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.
WHEN TO GO
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.
HOW TO GET THERE
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.
WHERE TO STAY
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: email@example.com
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 House||13 Strand Road, Kolkata||(033) 22482354, 22488013|
|Andaman & Nicobar Administration||6, Rajaji Salai, Chennai-600001||(044) 25220841, 25226873|
|The Directorate of Tourism Offices of the Andamans|
|Chennai||North Main Road Extension, Anna Nagar West Extension||(044) 26549295|
|Delhi||12, Chanakyapuri||(011) 26871443|
|Kolkata||3A, Auckland Place||(033) 22475084|
|The Andaman and Nicobar Tourist Office||Near the GPO, Port Blair (Open Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm)||(01382) 2326794, 232747|
Featured in Harmony Magazine