Andaman and Nicobar Islands — An archipelagic Shangrila
1. Slightly less than two years ago, when COVID -19 had first raised its searing head and the pandemic had begun to shake the world, I had written about how increased domestic tourism can be an aid in steam rolling a post-pandemic economic recovery. Indeed, a Country as vast as India, which ceaselessly continues to amaze and even inspire by its kaleidoscopic diversities, offers infinite options to suit all manners of tastes, desires and dispositions.
2. Well, in a bid to practice what I had preached and when it appeared that the collective might of humanity had gained a decisive edge over the nano-sized yet epochal virus (before the Omicron driven third wave had gathered steam) and armed with a complete vaccination certificate, me and my wife ventured for a ten day trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelagic chain located at the junctions of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
3. Having once visited the group of idyllic islands, almost twenty five years ago (when it was still trying to overcome the impression of it being the veritable “Kala Pani”), I was this time hoping that the human actions had not denuded the land of its natural beauty, mutated its idyllic surroundings and was curious to witness the extent to which it had recovered from the fury unleashed by the deadly Tsunami in 2004. Furthermore, the agenda was not to traverse the usual tourist circuit and stay in plush and luxurious settings, but to unravel the hinterland, explore the unexplored and discover its inherent, pristine and original beauty about which I had heard and read so much about.
4. With that in mind, I and my wife planned a ten-day trip in end December 2021 beginning January 2022 to hopefully kick-start our post-pandemic holidaying. Mind you, naysayers and there were more than a few, in albeit mocking consternation, remarked as to what we would do there for two weeks — even talking about an edgy person like me getting bored and coming back may be in the first week itself with someone even, perhaps wryly, commenting on it being a test of our marital compatibility.
5. Armed with a desire to have a good time and not in the least to prove the naysayers wrong and fuelled by the (in hindsight, almost effortless yet immaculate) planning by my wife, we embarked on what was nothing short of an adventure and at the end of it returned back with a renewed sense of happiness, satisfaction and rejuvenation.
6. Bracing the early morning peak Delhi winter cold, we took a flight scheduled at an unearthly hour and landed at Port Blair by mid-morning. Having more than a vague remembrance of my last visit, I was eager to see the extent to which an idyllic cosy little town had transformed. The initial experience was a wee-bit underwhelming at seeing how the sleepy town had lost its old world simplicity and charm and had transformed into a semi-urban conglomerate with shops and kiosks dotting every nook and corner, vehicles blazing horns, fresh construction somewhat jarring the landscape and an airport which was teeming with people — a far cry from the memories of a quarter century back when only a couple of flights landed there and you walked on the tarmac from the aircraft to the arrival area.
7. I still remembered when on my last visit, we were planning to visit the Corbyn Cove Beach, we were advised against going in the evening since it would be very crowded then. On further query we were told that the crowd could swell to 10–15 people whereupon all of us gave a controlled chuckle as to what was a crowd for them was in fact a sought-after luxury for Delhiites. However, when we went there in the evening, we could not spot a single soul and had a whale of a time with the kids enamoured by the vastness and freedom of space where they could roam about with joy abandon and have the entire place to themselves.
8. Nevertheless, this disappointment apart, what was pleasantly surprising was that it was still a fair distance away from becoming the urban chaos that descends on a city which is subjected to unplanned and motivated development- perhaps its physical distance from the mainland and consequent problems in communication and travel had acted in concert to decelerate the process.
9. Coming back to the current holiday, we checked into our room, very aptly named Nicobar Cottage in the Megapode Resort, a quaint resort perched on top of a small hill, the view from the room was, for want of a stronger superlative, breath-taking and the experience exhilarating with the welcome and added bonus of an amiable, friendly and forever helpful staff to boot. Having a friendly cup of steaming hot coffee sitting in the balcony, with fresh winds caressing your face and an amazing view of the sea with its crystal clear water, the surface calm belying the underlying power, the odd fisherman going to outer sea and gradually diminishing in size before disappearing from view, a somewhat busy jetty with passenger ferries and cargo ships constantly moving in and out — the experience was sublime and the feeling magical. Such an auspicious beginning could only be happy tidings and set a positive tone for the rest of the trip. By this time, we had already forgotten that although it was only noon and we had already been awake for almost ten hours — the magical experience serving as a soothing balm for the seemingly tired bodies.
