A LITTLE over nine months ago, Matt Bird disappeared from his family home in Hawkhurst, Kent, after telling his mum he was going to the pub for a couple of pints. With only the clothes on his back and ?60 ($730) in his pocket, Bird travelled for two days by ferry and train until he got to the Cote d'Azur, where he entered a building in the town of Aubagne. Handing over his passport and what little cash he had, he promptly signed away the identity he'd built up over 18 years. His family, used to his fits of adolescent absenteeism, initially wrote off his disappearance as teenage wanderlust. Over on the Continent, however, against the backdrop of a Riviera enjoying the last days of summer, Bird was receiving the pummelling of a lifetime. Regularly punched, kicked and urinated on, he was prevented from mailing letters or using the phone and threatened with further abuse if he attempted to make contact with the outside world. Bird's ordeal, not unusual in the small town outside Marseilles, carried on for almost four months, until one day he saw the opportunity to get to a phone. Dialling Britain furiously, he heard his sister answer. 'Hi, it's Matt,' he said, trying to sound casual. 'I can't really talk, so you can just tell mum that I'm in France and I've joined the French Foreign Legion. Tell her not to worry, that everything's OK and I'll ring her when I next get a chance.' Click. Eight weeks later, a thinner, harder Bird and 22 other recruits are sweating profusely on a parade ground somewhere just north of the equator on the other side of the Atlantic and poor Mrs Bird still hasn't had that phone call. WHEN you've chucked away all your dough And dirty tricks have laid low your career, Sling your shoes on your back, for it's time to hide In the bottom of a ferry-boat And sign up to become a legionnaire. It doesn't rhyme brilliantly in English but what Au Legionnaire does manage to capture is the sense of adventure and romance that still attracts young men from all over the world. From 24-year-old Berlin industrial heirs to 20-year-old Hanoi thieves, they choose to lose their pasts and become front-line meddlers in France's foreign policy. It's rather fitting, then, that the French Ministry of Defence has dispatched me to a base in French Guiana called Quartier Forget (OK, so it's supposed to be pronounced For-jay) in Kourou. Home to the Third Regiment of the French Foreign Legion and its 850 legionnaires from more than 60 countries, life in many ways is all about forgetting - wives, debts, illegitimate children and even forgetting to call your mum. Roughly 70 kilometres up the coast from the capital of Cayenne, the pastel-painted houses come to an abrupt halt and menacing-looking legionnaires on BMW motorbikes drive around diverting traffic. As the Citroens and Renaults do U-turns, a sign in French informs them that they are leaving the property of the CSG, or Centre Spatial Guyane, Europe's tropical spaceport. Before the European space centre was built, the Third Regiment was based in France's rapidly fading colony of Madagascar and looked like it was in serious danger of losing its status as an overseas regiment. Then the multi-billion-dollar space programme needed defending and, without too much defence ministry arm-twisting at the Elysee Palace, the entire regiment was dispatched in 1973 from one malaria-ridden colony off the east coast of Africa to another on the northeast tip of South America. THE Foreign Legion propaganda that covers the coffee table in Lieutenant Colonel Pagniez' office would be better suited in a travel agent. Flipping through copies of Le Kepi Blanc magazine, I note current Legion deployments include Tahiti, Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, Corsica and Djibouti, to the north of the Red Sea. 'Being based here in Kourou is one of the best, I think,' says the colonel, grinning. 'We have our principal mission of protecting the CSG, which commences 48 hours before every launch; we're also responsible for road engineering and maintaining our river missions along the border with Brazil. Of course, it also has great beaches, nice weather, no wars close by ...' There is one physical feature, aside from a perfect tan, that legionnaires have in common: a psychotic twinkle in the eye. They study you, they gaze through you and, given that many of them are running away from something, they often freeze you out completely. Pagniez manages to combine this with a disarming goofiness. For myself and photographer Zed Nelson, the interview is the equivalent of the legionnaires' much longer induction. After conferring with a South African subordinate, the colonel decides our calves look strong enough, our Timberlands hefty enough and our skins thick enough to go crashing through the undergrowth with the Legion's finest. 'Bon. So we send you down to the jungle tomorrow for three days, then you go to the equatorial commando training base at Regina, et voila, we see how you get on. Non.' Pagniez rises from behind his desk. 