Exploring the Andamans

Go snorkelling, kayak around the islands and explore the mangroves on boats - the Andamans are much more than just beaches
Exploring the Andamans

Chai on the beach beats you-know-what. But you have to brew it just so. Take a silver necklace of beach in the Andamans, off an island with a single-digit population, no more. Throw in a night of camping at the water&rsquos edge. Add a morning that dawns bright and blue. Then be led by the kettle&rsquos hiss to the campfire. From the first steaming sip, you&rsquore on a high. The concoction is hot, milky, sweet, just the way we like it, from Porbandar to Port Blair. I&rsquove had the tea, I should know.

Yes, we&rsquore in the Andamans and we don&rsquot mind gloating about it. We arrived three days ago, but it already seems like an eternity which should never pass.

Our first port of call was Port Blair. But we didn&rsquot last too long there. The HQ of the A&ampN Islands may have been a laidback town of timber houses and tree-lined avenues once, but it&rsquos an ugly concrete scramble now. As a local put it, once upon a time, the only concrete building in Port Blair was the Cellular Jail. Within an hour of arriving, we were escaping this prison. (Though not without peering into one of several Japanese WWII bunkers that litter the seafront here &mdash with a view like that, how could they have had war on their minds) And less than an hour later, we had found our quarry &mdash the Andaman & Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET) base in North Wandoor. Set up by the Crocodile Bank, Mamallapuram, ANET has pioneered ecological research in the A&ampN Islands. To revitalise the centre and raise funds to sustain it, ANET plans to welcome tourists soon. We&rsquore doing a sneak preview.

No introduction to the Andamans could have been better. Set in what is virtually a miniature forest, a rush of mangroves separating the land from the water&rsquos edge, I&rsquom struck by the simple yet elegant accommodation, charming wooden cottages planted on stilts and made entirely of local materials (visiting researchers must have a field day). The main building is an education centre and houses the well-stocked library. Minding the base presently is John, a Karen, of the Burmese community who were first settled in these islands as forest labourers by the British in the 1920s. An experienced field guide, John is a mine of ecological information.

Next morning, it&rsquos easy to mistake the dewfall, so heavy, for rain. The landscape is heaving, breathing, alive as John takes us on a walk through the mangroves at low tide. Three years after the tsunami, the signs of devastation are still there. On the way to Wandoor, we had passed tsunami-evacuated areas, still submerged, still being reclaimed and rebuilt. Here too, the assault of saltwater has destroyed a large swathe of the littoral forest. But even on dead tree trunks, epiphytes are thriving. Fiddler crabs shy away at our approach. Shells line the path. Pneumatophores, breathing roots of the mangroves, stick up like knitting needles. Mudskippers, those curious amphibious fish, race us to the sea. These are the waters of the Lohabarrack Crocodile Sanctuary, demarcated as a habitat for the saltwater crocodile, the world&rsquos largest reptile, thankfully conspicuous by its absence.

We&rsquore back in Port Blair in time for the afternoon ferry to Havelock Island, the first of many, many boat rides. Over dinner at the Barefoot Resort, our host introduces himself. &ldquoI am the mad dog of Havelock,&rdquo says Susheel Dixit. The genial man sitting across from me is joking, of course.

Yes, Susheel and I share a surname. But that&rsquos not all. The same hometown (Kanpur), even the same mohalla. Coincidentally, neither of us grew up there (Susheel arrived in the Andamans with his parents when he was six months old). Hell, we even went to the same university. But only one of us is extremely jealous of what the other wakes up to every morning.

We talk about the leatherback turtle that came to nest at the beach last evening. This famed beach&rsquos (No. 7) most famous resident is a swimming elephant. This gets Sanjoy, who sees a photo-op in every conceivable, and inconceivable, situation, all excited. Unfortunately, the pachyderm is in musth, and away.

Next morning, the MV Yulutang (after the Andamanese for Havelock) is already purring in anticipation when we arrive at the jetty. Originally an Indonesian fishing trawler which was captured by the Coast Guard and auctioned off, when Susheel&rsquos outfit acquired it, it had a poster of Bob Marley on the windscreen, and that&rsquos what they affectionately like to call it. Yes, Bob&rsquos my boat. Our companions are a ragtag crowd &mdash the Irish couple, the Canadian-American couple, the Belgian girl, the South Korean girl, Samantha and Caroline from the resort, Susheel and his sitar.

