This was to be one of the highlights, if not THE highlight of the trip. We told many friends, often ardent travelers themselves, who responded with blank stares when we said “Andaman’s”. Seems this place isn’t really on most people’s map. Perhaps David and I were aware of it because of our interest in coral reefs and diving, for the Andaman rates right at the top. Another reason it may not be famous yet is it is not easy to get to. Though part of , it is way out in the Andaman Sea very close to the Burmese coastline. At present the only planes flying into its capital, Port Blair, are from Calcutta or Madras. Alternatively you can take a ship there from either city, a long journey of 3 days and 1200 km. Guess which option we chose.
The Shipping Lines of India does not take reservations nor does it post their erratic sailing dates in advance. The system to buy tickets is chaotic and frustrating. Somehow we waltzed in at the perfect time, on the first day of sales for our preferred voyage, and booked our deluxe class cabin for 5280 rupees each ($130), roughly the same price as a cheapie flight and 3.5 times the lowest fare for one of the 1100 bunk beds. This was our big treat to us. Was it ever worth it.
Aboard the M.V. Akbar our cabin had two beds, a desk, a TV, a private bathroom and a portal that looked down to the main deck. We were very pleased, considering the state of travel the ‘bunkies‘endured. The lower decks were vast rooms of endless bunk beds, with large useless fans and poor light. The men’s toilet was flooded ankle deep within 24 hours. The friends we made at the ticketing office who traveled this class slept on deck the fourth night it was so hot below. Yes, fourth. It took 4 days to reach our destination, three to spot land. With our privacy and smuggled booze, a few books and a segregated deck and restaurant, the voyage was a pleasure. We really got Saab and Memsaab treatment. The captain was from the same village as some Punjabi folk dancers en route to a dance festival in Port Blair. They, and 3 other groups, were invited to use our deck to practice, then on the final night, a formal performance was arranged with full costumes. We dressed up for it, like you should when one finds oneself at sea.
The Andaman and the Nicobar have 572 islands covering of 8200 sq. km. and only a few of them permit tourists. The Nicobars are restricted completely to outsiders unless invited with a government-approved project. They were particularly hit by the tsunami, and are still home to “hostile” tribes. In the North, the Sentilese greet guests with a shower of spears, and are considered to be the world’s only Paleolithic people left. The (until only recently) friendly Jarawas people of Middle and South Andaman Islands still fish with bows.
The Andaman’s has some dark history. The original penal colony in the late 18th century closed quickly due to the high mortality rate but in the mid 19th century the idea was revived and some 11,000 political prisoners were held here by the British. There is a museum honouring the incarcerated freedom fighters in the remains of the infamous Cellular Prison in the Port Blair.
We arrived in the state capital and got our one month entry permit. It became fairly apparent the hotel value would be poor in the Andaman. We booked a boat ticket to the most popular island, with the most facilities, Havelock Island, for the next day. Though we got tickets without trouble, we heard of hours waiting with fighting, and even a police incident.
Havelock was reached in 4 hours and we immediately headed by auto rickshaw on a perfectly paved single lane road to the furthest out resort, about 7 km from the port. (The paving was due to the president’s recent visit). Its only accommodation available was a single windowless concrete bunker with a fan and a toilet outside, right next door to a loud stereo-playing tourist, for 700 rupees, more then twice what we pay for all the mod-cons in the nation’s capital. We started to get worried. Back to the center of the strip where most guest houses are, I watched the bags while David took an unprecedented 2 hour trudge trying to find a place he thought was worth the money.
We ended up in the best place on the island, a charming split bamboo bungalow with a concrete bathroom floor, comfy bed and pleasant coconut grove garden for 400 rupees (about $10) at El Dorado. The plan was to stay on as long as were we happy. After a few days we managed to score the hut nearest the beach. At sunrise, through the split bamboo, magical little beams of light danced everywhere. We heard birds, crickets and frogs along with the lapping Andaman sea while lying in bed. We stayed three weeks. There was an array of wildlife incidents in our bungalow. We had a small black scorpion that David shook out of his shorts before putting them on. A large cockroach and similar sized crab both took refuge on our soap dish, though not together. The bamboo bathroom wall could never dry out so there was a slight but ever-present aroma of mold, and every few days a tiny clump of gun-metal grey mushrooms would crop up at the bottom of that wall, but would be efficiently removed by the tireless army of ants. Sitting on our balcony at sunset, without fail, we would greet a passing frog, no doubt on his ancestral route past the right hand corner of our cabin. Surprisingly though, sitting on the balcony as night fell, our light attracted nearly no flying insects. The daily presence of fine saw dust under all the bungalows beams, showed evidence of another tireless insect colony, which would likely eat the whole cabin within a year.
Havelock should be called by some exotic name that better reflects its character. It’s a fair-sized island surrounded by stunning, clear, warm, blue-green water lapping over icing-sugar fine clean white sand. Simply extraordinary. Twice, while standing by the entrance to our beach, a newcomer would try to say hello, get their first glimpse of the colour of the water, and not be able to say hello, because they had to say ‘wow’. The lack of pollution was astounding, unprecedented in my trips throughout mainland India. A solar plant provides some of their power needs and we never suffered long power outages. Internet access was very limited though, and even phoning was a problem at times. It felt nice to be unconnected.
