Friday, June 29, 2007

An amazing adventure - III

Our next mission was to get to the top of Mount Harriet. This was the highest peak in the South Andamans, and also the British summer capital (the Brits certainly knew how to live life!!). We trekked a bit of the distance and were rewarded with a cool wide vista and a cool breeze. We discovered a 16km trekking path through wild jungle at the top, but did not go because we did not have footwear which would protect us from leeches..

Puffing all the way upThe top of Harriet

After exploring all these interesting places from Port Blair, we set off for Havelock island with great excitement. After a three hour boat ride, we arrived at Havelock. We were quite excited to be there, what with Time magazine naming Beach no. 7 on Havelock as the best beach in Asia and one of the best in the world (though I am quite puzzled at how something so subjective can be ranked...).
Havelock was a real revelation!! Half the island was still uninhabited (unexplored dense jungle). No cell phone signal, no cable tv, no newspaper, no STD phones!! One dirt track (the highway!!), about 200 population, and massive beauty all around.. check out some of the landscapes there. We would usually wake up at five am to catch the sunrise (and mostly missed!!) and would be in bed by eight cos it would be pitch dark by six!!
Wild beautyMore wild beauty
Beauty on the roadThe autobahn!!

We rented a couple of bicycles on this idyllic island, and would set off for Beach no. 7 which was 13 km away from our pretty resort!! Believe me, it was not easy (the pictures say it all :-))
Our resort
On the trusty bikeTotally pooped out!!
The reward at the endEngineering

Finally I come to the icing on the cake - our scuba dive into a live coral reef. It was scary and majestic at the same time. We were underwater for 63 minutes straight, and I have never been so determined to keep breathing in my life!! My ears hurt, my nose were blocked and my mouth was totally dry from the dry air pumping from the oxygen tank, and yet I was mesmerised by so many different fluoroscent fishes, snakes, corals and plants!! We went down to a depth of 12 meters (which does not seem so much on paper, but is actually damn scary if you happen to look up!!) and thankfully we were able to overcome our fears and panic (the guide later remarked that it was one of the smoothest rookie dives that he had ever undertaken!). My only regret is that all the wonderous stuff I saw at the bottom of the ocean will remain only in my memories...
We dived from this beach
Preparing for the diveA new superhero is born - FROGMAN!!

After two nights in Havelock we returned to Port Blair. The return ship ride was quite rough (a storm brewing and a choppy sea tossing our ship about as if it were made of paper!!). We were quite grateful to get back to land safely, and our enthusiasm for the sea was severly tempered :-) A couple of stiff drinks helped restore nerves, and yet after this we did not venture back to the sea for the duration of our holiday...
As I revisit my bland narrative I find there is so much I have missed - the shells we collected, the elephants we encountered, the ghost house we lived in, the nice time we had solving very hard sudoku puzzles over neat whiskey, the strange ship with underwater first class... there is enough in my memory to populate many posts. Yet that will have to wait for some other time.

An amazing adventure - II

Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, is a small, beautiful and neat town. Hindi is the most commonly spoken language, followed by Bengali and Tamil. The town looks somewhat like this -
Port Blair - water sports complex view Our resort (the Fortune Bay Island resort) had a fantastic view of the bay and North Island.
Room with a viewPort Blair does have basic infrastructure (unlike Havelock, but more on that later) - you do get a cellphone signal sometimes, and typically get yesterday's newspaper.

Post Blair was only our base station. From there, we visited a multitude of different islands. Viper island was the first - it was somewhat macabre, since all it contained were a prison house and a gallows, and especially since it had been devastated completely by the tsunami and had been abandoned since!!

The next island we went to was North Bay. The island is known for its beach where one can snorkel. We took a glass bottomed boat and saw some corals (which were mostly dead, alas!). However, we took off into the forest and were rewarded for our efforts when we came to this massive lighthouse (the same as seen behind the twenty rupee note!). After a rough and tough climb to the top of the lighthouse, we were rewarded with a massively cold and strong breeze, and a view to die for!! Check out the misty mountains in the distance.