'Now, the sergeant will take you to get some clothes for the jungle. And remember, you must first ask a legionnaire if you're allowed to take his photograph.' Over the next two weeks, the legionnaire's right to remain nameless and faceless will become a significant headache in delivering the story. But, for fear of being at the wrong end of an accidental gun discharge, we dutifully comply. ALL but forgotten, the French Foreign Legion made the headlines during the Gulf war by almost driving up to Saddam Hussein's front door in Baghdad and arresting him. Just when many French politicians were beginning to question the importance of the 164-year-old force, it is now being recognised as the model for what an army should be in an era of regional post-Cold War conflicts. Lightly armed and rapidly deployable, the Legion has been gaining accolades for its work in Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda and also the attention of defence departments, including America's, who want their armies to be re-programmed to fight in low intensity, low-tech conflicts. Still full of the petty criminals, alimony dodgers and mercenaries that made it legendary, it has also more recently become a refuge for thousands of East Europeans in search of a quick route to a European Union passport and five years of free meals. Among the smattering of Americans is ex-Marine Larry Ortega, who simply wants adventure. 'I had finished my tour with the US Marines, where I was based on Trident subs, and I just wanted something that was different, a bit more exciting and, I've gotta tell you, it couldn't be any more different if it tried,' says the 26-year-old from Chicago. Short, pudgy but more seasoned than Bird, Ortega has now been in for three years and three months. 'I joined up on the recommendation of a friend. They opened up my wallet, took out my credit cards and cut them up as I was sitting there. The idea is that they don't want you to check out too soon. But once you've gotten over stuff like that, then you're glad you're in because they move you around so much. Chad, Central African Republic ... I just got back from Sarajevo, which was pretty heavy.' Poolside at the Hotel des Roches is definitely not what you'd call heavy, however. Every afternoon, the sun loungers fill with the lean, sculpted bodies of the younger recruits and the local French girls, who half-heartedly read Paris Match. 'There are all kinds of girls who want to f*** legionnaires, the problem is that most of them want to get paid for it,' says Erik, a 25-year-old Finn who has been in the Third Regiment for 18 months. 'I mean, some guys date girls but most don't get too serious because we can't really get married until we're officers and we transfer every two years to new posts anyway.' Kourou is teeming with prostitutes who come over the border from Brazil and Surinam. A reasonable-looking girl can make Ffr8,000 ($12,000) for two weeks' work, especially if she hits town around pay day. That said, an ugly girl and even a transvestite could probably do the same if they hit Kourou on pay day. Ever wary of French Guiana's AIDS problem, the highest of any department, the gatehouse dispenses condoms to men heading for the nightclubs. For those who don't want to leave the compound, Quartier Forget boasts the last on-site brothel of any military base. Tucked away behind the motor-pool (though I can't officially say because Pagniez steered me away from it), The Pouf is four little rooms, four little beds and four big Brazilian hookers who work seven nights a week. Rotated after two weeks, one legionnaire tells me that the girls are usually carried out after they're done with them. I can't tell if he is serious or not but, judging by their behaviour on a 'night out', I almost believe him. On a quiet night, the Pouf bar is packed with the rank and file getting drunk and the hookers are kept busy servicing about 10 men each. On a more boisterous night, the bartenders let off canisters of CS gas to break up fights and military police arrive in wailing Peugeot Jeeps armed with eight-centimetre-thick, rubber-coated electric cords. It was following a night out - off the base - two years ago that one of the legion's biggest policy changes came about following the stabbing of a young recruit. In the bar, Mark, a 22-year-old NCO from Belfast, picks up the story. 'There had always been problems with the blacks around here, you see, because they didn't like seeing Legion guys in uniform. One night this fight broke out and one of our guys got done. Anyway, our guys went and got coup-coups [machetes] and chainsaws and they went crazy massacring a few of theirs. So after that, they passed a rule which said we didn't have to wear a uniform when we were off the base.' In a town of blacks, mestizos and hippy European space engineers, the legionnaires don't easily blend in - uniforms or no uniforms. Nevertheless, it has done something to remove the 'town under occupation' feel it had before. 'So, where are they sending you?' asks Mark. 'We're flying down to St Georges tomorrow morning.' 'Oh Christ,' he laughs, 'you had better be careful down there. The malaria is so bad that they sent 36 guys down once and 30 got malaria and out of them, two died. You're taking your pills I hope?' I assured him, bravely, that I was. 'Well, they don't work. The guys that died took them as well. You'll also have to look out for l'espagnol flies, they bury eggs under your skin and then they start to eat you from the inside out. It's like Alien or something. A couple of guys are walking around the Quartier with big holes in their hands, chunks of their scalps missing.' New recruits Matt Bird and a former US Marine, Jason Lowe, ask if I heard anything about a tradition called 'the drains' and whether it's as hideous as they've been warned. 