Early one January morning we took off from Kamaraj Airport in Chennai for a short vacation to the Andaman Islands. Located in the Bay of Bengal, this group of Islands lies 193 km away from Cape Negrais in Myanmar, 1255 km from Calcutta, and 1190 km from Chennai. The Nicobar Islands are located to the south of the Andamans, 121 km from the Little Andaman Island. Of the total 572 only 36 islands are inhabited. It is said that Marco Polo was among the first from the West to set foot on one of the islands; KanhojiAngre, a Maratha admiral set up his base in Port Blair in the early 18th century; and the British established a penal colony even later.
Two and a half hours, and we were deposited at Port Blair’s Veer Savarkar airport at 7 am. Nestled in a green upturned bowl of tropical vegetation, the tiny airport and the runway rising out of the sea reminded us of a similar scene at Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Although the islands have a vibrant native population, the present day residents of Port Blair are derived largely from the mainland Bengali, Tamilian, Bihari and the Malayali stock. We were escorted through undulating palm lined roads, with a multitude of shops selling local and imported merchandise, to the Circuit House on Mahatma Gandhi Road in a Omni taxi. On the way we caught a glimpse of the Phoenix Bay which is the port on call for ferry services to other islands. Following breakfast we took off in the hired jeep to visit Wandoor.
Wandoor, about 30 km to the south-west is where the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park is located. It had been cloudy ever since we landed and the light mid morning drizzle gave a freshly washed look to the countryside. Enroute we picked up wafers and cool drinks to last the journey. Suresh, our driver was a ‘local’ and traced his ancestry to one of the tribes. He had been schooled and was now a Hindi speaker – only his elderly relatives could speak Andamanese, he claimed. He showed us a 80 acre herbal garden in Sippyghat where many medicinal plants were being researched — Rauwolfa, Insulin Plant (Costusingenus), Aloe vera, etc.
The Marine National Park was not operating the glass bottomed boats to ferry tourists to Jolly Buoy Island owing to a bureaucratic tussle over issue of permits. In desperation, Suresh took us to a beach 2 kilometres away, New Wandoor, where private operators were ferrying tourists to an exclusive beach, Mouaduga, to offer them an unforgettable snorkelling experience, for Rs. 500 per person. We savoured the freshly plucked king coconut water while the boatman got the outboard motor on his dugout ready and firing. We took our places in the boat and sped past cave like formations along the shore, to alight at a changing point among the mangroves and the coconut palms. Into our swim wear, we gingerly held onto our snorkelling gear while we were led into the sea by a couple of ‘experts’. Instantly two things hit me – one that even in January the water was warm and two we needn’t be swimmers to be able to snorkel. The apprehension I felt evaporated the moment I stuck the glasses to my face and dunked my head under water. Very soon we had all mastered the technique of breathing and began to take mental notes of the underwater world of live corals and multicoloured fish darting all around us. Our ‘guides’ identified for us finger-tip corals, brain corals, brilliant blue star fish, sea anemone, and a multitude of colourful fish cavorting through them. Their enthusiasm in sharing a world known to them from childhood was contagious to say the least and we noted that commercial, exploitative interests had not taken over the tourism industry in Andamans as yet. About an hour later we were transported back to New Wandoor where we boarded our jeep, chatting in unabashed pleasure about being privy to the sensations of an amazing underwater world.
Suresh expertly manoeuvred the jeep onto the road to the plantations, showing us enroute damage wreaked by the tsunami. The sea had inundated houses and we could see tree stumps standing mid water. We arrived at a private plantation, the owners lived in Kolkata, where orange-yellow areca fruits were being harvested from thin, tall trees. The fruit was being split open by elderly women; and dried before being cut into various shapes and sizes. Cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves were also grown, apart from rubber trees which were regularly tapped for latex and dried on flat pans to be sent to factories in Kolkata for further processing. We picked up pouches of spices and reached Port Blair for lunch at Annapurna Restaurant which offers pure vegetarian fare.
Following lunch we went to the Cellular Jail past the clock tower. Port Blair’s only firm reminder of its gloomy past, the sturdy brick Cellular Jail or Kala Pani overlooks the sea from a small rise in the northeast of town. Seven wings originally radiated from the central tower out of which only three remain, the rest being destroyed by the Japanese and the vagaries of the weather. Built over a period of 18 years at the start of the 20th century by the British, its dingy solitary cells were quite different and far worse than the dormitories in other prison blocks erected earlier. The prisoners endured grim conditions in the dirty and ill-ventilated cells where drinking water was limited to two glasses per day and the convicts were expected to wash in the rain as they worked – clearing forests and building prison quarters. Food was stored in vats where the rice and pulses became infested with worms; more than half the prison population died long before their twenty years’ detention was up. Frequent executions took place in full view of the cells, at the gallows that still stand in squat wooden shelters in the courtyards. The sound and light show outlines the history of the prison, and a small museum by the entrance exhibits lists of convicts, photographs and torture devices. The cell occupied by Veer Savarkar bears his picture in chains and a commemorative plaque. Part of the jail houses the present day Mahatma Gandhi Hospital; its Telemedicine Unit played a stellar role in reaching medical services when the tsunami hit the Island. Darkness had descended as we returned to the Circuit House for much needed rest and refreshments. Tomorrow we were to ferry to Havelock Island where rooms had been booked for us at the Government run Dolphin Resort.
