants can stay at any one of Acton Scott’s holiday houses or book Henley Cottage. “Acton Scott is uniquely placed to offer the experience of learning about 19th century country life while also being able to live as a Victorian might have done, by staying at Henley Cottage,” says Rupert.

Visitors to Acton Scott can ramble over the estate’s green hills, parkland and woods, and there are walks suitable for all ages and abilities. The historic market towns of Ludlow and Shrewsbury are a short drive away. As the properties are self-catering, guests can stock up on provisions in nearby Church Stretton and Craven Arms while the local Strefford Hall Farm Shop delivers meat and seasonal supplies.

It may seem like the Actons have more than enough on their plate, but they already have a new project in the pipeline – turning The Old Smithy, once used by blacksmiths and still in possession of an old forge, into new holiday accommodation. Time may have stood still on the Acton Scott Estate, but there’s no stopping this pair.

Time travel PDF


Valencia Walk


(Escape, July/September 2008) Spain’s third largest city has seen an exciting revival in recent years. Our Valencia city walk will guide you through the colourful streets between the two towers of Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart

Whether you’re an avid walker or prefer a gentle amble, a stroll through Valencia is a great way to soak up the city’s vibrant atmosphere. Our Valencia walk is a fun way to see the sights and you can do as much, or as
little, of it as you fancy. Allowing ample time for sightseeing, and a spot of lunch this walk should take you around half a day.

Along the Jardines del Turia (A) near Puente de Serranos (B) in the Casco Antiguo North, is your starting point – the 14th century Torres de Serranos (1), thought to be the largest Gothic city gateway in Europe. Follow the gardens to your right before turning into Calle Muro de Santa Ana (C), passing Palacio de Benicarló, the seat
of the Valencian Parliament, on your left. The road turns into Calle Navellos, where you’ll find the Plaza de la Virgen, home to La Basílica Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (2). People flock here to see the statue of the
Virgin, known affectionately as la cheperudeta (‘the hunchback’).

By the plaza is the Catedral (3), founded in the 13th century on the site of the old main mosque – you can still find the Moorish influence in some local architecture and food. Walk ahead to the Plaza de la Reina (D) for a rest in the garden or head to the southwest corner for a drink of horchata at Horchateria El Siglo (5) on Plaza Santa Catalina. Made from tiger nuts, horchata is served chilled, usually with a cake called fartons.

From the plaza, follow Calle Paz before turning right towards the decadent 16th-century Palacio del Marqués de
Dos Aguas (6). Heading westwards across Calle San Vicente Mártir to Avenida Maria Cristina (E) will take you to the huge iron structure of Mercado Central (7) – a Modernist creation of 1928 and one of Europe’s largest covered markets. Pick up some ham, cheese, olives… whatever catches your eye (and nose). Just don’t forget to look up to see the incredible mosaics, stained glass and glass dome above you.

Past the market on your right is the 15-16th-century Gothicstyle La Lonja (8), a former silk exchange and now UNESCO World Heritage site. Twisting pillars that look like spun sugar are worth a stop inside, while rude gargoyles can be spotted on the outside walls. For lunch, try the Tasca Angel (9), near La Lonja where you just
shout your order from outside.Fully refreshed, it’s time to finish your walk. Stroll up Calle Bolserías until you reach Plaza Tossai (F), turn left onto Calle Quart and there your walk ends at the Torres de Quart (10).

Valencia Walk PDF


A Real Barnstormer


(Escape, April/June 2009) Laura and Steve Martin have pulled off an exceptional conversion project at Biddenden Green Farm. Carinya Sharples travels to Kent to marvel at their grand re-designs

It’s not every day that you wake up in a four-poster bed in the turret of an old oast house – unless you’re at Biddenden Green Farm (Property reference: PBBY) in Kent that is, where the distinctive curved wall, exposed brickwork and tall, conical ceiling have been given a new lease of life as an unusual rural retreat.

The transformation from hop-drying farm building to impressive barn conversion began when Laura and Steve Martin decided to move away from London with their two children. Following the train line from Orpington, where they lived at the time, they found a quirky house in the Kent village of Smarden. The only hitch was that the house came as part of a larger package and so the Martin family found themselves taking on a dilapidated 16th-century barn and former oast house to boot. “I wasn’t even sure how I’d feel living in the countryside,” admits Laura, “but houses speak to me – it’s a feeling rather than a logical decision.”