Soon, the boat is rolling and pitching merrily past luxuriant mangroves, islands a shade of green darker than I&rsquove ever known, up a broad channel to the island of Baratang. Baratang is a revelation, a geological wonderland of mud volcanoes and soaring limestone caves. I&rsquoll confess, the mud volcano does look a bit tame, so if you&rsquore not a volcanologist, don&rsquot expect the vision to set you quivering. Trapped gases, particularly methane, push out a slurry of mud in gentle, periodic pops, occasionally shooting a geyser-like jet into the air. Call it the poor man&rsquos Barren.

The limestone cave, meanwhile, offers not one but two thrilling approaches. You can take a boat ride up a creek under the dense cover of mangrove trees or, better, on a footbridge which rises above the trees (the &lsquomangrove canopy walk&rsquo). Both approaches end in a winding nature trail, and then there&rsquos the cave itself, just a narrow slit, dark as night, moist and slippery

Another boat ride brings us to North Passage Island, where we&rsquore camping off a coconut plantation overlooking the limpid waters of Merk Bay. A dunghi laden with supplies has already gone ahead and our tents, airy little igloos, have already been pitched.

The wide sweep of beach is alive with marine fauna. Pale sand crabs skitter away at our approach. Hermit crabs contemplate us. On a tree trunk, washed up on shore, a billion blue blistering barnacles.

By night, there is a fire in the belly. But it hungers for simple things. Crabs surprised along the inlets, then crisp fried on a wood fire. Fish fresh from the sea. The national dish of dal-chawal. And sweet slumber.

And, so, the aforementioned tea. Post-breakfast (poha or cornflakes), we sail an hour out to Yerrata creek, where we&rsquoll be looking for crocs. Salties, as saltwater crocodiles are called, thrive in mangroves along the water&rsquos edge or up narrow, marshy inlets. Occasionally, they can be seen sunning themselves on narrow strips of beach, jaws wide open.

Everyone&rsquos naturally a little nervous as the kayaks flop about with a will of their own. We paddle deep into the inlets. No crocodiles. But when a half-eaten fish (still flapping) floats to the surface, the horror can be smelt a mile away. Later, back at camp, it is for wise man Susheel to reassure everyone. &ldquoA croc doesn&rsquot eat like that,&rdquo he explains. &ldquoIt buries its prey in the mud and lets it rot before tucking in.&rdquo How comforting.

Another lovely day dawns. Another beautiful island beckons. We&rsquore leaving one camping companion behind, how-ever. Nestled under a drying garment on a branch next to Sanjoy&rsquos tent, is a good-tempered pit viper. Aren&rsquot we glad it&rsquos not the Andamanaconda

I&rsquom beginning to enjoy these endless boat rides, hopping from island to island. The wind in your hair. The spray on your face. A shimmering sea. The comforting drone of the engine. At the wheel, the reliable Nelson, a young, old man of the sea. We quickly mark out our territory. The girls all in a tumble at the back. The Irish item dozing at the helm. Sanjoy and I maintaining a professional distance at the furthest corners that can be found.

After two days of meeting no strangers at all, the Long Island jetty feels like rush hour at Connaught Place. Reason enough to plunge into the forest beyond. In the Andamans it&rsquos quite natural to find dense human habitation next to forests so dark and deep. Thus, even as we leave the quaint homesteads with their ber trees behind and march into the cool of the jungle, for a long while we&rsquore on a concrete road. In parts, we lose the sun completely. The giant trees, Ent-like, watch over us. The trail opens up into farmland before we plunge deep into the undergrowth and emerge by the sea.

Behold, the pellucid waters of Lalaji Bay. The water&rsquos not kala, certainly not lal, only a soothing shade of hara as far as eye can wade. Just another random instance of Swadeshi imperialism, this invocation of Lala Lajpat Rai in the boondocks. Predictably, we arrive to find the campfire bristling, the inviting tents up.

With the camp boys, Sanjoy slips easily into Bengali, the reigning vernacular (the majority of migrants in the Andamans are refugees from East Bengal), which he uses to wangle countless cups of tea, crabs, papads and dry towels.

