The Andamans Alternative
The Andamans are the nearest thing
to paradise, say Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
|Ruins of a tree-nested church on
They are well over a 150 islands and
islets stretching down the length of the Bay of Bengal. All
are densely wooded, many have beautiful, lonely beaches and
their underwater coral gardens are superb. For those who want
to escape from the razzle-dazzle of modern civilisation,
the Andamans are the nearest thing to paradise - the legendary,
and lost, Garden of Eden. But even Eden wasnt for everyone,
as we discovered when we visited the Bay Islands recently.
Kolkata was full of sulphur lights
and ground mist when we flew out, winging over delta lands,
mangrove swamps, and the deep blue Bay of Bengal. Then clouds
curdled below like a yogurt dressing, cleared just in time
for us to see the island of South Andaman spreading like a
Rorschach Test: a dark green inkblot fractured by inlets and
estuaries winding through the sponge-dense forests. This is
the main administrative island of the Andamans.
We circled and landed in Port Blair.
It was what Kochi had been before the Gulf boom gave it instant
fame and fortune. Like Kochi, it was pleasantly warm and smelt
of burgeoning vegetation. Unlike Kochi, this capital of the
Bay Islands seems to be constantly surprised at itself like
a bashful milkmaid in a Lycra dress. Streets wind, twist,
turn, rise, descend past shanty towns, and then, suddenly
modern office blocks appear; corrugated roofed settlements
straggle, then a sophisticated promenade sweeps around a bay;
paddy fields spread green and truly rural, then the multi-floored
Anthropological Museum rises, its access path still tacky
with newness. Port Blair is a town in a hurry: not quite sure
where it is going but its racing to get there anyway.
|Day trippers on the eco sensitive
Jolly Buoy island
We checked into the state-run Megapode
Nest with superb views of Phoenix Bay, ferries plying, the
heritage island of Ross in the distance. We were happy in
our independent Nicobari hut with dawn gilding our room and
sea eagles swooping and calling in the bright sky above.
Driving around Port Blair we visited
the mini-zoo and the museums. Samudrika, run by the Indian
Navy, is excellent and encapsulates a treasure trove of information
about the Andamans in laymans language and is fascinatingly
presented. The Fisheries Museum has an aquarium and displays
that opened our eyes to the wonders of the submarine worlds
of the islands. It really is strange that there is no mechanised
fisheries industry in the Andamans. The Anthropological Museum
is also first class. The Negritos of the Andamans were the
first people to have colonised India and were ousted, or absorbed,
by the Austrics, Dravidians, Indo-Iranians and the Mongoloids.
More aggressive races subdue more passive ones and reduce
them to the status of menials, slaves or dasyus. Particularly
if they stand up to their overlords.
|The cellular jail, a despicable
emblem of the Raj
Nowhere, except perhaps in Belsen
and the other Nazi extermination centres, was this racial
hatred expressed more cruelly than in the Cellular Jail: that
notorious emblem of the most despicable aspects of the Raj.
But we were very disappointed with the English version of
its son et lumiere. Every time the anguish reached out to
grip our hearts a trite filmi song trivialised it all. Dont
go there expecting too much and, with a little bit of luck,
you will probably like it.
On a lighter vein, Port Blairs
town beach, Corbyns Cove is very popular. There are
snack bars, no public changing rooms but, though we saw very
few swimmers and no scuba divers, the gentle surf of this
beach had attracted a large number of paddlers. They screamed
and leapt as the surf drenched them, unconcerned by the fact
that their soaked garments had become quite see-through. Modesty
is, clearly, a comparative term.
|The well-stocked Sagarika Handicrafts
We caught a ferry to take the quick
way to Bamboo Flats, the jetty of the next, much vaunted,
attraction: the 1,193 feet high Mount Harriet. Thats
high for the Andamans. Here, on a forested hill, the British
governor had his mansion. Only the foundations remain now
but theres a guest house run by the forest department,
views of the jungle-clad slopes falling to the sea, and the
start of a 16 km trek. If you are interested in this sort
of thing, you might like to pay Rs 25 as the entrance fee,
and another Rs 25 for your camera, plus the taxi fare to get
to the mountain and back.
We found Wandoor Beach far more interesting. Here, a short
drive away from a passenger-crowded landing, trees felled
by storms, and scoured and polished by the weather, lie like
driftwood sculptures in an outdoor museum. A wooded headland
curves around and forms a bay. Scuba divers hunched past so
clearly there are enchanting underwater worlds below.
Back to the landing where ferries
and speed-boats waited to take visitors across the waters
of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Covering territorial
waters of 220.5 sq km, the Marine Park is dotted with 15 islands,
all with their own coral reefs, some with mangrove swamps.
