As the plane circled around the Bay of Bengal, the first thing that strikes you in the glittering emerald group of islands that constitute Andaman and Nicobar, is the heavy carpet of thick forest. Some of the uninhabited islands are completely blanketed with green cover, tall trees, and the blue azure water surrounding white sandy beaches is simply heavenly! Winging over the deeply wooded and greeny-bluey undulating landscape, our touchdown at the Veer Savarkar airport is smooth. We are here to spend our days in Havelock island for an advance scuba diving course, and we could not have chosen a better place! Long fabled among travellers for its legendary beaches, world-class diving and far-flung location in the middle of nowhere, the Andaman Islands are still the ideal place to get away from it all. Its lovely opaque emerald waters are surrounded by primeval jungle and mangrove forest, and snow-white beaches that melt under flame-and-purple sunsets.
The population is a friendly masala of South and Southeast Asian settlers, as well as Negrito ethnic groups whose arrival here still has anthropologists baffled. Adding to the intrigue is its remote location, some 1370 km from the mainland, meaning the islands are geographically more Southeast Asia – 150km from Indonesia and 190km from Myanmar. While the archipelago comprises some 300 islands, only a dozen or so are open to tourists. Havelock is by far the most popular for its beaches and diving. The Nicobar is strictly off limits to tourists, as are the tribal enclaves.
This string of islands scattererd like pearls upon the ocean seems the original Garden of Eden with its prehistoric settlers, a place that time forgot, and one that Indians are only recently beginning to discover. After landing in Port Blair, the capital, we arrive at the Aberdeen bazaar, the city centre. The roads are easy, the traffic is smooth, the pavements friendly, though crowds that punctuate a typical Indian city are missing. Every now and then, driving along the slopes, one gets the picture perfect view of the sea and outlying islands. Right on the water with a lovely cool sea breeze, the Bayview is a great spot to stop for lunch. If you need a break from town, Corbyn’s Cove has a small curve of sandy beach, 7 kms from Port Blair. A wide 10 degree channel divides the Andamans from the Nicobar islands. Indian nationals require permits to visit the Nicobar islands and tribal areas but travel in the Andaman group of islands except driving on the Grand Trunk road that runs through the Jarawa tribal reserve – is unrestricted.
Walking through Port Blair market, we found Bengalis, Sikhs, Tamilians, make up a fair share of the population. There are also a sprinkling of Burmese and of course the original 6 tribes of Andaman and Nicobar are completely hidden away from the public. The tribes arrived 70,000 years ago from Africa and still remain in the remote islands in complete privacy. The most talked about tribe, the Jarawas, were once fiercely protective of their seclusion, and there are now strict laws against tourists exploiting them so entry to the tribal reserves is rightfully forbidden. The other tribe are the Onge, Andamanese, and the warrior-like Sentinelese, most of whom have been wiped out, with only tiny populations remaining.
The anthropological museum in Port Blair gives a wonderful glimpse into their lives. The are also a group of Mongoloid tribes who are concentrated in the Nicobar islands, who may have migrated from the Far East. Many of them are quite modernized and wear western clothes but the mystery that surround such tribes persists. The Navy and Air Force also heavily guard these sun-soaked islands and some areas are out of bounds for civilians. The islands are so pristine as a result of the strict laws, that the great potential of package tourism for this group of islands is yet unexplored, and hopefully it will remain so.
This idyllic landmass has ancient history dating as far back as the Ramayana, with references to Lord Rama having visited the Andamans before waging war with Ravana in Sri Lanka. Traders sailing on spice routes landed upon these balmy shores, but were rudely rebuffed by its original Negrito inhabitants. Then came the British who used the islands as a strategic outpost to guard their far-flung kingdom, and the islanders were exposed to diseases and the curse of modern life. Known as Kala Pani, the islands were used as an outpost for prisoners with life-terms, many of them heroic freedom fighters. Some of the original islanders here fought fiercely against the British occupation.
SUNSHINE ISLAND – HAVELOCK VILLAGE NO 5
With snow-white beaches, teal shallows, a coast crammed with beach huts and some of the best diving in Asia, Havelock has a well-deserved reputation as a backpacker’s paradise. For many, Havelock is the Andamans, and it is what lures most tourists across the Bay of Bengal, many of whom are content to stay here for the entirety of their trip. Havelock is one of the biggest islands and most developed for tourism, but it still has a quaint, untouched feel compared to other beach destinations. It’s a two hour ferry ride away on a fast boat, the Makrooz, from the main jetty in Port Blair, which departs twice daily.
Photo identification is a must, and tickets at the ferry have to be booked way ahead to avoid being shut out. Cars are not allowed inside the ferry gates, making the one km route to traverse by bus very cumbersome, but all feelings of disgruntlement disappear as one alights on the pier at Havelock, with the bright sun, blue sky, and inviting seas guaranteed to drive away the blues. A local bus connects the jetty and villages on a roughly hourly circuit, but having your own transport is useful on Havelock. You can rent mopeds or motorbikes and bicycles or take an autorickshaw from the jetty to No 5 Village.
Havelock has the most beautiful beach villages, which abound with scuba dive centres and laidback resorts. Foreigners flock to this island, but its not hippy-happy Goa. One of the beaches is called Radhanagar, the most beautiful beach in India for a first time visitor, but as you scout around, there are many other beaches that are as stunning, like Vijaynagar or Govindnagar beach, where the lagoon waters are warm and quite shallow for a long distance seawards. Radhanagar beach has two adjoining crescents, one larger than the other.
Happy to laze in the shadows of its more famous island neighbour, tranquil Neil island is still the place for that added bit of relaxation. Its beaches may not be as luxurious as Havelock’s, but they have ample character and are a perfect distance apart to explore by bicycle.
Visiting Ross Island feels like discovering a jungle-clad Lost City, à la Angkor Wat, where the ruins happen to be Victorian English rather than ancient Khmer. The former administrative headquarters for the British in the Andamans, Ross Island is an essential half-day trip from Port Blair. The first place of interest north of Port Blair is the impressive limestone caves with stunnig stalactites at Baratang Island. It’s a 45-minute boat trip from the jetty, a scenic trip through backwaters lined with mangrove-forests and mud volcanoes. Parrot Island here has rose winged parrots.
In ‘upper’ Middle Andaman, Mayabunder is most famous for its villages inhabited by Karen, members of a Burmese hill tribe who were relocated here during the British colonial period. A low-key destination away from the crowds, you can go on a range of day tours, with the highlight being jungle trekking at creepy Interview Island, inhabited by a population of 42 wild elephants, released after a logging company closed for business in the 1950s.
With its friendly island community and lovely slow pace of life, Long Island is perfect for those wanting to take the pace down even a few more notches. Other than an odd motorcycle, there’s no motorised vehicles on the island, and at times you may be the only tourist here. A 1½-hour trek in the jungle (not advisable after heavy rain) will lead you to the secluded Lalaji Bay, a beautiful white-sand beach with good swimming. Hiring a dunghi makes it much easier.
Those who make it as far north as Diglipur Island are well rewarded with some impressive attractions in the area. It’s a giant outdoor adventure playground designed for nature lovers: home to Andaman’s highest peak, a network of caves, a famous turtle nesting site and crocodile sanctuaries, to go with white-sandy beaches and the best snorkelling in the Andamans.