Tucked away from civilization and lost to time, Neil in the Andamans is a hidden island with quiet beaches, coral reefs and natural rock bridges. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY reveal its secrets, grudgingly.
Ever had the feeling on visiting a place so pristine, you are almost afraid to share it with the world? Neil Island, about 1400km from the Indian mainland and 40km east of Port Blair, is one such place. Uncluttered by ATMs, internet connectivity and mobile signals, here coconut water does not come in tetrapaks and even the morning newspaper is a luxury. Located at the southern tip of Ritchie’s Archipelago in the Andamans, the island remains virtually marooned, except for two daily boats that disgorge the few travelers who make it thus far. Neil almost lies beyond the time-space continuum and reaching it is like approaching an Event Horizon, a point of no return.
After the mandatory tour of Cellular Jail, Chidiya Tapu and a 3-island boat ride around the capital Port Blair, most travellers head to Havelock Island for a luxurious holiday and the rush of ocean adventure sports. But like characters from a classic Victorian saga, Neil is the lesser known but more intriguing stepbrother of Havelock, the flamboyant aristocrat who hosts extravagant parties on its fabulous tropical estate. Havelock and Neil are spoken of like salt and pepper, but they are just as different in flavour. While Havelock is a bustling tourist hub, Neil is a sleepy corner of the earth where even time decides to dawdle and often slows down to a stop. We realized it the instant we alighted from our Incredible India ferry at Bharatpur Jetty after the 1hr chug on the Andaman Sea from Havelock.
The sun scattered silver dust on the sea, which spread like an unending ream of blue silk, seamlessly blending into deeper hues. If one accidentally dozed off on the beach, it wouldn’t be surprising to wake up with the strange feeling of having been washed ashore on some Lost Continent. Or imagining one was still dream travelling, for the scene is picture perfect – a beach with crystal clear waters fringed by trees and baby soft sands with an unbroken symphony of waves playing in the background. A lone cab driver offered to drop us at the Hawabill Nest Government Lodge, at one time the only accommodation on the island. A third generation Bengali immigrant, Babul spoke Hindi with a bewildering tropical Bengali accent and offered us a crash course in history. The entire chain of islands were once so deserted that after the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Indian Government decided to populate the area with displaced refugees, which explains why the lilt of their language was adrift so far out at sea!
Barring a few that have retained their aboriginal names, many islands in the Andamans were named after British heroes of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny while the modern colonies created by the Government for the refugees were numbered for convenience. Over time, the settlements, beaches and landmarks acquired names inspired from mythology, thanks to the resettled Hindu migrant population. While Havelock’s beaches Govindnagar (Beach No.3) and Radhanagar (Beach No.7) bear a Krishna theme, Neil Island owes allegiance to the Ramayana. Choosing main characters of the epic, Neil is divided into different village zones – Bharatpur (Beach No.4) and Laxmanpur (Beach No.1) to the north of the central bazaar area of Neil Kendra and the rocky Laxmanpur (Beach No.2), Ramnagar (Beach No.3) and Sitapur (Beach No.5) to the south. It was ironic to find Hanuman absent, considering the monkey god allegedly used these islands as stepping-stones to Lanka. The word Andaman is believed to be a derivative of Handuman. More than the legend, it was Hanuman’s wayward flight, off-course from Lanka and perilously close to Phuket that seemed more perplexing.
It was dusk by the time we said goodbye to Babul, who offered to pick us up the next morning for a tour of the island. After a home-style dinner of fish curry, prawn fry, hot tawa chapatis and rice at Hawabill, we set out for a late night stroll. Fairy lights wrapped around a tree lured us to Gyan Garden Restaurant where a group of travelers were playing cards awaiting their food, which arrived like an enviable Asterix style Gaulish feast! Like some bizarre marine Show and Tell, the platter brimmed with large lobsters, grilled fish, prawns, crispy calamari and all the creatures of the sea, with garlic bread, garden fresh salad and potato chips. They asked us to join in but we graciously declined, inwardly cursing ourselves for having eaten earlier. However, we settled for fresh juice and exchanged stories.
One gentleman had escorted two elderly ladies from Europe and the trio headed to Neil because “It was perfect. Er… will you write about it?” they half entreated. “These are by far the most beautiful beaches,” Anne said, petting a stray dog. “We have stayed in fancier places in Port Blair and Havelock, but we prefer the simplicity of this place,” added another. Chris, an avid diver gushed, “This a great place for snorkelers and divers. We have spotted dugongs and the coral reefs are fantastic. It is more beautiful than anywhere else. You can spend hours drifting with the currents or practically swim across to Havelock!” Fabien, a deep sea diver and photographer added, “Once you get a taste of it, you cannot have enough. So one does it day over and over again…We jump in, throw down a line and lower ourselves in the clear waters. The deeper you go… more surprises unfold in this underwater garden.” A duo we met earlier on the boat revealed they were into sportfishing, “The sea off Ritchie’s Archipelago holds some of the best catches of giant trevally, barracuda and marlin!” It was really late by the time we crawled back to Hawabill Nest for our tryst with sunrise.