10. Taking the afternoon convoy through the Jarava forest, what immediately struck me was the smooth conduct and apparent felicity with which the entire process from granting permits to the orderly movement of the convoy was organized. Coming from the capital city of Delhi, where everybody is somebody trying to punch above their weight, the sense of complete orderliness at every step of the way was a pleasing experience. What followed was an almost two-hour drive through the plush and dense Jarawa forests which could only be described as divine. Tired we might have been from the early morning travel, the drive brought us back to life. A narrow road winding through the forest in sylvan surroundings, no chitter-chatter of an urban thoroughfare but the meditative sounds of nature to invigorate your mind and sights to refresh your soul –one only hoped that the drive would never end. Nevertheless, while one could not see any of the native Jarawas in their natural habitat (which we came to know was, in any case, a very rare occurrence), the experience manifested nature at its wonderful best. Of course, as later events unravelled, this was just the curtain raiser for a series of amazing experiences which we were destined to have on this vacation.
11. Reaching Baratang Island (located in the middle Andamans and one of the more than 450 that dot the archipelago) and after a brief rest, interspersed with some steaming tea and pakoras served by friendly staff at the Guest House, we took a short boat ride to the Parrot Island, which is famous for the groups of parakeets that descend on the island just at the stroke of dusk when the sun has just about set. It seemed somewhat of a make-believe to be told that the same phenomenon repeats itself with untold and unfailed regularity day after day and year and year and with clockwork precision. While the ride itself surfacing the clear blue waters and through the different sized islands on the way with their shores beaming with plush green mangroves making the atmosphere prescient, was unforgettable, the experience became magical when after a short but expectant wait and as soon as the sun disappeared into the horizon, the sky came alive with a series of groups of parakeets flying in from all directions in their cacophonic majesty, as if guided by a sudden sleigh of the hand. The flurry of activity lasted for more than a couple of minutes wherein they circled the island in seemingly feverish excitement gradually disappearing from view into the trees of the Island to find their abode for a night of peaceful slumber. Wondrous as it was, one could only be awe-struck at the naturally crafted and majestically orchestrated phenomenon.
12. We were told by our guide to ensure to get a good nights sleep, since an early morning trip to the Limestone caves beckoned. After a breakfast of steaming hot aloo-puri and omelettes (don’t be surprised at the combination), we again took an exhilarating boat ride to the Limestone caves — the journey punctuated by a canopy of mangroves on both ends through azure blue waters (an absolute contrast from the polluted and filthy drain that the river Yamuna has become). The ride was made all the more entertaining by the friendly Forest Officer who gave us Zoological interesting information on the various animals that in-habitat the region- from alligators whom he termed as the most “opportunistic predators” with their ability to surprise you with swiftness and agility belying their sheer size, to the Swiftlet birds which painstakingly weave their nest from their saliva and which are coveted by some people for their value (being sold for obscene amounts in the grey market and something from which the Chinese delicacy Birds nest soup gets its name) and the efforts which Forest Department is making to ensure that they are preserved. He also narrated to us certain bone-chilling adventures with snakes and other reptiles of the most venomous variety, the precautions they follow to avoid any potential mishaps and the immediate steps they are trained to take in the aftermath of unforeseen happenings. And some interesting anecdotes narrating as to how the phenomenon of an Elephant getting “musth” (a periodic condition in male elephant characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large size in reproductive hormones) is actual and not just mythical folklore. Having told as to how when an elephant is musth, he even forgets the Mahout (“Trainer”) with whom it otherwise has a most intimate bond.
13. As an aside on the walk, we saw a middle-aged man, painstakingly clearing the path, a process which seemed extremely laborious and physically challenging, but who had a very pronounced belly. Quizzical looks at the Forest Officer immediately revealed that in spite of his physically challenging job and the long distances that he has to traverse to work, the belly is attributable to “eating and drinking too much rice”(the locally brewed liquor made from rice which they seemed to consume in copious quantities).
14. Finally, the walk to the Limestone Caves was memorable both for its sheer length as well as the experience. Having been warned in advance as to the occasional appearance of reptiles, sometimes even of the deadliest variety one has constantly on guard for any suspicious movements or hissing sounds. However, the sheer variety of flora and fauna on display left one awestruck at the amazing phenomenon that is nature. The caves themselves are an architectural delight and an archaeological marvel. Formed over millions of years as a natural cavity beneath the earth’s surface, they are home to both “stalagmites” and “stalactites” in the same cave, some formed and some still in the process of forming, a process involving the slow accumulation of deposits and which could take millions of years.