'From other English speakers I've talked to, it sounds dreadful,' I say. 'Shit!' they chorus. Which is precisely the point with the drains, a tradition reserved expressly for English-speaking legionnaires. Soon after their arrival, the recruits will have to crawl through the open storm and sewage drains while their comrades shower them from above with urine, faeces and vomit. 'A couple of years ago, the Brits thought the Hungarians were getting too powerful here in Kourou, so an English guy went into their ringleader's room and threatened him by pulling out his sidearm and pointing it at his head, telling him to lay off all the English speakers,' says a Finn, upping the tempo. 'Anyway, they didn't back off, so someone else went back to his room two weeks later and blew his head off. There was a small investigation, the colonel almost broke down in tears, pleading with them to stop the violence, but nothing was done because they knew it was pointless: we legionnaires don't turn each other in. The Hungarians didn't bother the English any more.' THE morning we depart for St Georges, the air terminal at Rochambeau is empty apart from a group of Brazilians in leg shackles who are about to be deported. On the apron outside a girl is at the controls of the Air Guyane Twin Otter. Unlike the Marines, who have their own air wing, the Foreign Legion has to use commercial services or call on the French Air Force or the army's helicopter squadrons for support. In Guiana, they have three Super Puma helicopters for heavy support and three light choppers armed with machine guns for patrol duties. 'We don't use them that much because we're not a Marines-style outfit. You know the Americans are coming because you hear the thud-thud-thud of the helicopters in the distance. We'll march greater distances, sneak up on the enemy and they won't even know what hit them,' explains the South African officer who originally helped assess us for our mission. Beneath the Twin Otter stretches the dense jungle where the legionnaires go on their 30-day marches to 'show a French presence and maintain the French way of life'. With only 140,000 people in the whole territory, most of them clinging to the coastline, the only people who regularly see the French flag are Amerindians who live in the jungle. St Georges represents the biggest settlement the French have along the Oyapock River and as we drop out of a few storm clouds almost straight on to the grassy runway, it presents the most striking contrast I've ever seen between the developed and the Third World. Camp Corporal Bernet, named after a legionnaire who was crushed under a tree several years ago, is five minutes from the airport and the centre of town. In Legion-speak, all distance seems to be measured by the minutes/hours/days it takes to walk it. The camp's resident commander, simply called the Hermit, is testament to the marching tradition. Across the front of his legs, which are the colour of tropical hardwood trunks, are tattooed the words, 'marche ou mort' (walk or die). Built around a gravel parade ground, Camp Bernet consists of a few white tin-roofed buildings, five wooden bunkhouses still under construction, two dump trucks and one radio tower. This is the closest 20th-century equivalent to the legendary Beau Geste outposts of Morocco and Algeria. Multi-skilled in virtually every discipline of warfare and home economics, some complain that they are jack of all trades and masters of none. 'It'll be brilliant when the next crisis comes along and the Supreme Command asks what the Third Regiment can contribute,' says John Jeffers from Liverpool. 'We'll be like, 'Well, we're not very good marksmen but we're excellent hedge-trimmers.'' But their paratroopers drop from less than 150 metres and their jungle skills are the envy of all in NATO. Lieutenant Messager is in charge of the 40 men stationed at St Georges for this three-week tour. Thrilled that he had the opportunity to use his expense account, he has booked a table at Chez Modestine, the village's single hotel-cum-restaurant. 'You've given us the chance to eat out of camp,' he says, thankfully. After a dinner of wild pig knuckles, rice, fish and, a rare treat, Antarctica Beer from Brazil, we end up at an outdoor table at Priscilla, the most upmarket bar in St Georges. In less than 30 minutes, we are throwing back our third round of taffia - a mixture of rum from Martinique mixed with sugar cane liqueur. For the remainder of the evening, a parade of Brazilian girls in tube tops, cut-off jeans and pink flip-flops strut past the table. By the time we head back to camp, after more stories about the flesh-eating fly, we've lost only one officer, who drifted off into the shadows with a mestizo girl more than two hours ago. The morning after, I can still feel the effects of the taffia. On the banks of the river, 10 legionnaires are loading a slender wooden boat. They disarm their assault rifles before boarding - if one of the guns went off accidentally it could sink them. Unlike other rivers they patrol, the Oyapock is a crocodile- and piranha-free zone. 'Go up north and you get crocodiles 25 feet [7.6 metres] long,' Messager says. After a brief stop at the Indian village of Tampac, where Messager points out a tiny voodoo hut full of salvaged Heineken and Kronenbourg beer bottles, we arrive at the little post of St Louis. Consisting of a few bamboo lean-tos and open structures, St Louis acts as an observation post for border crossings. 