We set out early for the farthest beach at Sitapur past green paddy fields and fruit orchards. The abundant local produce earned Neil Island the sobriquet ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. Spread over 18.9sq km and only 5km at its widest point, it was home to just 3000 fishing and agricultural families dispersed around its five villages. In fact, Neil was so small one could easily cover the whole island on foot in a few hours. However, its many attractions lured one to bear roots forever.
Sitapur was unlike anything we imagined. In the blue dawn, we were the only ones on the curving beach lined by a forest of tall trees. At the far end were the eerie yawning mouths of gigantic limestone caves. Having borne the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, these fabulous geological creations had been sliced by nearly half and suffered far greater damage than other areas on the island. A few rocks jutted into the sea and served as the perfect perch and we scrambled up their slate grey smoothness to witness the sun breaking out of the ocean. It was mystical watching the sky change colour as the waves crashed on the slippery rocks swathed by layers of neon green lichen and moss. Since this beach was fully exposed to the open sea, it was prone to higher tides. We hung around the caves and beach mottled with exotic shells, tree stumps and rocks.
Ramnagar seemed a little more populated and we drove along the scenic village road past stray garden restaurants that looked strangely lost in their pastoral surroundings. Often, their quaint misspelt menu boards exaggerated their quirkiness but we couldn’t linger. We were in a hurry to reach our next stop Laxmanpur 2 for another sunrise phenomenon. A short walk down a wooded area led us to a sudden change in view. We crunched along the beach and saw a stunning natural rock bridge formation round the corner. In true Bengali spirit, locals had named the geological sculpture Howrah Bridge! But bigger surprises lay ahead.
Early in the morning, during low tide, a section of the fringing coral reef does a virtual striptease to expose some of its underwater secrets. Instead of donning snorkeling masks and wading into the sea, we stepped carefully over slippery rocks on our guided walk to observe marine life at leisure. Vividly coloured fish darted about in salty rock pools, leathery sea cucumbers lay motionless and clams wedged in the rocks quivered their clown-lips, bizarrely tinted blue and purple. Brittle stars splayed their tentacles from nooks and crannies and retreated when they perceived danger as eels stealthily watched us from their rock cradles. There were molluscs, barnacles, sea urchins and rock-boring worms but the corals were most fascinating – green staghorn corals, boulder corals, stubby finger corals, magical colour changing corals and strawberry pink corals that looked good enough to eat! When the waters slowly rose, our guide suggested we beat a retreat.
We hopped in at Hotel Pearl Park and Tango Beach Resort en route to Laxmanpur 1 or Sunset Point. Like AND Resort at Bharatpur and Cocon Hut Resort at Laxmanpur 2, the smattering of shacks scattered across the island are deceptively called ‘resorts’, a euphemism for budget, thatched huts. Most have attached restaurants and snorkeling masks, fins and bicycles on hire. We restrained from flopping into the hammocks conveniently strung between the trees and decided to check out the beach, a few yards away. Surrounded by mangrove creeks on one side and a turquoise sea lapping against soft white sands, it was the perfect place to get a tan, swim or snorkel. A narrow channel of water separated it from the southern tip of Havelock Island.
Bharatpur Beach, stretching a little further east was a vision of serenity. A few shady trees bordered the wide sandy stretch where the waters were a spectacular swathe of unblemished blue. We swam around for a while and snorkeled to our heart’s content, making full use of the 20m visibility. A few private boatmen plied glass-bottomed boats for coral viewing and charged Rs.150/head for a 15-minute ride. The reef was alive with multi-hued fish like Parrot fish, Surgeon fish, Dr Wrasse, Blue tang, Clownfish and Puffer Fish. ‘Nemo, Nemo!’ the boatman cried as he pointed to a clownfish ducking in and out of a luxuriant anemone. Munching between the coral niches, we spotted a Puffer fish that have the unusual ability to puff themselves to double their size to ward off predators. Since they lacked pectoral fins, their whirling rudder-like pectoral fins gave them an intriguing motion. The size of the brain corals and plate corals along this reef left us speechless. We had never seen anything that large, so close to the shore.
The ocean was really another universe beckoning us into its depths. The further we rode the more vibrant and magnified the underwater drama seemed. The waves began to get choppier and the boat sputtered. We saw our ferry make its way in the distance. It was time to head to the main jetty and return to Port Blair. Once we were locked and loaded, the ferry hummed off the coast and slowly, Neil Island grew smaller and smaller until it became a little dot and the ocean around began to spread into an immense ink blot. As a spray of panicky flying fish skittered out of the wake, we decided we will soon be back to Neil Island, in wet suits and flippers, to swim with dugongs in the sea.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December, 2011 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.