The high tower From the top
Misty mountains
Our next stop was at Ross Island. This island is only a small distance away from Port Blair, and was the erstwhile colony of the British army. It was known as the Paris of the East, so beautiful was it. Even now, ruins of the Brit settlement can be seen. The island is currently owned and run by the Indian navy, and has deer and peacocks, in addition to a beautiful melancholy abandoned beach and lonely World War II Japanese bunkers!!
Ruins of church and cemeteryfeeding deer on Ross island

Next came Baratang Island. To reach this distant place, we had to pass through a tribal reserved forest (no pictures are permitted, so we dont have any, though we did manage to see a lot of tribals). The tribals are totally naked, except colorful belts of beads, and are seen with bows and arrows. They looked totally African, with flat noses, very dark complexions and curly hair!

Baratang island is in the middle of a mangrove swamp. The boat ride to the limestone caves was awesome, through dense and thick mangroves!!
Through the thick growthIndiana Jones and the bridge over the mangrove swamp
The entrance to the limestone cave came after a trek through dense forest which came after the mangroves. Though the cave itself was pitch dark (so no photos!!), we could see massive stalactites and stalagmites being formed before our very eyes.
Entrance to the spooky cavestalactite through torch beam

We encountered some wild fauna en route (check out this sleeping bat from close quarters and this multicolored reptile!!)
Batman(?)Looks like a rainbow to me!!

After returning from the mangroves, we trudged further uphill on Baratang to view this mud volcano. Though we could see the bubbling mud oozing out, I must confess the damn thing was a bit underwhelming. Somehow when I think volcano I think of huge craters and large seething masses of lava. This was unique, but distinctly timid :-)
Oozing mud

More to go in part III...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

An amazing adventure - I

First, a trivia question - what do you see on the back of a twenty rupee note?
Answer - this (Check it now!!)View of lighthouse tower Second trivia question - what place is this??
(Easy to guess) answer - North bay, South Andaman islands

Before you go on reading this blogpost, a quick warning. I'm just back from an amazing adventure in the Andamans, and I may suffer from an overdose of enthusiasm as I describe all there is to experience there. Please bear with me!! The second warning is that words may not be able to describe the sheer beauty of the place, therefore I will depend a lot on photographs (this could make it tough to load this page)

The Andaman islands offer a smorgasbord of different ecosystems - emerald blue sea, dense rainforest, mangroves, high altitude mountains, and of course the best beaches in the world. We were lucky to visit in the lean tourist season, so we had the whole place to ourselves! We had planned the trip as an adventure trip, and we surely had quite a few - scuba diving in a live and impossibly colorful coral reef, trekking through dense forest, going deep into a dark limestone cave, seeing a bubbling mud volcano, and cycling, cycling and more cycling!!

First, the origin - the Andaman islands apparently got their name from Handuman (or Hanuman, son of the wind). This is because in the Ramayan, Ram's army of apes had initally planned to launch an attack on Ravan's Lanka from these islands (though it seems to be quite surprising, given that these islands are quite a distance away from the mainland - it takes the same time to get to the Andamans from Chennai by air as it takes to get from Delhi to Chennai!). Hanuman had come to these islands to do a recce, and wisely decided against it!! The islands have been inhabited by aboriginal tribes (a few of which are cannibals!!) since time immemorial, and only when the British decided to set up a penal outpost (sometime at the end of the nineteenth century) here did these islands see civilization. These islands came to be known an 'kaala paani' or 'black water' ever since the dreaded Cellular jail was built to lock up political prisoners.
The dreaded cellular jail, peaceful nowWe travelled a lot by a small boat between these islands, and though the waters are usually friendly and emerald green, they do suddenly become very scary, black and opaque whenever its cloudy!! More recently, the islands were severely affected by a tsunami, and even a eighteen months later, the effects are there to see - uprooted massive trees, waterlogged shops and destroyed flora, ships etc.
Uprooted tree trunkWaterlogged shops - reminds me of Bombay!!
But now for the good stuff. To be continued in part II...

Back again

Whew!! Its good to be back again...

Here is a narration of what's been going on in life in the interim -

More updates in a bit!