That evening, across a roaring bonfire, the travellers swap stories. Susheel grew up in Nicobar. When I ask him if there&rsquos anything to see there, he smiles knowingly. &ldquoThe day Nicobar opens up to tourism, nobody will come to the Andamans,&rdquo he says. Till then, we hold our breath.

For three nights we&rsquove had minimal contact with the world. No newspapers. No phone. Certainly no Internet. But even this must end. Bob Marley slips into the sea one last time.

But when the steep crag of South Button Island rises out of the sea, we drop anchor. The snorkel-happy plunge in. I&rsquom not joining our fellow travellers on this last lap because I, um, can&rsquot swim. No, dear reader, even OT correspondents aren&rsquot perfect. Sanjoy, who&rsquos a better man than I, bobs around with the grace of a seal that has lost its flippers. I sit back and smirk.

When the snorkellers come back to roost, their beaming expressions speak a simple, naked truth. Here is a watery wonderland that never ceases to surprise. What did they see Corals in countless colours, Angelfish, Napoleon Fish, a shoal of translucent squid, and then the names fail them...the one with pink, yellow and black stripes, they sputter joyously.

Back on solid ground, we&rsquore thirsty for a view of the sea. No less a view than the one from Japan Tekri (Japanese Hill), which looms over the Barefoot Resort, will do. Our guide, Janak, prances ahead in his chappals with the ease of a rhebok, while we sweat and swear our way up the steep trail. Towering over us are tall, really tall, trees, like gurjan, dhoop ped (sandalwood), badam and tamtim. A frenzied woodpecker is hard at work, punctuating its pecks with a drum-like call.

When we rise to a soothing view of the sea, we&rsquore grateful for the opportuntiy to rest. But this is not it, we&rsquore told. And so we descend, and rise once more.

The rainforest is cool, dark and hot. Our path is littered with spiny bamboos, perfectly crafted bracket fungi, blue orchids and...seashells. At this height Perhaps hermit crabs who came to meditate.

&ldquoCome up, baba,&rdquo crows Sanjoy above the birdsong, breaking my reverie. I make a last dash to the top. Below us, a steep drop, beyond the sea as far as eye can see. When I bend to do my shoelaces, I come face to face with a forest lizard. Back at the resort, we are rewarded with the glimpse of an acid green tree snake disappearing up a tree

When we left Havelock for the camping trip, the trees along the road to the jetty were being painted white to mark the impending arrival of the Indian president to this, her remotest domain. By the time we returned, a red band had been added. The horror, the horror.

Nothing like fresh fish to rid you of the foul taste of bad bureaucracy. Late afternoon finds us taking a dunghi out to sea for a spot of sunset fishing. This is as easy as it gets. Snag some bait into the hook. Throw hook, line and sinker into the sea. Take a nap. When you feel a tug, draw the line in. White bhetki The sun sinks. The night is a sieve that lets the stars through. But we&rsquore still bringing the haul in. Luminous insects chase the surf in the boat&rsquos wake as we head back to shore. When the fish, grilled whole, arrives on a bed of lettuce, Sanjoy allows himself an expression of unconstrained delight.

Eco-tourists only leave footprints behind. On the wave-kissed beaches of the Andamans, we don&rsquot even do that. We bid Susheel farewell, leaving him to nurse his patch of light in this heart of darkness (for that is what these deep and dark isles still are, with their history as devious as a maze, ranging from the Palaeolithic era to their time as a penal colony, the period of Japanese occupation and INA rule, the slow decimation of indigenous tribes and now the waves of uncontrolled migration).

We&rsquore tired but we&rsquore happy. The sun has baked us like potatoes, but we&rsquore glowing. The boat rides may be over, but we&rsquore still swaying. And we&rsquoll be back. For, however deep you drink of this cup, you can never have enough.

 The information

Situated 1,000km off the east coast of India in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands comprise our most remote territory. The approximately 300 islands are really the summits of a submarine mountain chain stretching from Myanmar&rsquos Arakan Yoma range to Sumatra, separating the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman Sea. At 732m, Saddle Peak in North Andaman is the highest point in the Andamans. The waters of the Andamans, rich in coral reefs and marine life, have long been acknowledged as one of the best preserved diving sites in the world. But with 85 percent of the land under forest cover, and no less than 12 types of forest, ranging from giant evergreen to moist deciduous, mangrove and littoral, among others, there&rsquos a lot of action above the waterline as well.

