March 08, 2010

Andamans!

It had been a long time since we had gone on a vacation. Every time a plan was made, someone had some engagement that thwarted the proposed plan. After a lot of deliberations & reschedules, we finally decided to go out during the last week of December. Though the dates were decided at the very end, the destination had been taken care of a long way back. All of us had unanimously decided on going to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Not that we thought of much while deciding, we just wanted to go to a place which was beautiful as well as serene. Scanning the internet for a few clicks of the islands helped us in finalizing on the Islands.

The next hurdle that we faced was booking the tickets. Something that is quite peculiar about the Andaman Islands is that despite it being a favorite tourist destination, the connectivity is still poor. You have direct flights only from Chennai and Calcutta and their number is inadequate when compared to the demand. Due to this, tourists have to book tickets months in advance. One of my dad’s friends posted in the A&N had once said (in a lighter vein) that he would be able to arrange for everything in the island except for the return tickets! Such is the pressure for tickets during the peak tourist season.

On the 25th afternoon, we left Patna for Calcutta. The next day, we had our flight early in the morning. The flight took off on time and within minutes we were soaring 32000 feet above the Bay of Bengal. I dozed off for a while and by the time I woke up, we were almost ready for touchdown. Looking out of the window, I could see little specks of green in the vast expanse of blue. There were almost a dozen islands of all possible shapes and sizes, dark green inside and almost white on the edge, which were clearly visible. After descending a few thousand feet, we could clearly see the South Andaman Island on which Port Blair is located. This island is the largest of the Andaman Islands and has the highest population. The Port Blair airstrip runs right through the middle of the town and it looks as if it divides the city into halves. After a while, we finally got off the plane at Veer Savarkar International Airport. We were sweating as soon as we alighted from the plane and this was Andaman's coldest season! Andaman has moderate climate throughout the year hence even in December days are quite hot. From the airport, we directly went to the South Point Circuit House, where we were supposed to stay for the next few days. Port Blair, for starters, is probably like any other town in the mainland but probably a lot cleaner and a lot more picturesque with tastefully done gardens and wide streets. South Point is located on the top of a hillock and is supposed to be best government accommodation the Andaman Islands. With the hills on one side and the clean azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean on the other, the view from our balcony was quite scenic.

After resting for a while, we took off for the Corbyn Cove’s, the beach that is closest to Port Blair. In Andamans, people say that the farther you go from Port Blair, the better the beaches get and after seeing the Corbyn Cove’s beach, I could vouch that. The beach is an average rocky beach with coconut trees lining the whole stretch, just like any other ordinary beach that one finds on the mainland. After strolling for a while and clicking a few snaps, we returned to South Point.

The same day after having lunch, we went to see the Ross Island, the island that is closest to Port Blair. Ross Island was the administrative center of the Andamans when the British controlled the islands. Rickety motor boats run frequently between Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty and Ross and it takes around half an hour to get there. Though the boat was old and slow, the journey was quite pleasant as it had become quite windy by evening. On the island, our tour guide took us to see to the various buildings that the British had built during their rule. We saw the ruins of quite a few old official bungalows and barracks which were used during the British rule. We walked around the whole island and also got down to check out the beaches. Most of the beaches of the island were totally ravaged after the tsunami. What you’ll see at the beaches is mostly, long coconut trees uprooted and lying flat on the white sand. We could almost imagine the kind of waves that would have brought down such huge trees and converted huge boulders into rubble. It is said that had Ross Island not been there, Port Blair would have bored the entire brunt of the tsunami which would have caused immense loss of life and property. The island acted a barrier and ensured that the high tides did not directly hit the shores of Port Blair.

Later that evening after returning from the Ross Island, we went to see the most important landmark of Port Blair, the Cellular Jail. Popularly known as “Kalapani” the construction of the jail started in 1896 and it took almost ten years to complete. The bricks required for the construction were brought all the way from Burma! The jail initially had a central tower and seven wings radiating from the center, each of which had three stories. Four of these wings were demolished during the World War II and the remaining three are the ones you get to see. After entering the jail premises, we first entered a hall where on display were various items which were used by the prisoners. We saw things like their manacles, the utensils that they used and the machines that they used to work on. Then we went on to see the various wings of the jail and the prisoner’s cells including the one where Veer Savarkar was incarcerated. The British officers were so scared of him breaking out of the prison that they kept him in a special cell which had an extra iron gate outside the cell. Later, we saw the light and sound show at the jail. It was quite informative and ran us through Cellular Jail’s history and highlighted the brutal torture that the British used to inflict on the prisoners jailed here. One’s patriotic spirit definitely gets charged up after hearing about the innumerable sacrifices our forefathers made for us.

