The boat bobbed gently on the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. As we soaked up the sun on the deck, the guide announced, “You can enjoy snorkeling at North Bay, see the ruins of Ross Island where we have lunch, head to Viper Island and finally return to Port Blair where…” Suddenly a belligerent male voice cut him mid-sentence, “What is this? Don’t you cover Nicobar also?” For a few endless seconds there was only silence, before the whole boat rocked with belly-shaking laughter. The guide broke the news gently. “Sir, Andaman and Nicobar is a chain of 572 islands that stretch across 800 km! Car Nicobar, the northern-most point and headquarters of the Nicobar group is 270 km from Port Blair and takes errr… 16 hours by sea.” Mr. Loudmouth’s righteous indignation vapourised instantly to utter bewilderment; his mouth opened and closed wordlessly like a goldfish, as he computed the numbers.
To the uninitiated, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are twin fantasies of exotica, as inseparable as Laurel & Hardy, Ernst & Young or Yin & Yang. Two peas in a pod, albeit at opposite ends. Cut off from the mainland for centuries, these islands have been home to tribes untouched by modern civilization. The story of how a harmless harbour for ships in distress transformed into a notorious penal settlement under the British, a Japanese-occupied territory during World War II to eventually become a tourist paradise is as magical as a tropical butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Today, Andaman & Nicobar has finally taken wing as a dream destination in the minds of domestic and international travellers alike.
In this surreal world, turtles nest on virgin beaches, jungles teem with rare flora and fauna, geographical wonders like coral reefs, sand bars, rock bridges and mud volcanoes leave you awestruck while sting rays, sea moths and rabbit fish inhabit the deep. Snorkeling and scuba diving are perhaps the most intimate ways to discover this hidden realm that explodes with fascinating marine life. North Bay, the closest snorkeling site from Port Blair, gave us our first glimpse of the coral reef. While glass-bottomed boats offered the tame pleasure of window seats on flights, snorkeling was more like skydiving. We hovered over schools of multi-hued fish shimmying in underwater gardens of coral.
In sharp contrast, the historic ruins at Ross and Viper stood still, ravaged by time, calamity and war. The choking grasp of overgrown vines had squeezed the life out of the barracks, boiler rooms, churches and bungalows of the erstwhile headquarters of the British. During World War II, after occupying Singapore and Rangoon, Japanese troops landed at Port Blair on 23 March 1942 and captured it without firing a shot. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had allied with the Japanese to oust the British and it was at Ross, a tiny island of 0.8 sq km, the smallest in the Andamans, where bells of freedom tolled for the world’s seventh largest country. On 30th December 1943, Netaji, Supreme commander of the Provisional Govt of Azad Hind, hoisted the Indian tricolor in British-free India for the very first time and renamed Andaman and Nicobar as Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). Netaji stayed in the British High commissioner’s house and a memorial near Netaji Stadium at Port Blair commemorates his visit.
However, much before WWII, the Andamans marked an important milestone in India’s road to freedom. The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny prompted the British to develop the Andamans as a penal settlement and its most recognizable symbol was the Cellular Jail. The photo displays, sculpted models, relics and son et lumiere offered a vivid portrayal of the past. It was hard to imagine hundreds of Indian revolutionaries toiling night and day under extreme conditions for 10 years to build a seven-pronged prison.
Nearly 30 million bricks, handmade from crushed corals sourced from Dundus Point were used. Each wing had three storeys for solitary confinement in individual cells, hence the name Cellular Jail. When the siren blared from the central watchtower, it announced that three martyrs had been hanged. We climbed the tower for an unhindered view of the sea and gazed at ships passing by. The red and white stripes of the lighthouse at North Bay broke the dense green cover that stretched till Mount Harriet, our next stop.
Lilting birdsong mingled with the scrunch of shoes on the nature trail from Mount Harriet to Kala Patthar and Madhuban. One of the richest areas of biodiversity, Mount Harriet National Park was home to spectacular butterflies like the Andaman Blue Nawab. True to its name, the fussy butterfly feeds on only one species of plant; if unavailable, it chooses to starve to death! Back at the Forest Rest House, we sipped tea at the machaan and watched the sun dip into the sea and the lights of Port Blair twinkle at night. After trawling the museums, shopping for shell handicrafts at Aberdeen Bazaar, sunsets at Chidiya Tapu, lazing on the beach at Corbyn’s Cove and snorkeling at Wandoor Marine National Park, we headed for the most popular hangout in the Andamans, Havelock.
Aboard the swanky Makruzz, the 55 km journey was a breeze. Slicing through endless blue waters at 24 nautical miles, the luxury catamaran left a foamy wake as flying fish scurried for cover. Soon, we docked at Havelock. After some gourmet seafood at B3 overlooking the jetty we set off to Beach No.7 or Radhanagar. One look at the white crescent-shaped beach fringed by groves of Andaman Bullet-wood and we knew why TIME voted it as Asia’s best beach.
The Barefoot Beachside Jungle Resort was the fanciest address in town, rated amongst the top 30 eco-resorts in the world. The island brimmed with resorts, restaurants and scores of dive sites nearby; those who had their fill, moved to the quieter charms of Neil Island.
From Radhanagar we trekked to Elephant Beach or Hathi Tapu, Havelock’s most popular dive site. The dense thicket opened into a Dali-esque painting – crystal clear waters lapped gently against massive upturned trees strewn on a narrow beach strip. As we gushed in delight, our guide remarked wryly ‘You should have seen it before the tsunami!’ It was hard to imagine how the mood of the sea had shifted from this Zen-like calm to the destructive fury of 2004. Nicobar, being closer to the epicenter, bore the brunt.
Unlike the Andamans, tourism in Nicobar was restricted due to its strategic importance as a defense base. Foreigners were not allowed and domestic tourists needed special permits, granted only in exceptional cases. Nicobar’s remote location beyond the treacherous 10 Degree Channel, a 400-fathom deep waterway, only added to its mystique. Its geographic isolation had allowed endemic species to grow to gargantuan proportions. Here, intrepid Giant Robber Crabs climb up coconut trees to crack open nuts with their claws. The empty shells of Giant Clams, the world’s largest living molluscs, serve as water troughs for pigs reared by Nicobarese. Over a third of Andaman’s 246 species of birds are endemics, including the iridescent Nicobar Pigeon and Megapode (literally ‘bigfoot’, a scrub fowl that laid outsized eggs). India’s largest snake, the Regal Python is also found here.
To a generation that grew up learning ‘Kanyakumari is the southernmost tip of India’, it was a revelation that Indira Point in Greater Nicobar was the rightful owner of the tag. Poring over a map on the ferry back to Port Blair, we realized we had merely skimmed the surface. One could only wonder what other secrets lay trapped within these stunning emerald isles…
For visiting Mt Harriet & Wandoor National Parks
Chief Wildlife Warden
P.O. Haddo, Port Blair 744 102
Ph 03192-233321 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
For special permits to visit Nicobar & other tribal areas (Indians only)
Andaman District, Port Blair 744101
Ph 03192-233089 E-mail email@example.com