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ISSUE OF MAY 2003  
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The Andamans Alternative

The Andamans are the nearest thing to paradise, say Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Ruins of a tree-nested church on Ross Island

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 wasn’t 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 it’s 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 layman’s 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. Don’t go there expecting too much and, with a little bit of luck, you will probably like it.

On a lighter vein, Port Blair’s town beach, Corbyn’s 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 Emporium

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. That’s high for the Andamans. Here, on a forested hill, the British governor had his mansion. Only the foundations remain now but there’s 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: don’t 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 it’s 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 Park

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 Commissioner’s 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 ...

Getting There

Entry Formalities:
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 from Vishakapatnam.

Kolkata - Tel: (033) 22482354,
Fax: (033) 22482035.
Chennai - Tel: (044) 225231401,
Fax: (044) 225231218

Fact File

Accommodation
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) 212425
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) 233161
Non A/c Double Rs 800; A/c Deluxe room Rs 950; Double Rs 1,250

Transport:
Taxis and autorickshaws. Also government and private buses which serve the island.

Inter-island Ferries:
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 Corbyn’s Cove Rs 50. These are adult fares. Children at half price.

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