The next morning we set out for the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, which is about 30 kilometers from Port Blair. The national park, probably the only marine national park in India, starts at the Wandoor coast line and extends a few nautical miles into the Indian Ocean. The drive from Port Blair to Wandoor where the national park is located is quite scenic as the national highway runs through thick forests. After reaching Wandoor, we took a speed boat to the Jolly Buoy Island nearby. What added to the thrill was that a 12 year old boy was in charge of the speed boat and he was racing it at a very high speed. Fortunately, we got to our destination unscathed! There, after taking a stroll on the beach, we took a glass bottom boat to see the corals. Just about a kilometer away from the island, the corals were completely visible. I was seeing it for the first time and trust me, it’s quite a sight. For the uninitiated, corals basically look like colored vegetation growing in the shallow sea beds. We saw quite a few types of corals such as brain corals, star corals, flower corals and the like. We also saw a quite a variety of fishes of various sizes and colors. Corals are one of the treasures of the Andamans and if you get a chance to visit the islands, don’t miss it. After that, we went snorkeling. Snorkeling enables one to have closer look at the corals and at times, even touch them. After that, in the evening, at Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty, we did water scootering. Though we did not get to drive the scooter (as the tide was high), the ride was exhilarating, especially because I was holding the grip on the scooter incorrectly! Therefore, each second of the 10 minutes that we zipped on the water surface, I was struggling to hold the grip tightly. The fact that I don’t know swimming did not make things easier either. The guy driving the scooter was totally enjoying out there taking sharp turns and jumping his scooter against the tide and my screams for reducing the speed went totally unheard. I still did manage to get back to the bay safely!

After returning from there, we left for Chidiya Tapu which is located at the southern most tip of the South Andaman Island. Getting there took us about forty minutes and the journey through the virgin forests was very relaxing. We reached just in time to get a glimpse of the sun setting at Chidiya Tapu. It is for sure the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. We could see the sun just over the hills that were present on the island adjacent to this. In the foreground, there were leafless trees that once were there on the coast but were now half submerged in the waters. The sight was breathtaking and I did not feel like budging from there. It was getting dark and we had to leave for the beach that was situated nearby. Even on the beach, the half submerged trees added to its beauty. The sand on the beach was white and the water was absolutely transparent. This is the beauty of the beaches in the Andamans. Wherever you go, you will find that the water is absolutely transparent. We could even see the roots of the trees quite clearly. From the sea shore, a small stream was going into the mangrove forests right behind the beach. This beach will always be etched in my memory for it stood out from the beaches that you get to see generally.
The next day, we left for the Baratang Island, which is situated in the Middle Andamans. We had to take the Grand Andaman Trunk Road [NH 223] to get to Baratang and the route that we took passed through the Jarava Tribal Reserve. The Jarawas are the native tribals of the Andaman Islands, who still for the most part, live isolated and far from civilization. Hence we were quite enthralled to catch a glimpse of the tribals. As vehicular movement is not freely allowed through the Jarawa Reserve Area, we had to catch a convoy that was to start at Jarkatang. Vehicles are not supposed to stop once inside the reserve area. Throughout our journey inside the reserve, we peeked out the window with utmost attention but could not spot any Jarawa [though when we were returning, we did spot quite a lot of them and they totally resembled the African tribes. A lot of them sit along the national highway these days looking for alms.] After leaving the reserve, we drove for another hour or so before we were forced to stop. Yes, that’s because the NH 223 ended there. Probably the only national highway in India where you have to take a ferry to continue your journey across a river! And that is exactly what we did. We got off the car and then waited for a ship to arrive. Then the car was loaded into it and whatever space was left was filled with the passengers waiting to cross over. There are regular ferry services that the local administration offers but the queue for cars to cross over gets quite big and hence one has to wait for hours. Thankfully, we did not have to wait that long as the local S.H.O. had been given prior instructions and hence we could cross over in less than half an hour. Now we were in Middle Andaman town of Baratang. From here, we took another boat which took us to the island which had the Limestone caves, one of the important tourist destinations of the Middle Andamans. The boat journey took more than 40 minutes and by the time we reached the caves, we were sweating profusely as it had become quite hot. The last few minutes of the boat journey was quite amazing as we passed through dense mangrove forests to get to the island. A fifteen minute trek through dense forests from there and we were at the limestone caves. Though not very huge, the caves were pretty decent and totally dark on the inside. The caves are still active and we could see water droplets falling off the limestone. From what I could make out of what the guide told us, these caves probably formed as the thick roots of the old trees with the action of sunlight and water gradually transformed wood to limestone. The guide showed us parts of the cave where formation was still going on. Though not very grand, it was still worth a visit. After that, we went to see to the Mud Volcano. Though I had heard from a friend that it’s not worth seeing, but having come so far, we decided to give it a shot. It turned out so bad that we left within a minute of seeing it. I could see quite a lot of mud around but couldn’t spot any volcano. The term Mud Volcano is a misnomer; the site is just another mud pool that you can recreate in your backyard! The rest of the day was spent in getting back to Port Blair.