15. Coming back the same exhilarating path and after gorging on a homely lunch (painstakingly served in the guest house — something which we realised would be most common on this trip), we proceeded to Long Island — a process which involved a combination of both road journeys and a ferry ride. The roads which so far had been of decent quality had by now deteriorated to somewhat despicable levels with potholes and sudden diversions occurring with unfailing regularity. However, the drive itself among soothing environs, plush greenery and pure air (a far cry from the smoke chamber that Delhi is for most parts of the year and which we are kind of accustomed to) more than made up for the incessant jumps and bumps and jerks which we had to bear. A pleasant walk through the mangroves on the walkways near Yeratta Jetty (called “Benchwalks” in local parlance) made the experience all the more memorable.
16. The icing on the cake was the sight of our guest house (aptly named “Tapovan”, a spiritual retreat), from the ferry, perched on top of a hill with a vantage view of the Island which made us forget all else almost immediately. While the view from Tapovan was, for want of a stronger adjective, out of the world, sitting in the verandah, we witnessed the most amazing visual experiences I had so far seen- the phenomenon of the sun setting into the horizon. With the sky being clear, one could but only marvel at the perfectly round orange ball of fire gradually merging into the horizon with the changing hues of the sea coinciding with the shifting rays of the sun as slowly and slowly daylight transformed into twilight dusk and merged into the darkness of the night — the experience magical at best was something to be savoured and stored in the most accessible parts of the memory to serve as a reminder of nature’s marvels and as a definite mood lifter in times of despondency.
17. The next day was spent leisurely on the Merck Bay and Lalaji Bay beaches where walking on the soft sand with the occasional waves caressing your feet as they encountered land was intensely refreshing and invigorating. While I have had the experience of watching wave after wave losing energy as they encountered landfall on several beaches across the globe, the serenity of the atmosphere which exuded calmness of a level I had never experienced before and totally devoid of any clutter, made me admire and assimilate the entire experience even more.
18. An evening trip to Guitar Island (so named for its shape as a Guitar — something which we saw aerially on our helicopter ride from Diglipur back to Port Blair later in the trip) on a Dinghy was the icing on the cake with the blue waters and the soft sand again making the experience out of the world.
19. Talking about the Dinghy, casual conversations with the locals revealed that it is not only the most commonly and widely used means of transport in the islands, but also have great practical utility. That was an eye-opener in itself, for so far, I may confess my knowledge of the Dinghy was it being the means used by the terrorists to reach Mumbai before 26/11 and by the insurgents from Myanmar — just an exhibition of how half-baked and unauthentic knowledge can be self-limiting and dangerous.
20. Coming back from Long Island we took a one-night halt at Mayabunder, where the Guest House was so located so as to give an experience and amazing view of the sea.
21. The next day we undertook the drive to Diglipur (in the upper reaches of North Andaman — a drive which we were forewarned would be treacherous and something which ominously came out to be true nevertheless) in the hope of being able to see Turtles Nesting at either the Ramnagar or Kalipur beaches (which I personally looked forward to and having extensively read about the amazing phenomenon) and to visit Ross and Smith Island — something which we were told would be akin to experiencing nature at its wondrous best.
22. While, in spite of best efforts, the phenomenon of turtles nesting eluded us, despite keeping awake till unearthly hours and making umpteen visits, the trip to Rose and Smith islands more than made up for that. Again, after a short Dinghy ride, these two islands emerge out of nowhere firmly ensconced in the lap of nature separated by a sand-bed which you can traverse on foot when the tide is low. The relative seclusion and quietude (being relatively unknown and inaccessible), compounding the serenity and walking on the pristine sand giving you the experience of the most exquisite pedicure in the most natural surroundings- providing an exhilarating experience to be etched in memory for all times to come.
23. The plastic strewn on the beach was somewhat jarring — we were informed ( and a closer look revealed it to be true) that it had originated from as far as Burma, Thailand or Indonesia or thrown from ships — just a reminder that while nature does not recognize any boundaries, it throws back at you what you unfairly dump on it. Is it not the time that we forget the debate on which country is the higher polluter — (developed, developing and underdeveloped) but recognize that humanity as a whole is facing a grave challenge by environmental degradation nee destruction which is a fact not just to be wished away or taken lightly — only then will we be able to tackle the menace of environmental degradation headlong.
