Paradise islands

More than a year after the tsunami, the Andaman and  
Nicobar islands are seeing a new rush of visitors. 
Sheila Kumar is among them

The tsunami of December 

2004 savaged the Nicobar Islands, and did not spare the 
Andamans either. A series of unrelenting tremblers inflicted
 damage on roads and buildings, submerged lighthouses 
and smaller islets, wreaked havoc on boats and people. 
However, with over 60 per cent of the local population
 dependant on tourism, it wasn't long before the Andamans
 set themselves right. Today, the Information, Publicity and
 Tourism Department of Andaman and Nicobar tourism
 is not holding back on publicity. The catch phrase of the
 television commercial: 'Emerald. Blue. And You.' The
 'tsunami damage' just makes for another facet of tourism!

Balmy weather, swaying palms, white sand beaches, 

coral reefs laid out just so, and a variety of delicious 
seafood are an invitation from the island. However, be
 warned: 60 per cent of the islands are closed to tourists
 for security reasons and permits are required to visit the
 islands and reserves. Even Indians require a special
 pass to trawl the Nicobar Islands, which the Government
 of India declared an Aboriginal Tribal Reserve Area in 1957.

The former British penal colony consists of more than 550

 islands, some really small, most with sandy beaches, 
shallow coves, dense tropical vegetation, mountain peaks 
and lush rainforests. I went on a five-day trip, sight-seeing 
at a relaxed pace. Let me give you a guided tour.

Day One: I saved the sunny day for 

Port Blair and the surrounding region. The room at the Circuit 
Guest House extends into a splendid balcony view of the fascinating
 Aberdeen Jetty with its hoary old cannon and its far-reaching 
promenades that circle the waters in the bay. By night, the jetty 
is awash with lights; little boats bobbing up and down in the 
inky waters; people strolling around; jhalmuri (spicy puffed rice)
 and candy floss vendors plying a brisk trade. Just a stone's 
throw away is the Lighthouse, by far the best seafood restaurant
 in Port Blair, where platters of live fish are brought to you
 to inspect and select.

To the northeast of the jetty lies Ross Island, with a 

candy-striped, green-canopied lighthouse to one side. 
Boats take tourists to the island, controlled by the Indian
Navy, from Aberdeen Jetty thrice a day. The small island, 
which was once house to the officers of the British Empire
 posted to the Andamans, bears an eerie air now. It's all 
there - Officer's Mess, tennis and squash courts, ballroom,
 church, bakery, hospital, bazaar, residential quarters, 
cemetery - but in the form of moss-and-brick skeletons.
 Gigantic roots of banyan trees support the bricks; at places,
 the bricks themselves have fallen but the roots still retain 
their shapes. To the far end of Ross Island stand the 
Japanese bunkers, ugly concrete monstrosities that face
 Aberdeen Jetty, reminders of the time the Japanese had take over the islands.

Day Two: More beachcombing today. Not all the beaches in the 

Andamans are a lotus-eater's delight, many being tidal beaches
 festooned with rocks and boulders, unending flat stretches of 
sand leading to foamy waves. Corbyn's Cove, a shallow beach
 too close to a quarry for comfort, doesn't have clean waters 
washing in, yet it's popular with Indian tourists. Surprisingly, 
no one minds sharing the beach with stray cows.

Havelock Island, 58 km away from

 Port Blair, is the 'best beach you can get to in Asia', voted Beach
 No. 7 by TIME magazine in November 2004, a month before
 the tsunami. Left untouched by the disaster, Havelock has a
 good stretch of white sand, an outlying hedge of coral reefs, 
and waters full of large fish - you can occasionally see dolphin
s here. Glass-bottomed boats take you a little further out to
 gaze upon the ocean floor bright with blue fish, pink starfish,
 tiger-striped fish, sea slugs and coral reefs. Visiting 
Havelock Island means a five-hour boat ride from the 
Phoenix Bay Jetty, and two hours by air-conditioned 
speedboat from the Phoenix Bar jetty at Port Blair. Don't try
 to rush back the same day as Havelock needs to be
 experienced at leisure.

Other tourist beach havens include Long Island, Neil Island, 

Mayabunder, Cinque, Diglipur, Little Andamans and Rangat.
 Barren Island has a deceptive name - it is one of the densest
 forests in the area. It also has India's only active volcano that 
was last seen in its full fury in 1994, and is now spewing fire 
again. Barren Island, unfortunately, is not open to tourists.

Day Three: Today, I take a pleasant car ride through the 

Jarawa reserve of Jirikatang and then a ferry to the 
mangrove-ringed isle of Baratang.

