ANDAMAN & NICOBAR ISLANDS
By Noni Chawla
The bane of modern travel is well described by someone who said, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Fortunately, there are some journeys in which the act of travel and the destination merge seamlessly into one another. And so it was for me when I went to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands with a group of travel writers and photographers. Experiences are often difficult to capture in words. Ours spanned the spectrum from endurance-testing climbs such as the one to the top of India’s only live volcano to luxuriating on idyllic beaches. We soaked in, literally and figuratively, the evergreen rainforest, dived into the underwater universe of fishes and marine plants, stumbled in pitch-dark, snake-infested limestone caves to photograph the swiftlet (whose edible nests fetch up to US$ 4,000 per kg). We met people whose lives had not changed since the Stone Age. Activities such as game fishing topped off our experience of a wondrous variety of sights, sounds, smells and textures.
Of our 15 days of heady travel, nine nights were spent on ships. And it was only appropriate that we should do so — for, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are as much about the sea as they are about the forests. Each of the nine nights, I was gently rocked to sleep in my cabin. I greeted each dawn on a new island, with its unique people, sights, sounds and smells. The 572 lush-green islands here, together with the sea, are home to myriad varieties of vegetation and hundreds of species of marine life, animals and birds. The Andaman Sea in itself has more than 1,200 species of fish, 350 species of echinoderms and 1,000 species of mollusks.
The islands have the most spectacular beaches (and sunsets) I have ever seen in my three decades of travel. The tropical jungle nudges the ocean across white, empty crescent beaches where we waded and swam in the warm waters, almost sure that a mermaid would materialise anytime soon.
Some islands are inter-connected with sandbars that disappear at high tide, like Ross and Smith off North Andaman. Around these islands, and elsewhere (for instance, in the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park), are coral reefs where you can spend hours scuba diving or snorkelling, marvelling at a brilliantly coloured underwater universe. It’s on these islands that one can see the ‘terraces’ that are mentioned in Tarzan books — along the ground grow the low herbs; a few feet taller are the shrubs; then comes the ‘understorey’, above which is the canopy. At the very top are the umbrellas of tall trees called the emergents. Shorelines are hugged by littoral forests of sea mahua, casuarina, pandanas and Andaman bullet wood. The majestic junglee jamun (Eugenia Jambulana) has buttresses that can dwarf a full-grown man.
Scraping the sky are garjan trees, with white, smooth boles. Ringing the creeks and the inland waters are the mangroves that seem like many-legged alien creatures. The root system gives these trees the name of the ‘walking mangrove’. Cruising through the creeks, if one is lucky, one might spot a salt-water crocodile. At one point, the engine of our boat died, and we all had to get out and push. Mercifully, we were not discovered by them!
The hills in the islands offer breathtaking vistas of the islands and the ocean. One such is the Saddle Peak, the highest mountain in the Andamans, which we climbed during a 12-hr trek. Perhaps the best view we had was from the top of the 46-m high lighthouse on Little Andaman. In the world of travel, these islands are, thankfully, still relatively unknown. Nature is delicately balanced here and travellers, therefore, must remember to tread very softly.
ABOUT ANDAMAN and NICOBAR
Set amidst the Bay of Bengal, these islands were once a part of one great landmass that stretched from Myanmar to Indonesia. Over the years, the islands acquired a formidable reputation because of its inhabitants, who greeted outsiders with bows and arrows. The British took the lead in exploring the islands, sending a team under Lieutenant Archibald Blair, who established a tiny settlement there in 1789. In time, it became the site of the Cellular Jail that was used to incarcerate Indian nationalists who opposed the British regime in India. This penal settlement came to be referred as Kala Pani, where banished nationalists shared cells with hardened criminals. Briefly occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, it was reoccupied by the British and handed over to the Indian Government post Independence. The colonisation of the islands by the British in the 19th century changed the islands’ basic fabric and the number of tribal communities dwindled to a mere 500 (this is attributed both to their battles with the British as well as the spread of various illnesses). The communities trace their ancestry to Africa.
The original inhabitants of the islands were six tribes, two of them Mongoloid and four Negroid; all but one of them are today on the verge of extinction. Of the two Mongoloid tribes, the Nicobarese have assimilated into the mainstream. The Shompens, estimated to number 250-300 (before the tsunami of December 2004), live in isolation as they have done for several thousand years. Of the Negroid tribes, the Sentinelese (estimated population 250) live in complete isolation on Sentinel Island. The others have some limited contact with the town for medical help and other assistance from time to time. The Jarawas live in a Reserve Forest and their population is estimated to be about 350. The Onge tribe has barely 100 members left. The Great Andamanese number less than 40. Their small numbers are a cause for concern today.
While the Andaman authorities are eager to boost tourism on the islands, all activities are monitored — as it should be — so as to maintain the balance of its rich and unique wildlife both on land and under water. About 86 percent of the islands are covered by forests. Nesting sites dating back to centuries support Olive Ridley turtles, hawksbill turtles and leatherback turtles. Amongst the islands’ rare avifauna (246 species of birds are found here) are the exotic Nicobar pigeon and the Megapode.
Today, the islands have 96 sanctuaries and nine National Parks, chief amongst them being the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, the Saddle Peak National Park, the Mt Harriet National Park, the Rani Jhansi National Park, the North Button Island National Park, the South Button Island National Park, the Middle Button Island National Park and the Cinque Island Sanctuary. The Campbell Bay National Park and the Galathea National Park are part of the Great Nicobar Biosphere, an area of 885 sq km formed in 1989 with the objective of conserving the ecosystem.
Of the 572 islands that together make up this archipelago, the principal groups are the Andamans and the Nicobar Islands (also referred to as the Bay Islands), both with their own distinctive characteristics.
The Andaman Islands (the northern group), comprising big and small islands are spread over 475 km. The North, Middle and South Andamans are separated from each other by narrow waterways. Deeper south, beyond Rutland Island and the Cinque Islands (and across the Duncan Passage) is Little Andamans. To its south lies the southern group — the Nicobar Islands, which are separated from the Andaman group by the Ten Degree Channel. It’s closed to tourists.
Port Blair, the capital town and the commercial hub of the islands, is in the South Andaman Islands. It’s also where the airport, the major hotels and the various administration departments are located and forms the base for short forays to neighbouring islands. To Port Blair’s north-east lies Ritchie’s Archipelago, home to Havelock Island, with its Radhanagar Beach, which has one of the world’s richest coral reef eco-systems. North-east of the Ritchie’s archipelago is Barren Island, India’s only active volcano, out of bounds for tourists. You can, however, catch a boat ride and see it from the sea. Narcondum, another extinct volcano, is to the north. Birdwatching is an exceptional experience on the trekking trails to the Saddle Peak National Park and the Mt Harriet National Park.