Shangri-la at sea

Exploring the Unexplored
Last Updated 16 January 2010, 09:43 IST

As the aircraft rapidly descended, I got the first glimpse of the turquoise blue water, silver sands and green forest cover of islands sprinkled in ocean. With 306 islands, 206 rocks and rocky outcrops, the Andaman and Nicobar islands form the largest archipelago in the Bay of Bengal.

Diverse ecosystems like coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands and tropical rainforests co-exist in harmony on these islands. Amidst dense forests and depths of the ocean, thrive a gamut of flora and fauna many of which are endemic to the Andamans. Port Blair, the capital of this union territory is also the principal port and entry point into the islands.

Andamans have a checkered past. The British occupied parts of the island during the pre-independence era and used these isolated strips of land as penal colonies. The construction of the cellular jail in Port Blair began in 1896 and was completed in 1906. Known as ‘Kaala Pani’ (Black Water), it had seven wings, a central control tower and 698 cells each of dimension 4.5m x 2.7m. At present, only wings 1, 6 and 7 remain and these are the most prominent structures in Port Blair.

The flogging stand, oil extraction equipment and the gallows are a mute testimony to the inhuman torture meted out to the Indians. These stories of valour and defiance of freedom fighters are narrated through a sound and light show, played to packed audiences every night. Museums and photo galleries in the jail, which is now a national monument, bring to life the untold miseries, pain and suffering of Indians held captive and mercilessly killed by the British.

Colonial hangover

Many islands like Ross, Viper, Havelock, Henry Lawrence, Jolly Boy and Neil, still retain their English names and are reminiscent of the British settlements in these areas. Ross island was the seat of power during the British rule. It was also occupied by the Japanese for a brief period during the Second World War.

The island was well equipped with all amenities including a printing press, swimming pool, bakery, bazaar, church, tennis court and colonies of houses for British officials. Only the ruins of these crumbling structures remain today. Trees are ingrained in the remnants of the walls that are still standing and make an interesting sight while you set out on a trail around Ross island. The place is a short ferry ride from Port Blair and is worth a visit. While digging into its history, we also came across the Ferar beach on the island’s fringe, which looks like a shot right out of a postcard.

Next in line was the Havelock, an island of the Ritchie’s Archipelago, known for its aquamarine waters, coral reefs and pristine beaches. Just a two-hour ferry ride from Port Blair, it is one of the few islands in the Andamans, designated for eco-tourism by the government. While tourists across the world come to Havelock for its beaches, scuba diving enthusiasts come too, in order to explore colourful corals and rich marine life that breeds in these warm tropical waters.

There are seven settlements along the islands and the beaches running along are suffixed with the number of the adjoining village. Beach five and seven are spectacular strips of sand and sea. A road connecting the villages runs across the island. The Havelock boat jetty is at village one and the market at village three — Govindnagar. A string of resorts dot the eastern fringe of the island. Village seven — Radhanagar located on the northwest of the island offers breathtaking views of the sea. The lanky trees, silver-white sand and cool blue water create a visual spectacle.

Scooters are the best way of getting around Havelock. While the fit and adventurous swimmers can go scuba diving, snorkeling is for novices and non-swimmers. The lighthouse, aquarium and elephant beach are great diving spots near Havelock. My first snorkeling experience — looking through crystal clear water, swimming over coral reefs and crossing the path of schools of fish was extremely exhilarating. It was so worth it, watching schools of hump head parrotfish, sea cucumbers, sea stars, clown fish and other similar species along with live corals.

Ethnic groups

These emerald isles are beautiful and so are its people. Tribes native to the Andamans like the great ‘Andamanese’, ‘Jarawas’, ‘Onge’, and ‘Sentinelese’ have receded into dense jungles while majority of the people residing on these islands are migrants from the mainland. Apart from Hindi, which is the common language across the islands, Tamil and Bengali are also widely spoken.

It was a joy interacting with locals. Going by their recommendations, we decided to embark for a journey to Baratang island. Although commuting to the place is scenic, it is arduous, as it passes through a protected area reserved for the ‘Jarawas’. Vehicular movement is restricted through the ‘Jarawa’ reserve forests and all traffic entering and leaving the area should be part of a convoy led and trailed by police vehicles. We did the same, and joined a convoy from the police check post at Jirkatang, heading towards the Middle Strait. After obtaining permission from the forest department we proceeded to the Oralkatcha in a ferry. Switching to a speedboat, we cruised through a canopy of mangroves in crocodile infested waters, eventually reaching Navgarh.

Need to preserve the isles

We walked through the lush green tropical rainforests of Navgarh. A short hike through the canopy of trees led us to limestone caves where we got to see well-grown stalactites, stalagmites and helicites. It was a heartening to see that the place was clean and free of plastic. We then visited a mud volcano site in Baratang, although they are a tad disappointing as one just gets to see mounds of mud and few bubbles of gas, that’s all. Barring a few violent eruptions these volcanoes are mostly placid.

The Andaman islands are set in a diverse social and geographical landscape. Soaking in the sun on bewitching beaches, walking through the rainforest, paddling through the mangroves and hiking in the hills are just some of the many ‘things to do’ for hordes of tourists who come down under.

But mindless tourism and exploitation of nature’s bounties, could prove to be a death knell. The construction of the Andaman trunk road that cuts through the forests — home to the ‘Jarawas’, and heavy inflow of tourists has brought these stone age hunter-gatherer tribes in contact with the modern civilisation. This is posing a serious threat to their survival.

While you might get to see the ‘Jarawas’  on the highway, it is against the rules to attempt to photograph them or establish any contact with them. The hazardous impact of tourism on the fragile ecosystems and ethnic tribes of the Andamans is already showing alarming signals. It is of paramount importance that we behave as responsible tourists and refrain from tarnishing these pristine islands.  

Travel tips

*How to get there: Port Blair is connected to Chennai and Kolkatta by air and sea. Ferryboats ply between Port Blair and the other popular tourist hotspots. Ensure that the flight timings and ferry timings to Havelock Island are well coordinated.

*Best time to visit: The weather is warm for most of the year. It is relatively cooler from December to January. Avoid visiting the Andamans between May and September.

*Accomodation: Port Blair and Havelock are tourist hubs and offer several options for food and accommodation. Barefoot Resort and The Wild Orchid are recommended places to stay in Havelock. ITC Fortune and Hotel Sinclair are the most sought after hotels in Port Blair. 

(Published 16 January 2010, 09:38 IST)

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