As of now, tourism in the Andamans is largely centred in the islands around Port Blair (South Andaman) as well as Havelock, which is further north. Tourism in the Andamans still remains largely of the budget variety and low-impact, high-end tourism is a reality yet to materialise.

Andaman and Nicobar are separated by the Ten Degree Channel. The Nicobar Islands are not open to foreign nationals. The only island mainland Indians can visit here without needing to procure a permit (which in any case is difficult to come by) is Great Nicobar, the southernmost island in the chain. The town here, Campbell Bay, was ravaged by the tsunami. There&rsquos a government guesthouse here but it&rsquos almost always full. The helicopter service is whimsical, with limited seating. The only other approach is by a long sea journey, but schedules for this too are irregular. So Nicobar is really a no-no at this point.

Getting there

Indian, Jet Airways, Simplifly Deccan and Kingfisher fly daily from Chennai and Kolkata to Port Blair. Additionally, SpiceJet and JetLite also operate flights from Kolkata.

You can also get here by ship. However, be warned. Shipping schedules are erratic and when you do acquire a berth, not everyone can stomach a three-day journey by sea. There are 4-5 departures a month from both Chennai and Kolkata. There is reportedly one sailing a month from Visakhapatnam as well. Fares for non-islanders range from Rs 1,500 for a bunk to Rs 6,000 for a deluxe cabin. See www.and.nic.in for a tentative sailing programme.

 Where to stay

Port Blair Port Blair is bursting with hotels to suit every budget. At the top-end of the pecking order is the 5-star Charles Correa-designed Fortune Resort Bay Island (Rs 3,450 03192-234101, www.fortunehotels.in). The government-owned Megapode Resort offers standard rooms for Rs 1,800, deluxe rooms for Rs 2,000 and eco-cottages for Rs 3,000 (232207, www.aniidco.nic.in). Their Megapode Camping Resort, on the way to Corbyn&rsquos Cove beach, is operational November-April and offers tents from Rs 1,000-2,000.

Havelock Your best option is the Barefoot Resort (Rs 4,800-7,000 236008, www.barefootindia.com). For those on a moderate budget, Barefoot offers cosy seafront cottages at their dive centre, Barefoot Scuba (Rs 2,200 Beach No. 3, Café Del Mar non-divers welcome).
For a comprehensive, if slightly dated, list of all the accommodation there is in the Andamans, see

 What to see & do

Port Blair & around Port Blair has a number of museums &mdash Anthropological Museum, Fisheries Museum, Samudrika (Naval Marine Museum), Zoological Survey of India Museum and Forest Museum. But the star attraction remains the Cellular Jail. Don&rsquot miss the Sound and Light Show here. Other sites of patriotic interest include the Ross and Viper islands, both short boat rides away.

The climb to Mount Harriet (365m) is an easy day trip from town. Mount Harriet National Park is a butterfly hotspot. Two kilometres from here is Kalapathar, the spot from where convicts were pushed to their death. Corbyn&rsquos Cove and Chiriya Tapu are extremely popular beaches. There&rsquos a government organic farm at Sippi Ghat. Just 30km southwest of Port Blair, the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park offers excellent snorkelling in the coral beds surrounding Jolly Buoy and Red Skin islands.

Havelock & around Part of Ritchie&rsquos Archipelago, Havelock is noted for the Radhanagar beach (Beach No. 7), dubbed by Time magazine as one of the finest in Asia. Other islands you can explore nearby include Baratang, Neil and Long. Infrastructure for diving is well-developed in Havelock and there are excellent dive sites in the vicinity.

 Flora and fauna

The forests support a profusion of epiphytes, primarily ferns and orchids. There&rsquos also a stunning diversity of mangrove species. The Andaman padauk, noted for its fine grain wood, is the state tree.

Mammals include the Andaman wild pig, crab-eating macaque, Andaman masked palm civet, Andaman spiny shrew, a variety of bats and, under the sea, dolphins, whales and dugongs (the state animal). The spotted deer you&rsquoll see here were introduced. An attempt to introduce the leopard around 1962 proved unsuccessful. There is also a population of feral elephants.

