A Trip Of A Lifetime: Andaman Islands
An archipelago with distinctive geographical features, historical significance, mysterious tribes, white sands and waters in the most gorgeous hues — aquamarine, turquoise, sapphire, teal and azure.
By Rangashree Srinivas
Seeking a break from the humdrum of Chennai life, we decided on a five-day trip to the Andamans. With the help of a friend who runs a diving school in Havelock Island in the Andamans, we planned our itinerary. While an Internet search gave us some options, we were particularly interested in snorkelling and delving into the mysteries under the sea.
We booked rooms with the Symphony Palms resort. The resort has properties both in the mainland of Port Blair and in Havelock Island where snorkelling and scuba diving facilities can be found.
I scoured the Internet for the best airfares, also something to keep our daughter comfortable during the flight. Fares hugely vary from day to day and the lowest that I could find was about Rs 10,000, per person for a round trip. Ship travel operated by the Government of India is also available (if you have two and a half days to spare for travel). Fares are comparable with flight tickets. The ships ply once a week and bookings must be done well in advance. Am told that that ship travel is an experience in itself! As a first-time traveller though, I had my share of ferrying from island to island in those five days, to make up in part for the journey by sea. An outlay of Rs 75,000 for a family of four, can cover travel, accommodation and food.
Also read: Baby's First Flight
We landed at the Veer Savarkar Airport at Port Blair in the wee hours. This capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at first sight, looked like any other small town elsewhere in India — complete with tea shops and the ubiquitous tuition centres! But driving away from the airport, we came to wide roads flanked by sedate Government buildings, including a huge State Library. And then we came upon the breathtaking vistas of the harbour which reminded me of our local bus terminus for inlanders — just far more beautiful and much less crowded.
We checked into the hotel, which looked totally shorn of the glamour that appeared on its website photos. Our daughter was disappointed by the unkempt pool. But as one of the hotel staff pointed out that when she had the pick of the best beaches to swim in, why would she need a pokey little pool? After a hearty breakfast of toast, omelettes, aloo parathas and fresh guava juice we set off for the morning’s lesson in history!
First stop – the infamous Cellular Jail of Kaala Paani fame, converted into a magnificent heritage centre.
A lesson in history
The museum has photographs and artefacts of some of the well-known freedom fighters housed there in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our guide Mustapha, in mellifluous Hindi, explained its history, and the pathos of the place and the prisoners within. We saw the brass vessels used for gruel and water, and for collecting urine. We saw models of prisoners who were chained liked animals and an Indian sepoy beating a chained prisoner. We saw the sack garment that repeat-offenders had to wear — these were the ones who raised their voices against their British captors. Our guide explained that their hands would be lifted above their heads and tied, and they would be left thus, to bear the heat and the itchy garment. They would also be beaten up for days on end, in this condition. All the prisoners were nationalists and freedom fighters — there were no criminals here. Before the jail was built, the nationalists were allowed to roam around freely. Even though escape near impossible, people still made attempts. The British then compounded the hostility of the environment with Kaala Pani.
Later, we watched a well-narrated sound-and-light show beside an ancient peepul tree that bore mute witness to the many atrocities perpetrated by the British on our freedom fighters. A tour of the spectacular prison campus surrounded by endless water, made us realise the isolation its exalted inmates would have felt.
The next day, we travelled to Havelock Island by steamer and tried in vain to photograph the elusive flying fish. We befriended several passengers on the steamer — a varied mixture of back-packing foreigners and locals. The islanders themselves are a mix — Bengalis, Tamils, Malayalis and people from other states of India. They are largely employed by the Government.
When we landed at the island, we witnessed a glorious sunset at Radha Nagar Beach. The sand here is fine, white and firm, so your feet do not sink into it. Pretty eco-huts dot the beach, and one can sit against them sipping sweet tender coconut water. That night we stayed at Symphony Palms in Havelock Island. A path down the property leads to a small private beach. We sat dreamlike, watching the tranquil waves sloshing ashore against a glittery expanse of starry sky. A boat silhouetted against the moonlight lent a magical, surreal feel...
In the morning, we set off in a dinghy to snorkel off Elephant beach. We loved snorkelling and coming across corals under the sea. The underwater world is filmy — the flora and fauna evolved in an aquatic environment appear iridescent. It so happens that a few weeks later (when we were back home) I read a newspaper article that in the newspaper that a crocodile had dragged a tourist away in that very area! This turned out to be a rare event. In fact, we were told during our stay that the crocodile habitat is a highly localised one and that the reptiles seldom venture out to other shores.
The dense and the 'barren'
Later, we set off to explore the thick jungles of Middle Andaman where the Jarawa tribes reside. The Jarawas are an ancient hostile unclothed Negroid tribe of the Andamans. By law, they are not allowed to be photographed. We drove as part of a convoy through the forest to see them. They stand by the roadsides and make a sign asking for tobacco — an unfortunate habit they seemed to have picked up from the 'civilisation' that passes them by.
At the end of the jungle stretch, we reach another ‘boat stop’ plying Andaman's public transport! Islanders use ferries and helicopters for their daily commute. Cars, buses and heavy vehicles are also ferried between islands. We stood around a big bus on the deck of a ferry even as some commuters made themselves comfortable inside the bus!
Our destination was Barren Island. Another connecting ferry took us to the shores of a deep mangrove forest, so beautiful, that the word ‘barren’ is a misnomer. This place should be rightfully called Paradise Island. Our boat took us through nearly 3 km of thick mangroves on either side, with shrubs forming a low canopy overhead. Danger lurks beneath, in the form of crocodiles. A short trek later, we reached an ancient cave with stalactites and stalagmites. The gigantic underground calcified contours mirroring the landform above, teach us geography better than any textbook.
Finally, we visited a mud volcano that spews cold ash, as opposed to the more popular lava-volcanoes. This ash renders the nearby landscape infertile — hence the name Barren Island. After five fulfilling days of boat-hopping and experiencing history, culture and nature, we flew back to Chennai, determined to travel soon to another equally interesting place!
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