India: A Magical Trip to the Andaman Islands
The Andaman Islands were Once a Prison, Today You Can Visit the Ruins
By Mridula Dwivedi
If you travel to Port Blair, it feels as if you are going out of India, it is so far away from the mainland. I went to the Andaman Islands on a whim.
In the middle of my teaching semester, I realized that I had a week off but by then it was quite late.
Airfares had gone up and in the end package prices offered by Make My Trip for seven days and eight nights sounded pretty attractive. I was lucky to rope in a friend as well, and suddenly in the middle of the semester, I was off to Andaman!
Reaching Port Blair, the Capital
We were joining other guests at Bangalore and from there flying to Port Blair, the capital of Andaman.
I was quite excited about the photography opportunities the trip would present but I had no inkling of the fate that actually awaited me.
Small Andaman Airport
The Vir Savarkar International Airport is really small. Make My Trip had a chartered flight with Kingfisher Airlines so we were the only passengers at the airport. It took us only a few minutes to get out and I was finally at Port Blair.
Port Blair and The Viper Island
We were soon on our way to the hotel, the Sea Shell Resort. Port Blair is not a big place and does not have, as of now, the bigger hotel chains but I found Sea Shell quite comfortable.
After a good lunch, we headed to the Phoenix Bay Jetty. Our destination was Viper Island. Andaman had been a penal colony during the British rule of India. Getting a prison term at Andaman was known as getting exiled to ‘Kala Pani’ — the cellular jail.
Today the main structure is in ruins and the island is all peace and tranquillity to be broken only when ferries laden with tourists come and dock at the jetty.
I learned that Viper Island was an open jail, where prisoners used to be in fetters, as they had nowhere to run to with miles and miles of ocean all around.
The Light and Sound Show at the Cellular Jail
The next day after breakfast we were headed to the Coral Island at the North Bay, where the snorkeling was on offer and so was the glass bottom boat ride. I went off snorkeling first.
I have to admit I did not like the mask over my nose and that I need to breathe through my mouth, but I adjusted to it. The coral and the fish can easily be spotted and it was fun.
If you went snorkeling, chances are the glass bottom boat ride may not sound that exciting. But if you ask for my opinion, scuba diving is the best of all, which I did later at Havelock. A word of caution here though, the masks are shared, so you may feel a bit put off by putting in your mouth the piece someone else used a while before.
Ross Island used to be the British Capital of Andaman and lies in ruins now. We had a passionate guide Anuradha with us.
The island used to have a church, a tennis court, a bakery, a mint, a graveyard and many other such trappings of civilization.
The island was teeming with Red Cheeked Bulbuls, and there were deer too. By the time we left Ross Island, it was beyond lunch! We had a late lunch and then in the evening for the sound and light show at the Cellular Jail.
The trouble with writing about this trip is that some of the destinations like Ross Island, Cellular Jail, Scuba Diving, and the Limestone Caves near Baratang could each be a separate article!
Port Blair: Cellular Jail, Various Museums, and the Wandoor Beach
The light and sound show was quite moving, one of the young tour managers from Make My Trip said he cried when he saw the show for the first time.
On day three our first stop was the Cellular Jail. We knew some of the things about the dreaded jail from the light and sound show but it was a different matter to be able to visit the premises.
Later we visited the Naval Museum, the aquarium and a museum devoted to the life of the tribes of Andaman. You can see from my description that museums are not really my cup of tea!
Wandoor beach is about one and a half hours away from the main city. It is a serene place.
The Limestone Caves near Baratang
The next morning we had a really early wake-up call around 4:00 am as we were headed to the limestone caves.
The road passes through the Jarawa Tribes Reserve Area and the vehicles can move only in a convoy escorted by the police.
The Jarawa people know when the convoy moves and they do come near the road. No vehicles can make an unscheduled stop; they have to drive at a prescribed speed, and it is strictly a no-photography zone. The road has been a controversial project.
We reached Baratang and boarded a really crowded ferry. The ferry also carries buses and cars. The big ferry dropped us near motorboats that finally took us to the limestone caves. The boat passes through a canopy of mangrove trees to reach the jetty.
One has to walk for a few kilometers to reach the caves. It was a pleasant flat walk for me but it for sure was a hot day. The boatman that brings you to the cave also doubles up as the guide. You can hear my guide speaking in Hindi inside the limestone cave.
Making the Bus on Time
By the time we got back to the boarding point of our bus, the day was scorching hot. We just about managed to make it to the 12:30 pm convoy. If you miss it, the next one is at 3:30 pm!
I do not get fazed by heat easily, but even for me, it was a bit too much. I decided that sleep was the best way to tackle it. I woke around 3:00 pm in the evening and it was cooler by then.
All of us were bone tired when we got back and after an early dinner, the bed looked pretty inviting. The next day we were heading to Havelock.
Havelock: The Land of Beautiful Beaches and Scuba
We took a cruise to Havelock, the MV Makruzz, which takes 1.5 hours to reach Havelock. If you are looking for a beach destination Havelock is the place to go and not Port Blair.
In the evening the Barefoot Diving people were giving us a presentation on scuba diving and I was quite keen on trying it out even though it did not look easy.
We reached Havelock in the afternoon and our first stop was the Kala Pathar beach.
Due to a delay in our start, we reached there almost at sundown. There were hardly any people at the beautiful white sand beach. As usual, I went for a long walk.
Anne and Rehan were our instructors and Rehan are all of 18 years of age! Basic drills over, it was time to head below the sea. For a while, I was not too sure what I was doing but after three or four breaths underwater I realized I was fine.
It was indeed a riot of incredible colors and a variety of fish and corals. We lasted 52 minutes under the water and went up to 11 meters in depth. I guess it is not at all bad for a first dive.
In the evening we had a relaxing time at the amazingly beautiful Radhanagar beach. I played on the waves for hours.
The Last Sunrise and a Watery Grave for my Cameras
I decided to wake up and try to capture the sunrise on my last day at Havelock. For a while, it felt that clouds will win again but in the end, it was a beautiful sunrise.
A while later while walking on the shore barefoot I got poked by a coral.
Port Blair Ferry
We spent another day at Port Blair because the ferry from Havelock arrives in the evening and flights leave in the morning.
It was a magical trip and I am definitely going back to Andaman, but then my cameras are not going too close to the water, ever.
And before I sign off, I have to say a warm thanks to our tour manager Mustafa Fakhri and his team who did their best to make our stay memorable.