24. The disappointment at not being able to see turtles nesting was also more than made up by viewing one of the most enthralling sights of nature on both the days that we were there. From the vantage point of our room and in the backdrop of a clear sky, we saw the most amazing sunrise as the secular orange ball of fire (its subtle and comforting orange hues effectively masking the underlying thrust of energy) emerging from the horizon and rising into the sky. The gentle gradual emergence coinciding as it was with the dawn of a new day with its concomitant of hope and expectation, and the gentle transformation of the horizon coinciding with rising sun and the changing colours of the sea made for a surreal, sublime experience with the added bonus of a couple of steaming hot cups of tea to boot served by the most friendliest and noble souls in the guest house.
25. In order to save time and more so to avoid the arduous road journey, we decided to take the helicopter ride back to Port Blair, a journey made more memorable by the willingness of the Pilot to give us a guided aerial tour of the islands which again opened our eyes to the sheer beauty of the Andaman archipelago — more so an aerial view gave us a clearer idea of why some of the islands are so named — the Guitar Island for its near perfect shape of a guitar for one. The sight of the sea which from the distance appeared to be extraordinary calm dotted by a series of Islands, was well-nigh not describable in words and would require an experienced cameraman’s eye to record into a frame or perhaps a series of them.
26. The concluding part of the trip, which included a brief interlude to the Havelock island (I shall not write much about it, for being a regular part of the tourist circuit too much has already been written about it, and it sadly and regretfully, but truly seems to have, lost its original charm among the large scale construction and the increasingly larger number of tourists that visit and the rapid onset of commercialization) was what was to turn out to be the piece-de-resistance of our trip — a visit to the Mt Harriett (now Mt Manipur) National Park. Coming at the fag-end of our trip, when in spite of the visibly enchanting beauty and friendly environs, one was tending to feel a bit homesick; the visit was something which put such feelings on the backburner. The journey, which again was a combination of ferry rides and road trips, was memorable for the comfort and the enchanting beauty (brought back memories of the Jarava Forest). The Guest House perched on top of the Hill, providing an amazing view of the greenery with the vast expanse of the Bay to boot, was the ultimate in old world luxury with the added complement of a friendly staff willing to cater to all your needs and homely food as a welcome bonus.
27. The early morning trek through the dense forests covering a distance of about 2.5 kms each way, was made all the more memorable by the friendly local guide, whose apparent lack of formal education was more than made up by an observant mind sharpened by years of dedicated service and devotion to the forests, which he clearly and obviously so dearly loved. The trek culminated at a point christened “Kala Pathar” (“Black rock” in local parlance), which he told me was also known as suicide point in the colonial era for the practice followed by the Britishers of dumping undesirable elements into the sea from there (a pretty morbid practice at that).But rather than dwell on the same, I spent more than a couple of minutes soaking in the view and inhaling the fresh air — an experience which was electric in its result and rejuvenating in its response. All in all, the experience in spite of the physical exertion and transitory fear induced by some seemingly hissing noises (akin to those of reptiles), which, if at all, made it all the more exciting was one to be savoured and stored in the readily accessible recesses of memory as an invigorating factor when the mind was exhausted and the body tired.
28. We were coming to the fag-end of the trip but glad to have made it to what was known as “Kala Pani” in the pre-Independence era. By now our minds were sufficiently rejuvenated and bodies recharged to go back to our professional duties and domestic responsibilities. All in all a trip recommended for anybody and everybody who wishes to go beyond the treaded path and has an appetite for adventure. And mind you from our conversations with locals and various strata of society, we came to know of rapid plans to develop the archipelago as a commercial as well as tourist destination. While I do not wish to enter into any argument on the (de) merits of such planning (which might lead to extensive infrastructural development and improve the availability of services and overall well-being of the local populace, but could also lead to disturbing the delicate ecological balance and adversely affect the unique identity of the area and its people) if you want to truly explore nature, beyond the humdrum of commercial activity in quiet environs with the benefit of solitude as an added bonus, this is the place to go. Of course, in an increasingly wired world, the limited level of data and cellular connectivity makes it some kind of a digitation also.
29. While in this blog I have written about the natural beauty and the enthralling experience that the Andaman archipelago offers as destination, the visit was also memorable for the intense human insights, particularly the uncluttered thought processes and simplistic values that reside in unsullied minds, of which I shall write in a later piece.