Thankfully the gamble has paid off and today, four years on, the renovated barn and oast guest houses of Lewd Lane have a steady stream of visitors, won over by the combination of tranquil surroundings, homely rooms and quirky, original fixtures. The couple’s determination to keep as many of the original features as possible has proved central to their success. “When you’re doing a conversion like this,” explains Laura, “you’re a custodian. We want to leave our mark without taking away anyone else’s.”

Treading carefully

The Grade-II listing of the Martins’ home and the thatched barn (under which the oast also falls) gave the pair another reason to tread especially carefully. Yet with the buildings in such disrepair, this was no easy task. The barn may have been in active use on the farm just 70 years ago, but it was derelict for many years and the wood was starting to decay. So, as well as enlisting the help of English Heritage, the Martins recruited a specialist timber expert. “He was a great help and keen to preserve as much of the original timber as possible,” says Laura. “When he first came to the barn he was like a kid in a toyshop!”

Willow hurdles

Thanks to this motto of “repair not replace”, the two buildings are full of fascinating historic insights. In the oak-framed barn, built between 1590 and 1610, the original threshing bays are still in place and Laura points out the faint outlines of several circles, carved into the wood. Far from being accidental scratches, they are old ‘witching’ or ‘ritual’ marks, used to protect the superstitious occupants from what the handy visitor’s guide calls the ‘plague and pestilence of witches’.

Other elements of the barn’s previous existence are less noticeable – and probably just as well since what is now the smart kitchen area was once used to make willow hurdles for sheep fields; while the spacious living area stored hay and the second bedroom was a piggery. Today, the invasion of farmyard life is restricted to a complimentary basket of fresh, free-range eggs from the family’s own chickens, while the rooms are filled with sturdy, dark wood furnishings rather than troughs.

Timeless decor

Designing the interiors and sourcing the furniture was Laura’s favourite part of the restoration. “Some pieces came from abroad, the internet, even eBay – but what I loved most of all was going to local antique auctions, like the one in Cranbrook.” The resulting blend of original beams and antique furniture with dramatic fittings and cosy sofas works well, creating a feel that’s homely yet historic – the four-poster beds, dark wood chests and traditional low ceilings adding a real sense of timelessness.

The barn’s spacious living area, sizeable tables, three double rooms (two ensuite), twin room and mezzanine floor (with sofa bed and games) have made it particularly popular among those planning large family get-togethers, friends’ holidays and hen parties. And although history is important to the design and mood of both the barn and oast, Laura is aware of the importance of comfort and quality modern conveniences, especially for self-catered accommodation: “Before moving to Kent, we used to go away on holiday every year to places like this. So we knew the good and bad points and remembered the crucial things to get right, like a shower that doesn’t just trickle on your head. Good beds and kitchen equipment are also very important.”

Drying the hops

The Oast House is a smaller, cosier affair, with a living room at the bottom of the curved tower where once a fire would have been lit to dry out the hops above, the smoke escaping through the roof vents. These days, under-floor heating keeps the place toasty. Above, a four-poster bed sits in the rounded main bedroom, and across the sunlit landing are another two further bedrooms. Back downstairs, the walls of the warm kitchen are dotted with old black and white photos of a farmer in front of the working oast, diagrams of the process of hop drying and other sketches of farm life.

Even though the Oast House has only been up and running for two years – and The Thatched Barn open since just last September – Laura and Steve have already had a number of returning guests and welcomed visitors from as far afield as the US, Israel, Germany and Singapore. The visitors’ books in the barn and oast house are full of praise for an “amazing building, lovely homely feel”. Even local people don’t seem to be able to resist the buildings’ allure. “We’ve had people from Bluebell Hill and Sittingbourne, which are only half an hour away,” says Laura, “But then you never explore what’s on your own doorstep.”

Frogs, ducks and lily pads

And there’s plenty to explore – most guests take advantage of the many attractions to be found across Kent, whether going on a day trip to Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral or Camber Sands beach, walking the wartime tunnels of Dover Castle or Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, or taking the kids to the Rare Breeds Centre or Kent & East Sussex Steam Railway. And with Paris less than two hours away via Eurostar from nearby Ashford International, it’s easy to pop over the Channel for the day to see the sights and stock up on French delicacies. Though with a pond full of frogs, ducks and picturesque lily pads, the chirpy twitter of blackbirds, sparrows and jackdaws, not to mention the impressive sight of hunting horses chomping on grass in the next field, some guests don’t feel the need to venture far from Biddenden Green Farm. And when the sun is shining, there’s nothing better than a stroll through the local fields followed by a hearty lunch at one of Smarden’s three
welcoming pubs.

So after four busy years – and a lot of ironing – has Laura been put off life in the countryside? “I wouldn’t go back to London for anything!”

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