The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago consists of Unique islands, each one a world on its own beautiful and untouched.
It was a hot, sultry day in April, the sort of day that makes one want to crawl under the immense canopy of a banyan tree. Sea sick already? There are flights to Andaman too. And a real bonus for those flying in is the spectacular view on approaching the islands:the thick foliage of individual islands, with a ring of pure white sand fringed with mangroves, resembles emeralds in blue waters.
The inky black of the deep sea gave way to velvet blues and emerald greens as docked at Port Blair, the capital. The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, situated approximately 1,200 km from the Indian mainland in the Bay of Bengal, is also known as the Bay Islands, Mythologically, the name Andaman is a derivative of Hanuman, known to the Malays as Handuman. Once a hill range extending from Burma to Indonesia, it is today a Union Territory stretched over 700 km, north to south. Estimated to be anywhere between 350 to 506 in number, these tropical islands, close to the equator, are not more than 20 km in width. They are divided into two districts by the turbulent 10 degree channel: Andamans, to the north, Nicobar to the south.
Port Blair, the capital, is quite small and needs only a day or two to explore. It must be the liveliest island of the lot, but Port Blair is fast asleep by 8 pm. In the day, one can go museum-hopping for there are half a dozen museums displaying everything from tribal artifacts, forest products, marine life to animals found on the islands. However, everyone makes a beeline for the Cellular Jail, used by the British to house Indiaís freedom fighters. Even today, colonies of the descendants of these convicts are scattered through the islands. Also of some interest is the Chatham Saw Mill, said to be the largest in Asia.
Determined to perform some of the Baywatch stunts, made your way towards the Water Sports Complex, On offer were sailboats , water scooters, glass bottom boats, speed boats and equipment for wind surfing, para. sailing and water skiing. After watching an inexperienced skier fall into the water at least a hundred times.
Rowing boats, cycles, kayaks, bumper boats and paddle boats are all available for durations ranging from 10 minutes to half an hour at very affordable rates. For tiny tots who feel left out while grownups are skimming the waves, there is a sea water swimming pool. For dare devils, there are a number of scuba diving courses offered by various agencies.
Everything in the Andaman and Nicobar islands revolves around the ferry timings. It is true that last minute ferry cancellations are a recurring epidemic with the Shipping Corporation of India, but hey! all is not lost. After this happened a couple of times, we simply got on to whatever ferry was leaving that day and went somewhere else instead. That way we didnít end up wasting time and got to see an island as well.
Some islands donít have ships coming back pronto, while others do. So make sure you have all the details in hand before embarkmg, or else you may end up staying overnight in the middle of a jungle with leeches and snakes for company.
Chidiatapu or Bird Island has a beautiful beach with a rocky outcrop, perfect for an early morning or evening walk. There are some lovely corals and fish here. A forest rest house offers accommodation The rates are the same for all the PWD and forest rest houses, and permission has to be obtained in writing from the main office in Haddo.
A chilly early morning you can find winding way through the thick forests of Wandoor to eventually emerge in one of the Bengali villages nearby, which at sunset reverberate with conch bellows and hundreds of temple bells. In the jungle one can found a few snakes, some highly venomous like the krait and kmg cobra. But thereís nothing to get scared of so long as you keep an eye open and remember that theyíre more scared than you are! Leeches are in plenty only during the monsoons and certain areas are said to have salt water crocodiles, though we didnít see any. There are also a few wild pigs, myriads of birds, butterflies and smaller insects, and a prolific forest cover of flora and fauna. Many are yet to be identified, but from those already labeled, some are invaluable in the medicinal field.
Mahatma Gandhi National Park is made up of the open sea, creeks, and 15 islands laced with thick mangroves and tropical forests. The most popular island is Jolly Buoy which has magnificent corals and technicolor fish. The water is crystal clear, thesand pristine white, and there are enough people around to guide you to the right patches of corals.
It was an unbelievable experience to be gently slapped on the face by curtains of tiny neon fish, to swim alongside others nearly as big as us, to see the lines of transparent swordfish chop the water with their beaklike mouths... Scorpion fish and lion fish held conferences; clown fish danced in the swirling tentacles of anemones, giant clams wore rich Kashmiri carpet designs... the list is unending.