The indigenous tribes of the 

Andamans are some of the oldest known inhabitants on
 earth. There are six tribes: the Jarawas, the Shompen, 
the Sentinelese, the Onge, the Great Andamanese and
 the Nicobarese. Islanders tell you 'the best sighting you
 can get of them is in the early hours of the morning 
before the sun comes out', leading you to wonder 
whether they are talking of human beings or animals.
 This impression is reinforced when you come upon 
signboards that repeatedly warn you against 'feeding 
the tribals'. Until a decade ago, the Jarawas were 
anything but friendly. They used to climb the tall trees
 and unleash arrows on vehicles. Even today, vehicles
 go into the reserve with armed guards. And as the 
Jarawas are extremely wary of camera flashes
 (a wary Jarawa is not a good thing), photography
 is prohibited. However, the inexorable tide of 
civilisation has had its way with the Mongoloid 
Jarawas, too. I find some of them in T-shirts 
and shorts, striking poses in a decidedly tutored
 fashion and, sadly, begging for food. Baratang 
has mud volcanoes that wreak devastation, the 
killer clay stifling and strangling all vegetation in
 its path. The mud volcanoes are bubbling again, 
warning of imminent spewing. The waters here 
are full of hammerhead sharks, manta rays, 
dog-toothed tuna and leather-backed turtles. 
The expanse of mangroves that hedge the 
Baratang waters has withstood the tsunami 
and protected the forests. At Nayadera on
 Baratang, stands a fascinating and recently
 discovered limestone cave full of stalactites
 and stalagmites (calcium deposits of various shapes and sizes).

Day Four: Back in Port Blair, I spend the morning exploring 

the Cellular Jail. The sunshine beaming down on the two
 remaining wings of the original seven in the prison and 
the occasional glimpse of turquoise waters cannot 
dispel the air of silent suffering still present here.

The cells, which held hundreds

 of freedom fighters, are stark and empty. The gallery with 
its hoard of old photographs of the Andamans is moving, 
as is the light-and-sound show staged every evening, in
 Hindi and English. Later, I take a boat ride out to Viper 
Island (yes, it was once full of snakes) to see the eerie
 gallows and prison that preceded the Cellular Jail.

Other tourist draws in Port Blair include India's largest

 saw mill at Chatham (an island that is now part of the
 mainland in the Andamans, yet called Chatham 
Island); the Samudrika Museum run by the Indian 
Navy which offers interesting insights into the history
 of the Andamans, its ecosystem and marine life; 
the Sippighat Agricultural Farm, a sprawl of over 80
 acres growing cloves, cinnamon, pepper and coconuts; 
the Anthropological Museum; and Chidiya Tapu, a popular beachfront.

Day Five: All I did on the last day in the Andamans is 

relax. Laze. Admire the ceaseless waves. Watch the
 palms sway. And bid a silent and reluctant goodbye
 to this beautiful place.


The temperature stays fairly even most of the year,

 between 22ºC and 33ºC. There are two rainy seasons,
 one from June to mid-September and the other from 
November to mid-December. December and January 
are the busiest; you'll do well to avoid that rush.

By air: Indian Airlines, Jet Airways have regular flights from 

Kolkata and Chennai to Port Blair. Air Deccan too has daily
 Chennai-Port Blair flights.

By sea: Boats ply these routes as well, though it's a long

 60 hours from Chennai and 66 hours from Kolkata. 
Passenger ships head for Port Blair from Visakhapatnam 
too. To learn more, contact Shipping House or 
Andaman & Nicobar Administration.

Port Blair has a reasonably priced taxi service. 

Inter-island travel is on motorised boats. Taxis 
can be hired from Aberdeen Bazaar.

Citi King Palace at Supply Line, Port Blair; 

Tel: 01382-233754, 233320, 230766; 
Fax: 01382-233166; Tariff: Rs 800 to Rs 1,200; 

Hotel Gem Continental at Goal Ghar, Port Blair; 

Tel: 01382-234534, 237537; Tariff: AC Deluxe Rs 1,200;

The Directorate of Tourism offers accommodation at 

affordable prices at Andaman Teal House, Hornbill Nest 
and Sainik Vishram Ghar at Port Blair; Dolphin Yatri Niwas
 at Havelock Island; Hawabill Nest at Neil Island; Hawksbill
 Nest at Rangat; Swiftlet Nest at Mayabunder and Turtle 
Resort at Diglipur. Andaman & Nicobar Islands Integrated
 Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) runs the Megapode
 Nest/Tourist Home Complex at Port Blair. Reservations:
 Director of Tourism, A&N Administration, 
Port Blair - 744101. Director Information, Publicity and
 Tourism, Tel: 01382-230933. Email:

The Directorate of Tourism Offices of the Andamans are

 in Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata.

The Andaman and Nicobar Tourist Office in Port Blair has

 information on tours and ferry schedules. There is a tourist 
counter at the airport, which provides information about 
accommodation and sites on South Andaman Island as well.

Shipping House13 Strand Road, Kolkata(033) 22482354, 22488013
Andaman & Nicobar Administration6, Rajaji Salai, Chennai-600001(044) 25220841, 25226873
The Directorate of Tourism Offices of the Andamans
ChennaiNorth Main Road Extension, Anna Nagar West Extension(044) 26549295
Delhi12, Chanakyapuri(011) 26871443
Kolkata3A, Auckland Place(033) 22475084
The Andaman and Nicobar Tourist OfficeNear the GPO, Port Blair (Open Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm)(01382) 2326794, 232747

Featured in Harmony Magazine
April 2006

Labels: ,