The Andaman Islands are India at its most tropical and laid-back. But with only limited access and communication, only true adventurers make it this far.
The novelty of our inter-island transport, a motorized dugout canoe, wore off about an hour after we left port. I was sunburned, dehydrated and my head thumped like an Indian tabla drum from the reverberation of the doongies diesel-guzzling engine. The only patch of shade was under an old black umbrella, supplied by my Indian host. While I inhaled diesel fumes and wilted, the tanned Burmese boatman in tropical bandanna and black Lycra swimming trunks was completely at ease; he may as well have been sipping a cocktail on a cruise ship. Finally, a sliver of silver sand glared on the horizon. The boatman cut the engine and a surge of great white waves rolled the silent vessel onto what must be one of Asias most spectacular beaches.
The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is a collection of 572 islands, islets, rocks and reefs strung out from north to south in the Bay of Bengal, closer to Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia than to India. Beautiful as they are, they have a sinister modern history. They were annexed to India by the British in the 19th century and used to dump Indian convicts sentenced to life imprisonment: usually freedom fighters in the Fist War of Independence in 1857. In those days, mainlanders called the islands Kala Pani, or Black Waters, because no one ever returned. Ironically, the Indian government now has to restrict tourist visas to 30 days because no one wants to leave.
The islands are administered as a Union Territory by New Delhi officials flown out on a two-year "hardship" posting. Indian ownership of the islands has never been formally disputed, although the land is believed to be a continuation of the mountain peaks of the Araken Yoma range of Myanmar and the indigenous islanders are negrito hunter-gatherers, originally from Southeast Asia. Tragically, settlement of the islands has deprived the tribal groups of their land and livelihood, undermined their society and introduced epidemics. Indigenous communities now constitute about 14 per cent of the population.
I first heard about the Andamans from a group of backpackers I met in India in 1995. Strapped for cash but desperate to escape mainland mayhem, they endured five days aboard an Indian cargo and passenger ship, eating thalis three times a day and sleeping in crowded dorms reeking of overflowing toilets to reach these mystical islands. They assured me the islands were worth it. Inspired by their stories of majestic and giant pelagics, I rang Indian Airlines the only airline that flies to the Andaman capital, Port Blair to book the first available flight. "Yes, madam, the ticket is 100 per cent possible, maybe." I was assured. As it turns out, tickets were available but there was a three months waiting list.
In 1998 I finally made it. Although they are now a popular holiday destination for wealthy Indians, tourist infrastructure is still basic and insufficient for mass international tourism. Service is slow, accommodation is basic and organizing even the simplest things like a moped, ferry departure times, confirming flights can be a nightmare.
But the natural landscape is astoundingly beautiful. Lush tropical rainforest covers more than 80 per cent of the land, including virgin hardwood forests ecologists would die for: Gurjan, Padauk, White Chlugham and Raintrees. Only 38 of the narrow islands (on average they are only 20 kilometers wide) are inhabited and, according to the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team, most are biodiversity hot spots, with more than a quarter of the flora and fauna endemic, with the rest from Myanmar, Indonesia and subcontinental India. Four of the worlds seven species of sea turtles nest on the islands beaches, seagrass supports rare dugongs, and giant monitor lizards and saltwater crocodiles inhabit the extensive mangrove swamps.
With practically no continental slope, the islands drop steeply to great depths not far from the coastline. However, there are plenty of bays and inlets and a vast expanse of productive oceanic waters on the east and west coasts. These are host to 135 species of coral and more than 600 species of fish including cleaner wrasse, groupers, scorpion and lion fish, moray eels, sea snakes, reef sharks, dolphins and manta rays. Marine life is said to be bigger than usual, although visibility is often relatively low due to runoff from the rainforests.
- South East Asia Liveaboards