Littering beaches or removing live or dead corals, shells or any other matter from the sea or beach is strictly prohibited. As you skirt around the coral patches, look out for the sea urchins, starfish and the famous sea cucumbers which fetch up to $400 (Rs 16,800) per kilo in China. Unfortunately, export of corals, shark fins, exotic shells and sea cucumbers is now a booming business and a cause for growing concern for the environmentalists.
Sprawled over an area of 80 acres, this government farm conducts research and development programs for cultivation of spices like nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and many more. Itís nice to spend the afternoon takmg in the various fragrances and relaxing in the flower-filled lawns at the farm.
There are a few other islands as well for daytime visits. Ross and Viper are both remnants of the British era. Ross, once the seat of the British administration, was a plush island, with splendid bungalows, churches, tennis grounds and swimming pools. Today it has been reduced to debris and ruins, with giant roots enveloping the skeletons of the past.
Beneath the Stars
There is a string of islands where foreigners as well as Indians are allowed to camp overnight. The most famous of these is Havelock, followed by Neil and Long islands. All are beautiful, with blue-green water, clean beaches, friendly locals and a spectacular sunset or sunrise thrown in as a bonus. At Havelockís main beach, called Radhanagar, the Dolphin Yatri Niwas offers tent accommodation at Rs 100 a night.
It is simpler still to string up your own hammock. You can cook your own food or eat at the canteen, use well the for fresh water and the open jungles for another needs. Thereís nothing like fresh garlic fish, or crab with potatoes and onions, wrapped up in oiled foil and baked on an evening camp fire. If you donít want to rough it out, there are cottages, run by the same group, 15 km from the beach, at Rs 200 for the ordinary rooms.
Another good trek is from Mt Harriet to Madhuban. While the former offers exotic forest life and fantastic views from the top, the latter is a training camp for elephants used for logging. If thereís a problem getting to Mount Harriet by ferry, hiring a taxi is the next best choice. There are many more islands in the north, but several are not open to tourists. Even some of those that are open require you to charter a special boat for the day or overnightóa very expensive venture.
On the way to Cinque, come across the largest island in the north, called Ruthland or Kala Pahar. It has a fantastic forest, swimming with butterflies of every conceivable color, and birds all trying to outdo each other in song. While trekkmg through the forest come across fresh water streams and waterfalls, open fields and dense wilderness, Tamilian farmers and Bengali fishermen. It may not be possible to see the entire forest in one day, so make sure you have food and camping equipment with you, as there is nothing on the island itself.
In Nicobar one can visit the Onge settlement. The Onges are one of the five indigenous tribes of the Andamans and Nicobar which have been introduced by the government to the ways of modern man, so to speak. Yet they have retained their culture and have no use for our language, clothes or other aspects of local lifestyle.
The Onges, Jarawas and Andamanese are Negroid in features, while the Shompens and Nicobarese are Mongloid. The Jarawas and Andamanese are still hostile. The Andamanese numbered 4,800 strong in 1858. Today there are only 20 left.
During the 5 km walk through the forest, is also one of the main nesting grounds for the leather back and the green turtles which come here all the way from Australia to lay their eggs.
Accommodation at Campbell Bay is limited to the PWD rest house and there are no transport facilities whatsoever. Itís advisable to visit only if you are acquainted with a local resident or in the mood to work on that extra weight by walkmg endlessly.
Of the other islands in the area, it is possible to visit Car Nicobar, Champion Island and Chowra only if you have a permit or a travel pass, otherwise you will be fined by the local police. Chowra has absolutely no fresh water, the only water source is rainwater collected during the monsoons.
By May, the sea begins to get in-rough, so itís an ideal time to head back. This is the toughest part. Tickets for ships going back to Madras or Calcutta are issued only two days advance. You may have to spend time there, queuing up, as everyone seems to be makmg a beeline for mainland.
Regular passenger ships to Port Blairare available from Calcutta, Chennai and Vishakapatnam. Indian Airlines flights arrive alternatively from Calcutta and Chennai,
Nicobar is out of bounds for foreigners. In the Andamans, foreigners can stay
only for 30 days, but that is ample time to explore and the imbibe the spirit
of the islands. Thereís no such time limit for Indians, although for Nicobar,
Indian too need a permit from the tourist office in Port Blair.