Every island in the Andamans is archipelago has something of interest… from white sands, barefoot resorts and marine life, to indigenous tribes, parakeets, pearls and remnants of colonial establishments
If claims of a local cabbie-cum-guide are anything to go by, the scenery depicted on a 20-rupee Indian currency note is actually the natural landscape of one of the most picturesque spots at Mount Harriet near Port Blair.
No official confirmation on this, but this is how the 21-year-old lad sells Mount Harriet — the second highest peak in the Andaman Islands and our first destination of the trip..
Standing tall at about 365 metres, Mount Harriet, which offers a splendid bird's-eye view of Port Blair's adjoining islands, is barely 10 minutes from the Chatham harbour of the Capital city to Bamboo flat aboard a ferry, followed by a five-minute vehicle ride.
Located in the southern part of the Andamans, Mount Harriet also has a natural trek to Madhuban Beach. However, thanks to the intermittent rain the last two days coupled with a more-than-fleeting appearance of some wild snakes moments before our arrival, our unofficial guide dissuaded us.
Talking about rain, the cabbie, who calls himself a “local” (his great grandfather was apparently one of the erstwhile Cellular Jail convicts who, like several other inmates, decided to settle down in Port Blair itself after they were set free), says that since the 2004 tsunami, the rain in the entire belt of Andamans has become rather “unpredictable”, unlike earlier when there were specific rainy months in a year.
The next day was reserved for Havelock Islands, arguably one of the most popular islands in Andamans.
Havelock Island, which is over 55 kilometres from Port Blair, focuses on eco-tourism, what with eco-friendly bamboo huts as changing rooms on its popular beaches.
The one must-see at Havelock is the famous Radhanagar Beach, which even found a mention in Time magazine. The beach is undoubtedly beautiful, especially when the tide is high. Sitting on the white sand and watching the sun set is bliss.
However, for those keen on snorkelling and swimming, Elephant Beach on this island is the place to be. While Radhanagar can be reached by road, Elephant Beach takes about 40 minutes on a motorboat or the more indigenous “dongi”.
The Barefoot Resort (places like the dining area and the bar can be accessed only barefoot), located amidst giant trees near the Radhanagar Beach, is unquestionably the best resort on Havelock Island. The resort can be at least tried for snacks, meals or drinks, if nothing else, as room prices – especially during peak season – are likely to burn a hole in one's pocket.
After spending a night at Havelock, we returned to Port Blair the next afternoon and proceeded to Baratang Island the day after. More than the island, which is about 100 kilometres away from Port Blair, it is the route to this isle that is fascinating as one has a good chance of spotting Jarawas – one of the indigenous tribes of the Andaman Islands. Though interacting with them and offering them food is strictly prohibited, some tourists do give away biscuits or “paan” to the Jarawas, who eat it with great relish.
While the administration forbids any photography, the Jarawas too react very fiercely if they notice they are being captured on camera. The journey to Baratang is mainly by land, followed by a 20-minute ride in a huge ship that is capable of transporting men as well as vehicles as large as a passenger bus.
The mud volcano near the Jarawa Creek and limestone cave in Nayadera are natural wonders on this island.
Brutally affected by the 2004 tsunami, Baludera on Baratang is an almost lifeless beach now, full of uprooted trees, and dead corals – brought ashore by the powerful earthquake and the following tsunami. According to locals, Baludera was one of the prettiest beaches on the whole of Andamans before the tsunami struck.
A natural habitat for parakeet in the region, the Parrot Island is a pleasant sight for nature aficionados, where one gets to see parrots returning “home” in droves, a little before the sun sets. What is striking is that the mangroves on this island are trimmed from time to time by the parrots themselves using their beaks in a near-perfect manner.
However, a visit to Parrot Island – an over 20-minute ride in a ferry from the harbour – would require a night's stay at Baratang Island, which one can otherwise cover within a day and later fall back to Port Blair.
Another gorgeous island near Port Blair is Jolly Buoy Island. Being an uninhabited island and a “no plastic zone”, visitors are expected to carry their own food and drinking water before they set for an over one-hour journey by sea to Jolly Buoy from Wandoor, 20 minutes from Port Blair. The island boasts splendid marine life that is best observed by snorkelling. You can spot sea anemones, sea cucumber, star fish and several other kinds of fish, not to forget the wide variety of corals. For those who are uncomfortable getting into the water, glass boats are available.
Apart from snorkelling, North Bay Island located close to Port Blair is renowned for its underwater corals – though they are not even half as good as those in Elephant Beach and Jolly Buoy Island – and authentic pearls. Pearl necklaces, bangles and household decorative items are sold by locals from small shacks on the beach.
About two kilometres from Port Blair is Ross Island, which was the administrative headquarters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands till early 1940s. This island remained under British occupation till 1942, after which it was conquered by Japanese troops till 1945.
While the Japanese bunkers are still quite intact, one can also see vestiges of the once grand British life on the island, like the chief commissioner's residence, its gardens and ballrooms, officers' accommodation, etc. The island is maintained by the Indian Navy.
Sightseeing in Port Blair city itself can be easily covered in a day's time, the anthropological and Indian Navy museums, aquarium and the infamous Cellular Jail being some places of interest.
Wrapping up the visit to the truly unique Andamans, one wished that going to the Nicobar Islands – apparently equally, if not more astounding – was also feasible.