The Andaman Islands

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Way back in 2000, I, Michael, tried to catch a ferry from Kolkata to Port Blair on the Andaman Islands. The promised crystal clear waters, snorkeling, beautiful beaches and cheap huts on the “un-touristy” island chain just seemed too alluring after having trekked in Nepal for two weeks. Unfortunately a delayed flight and a missed ferry meant that the plans had to be curtailed, with the thought in mind that I’d have to come back. Little did I know it would happen 8 years later with my incredibly beautiful wife! The last 30 days on these islands have been truly special. We have lounged through hot days in the shady spots of beautiful beaches fringed with tropical jungle, ate delicious and cheap local cuisine, met some crazy and beautiful people, seen incredible fish and coral, cycled around marveling at local island life and become quite a few shades darker… If anyone is looking for a honeymoon spot or a place to get away completely for weeks, this must surely be it..

The Andaman Islands are a small chain of Indian islands between India and the Malaysian peninsula that are actually a whole lot closer to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma than India. We are now back in Port Blair – the main town – and are flying back to Chennai on the mainland on 5 Feb.

Arriving here 25 days ago we were just so excited at getting out of the plane into the hot and humid tropical climate – the time spent in the Himalayas was awesome, but a little too long in the cold for us South Africans. We had shed all our warm gear, so our packs were suitably light for island hopping, or so we thought… The next morning while at the jetty waiting for our 6am ferry to Neill Island two tourists walked past us with little day-packs and a pair of goggles and snorkels hanging off them each, hmm – so that’s how to do it!

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Our first island visit was Neil Island. The ferry trip was pleasant – the scenery was incredible as we motored through the island chain. We just marveled at the dense tropical jungle with huge trees on all the islands. Neil Island met us with the usual mob of touts wanting to take us to guesthouses, but with only five on the island it wasn’t too difficult to make a choice. We decided on a R20 beach hut… The island is small and so is the village. After renting bicycles the next day we covered pretty-much most of the island and saw some of the other beaches. We also decided to upgrade to another resort with R30/night huts because they had a concrete floor, had a better mattress (I don’t think our backs would ever have recovered if we had stayed at the first place for the 2 weeks we were on the island), and were close to the main market (and our favourite restaurants!). We frequented “Chand’s” restaurant in the main bazaar where a veg thali (rice, dahl – lentil stew, 2 x veg curry, atchar and poppadoms) cost R7, and the menu was so huge they could definitely cater for any taste! Everything is made fresh, so it was always wise to drop in at the first hint of a tummy rumble because a 1 hour wait is to be expected.

We also got to know Sanjay at Gayan restaurant across from our resort very well. He’s a legend. Literally – he a fisherman in every sense, grew up doing it and on the snorkeling trips we did with him we could see him come alive with his simple fishing spear or with a trailing fishing line in his hand. He told us the story of him catching a 27kg barracuda – he heard there were bid

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barracuda off one of the island reefs and so swam out with a fishing line and an octopus as bait. He swam trailing the line 5m behind him and watched as this huge barracuda came and took the bait, gave it line to swallow, then hooked it and wrestled / swam with it back into shore! Wow, and honestly I can vouch that this is one of the humblest men I’ve ever met. We really enjoyed the snorkeling trips with him. It was great to spend 2 weeks on this Island and get to know some of the locals and some fellow travelers really well. We were also exposed to our first Indian festival – the island held a week long festival for some swami-dude, which turned out to be very bland yet very loud. Fortunately we missed the show of young 16-year old boys doing each their own rendition of pop-bollywood dancing and our lodge was out of ear-shot. Mostly the festival had little food stores and shops selling all sorts of cheap Chinese toys and nick-nack goodies.

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After 2 weeks of relaxing we were sufficiently chilled out to make a trip up north on the Island chain. We caught a ferry for Rangat on Middle Andaman, and were then enormously blessed in the turn of events leading to a free jeep-ride to our place at Mayabudar (with a bunch of Navy guys doing sea surveying). At Mayabundar we stayed at a place – Sea ‘n Sand, run by a lovely couple, Titus and Elizabeth. Although eating at the restaurant broke all our record books for waiting time for food – 2.5hours!! we enjoyed our stay here. We managed to post some letters home, see another bigger and more impressive festival, and have the most incredible snorkeling at Avis Island. We couldn’t believe the display of coral and fish that we saw! After our previous trips on Neil Island we thought the coral was impressive but not “blowing the mind” type stuff, yet here it certainly blew our mind. It was shallow (maybe 1m), but the intensity of colours and the multitude of beautiful fish was insane! We also somehow managed to startle this whole shoal of fish into doing 3 enormous springs into the air in a desperate attempt to get away – I think it may have been Nelleke’s long blonde hair 😉

After Mayabundar we headed up to Diglipur by bus through some dense tropical forest. Diglipur is the northern-most point we could visit on the islands, and it offers only two resorts – a government one and our chosen one, Pristine Beach Resort. This stay of 4 nights was also very special in that we got to see a large turtle laying eggs at night at high tide and did an incredible sea-swim over to a tiny island just off the coast. It felt very adventurous. We were also very glad to bump into our British friends, Chris and Lisa, there.

After that we headed back down by ferry to the most popular tourist island on the chain – Havelock. We enjoyed staying there for 5 nights, going every day to the most beautiful beach we have ever seen – beach no. 7. We also stayed out in the jungle, which was quieter and were woken every day by fresh bird calls of many kinds (and, of course the odd barking dog and cockerel crow as we had come to expect).

Tomorrow we’ll check out some of the historical spots at Port Blair, including the old penal jails that housed Indian freedom-fighter prisoners during the British reign. We can’t wait to explore Kerala in South India for the next 2-3 weeks before our flight to Indonesia.

 

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Written by Michael Elston. Extract from our travel blog kept in 2009 when we travelled for five months through India, Indonesia and Nepal. 

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