We quickly assumed a standard schedule. We started with a cup of joe on the balcony, before catching our morning bus. We were on a beautiful beach, but the real stunner was on the opposite side of the island. Our bus, for pennies, dropped us in town (the mid island’s Village Number Three) just 5 minutes away, where we’d have time for a roti cannai and chai breakfast before our second bus arrived. It would take us past the teak and thatch homes (or sometimes cinder block and tin), past rice paddies and palm forest, past dense vine-heavy jungle to the finest beach we’ve ever seen, called, prosaically, Number Seven. If you don’t believe us, Time Magazine called it the world’s best beach in 2004. It was a half an hour walk from the bus to the where the snorkeling was best, on a path through a mature tropical hard-wood forest (including the Giant Dum Dum trees) with jungle-covered hills on one side and the azure ocean on the other. The trees were tall and straight, with silver-smooth bark that looked like dinosaur skin. The bottoms often sported wide buttresses, and high, high above our heads the tree tops resembled broccoli bunches. Magnificent mighty trees, and given the scale of the logging over the last century, shockingly still standing. Port Blair once had the biggest saw-mill in all of India, and only 10 years ago did the cutting stop. That this century-old hardwood forest with such easy access on a beach-front never got axed is a miracle. The snorkel beach provided shade, had wonderful fish and okay coral. The most impressive of the fish were the Napoleans. About 50 of these massive coral-eaters stayed fairly near shore, very unaffected by our presence, solely interested in munching the hard coral. You often heard them before you saw them, but with a large bump on their head and weighing in at about 40kg each they were quite the sight, especially since they had no fear or interest in swimmers, and we could be literally moving right among them. A myriad of other tropical fish were seen and of course the thugs of the ocean, the barracuda. On the beach there were no bars, no venders, no music, no jet skies, no beggars, and no tourist boats pulling up dropping off groups. There were only ever a half dozen people there. No kidding.
Our other destination was called Elephant Beach. It was reached by alighting from the bus half way to Beach Seven, and following an elephant trail through farmland and jungle for half an hour. Depending on the tide, the final bit, a mangrove swamp, was crossed by wading through foot-deep water. The beach itself looks a bit like a graveyard. Our Italian friend, Gio, who runs a restaurant overlooking Seven, said the beach was hit hard by the tsunami, and saltwater seeped into the litoral and killed the front lines of trees. Huge hulks of grey tree-trunks and roots have fallen across the narrow bit of sand that is left. The coral, however, was untouched, a magnificent long reef a few feet below the surface.
Dining was our main event at night and soon we had our favorites, out on the road or in Village Number Three. #3 was a bustling tiny hamlet with a great vibe where we’d have fresh BBQ barracuda with friendly, happy, helpful foreigners who shared tips and ate communally at large tables. A new family business opened while we were there and it became our standard. The food took a long time but was tasty, and really, who could resist a handwritten sign on cardboard claiming to be a “World Class Restaurant”. Lunch was frequently enjoyed at one of the ‘meals ready’ shacks, a rice thali for 50 cents, by the bus stop at Beach Seven. Beer was the same price everywhere, 100 rupees, even at the gorgeous open air Italian restaurant overlooking the beach, so naturally it became our ‘local’ for our ‘sunset beer’. This simple and pleasurable existence was easy, finding ourselves saying frequently, with emphasis,” this is really nice.” It was a breezy 32 degrees everyday, low bug issues, good transportation. We had so many friends we’d sometimes even avoid people. We both turned the colour of Macintosh caramel and neither of us burned (too much) or got eaten by a shark. We didn’t even see a shark, except on the menu.
With the last few days of our permit we checked out the next most-developed island, Neil Island. By development, I mean it has 3 guest houses. The situation for buying a boat ticket was, again, the only part of the whole place that reminded you that you were still in India. Because there was a ‘women’s queue’ I stood in the throngs for hours struggling to keep my place, pushing and throwing insults just like the next in line, a tiny, sari-clad ruffian. The majority of the tickets are sold for triple the price on the black market to tourists at their guest houses, and after a four hour wait for the window to open, only 4 people were served before they closed it. I persevered and secured us passage but had a smoldering feeling of violence that affected me all day and even seeped into my dreams.
Neil didn’t have the oomph that Beach Seven gave us (but really, what could?). But there were nice unspoiled uninhabited beaches, and at night, it was thrilling to ride bikes down the narrow paved road after dinner into town, in near total darkness. David had a dimming head lamp, and mine was dead, so I had to hope for the best following David’s lead. The town felt less buoyant then Village #3 on Havelock, this island being predominately settled by Muslim Bangladeshi, and the absence of women was noticeable. But we found the friends we made on the ship, who had 100 rupee huts and cooked the fish they caught on a fire on the beach each night. They couldn’t have been happier.
We sailed back to Port Blair and boarded our plane reluctantly. It was certainly less magical to arrive so quickly back in noisy polluted Calcutta. We got ourselves onto the plane out to Bangkok soon after that.
It is probable that the airport in Port Blair will be expanded and international flights will start from Thailand. At that point developement will soar. I’d give it less then five years. Pollution, hookers, reggie bars on the beach, spas and towering first class hotels, like the rest of the once-paradisical Thai islands. But as Gio the Italian on Beach seven said to us,” we’re not so young, there’s hundreds of islands in the Andaman’s. We’ll likely be able to find one just out of the developers path until we die.” Until that starts to happen though, if you can swing it, GET THERE NOW. THIS IS ONE OF THE LAST GREAT UNSPOILT TROPICAL ISLANDS.