Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hopping Across the Isles

As the aircraft descended rapidly, I got the first glimpse of the turquoise blue water, silver sands and thick forest cover of islands sprinkled in ocean. With roughly 306 islands and 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 the densely wooded forests and in the depths of the warm tropical waters thrive a gamut of flora and fauna many of which are endemic to the Andamans. Port Blair, the capital of the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar is also the principal port and entry point into the archipelago.
Tribes native to the Andamans like the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Onge, and Sentinelese have receded into the densely wooded areas of the forest. Most of the permanent residents of inhabited islands are migrants from the mainland. Apart from Hindi, which is the common language across the islands, Tamil and Bengali are widely spoken.
The Andamans have a checkered past. The British occupied parts of the Andamans in the pre-independence era and set up penal colonies. Being over a thousand kilometers from the mainland, they perceived these islands to be ideal locations to deport prisoners. The construction of the cellular jail in Port Blair began in 1896 and was completed in 1906. It had seven wings, a central control tower and 698 cells each of dimension 4.5m x 2.7m. Only wings 1, 6 and 7 remain now and this is the most prominent structure in Port Blair even to this day. Those who conspired against the British and resisted their colonial rule were sent to the cellular jail for solitary confinement under hostile conditions. The jail, also known as “Kaala Pani” (means Black Water in Hindi) is one of the darkest chapters in India’s struggle for freedom. The flogging stand, oil extraction vessel and the gallows are a mute testimony to the inhuman torture meted out to Indians. Stories of valour and defiance of our freedom fighters are narrated in the sound and light show, played to packed audiences every night. The cellular jail of Port Blair is now recognized as a national monument. Museums and photo galleries in its premises bring to life the untold miseries, pain and suffering of Indians held captive and mercilessly killed by the British.
Many islands like Ross Island, Viper Island, Havelock Island, Henry Lawrence, Jolly Boy and Neil Island still retain their English names and are reminiscent of British settlements in these areas. Ross Island was the seat of power during the British stronghold in the Andamans. The Japanese also occupied the island for a brief period during the II World War between 1942 and 1945. 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. Most of these structures were destroyed and only the ruins of these crumbling structures remain today. Trees are ingrained in the remnants of the walls that are still standing and makes for an interesting sight while on a trail around Ross Island. The Ferar Beach on the fringe of the island looks like a shot out of a picture postcard. Ross is a short ferry ride away from Port Blair and is worth a visit.
Going by recommendations from the locals, we decided to head out to Baratang Island. Although the journey to Baratang is very scenic it is arduous and has to be well coordinated. One stretch of the drive from Port Blair to Baratang passes through protected forest area reserved for the Jarawas. Vehicular movement is restricted through the Jarawa Reserve Forest and all traffic entering and leaving the Jarawa Reserve should be a part of a convoy led and trailed by police vehicles. An hour and half into our drive we arrived at the police check post at Jirkatang. Our car joined a convoy and we headed to Middle Strait to obtain permission from the forest department. We then proceeded to Oralkatcha in a ferry loaded with tourists and vehicles. Switching to a speedboat, we then cruised through a canopy of mangroves in crocodile infested waters to reach Navgarh. During the course of the ride we were fortunate to sight a crocodile basking in the sun. The tropical rainforests of Navgarh were green as green can be and we walked through the pathway paved through the dense undergrowth. A short hike through the forest led us to limestone caves where we got to see well-formed stalactites and stalagmites. While some were long slender sticks of limestone, others had unique shapes. One was in the shape of a jellyfish, the other had a stark resemblance to an elephant and the third resembled a coral. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the entire area was clean and free of plastic. Our next stop was a mud volcano site in Baratang. Mud volcanoes are rare and geographically significant but can be disappointing if you are expecting to see something spectacular like an active volcano. One can see mounds of mud with a few bubbles of gas emanating from them. Barring infrequent violent eruptions these volcanoes are mostly placid. As we made our way back to Port Blair we spotted few Jarawas who had ventured onto the highway.
Known for its aquamarine waters, coral reefs and pristine beaches Havelock Island is frequented by tourists who come from the world over. From Port Blair, it takes about two hours on a ferry to reach Havelock, an island of the Ritchie’s Archipelago. The government has designated a few islands to promote eco-tourism in the Andamans and Havelock is one of them. There are seven settlements along the island. The beaches running along these settlements are suffixed with the number of the adjoining village. Beach 5 and Beach 7 are breathtaking strips of sand and sea. A well-laid road flanked by trees connects the villages across the island. The boat jetty is at village 1 and the market is at village 3 (Govindnagar). A string of resorts dot the eastern periphery of the island. Village 7(Radhanagar) located towards the northwest of the island is renowned for its crescent shaped beach, popularly known as the Radhanagar Beach. The lanky trees, silver-white sand and cool blues of the water create a visual spectacle. Waves that gently caress the shoreline make it an ideal spot for a plunge in the water. Scooters are the best way of getting around the island.
Havelock is a haven for those who like to discover the secrets hidden in the depths of the ocean. While the fit and adventurous swimmers can go scuba diving, snorkeling is for novices and non-swimmers. Lighthouse, Aquarium and Elephant Beach are great snorkeling spots near Havelock. As you breathe through the snorkel and look down at the ocean bed the colours beneath the blue-green fa├žade of the sea come alive. Looking through crystal clear water, swimming over coral reefs and crossing the path of schools of fish were some of the exciting moments of my first ever-snorkeling experience. I got to see many hump head parrotfish, sea cucumbers, sea stars, clown fish (the fish featured in the movie “Finding Nemo”) and many more brightly coloured fish swimming across live corals. Words fail me as I recount my exhilarating experience.
The Andamans islands are set in a diverse social and geographical landscape. The coral reefs are unique, colourful and a sight to behold. Soaking in the sun on the 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 visit the Andamans. But mindless tourism and exploitation of nature’s bounties, which have taken several hundreds of years to come to their present state, could prove to be a death knell. The construction of the Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through the forests home to the Jarawas and the heavy inflow of tourists has brought these Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes in contact with the modern civilization. This is posing a serious threat to their survival and makes them prone to diseases against which they have no immunity. While one might get to see the Jarawas on the highway it is against the rules to attempt to capture their images on camera or establish any contact with them. The trail of plastic in places frequented by tourists can be disastrous for the environment. The hazardous impact of tourism on the fragile ecosystems and ethnic tribes of the Andamans is already showing distressing signs. It is of paramount importance that we behave as responsible tourists and leave these emerald isles just as they were when we set foot on them.

Quick Facts:

Getting There: Port Blair is connected to Chennai and Kolkatta by air and sea. Ferrys ply between Port Blair and the other popular tourist hotspots. Ensure that the flight timings and ferry timings to Havelock Island are well co-coordinated.

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

Season: The weather is warm and oppressive for most part of the year. It is relatively cool in the peak season lasting from December to January. Avoid a visit to the Andamans from May through September.

This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 17th of January 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.