ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS
ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS
Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Location In the Bay of Bengal off the east coast of India
Distance by sea 1,255 km S of Kolkata, 1,190 km E of Chennai
When to go The best time to visit is Oct-early May. The rains extend from mid-May to mid-Sep
Permits Indians don't need permits to visit the Andamans, but if they wish to visit any tribal areas, they need to get a special permit from the Deputy Commissioner, Port Blair. Foreigners must get their permits in advance from Indian missions abroad or from the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi or the Foreigners' Regional Registration Offices (FRROs) in Delhi, Kolkata,
Mumbai and Chennai
Wildlife/ Forest Dept offices
• Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife)
Port Blair. Tel: 233549
• Chief Conservator of Forests
Port Blair. Tel: 230048
STD code Port Blair 03192
About Andaman and Nicobar
Set amidst the Bay of Bengal, these islands were once a part of one great land- mass 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 colonization 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 ill- nesses). 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 Shorn pens, 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 water- ways. 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-systerns. 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.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
A range of unique experiences awaits Visitors in this tropical retreat - you can go swimming, scuba diving, snorkelling and coral viewing. Glass-bottomed boat rides reveal the glorious wealth of marine life, and ferry rides take you to pristine beaches past mangrove-lined creeks and bays.
In and around Port Blair
The capital town is a major commercial hub that's linked to the mainland by air and sea. Visitors can get tourist information, make arrangements for ferry rides as well as permits to visit Saddle' Peak and Mt Harriet here; the Tourist Office, the Forest Department and the Directorate of Shipping Services are all located in Port Blair.
Amongst the tourist attractions here are the Andaman Water Sports Complex, the museums (Forest, Fisheries and Samudrika), the old Chatham Saw Mill and the Cellular Jail. The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and the other islands and beaches can be approached from here.
The Cellular Jail, built by the British in 1906 to imprison people deported from the Indian mainland, is now a memorial. It's well worth a visit to see how prisoners lived and what punishments were meted out to them. There is an artefact gallery and museum. Every evening, the Son-et-Lumiere (Sound and Light) show recreates the history of the Cellular Jail and episodes from the freedom struggle.
Entry fee Rs 5 Timings 9 am-5 pm, Monday closed Sound and Light Show fee Rs 20 Timings Hindi 6-7 pm, English 7.15-8.15 pm; open all days
Mahatma Gandhi Marine NP
To get to the park, head to Wandoor Beach, about an hour's drive from town. The open sea itself is the park, which is spread over 280 sq km, also comprising 15 islands of varying shapes and sizes. Fascinating marine life can be observed while snorkelling, scuba diving or travel- ling in glass-bottomed boats. You can also take a short trip to Jolly Buoy Island, Red Skin Island and Cinque Islands. The Cinque are enchanting islands, declared a sanctuary, with rare corals and underwater marine life and tropical rainforest. There is a sand bar that joins the two islands. You can go snorkelling here.
Boats can be hired only to reach Jolly Buoy and Red Skin islands. For Cinque, there is no ferry service, but you can hire your own boat if you wish to visit. Boats for Jolly Buoy and Red Skin operate from the Wandoor Village Jetty at about 10 am and return by 2.30 pm. Boat tickets cost Rs 300 per head.
As transport is hard to come by at Wandoor Village, ask your taxi driver to wait for your return - the fare will be approx Rs 800. Also remember to obtain a permit to visit the park from the Conservator of forests Office in Port
Entry fee Indians Rs 50, foreigners Rs 500 Timings Sunrise-sunset
Mt Harriet NP
The Mt Harriet National Park, a tropical evergreen rainforest, showcases the flora of the islands. The park is home to many birds, animals and butterflies. Animals that can be seen include wild boars, deer and civet cats. Plant enthusiasts will love the diversity of ferns and epiphytes found here. These islands have no less than 110 types of orchids. The sunset view from the highest point (365m) is quite spectacular. A popular trekking route is from Mt Harriet to Kalapathar in South Andaman.
Entry fee Indians Rs 25, foreigners Rs 250 Timings Sunrise-sunset Permits Available from the Conservator of Forests' Office.