Reptiles include the saltwater crocodile, the Andaman cobra, a variety of geckos and lizards, water monitor, reticulated python, kraits and pit vipers, the pelagic sea snake, Olive Ridley and leatherback turtles among others, and the rare king cobra.

Around 300 bird species have been recorded here. Endemic bird species of the Andaman Islands include the Andaman serpent-eagle, Andaman crake, brown coucal, Andaman scops-owl, Narcondam hornbill, Andaman woodpecker and Andaman drongo. The Nicobar pigeon is believed to be the closest living relative of the dodo.

 Barefoot eco-tours

The Barefoot Group, purveyors of eco-friendly tourism practices in the Andamans, offer a range of eco-tours ex-Havelock. These include half-day tours, full-day trips as well 2D/1N and 3D/2N excursions. The tours are competently run, with a large support staff in tow to ensure a high degree of comfort. Prices include meals, drinking water, surface and boat transportation and equipment such as kayaks and snorkelling gear.

Baratang & North Passage (3D/2N) Takes in kayaking at Wrafter&rsquos Creek, limestone caves (request the mud volcano tour as well), snorkelling in Merk Bay, and a night each of camping at Baratang and North Passage islands. On the return journey, there&rsquos a stopover at either Turtle Island, Swiftlet Rock or Tamarind Camp for some more snorkelling. A variation of the same tour is available ex-Port Blair, with the second night at Long Island instead. Rs 16,000 per person.

A 1N excursion to Baratang by dunghi will set you back by Rs 10,500 per person. A 1N excursion to North Passage Island will cost Rs 9,000 per person (dunghi) or Rs 12,000 by motor launch. The 1N excursion to Long Island is similarly priced and takes in kayaking through the inlets of Yerrata creek, and a forest walk on Long Island.

Shorter excursions are organised to Elephant Beach, Char Nariyal and Neil Island. Of course, it&rsquos all very flexible and you can combine itineraries to create a longer, bespoke tour.

Honeymooner&rsquos hideaway This half-day excursion has us intrigued. A dunghi drops you at a secluded beach half an hour from the resort. You&rsquore left in complete privacy for as long as you please. At a pre-appointed time, the dunghi picks you up again and returns you to civilisation. Yes, it&rsquos a bit like The Blue Lagoon. Rs 3,000 per couple.

South Andaman eco-tour Barefoot will soon offer eco-tours in South Andaman based out of ANET. Expect mangrove walks, dunghi rides in the Lohabarrack Crocodile Sanctuary and snorkelling in the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Tours are expected to cost in the range of Rs 2,000-3,000 per day, with all proceeds going to ANET.


Barefoot&rsquos PADI-certified dive centre offers the most reliable diving in the Andamans. Recreational dives start at Rs 2,000 for a single dive (half-day trip). PADI&rsquos speciality diving courses are also on offer. Contact Barefoot Scuba, Beach No. 3. Café Del Mar, 03192-282181, dive@barefootindia.com.

 Travel essentials

Indians do not require a permit to visit the Andamans. Foreigners can obtain a 30-day permit (extendable by 15 days). Entry into tribal reserves is not permitted. The Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island in particular have violently resisted any sort of contact till date, so don&rsquot even think about it.

Temperatures range from 20-30 degrees C through the year. The high season runs from December to April. May to mid-September, marked by heavy rainfall, is best avoided.

Carry waterproof sunscreen, the highest SPF you can find. Beware of sand flies on the beaches. These bloodsucking fiends are no cousins of our benign housefly. Even as I write, the bites are still smarting.


The Andaman Islanders A Study in Social Anthropology, by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. The Land of Naked People Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, by Madhusree Mukherjee. Cannibal Isles Time Travelling in the Andaman Islands, by David Tomory. Treasured Islands An Environmental Handbook for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, by Sunita Rao. This last can be procured at the Barefoot Resort. Essentially a handbook for educators, it includes useful checklists of the flora and fauna of the A&ampN Islands.


www.and.nic.in (the A&ampN administration site), www.tourism.andaman.nic.in (official tourism site), forest.and.nic.in (the environment & forests department site).

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