Early next morning we left for Phoenix Bay after a rushed breakfast and waited a while at the holding area with a couple of hundred passengers prior to boarding the Makruuz, a modern catamaran with twin air-conditioned decks. Costing nearly double, it is faster and immensely more comfortable than the conventional ferry. Looking out of the large windows, we sighted the red and white light house (the one that is printed on the 20 Rupee note) as we glided out of the harbour onto the open sea. Havelock Island is a large landmass situated North-East of Port Blair. In an hour, just as we downed the coffee from the lower deck cafeteria, we alighted at the dock. The Dolphin Resort situated on the Vijayanagar Beach (beach No. 5, as is customary here to number the beaches), is run by the Government was value for money. We were given two cottages facing the sea — spacious and comfortable. The dining hall located in the centre of the cluster of 34 cottages and suites offers buffet meals — but no room service except for bed tea.
By 3 pm we were on our way to the Radhanagar, the Beach no. 7, which reportedly offered an unmatched view of the sunset against a backdrop of fine white sands, gentle blue seas and deep green wooded cliffs. But, to our dismay the horizon was clouded and we were unable to watch the setting sun drown into the sea. The tented accommodation run by the Government, located at the beach, was tepid in its appeal and the rooftop restaurant serving this camp had an unappetising fare. We wandered about a mile inland to reach the Barefoot Resort with an array of interesting bamboo structures. Dinner was to be served from 7 pm and we divided waiting time between the well stocked bar and the tastefully arranged dining hall. The Italian chef made valiant attempts to win us over with an array of superlative dishes as we leisurely dined in the company of a Bollywood celebrity. Rain commenced as we arrived back at Dolphin.
By 5 next morning we were out in a glass-bottomed boat, to view the corals. With all the features of a clandestine operation (as the government ban on these boats had not been lifted), we had to walk through the fish market to a small secluded alcove where a dozen of us boarded a dinghy fitted with an outboard motor. The launch sped past the main jetty, along the mangrove-lined ‘sugar’ island on the far-side and was anchored mid-sea. The floor was cleared to reveal the glass bottom as the boatmen pointed out a variety of live corals, starfish and multi-coloured tropical fish. Few of the passengers opted for a quick snorkel for an extra fee of Rs. 200. By then the all-pervading smell of kerosene combined with the heat of the blazing sun overhead rendered some of us sick and we were desperate to return.
We ate lunch at Dolphin, snoozed and went for a leisurely swim in the evening. I spotted a few herons and egrets perched on submerged tree trunks and sand that extended for almost half a mile into the sea. We returned to our rooms and watched India winning the cricket match on TV.
Morning started with the sun bouncing out of sea well before 6 am. It was a magical moment to capture on film, the red ball of sun leaving the water’s edge. I spotted a gamut of birds – woodpecker, magpie robin, kingfisher, parrots, cormorant, herons, egrets, coucal, tree pie, swallows, cuckooshrike and the racket tailed drongo amongst others.
After a hurried breakfast we visited the Govindnagar bazaar where we bought several artefacts both Indian and Indonesian in character hewn out of coconut shells, corals, stones, sea shells, etc. One such shop owned by Mr. Saha, a Bengali migrant with an Andamanese spouse, has an excellent collection, well worth a visit.
By mid morning we were walking through a patch of rain forest in the quest to reach the Elephant Beach, famous for its corals. We saw European tourists trekking through the jungle and followed them, picking up courage to explore this route through the dense forest. The canopied rain forests of the islands harbour 3,000 species of plants including mangroves, epiphytes (130 ferns, 100 orchids), palms, woody climbers, timbers (teak, mahogany, Andaman paduk) and a wide variety of tropical fruits. Further down the path, tall trees made it difficult for sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor. Here parasitic plants and orchids thickly populated moist tree trunks. Chameleons and monitor lizards criss-crossed our path on several occasions and at places the ground was slushy owing to the frequent rain and we would slither and slide. Nearly an hour later we converged upon the mangroves and hopping and leaping over aerial roots we whooped for joy when we found ourselves standing on the Elephant Beach. Despite our little out of plan sojourn, we had enough time to have lunch, pack our bags and be at the jetty in time for the ferry back to Port Blair.
It was dark by the time we landed and we were delighted to see our old friend Suresh waiting for us with the jeep. A quick wash at the Circuit House and we were ready for a memorable dinner with Brigadier Srinivas. Reached his house on Corbyn’s Cove cutting across the airport runway and were treated to sumptuous meal on the terrace, ‘fouji style’. Our unforgettable vacation, thanks to the generous Leave Travel Concession Scheme for government employees was coming to an end. By early next morning we were at the airport to board the flight for Chennai. There are innumerable places on these emerald isles which we were yet to see – Neil and Long Island, Diglipur, Baratang, North Passage, islands in the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, etc., the list is long and endless! We will be back, I silently promised as the Islands blurred in the background.