Ross Island was the administrative centre of Andamans before Port Blair. Today, Ross looks like a specially made up set for Michael Crichton's film Congo. The ruins are being slowly asphyxiated by the giant roots and the vegetation that are reclaiming the territory stolen by man. The flavour of the life of the colonial 'masters' comes alive here amongst the remains of the church, the opera house, the covered market and the club. one can visualise prisoners, some perhaps in shackles, tailing to build the Swimming pool, the officers' mess, the ice factory and the market.
The cemetery, with spotted deer darting between headstones, silently tells us of those who came but did not leave. In 1941, there was an earthquake and several buildings cracked. Suspecting that the island was sinking, the British moved the capital to Port Blair. Later, the Japanese captured the island. Every now and then, one comes across reminders of the war and the Japanese occupation of the Andamans. I saw a huge, old, rusty Japanese cannon on Car Nicobar Island, Which now serves as the locus around Which local young men meet and lonnge around.
Travel time 15-min boat ride from Port Blair Fare Rs 60 return Entry fee Rs 20 Timings 10.30 am-4.30 pm, Wednesdays closed
Air From Chennai and Kolkata, Indian Airlines and Jet Airways have regular flights (2 hrs) to Port Blair. Attractive pro- motional fares are available. Hire a full- day cab (Rs 850 non-AC for 10 hrs). Autos are optional for short forays within the islands. You can also rent a mobike (Rs 150-200 a day, plus fuel). Ferry connections are there to most inhabited islands where tourists are permitted to visit. Contact the Tourist Office for information and the Directorate for Shipping (Port Blair) for boat! ferry connections
Sea Though ship connections are avail- able from Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam through the offices of the Shipping Corporation of India, this is not recommended as the sailing time can vary from 3-5 days (one-way)
Ringed by dense evergreen forest, the centre of Barren Island (8 sq km) is a desert of sand, cinder, ash, lava and rock regurgitated by the earth when it heaves and explodes, which it last did in 2005. The paradox is that while all vegetation dies where the hot lava falls, the cooled ash and other nutrients carried in the wind actually nourish the forest around the periphery of the island.
Stepping off the dinghy into the shallow water is like stepping into a warm tub. In places, it's actually hot. Wisps of steam escape between the lava rocks on the shore. Climbing up to the 225-m high crater is a test of endurance. You slide back 2 ft for every 3 ft forward on the loose rock and volcanic ash. There is no marked track up the slope. It took me 2 hrs to climb 225m. Exhausted with the heat on the way up, I sat down to rest my weary limbs only to discover that the ground was too hot to sit on! Heated by the sun from the heavens and the fire from below, the earth is streaked yellow and white with sulphur and other chemicals. The island is off limits to tourists, but you can take the sight- seeing boat ride from Port Blair, which is available 3 days a week (Tue, Thu and Sat). Make your bookings at the Directorate of Shipping Services at Port Blair.
Boat ticket Rs 400-1,000 Timings 9-11 am, open all days except Sundays and govt holidays Departure Port Blair 9 pm Arrival Barren Island 3 am Departure Barren Island 5.30 am the next morning Arrival Port Blair 1 pm
This place is full of rainforest, coconut, areca nut plantations and paddy fields. The Radhanagar Beach, on Havelock, js crescent shaped, ringed by forests, with barely a soul in sight. Havelock is also the place where one can see the annual migration of Olive Ridley turtles, which come here to lay their eggs. For those who want to stay over on Havelock, there is a picturesque eco-friendly resort in the forest, a few minutes walk from the beach. There are several other accommodation options elsewhere on the island. You need to make bookings a day in advance for the boat ride from Port Blair, which takes 4 hrs one way.
Boat ticket Rs 18 (one way) Departure timings 6.30 am Return 2 pm
Boat fares are going to be hiked substantially soon
Saddle Peak NP
Located on North Andaman Island, Saddle Peak is the highest point in the Andaman archipelago (732m). A 10-hr trek to and fro, the route goes along the beach (where fascinating shells and fossils are to be found), and then through the rainforest. It's recommended for nature lovers and trekkers. One of the most memorable sights as we left Diglipur Harbour was the school of dolphins that escorted us out of the port.
You need a permit to visit the park. You can get this from the Forest Department at Diglipur.