Only two islands, however, are open for tourists: Jolly Buoy
and Redskin. We sped across the sapphire blue waters of the
park, saw how mangroves with their stilt roots reclaim land
from the sea and allow taller trees to grow behind them unaffected
by the gnawing of the winds and tides. After a 20 minute ride,
our speed boat nosed into the soft sand of Jolly Buoy. The
water was so clear that we thought it was at least knee-deep:
in fact even our calves did not get wet. The forest department
has erected thatched umbrellas over rustic tables and seats,
on the beach. In a clearing, just beyond the edge of the forest,
there were more picnic tables, changing rooms and loos with
sea-water. Conservation laws are enforced very strictly: dont
bring plastic, do carry back your litter, do not pick up any
coral or even shells from the beach. If you breach any of
these rules, you could be fined Rs 25,000 and spend three
months in jail.
|All islands are densely wooded,
many have beautiful, lonely beaches
Once, on an earlier visit, we had
spent a whole day on this lonely island, admiring its forest
giants, delighted at its fearless little birds, fascinated
by its intricate coral gardens seen through a glass-bottom
boat. The forest giants still stood tall, rustling softly
in the sea breeze. The birds were no longer fearless. After
we had been there for a little less than an hour, boats laden
with tourists came speeding in, snorkellers plunged into the
sea, and a glass bottom boat began to cruise above the coral
gardens. It was no longer a lonely island.
We left for Redskin which is not as
popular as Jolly Buoy, because its a little further
out and has no glass bottom boat. We waded along the lacy
petticoats of the surf, sat under the canopy of trees that
spread like a massive crinoline skirt, and spotted goggle-eyed
mud skippers. These little fish crawl out of the water, occasionally,
using their fins as feet, breathe air, and then plop in again
as our first air-breathing ancestors did hundreds of millions
of years ago.
These curious little creatures were
once fairly common on the southernmost tip of South Andaman,
in the mangrove swamps of Chidya Tapu, 25 kms from Port Blair.
But, this time, the mangroves were very sparse and looked
rather forlorn. The beach two km beyond, at Munda Pahar, however,
eased our disappointment by being broad, soft, and enclosing
a shallow bay. This is well worth visiting.
|Mangroves in the Marine National
So, too, is Ross Island: a frozen-in-time
outdoor heritage museum. Back in 1872, we learnt, Lord Mayo,
the Viceroy, was staying in Mount Harriet. On February 8,
when he had come down to Bamboo Flats, he was assassinated
by Sher Ali Khan. This, presumably, was why the British moved
their headquarters to Ross Island. When they left the island,
the forest took over. Wind and rain blew away roofs, the roots
of trees got a stranglehold on the ruins of the old buildings:
Ross became a forbidding shadow of its former self, haunted
by memories. Today, this strategic island is an Indian Naval
territory and, with the quiet thoroughness of the Defence
Services, they are persuading the forest to retreat, ensuring
that the ruins are no longer a potential threat to visitors.
We walked around the roofless church, the former club, barracks
and the once-proud Chief Commissioners Mansion. We fed
a spotted deer, admired its herd and a flock of peafowl, and
visited the little Ross Museum and the Souvenir Shop. Ross
is an evocative memorial to the sunset of an empire.
At the start of the jetty from where
the boats to Ross leave, there is a Water Sports Complex:
speed boats, water scooters and more adventurous aqua sports.
And then, if your yen for the great
outdoors has still not been satisfied, you can board an island
ferry to Havelock Island 50 km to the north of Port Blair
or, even further afield, to Hut Bay in Little Andaman, 120
km to the south. But then that, as we travel writers say,
is another story ...
Foreigners require an entry permit which can be obtained
for 30 days on arrival at Port Blair or from Indian
Missions abroad or Foreigners Registration Centres
in India. Indians do not require a permit to visit the
Andamans but visiting tribal areas is prohibited.
By Air: Indian Airlines flies to Port Blair from Chennai
and Kolkata, four and five times a week. Jet Airways
has daily flights from Chennai.
By Sea: The Shipping Corp of India plies ships four
times a month from Kolkata and Chennai and once a month
Kolkata - Tel: (033) 22482354,
Fax: (033) 22482035.
Chennai - Tel: (044) 225231401,
Fax: (044) 225231218
Fortune Resort - Welcomgroup Bay Island
Tel: (03192) 234101,
Fax: (03192) 231555
American Plan - Single Rs 3,549; Double Rs 5,810
Welcom Package - Three nights - all meals, transfers,
half day each to Ross Island and city and full day to
Coral Island - Rs 19,077 double.
Hotel Sentinel - Tel: (03192) 244914; Fax: (03192)
Std. A/c Deluxe Rs 2,000; A/c Deluxe double Rs 2,800
A/c Royal family suite Rs 4,400
Megapod Nest - Tel: (03192) 232207; Fax: (03192) 235098
Std. A/c Single Rs 999; A/c Double Rs 1,200; A/c Nicobari
cottage Rs 1,600.
Hornbill Nest Resort - Tel: (03192) 246042; Fax: (03192)
Non A/c Double Rs 800; A/c Deluxe room Rs 950; Double
Taxis and autorickshaws. Also government and private
buses which serve the island.
Contact the Directorate of Shipping, Port Blair, Tel:
(03192) 232528, 231794 for shipping schedules. Tickets
to be purchased a day in advance at Phoenix Bay Jetty.
Conducted Tours by Andaman Tourism - Tel: 234060
Half day city tour - Rs 50; full day Wandoor Rs 100;
half day Chidiyatapua Rs 100; full day Mt. Harriet Rs
150; half day Corbyns Cove Rs 50. These are adult
fares. Children at half price.