On the 30th, we left for the Havelock Island, the most popular tourist destination in the Andamans. We got up early in the morning as our ship was to leave Port Blair early in the morning. The jetty was quite crowded as ships for all the other major islands start from here. There were quite a lot of ships parked in the bay but the M.V. Makruzz, the cruise ship that we were about to board stood apart. The luxury catamaran had a very modern look and a sleek design. Even the interiors were done up quite well. It almost gave the feeling of sitting in an airplane. The ship cruised noiselessly at over 25 nautical miles an hour and we reached the Havelock Islands in an hour and a half.

At the jetty, we took a taxi to the Dolphin Resort, the place where we had to put to put up that day. From the jetty to the Dolphin Resort, the road was lined with resorts. Most of the resorts are situated on the coast and hence they have beaches right in front of them. As soon as we checked in at Dolphin, we went to check out the beaches. We had a cottage to ourselves at the resort and the rooms were sea facing. The view from the room was splendid. Though it was quite hot outside, we still walked along the beach for quite some time.

Later that evening, we headed towards the Radhanagar Beach, the most popular beach of the Havelock Islands. We almost covered half the island while going from Dolphin to the Radhanagar beach and the single lane road took us through thick forests and sandy beaches. The first thing that you will notice about the Havelock Islands is that you don’t feel like you are in India as you’ll find more foreigners on the island than you’ll find Indians. Foreigners throng Havelock Island and most of them come here to stay for months at a stretch. The best part about Havelock is that the place is totally tranquil. If you are looking for a place to completely unwind for a few days, you should definitely put up here. Radhanagar Beach, once rated as the best beach in Asia by the TIME magazine, is definitely worth all the praise it is showered with. As we had gone there in the evening, we were expecting quite a lot of people out there, but fortunately we were wrong. Like the beaches at other places in the Andamans, even at the Radhanagar beach the water is crystal clear but what makes it stand out is that it's totally covered with white sand. The green from the woods in the background stood out in stark contrast to the white sand, painting a beautiful picture of the coastline. The next day, I hired a scooty and drove around the whole island. Driving around was tremendous fun as the roads were nearly empty and the drive along the coast was breathtaking. That evening, we returned to Port Blair as we had to catch a flight the next morning. After all this holidaying, I did not want to head back at all. I wanted some more time to enjoy the serenity of the Islands. Though the thought of leaving did make me a bit sad, the wonderful memories that the trip has given me still help me in admiring the beauty of the islands.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

i easily adore all your writing way, very helpful,
don't give up and also keep writing because it simply just worth to look through it.
excited to look over alot more of your own web content, have a pleasant day!

Robz said...

Whoa!! What a description.. Even I enjoyed the boat rides and beaches as you did while going thru your post. I can easily guess, the experience would have been marvellous. Even I yearn for a trip to Andamans , n your travelogue has given the much needed push to plan for it. Will contact you whenever I plan my trip.

Shwetank said...

Thanks Robin! Yes, absolutely! Do plan a trip, it's a really amazing place. Words are simply not enough to describe how beautiful the islands were! Sure, I'll plan out your trip whenever it materializes.

The post is still not done, have to still write about the last two days we spent there! It's become too long though! Dunno how you managed to read it all :)

Pal Sin said...

Thanks Shwetank, for reading `Patna'! Good stuff here, will keep reading!

Shwetank said...

@ Pal Sin: Thanks!

Shwetank said...

@ all who somehow managed to read the entire post : My future posts will not be this long! I will keep you in mind and shall restrain myself!

vikas said...

Nice description Shwetank, can you also tell something about the accommodation at circuit house and dolphin. I am planning to go there and this would help in selecting the place to stay.

Shwetank said...

@ Vikas : Sorry for the late reply. The South Point Circuit house is pretty decent and is in a central location. And even the Dolphin Resort is awesome. It's on the seaside and the rooms have an amazing view. Good value for money. If you are ready to fork out a bit more, you'll find couple of good hotels on the Havelock Island.