Entry fee Rs 10
Ross and Smith Island
Up in the northern part of the archipel- ago are the Siamese twins of Ross (not to be confused with Ross Island near Port Blair) and Smith. You can cross over from one to the other at low tide with- out wetting your feet.
Crystal clear waters, deserted beaches, fascinating underwater life and the ubiquitous tropical forests are the attractions. Lying on a beach, I spotted a white bellied sea eagle (an endangered species) soaring languidly. This is also where we snorkelled in the crystal clear waters to view the hundreds of varieties of fish and coral.
Hire a taxi (negotiate the price for a night halt) for the 16 hr drive (1 way) from Port Blair to Diglipur. Stay over- night at the Tourist Office's Turtle Resort or a local lodge. Next day, take a local fishing boat called a dungi (Rs 700-800 for the full day). The boat ride should take about 40 mins. You must return to Diglipur by 2 pm.
Permits Available at the Diglipur Forest Office Permit fee Indians Rs SO, foreigners Rs 500 Lodge booking At the Tourist Office (Tel: 03192-232694) in Port Blair
While there are many places that you can go to see the swiftlets, it was in the caves in the central part of the archipelago that we saw swiftlet (collocalia fuciphaga inexpectata) nests. Of the many different kinds of swifts, the most sought after is the species whose nests are edible. No one we met had ever seen this bird on the ground, or on a tree or a bush or on a wire. Legend has it that after they leave their nesting caves, they fly literally for years, sleep and eat on the wing and do not alight until they come back to the cave to breed! The limestone caves in which swiftlets nest are, typically, very narrow and high. The swiftlets build their nests only on one Wall. With the help of a flashlight, you can see the tails of the birds sticking out as they hatch their eggs. On the opposite wall of the cave are thousands of bats hanging upside down - who decides which wall belongs to the birds and which to the bats is a mystery.
Interestingly, just like the bats, the swiftlets also use echolocation to fly around in the pitch dark. The swiftlets' nests are made of their saliva, which hardens on contact with the air. The Chinese believe that the nests have great aphrodisiac qualities and use them to make soup. Over the years, poachers have come from as far away as Indonesia and Thailand to steal the swiftlet nests. The Government of India, in collaboration with an NGO, now has a programme for guarding the caves and poaching has declined.
WHERE TO STAY
Port Blair has a range of accommodation to suit all budgets. Private hotels are to be found on some of the popular tourist islands such as Havelock. Forest Rest Houses (FRHs) such as those at Mt Harriet NP can be booked through the Forest Department.
Inside the forest at Mt Harriet is the austere but charming Forest Rest House (Tel: 03192-230152; Tariff: Rs 200) with 2 rooms and 2 eco-huts. It is run by a care- taker who also doubles up as cook. Bookings can be made at the Conservator of Forests office in Port Blair.
About 3 km from the airport in Delanipur is the government-run Andaman Teal House (Tel: 03192-234060; Tariff: Rs 400-800). It offers sightseeing, excursions to islands around, and its in- house facilities include a multi-cuisine restaurant, room service and attached baths with hot water. Reservations can be made at the Directorate of Tourism near the Secretariat in Port Blair, at 03192-232747. Located on Beach No.7, Radhanagar, on Havelock Island, is the Barefoot at Havelock Resort (Tel: 220191,282151,236008; Tariff: Rs 4,000- 5,500), an apt name because barefoot is probably what you will be most of the time on this lovely beach. Though its rates are a bit on the steep side, on offer are a range of activities such as snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, fishing, yoga, nature walks, and even swimming with an elephant! They also arrange sport-fishing trips. Also on the Havelock Island, on Beach No.5, is Dolphin Resort (Tel: 282411; Tariff: Rs 500-2,000), with 34 cottages. It has a restaurant and laundry facilities.
Part of the ITC Fortune Park Hotels, Fortune Resort Bay Island (Tel: 234101, 232065; Tariff: Rs 3,549-5,810) has a private jetty, a pool, a business centre with conference facilities and a doctor-on-call. It accepts credit cards. Besides conventional facilities such as a multi-cuisine restaurant and travel desk, it has a more unusual attraction: a private theatre.