Deccan Herald, Sunday, January 16, 2005

Islands in the winter sun

Just ten days before the sea surged over the Andamans, 
was holidaying on its white-sanded beaches...


Christmas time is when people flock to the Andamans. That is also when the tidal waves hit, marauding the Andaman and savaging the Nicobar islands. Since D-day which was Christmas day, over 70 tremors have rocked the hapless isles, creating huge cracks on roads and in buildings, totally submerging the smaller islets, wreaking devastation on lighthouses and boats, and altogether shifting the whole archipelago a significant bit.

The most optimistic estimates put total rehabilitation as many as a handful of years away. Nobody has been optimistic enough to estimate the ecological rehab time limit. There are seasoned travellers who maintain that Sydney’s Darling Harbour delights the soul in inestimable ways. Well, I’ve seen the Oz harbour and I prefer the Aberdeen Jetty to the eastern seaboard of Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman islands. Its barriers painted a soft sky blue, the jetty has a splendid old cannon as sentinel to one side and a cheery little snack shop called the ‘Hungry Hop’ run by an affable Sardar, to another. The cannon stands, the shop has gone. Long promenades snake around the periphery of the waters in the bay and little boats bob up and down in the perennially bucking and heaving waters. In the evenings, after an immediate and dramatic sunset that is characteristic to the islands, the walkway is lit with fluorescent lamps, jhalmuri and candy floss vendors do the rounds. One mile to the northeast of Aberdeen Jetty lies Ross Island, an eerie memento mori of the days of the Raj.

The small island which once housed the officers of the Empire posted to the Andamans, is a ghost cantonment with Officer’s Mess, tennis and squash courts, church, bakery, hospital, bazaar, residential quarters, …except, nothing but bricks remain of it today.

The moss-laden bricks are held up by gigantic roots of banyans growing around and through them. Here and there, the bricks themselves have fallen but the roots still holding their supporting pattern, remain just so, straight out of a Tim Burton film! The blot on the face of this island is the Japanese bunkers, ugly concrete reminders of the time the Japanese had taken over the islands. Ross has withstood the wall of water, though some of the already decrepit relics are now rubble.

The Andamans, formerly a British penal colony for Indian ‘radical elements,’ are 570 big and small islands, most of them with sandy beaches, shallow coves, dense tropical vegetation, mountain peaks, and trees growing to well over 60 feet in the rainforests. The many kilometres of mangroves in Middle Andamans have withstood the tsunami and moreover, protected the forests in its interior. The limestone cave at Nayadera in Middle Andamans, may not have survived.

Corbyn’s Cove in Port Blair, (delightfully mis-spelt by the islanders as Corin’s Core/ Corbin’s Cow and Corwin’s Chowk) was popular with Indian tourists for all that it is a shallow beach, in close proximity to a quarry, with none-too-clean waters washing in. Alas, the place has taken a dreadful hit from the sea surge of December 25, as have the other beachcombers’ delights like Havelock Island, Mayabunder, Cinque and Rangat.

A two-hour boat ride from the now totally devastated Wandoor jetty, past some of the most scenic islands of the Andamans is to the Jolly Buoy island where you can float in crystal-clear waters, and head out in glass-bottomed boats to watch fish, mammoth sea slugs, and coral reefs of just about every imaginable size and shape.

The tsunami has damaged the corals, but corals, given their nature, will survive to tell the tale. Barren Island holds India’s only active volcano, last seen in its full fury in 1994.

The Baratang interior has mud volcanoes wreaking its own devastation. Today, the mud volcanoes are bubbling again, warning of imminent spewing.

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