'All we do is monitor the movements on the river. We don't arrest, we don't pursue, all we do is report boats that cross the invisible line down the middle and leave it to the gendarmes,' says Sergeant Chef Smith, a Brit from Cumbria. 'I sometimes wish we got to blow them out of the water.' I choose not to tell Smithie, as the French call him, that if there weren't 850 legionnaires in Guiana in the first place, most of the illegal immigrants, who are prostitutes, wouldn't bother to come across. 'OK gentlemen. So I leave you and come back for you tomorrow,' says Messager, making a move for the empty boat. 'I'll see you in 24 hours.' Suddenly we are on our own, left to set up our extremely complicated hammocks, fight off the l'espagnol fly and socialise with a few legionnaires. 'You're going to sleep over there,' says a Czech, pointing to the mound where our packs had been dumped, in the forest and not in the clearing. The legionnaires set up their hammocks in 15 minutes; it takes us almost two hours. By this time, Smithie is undoing crates of NATO plastic explosive and telling me to attend the training session. It's not true that you have to speak French well to join the legion. Three Japanese recruits I meet have barely got to grips with oui and merci, so I can only hope that everyone crowding around the bomb assembly table has enough French to understand how to handle Semtex. As the group of Poles, Czechs, Finns and French fumble with charges, fuses and explosives, I find myself retreating behind a sad stretch of bamboo that was to be my blast screen. 'Voila, le bomb,' says Smithie, holding up a ball about the size and colour of a rotting grapefruit. 'Let's fish.' He yells at everyone to get back, '50 metres at least'. Then he turns to me and says. 'Don't tell anyone we do this.' 'Of course not.' Igniting the fuse, Smithie lobs the bomb into the water. A minute later there is a minor earthquake and by the time I look around, there are two naked Czechs sloshing about in their boots looking for fish. Unfortunately for them, and for us, the current is too fast and has carried the catch downstream. It would be army rations all round for dinner. With the day's excitement over, and it isn't even 10 am, the legionnaires spend the rest of the day blowing up trees to show me how they would clear a landing area if they had to evacuate someone from the middle of the jungle. As darkness falls, there is the odd game of cards, a few men lie in their hammocks whittling little chunks of bamboo and that's about it. No songs around the campfire, no locker-room humour, in fact, I don't think I ever hear anyone laugh. By the time it gets dark, we are zipped into our hammock-bivouacs with the lights out. Mine is strung so tight that if a pair of mosquitoes landed on the same side, it would have thrown me into a fatal barrel roll. The extra dimension of adventure is that you have to lie there for 12 hours until the sun rises. THE next night, the sleeping arrangements change dramatically when we arrive at Regina, home to the Legion's Equatorial Commando Training Centre. It looks like a cross between the Mount Kenya Safari Club and some swish Balinese resort. It is here that the Legion's commanders hob-nob with generals from the United States, the Netherlands, Britain and Canada. 'This is the Top Gun of commando training centres,' says Lieutenant Marie, a 26-year-old French officer. 'We've got them lining up to train with us.' Marching through the rainforest with Marie and several other commando monitors the next day, we are shown their own little zoo of deadly snakes and frogs. There is also a selection of booby traps. These range from a ball of spikes that comes swinging out of a tree at 100 km/h, to machine guns rigged up to trip-wires. Then there is the camouflage pit. 'In zis pit you 'ave bamboo spikes and on top of the spikes you put lots of sheet,' explains Marie. What kind of sheet? 'Any sheet will do but human sheet is best,' he says, looking puzzled. 'Oh, you mean shit!' I say. 'Yes, lots and lots of sheet so if zey don't bleed from the spikes, zen zey die of infection.' As I wander through the jungle, I have to wonder whether shit-covered spikes have a place even on the most unsophisticated battlefield. Seemingly, yes, because the German Bundeswehr is taking its first jungle commando training course later this year and the Americans are also coming back for more. By the time I get back to Forget, my earlier companions are all anxious to get my unbiased view of the jungle. They also tell me about an American who has just come back from St Georges with big holes on top of his hands from those flies. 'Everyone calls them l'espagnol flies but they're really called leishmaniosts,' explains the victim, Mark Vail, who looks like someone has shot two perfect pistol holes through his hands. It is Vail's raw, infected flesh that stays in my mind long after I leave French Guiana. His hands come to symbolise the lengths that these men will go to for a piece of the action. Vail said he'd go back to St Georges again and again because he was in love with the jungle. He told me how he looked forward to using his skills in operations in Africa. The last thing he said, though, still keeps me looking in the mirror. 'Sometimes your skin won't get eaten away at the surface until they've been in you for two months, even longer.' I'm still waiting.