It was a fine Sunday morning and when the world was asleep, we woke up early or should I mention super early at 0330 hours. Wondering why? Read on. According to the itinerary, we had to explore Baratang region. Baratang is one of the most exiting places that Andaman offers to the tourist. Apart from the Mud Volcanoes and Limestone Caves, it’s the journey to the place that steals the show. We were all ready and set to go by 0400 hours. The sun was still asleep and our taxi driver had to switch on the headlights. We had to reach Jirkatang, a place from where we’d get our ticket to enter Baratang. Let me make it simple.
Andaman has four main tribal communities. A major one out of them is called ‘Jarawas’. To reach Baratang, one needs to go through the jungle which starts right after the entry to Jirkatang. The jungle houses the above mentioned tribe and is a place of great interest.
Long back, a group of tourists shot a video of the Jarawas and uploaded the same on the web. According to the United States, this act was not justified and it was classified as hindrance to the tribal life of the Jarawas. The issue was raised out loud and was finally brought up to the Indian Government. After all sought of discussions and panel meetings, the government decided to offer protection to the community. The jungle was then handed over to the police and CCTV cameras were also installed amidst the wild. A convoy system was setup wherein a convoy of vehicles at specific time will be accompanied by the Police officials to cross the jungle from Jirkatang to Baratang and vice versa. The government also banned the use of mobiles and cameras in between the journey. The first convoy had to depart at 0600 hours and we were to go in the same. If we missed this convoy then we had to wait for 3 hours and that’s the reason why we woke up early. We had to reach the spot a little early as each vehicle needs to register with the Police officials.
Everyone in the car was enjoying a small nap and I was busy experimenting with my camera. Anyways, we reached the spot on time and lined up in the convoy consisting of cars and buses. Our driver told us that during the peak season (October to January), the convoy has over 300 vehicles and the line is huge. Hopefully, we were out of the lot and it was the month of August. Jirkatang was a beautiful place with lush green landscapes. All it had was a Police Camp, a few road side eateries and a small temple.
Our taxi driver carried out all necessary formalities. Yet again, ID Cards of all travellers are needed and one should not forget to carry them. While in Andaman, take care of a few things. First, always and always carry your ID cards. Second, avoid carrying polythene and poly bags. The same is banned in the area and you’d be asked to dispose off any polythene in the luggage. The convoy proceeded and the Police officials proudly sat in some random cars. Thankfully they didn’t choose ours. The convoy was accompanied by Police officers in Bikes, at the very start and the end of convoy. Vehicles were to drive at a constant speed and no car/bus was allowed to overtake or stop in the way. As mentioned earlier, no traveller was to use cell phones and cameras were not to be touched. The jungle was under electronic surveillance and was monitored using cameras. I found this completely illogical as the stretch was over a forty five kilometres and how could they install cameras in this wide range? This raised the bar of inquisitiveness and I began my visual hunt for the CCTV Cameras.
Everyone was wide awake and was hoping to see the Jarawa community. By telling a few of his experiences, the driver had raised the excitement. He told that earlier people used to stop next to them, feed the tribes with ‘Paan’ (Yes! They love it!) And get the family photographed amidst the Jarawas. Well, all this wasn’t possible now but the least one could expect was a glimpse of the Jarawa community. These tribes live in the communal huts in the jungle which lack a sleeping platform. They utilize naturally available material such as palm leaves, barks, seashells and corals for their ornament and their dress. They are 240 in number.
We raced ahead the dense jungle and guess what! We just saw them on a turn! The Jarawas! The Jarawas shouted everyone. Them stood in a group of ten or twelve and seemed as if the government had paid them to stand still. I gazed to them in excitement and waved a hello. In return all I got by a young Jarawa was the action of ‘Go Away! Go Away’. The ten second sight was over and all we got to see were a group of dark complexioned nude human beings! Ahh! Not worth the wait at all. The ride was getting a bit boring and I failed to find even a single camera in the way. To this, the driver said that they’re hidden which yet again I question! I don’t doubt technology but my concern is that will the Indian government go this far? When most of Indian metros still don’t have CCTV coverage on the busy landmarks (despite bomb scares), isn’t it funny that government installs cameras to protect an area that is visited by a handful of people and in the middle of a jungle? Do share your opinion in this regard.
We reached Baratang at 0730 hours. We were to cross a river in order to go to the main area which houses the tourist spots. There came a ferry which was overloaded with people. It also carried vehicles and I was seriously stunned seeing its pathetic condition. We didn’t have an option and were asked to board the same! Thankfully, we reached the other side ‘safely’. Our driver was kind enough to accompany and arrange a speed boat for us. The speed boat was to show us the mud volcanoes. The cost per head for the same is Rs. 300 which includes a guide and the commutation. Each speed boat carried 8 to 10 people.Before starting the journey, Lifejackets came as a surprise and we were asked to wear the same. I was impressed until when I found out that none of the Lifejackets had proper belts. Being a Merchant Navy guy, I know the importance of the same and without a belt the lifejackets were a mere piece of crap. Even though we try a lot, we fail to run away from the Indian-ism. The mere task towards safety for the people of our country is sadly limited to the purchase of the safety equipment. We ignore its upkeep or either we tend to act too smart by not donning the same. Always give importance to SAFETY or else be prepared to surrender yourself to the salt water crocodiles!
Anyways, we had to cover a distance of 12 nautical miles which took about 30 minutes. The landscape was interesting to look at and the trees at the side of the waterway graced the same. Our guide slowed down the speed boat as we had to pass through the salt water trees. Now this was surely the best part! The view was as beautiful as it got get. Our motor boat crawled through the trees and finally it berthed at the side of the pier.
We were a group of 10 tourists and heading us was a 19 year old guide who seemed no less than 25 years. After a taxi and a speed boat ride we now had to walk through the woods for around one and a half kilometres. We passed through bamboos, weed, grass and dense forest. I made it a point to capture the entire scenery in my camera. After a hectic walk we finally reached the limestone caves. At Baratang, there is a good deposit of Limestone in the form of caves and the rest in the form of layers. These deposits are either above the ground or underground. The caves are formed by the latter and their origin is complex. Limestone is sedimentary rock that was formed at the bottom of the sea. When it rains, the rain drops pick up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hit the earth’s surface, flowing downward into small cracks. As it passes through air pockets in the soil, the drops absorb more carbon dioxide which is given by rotting plants and soluble lime. The rain water then becomes acidic which is an affective solvent of Limestone. The acid reacts with calcium carbonate of the rocks which results in these caves.
Our guide showed us around the caves and what followed next was funny and interesting. He showed us around various objects in the caves. For instance, an embossed deposit with two engraving was called as Ganesh Ji by him. This continued for half an hour and everyone got busy pointing torches to the walls in order to spot more! As the caves are quite dark, one must carry torches with them. This sure does make the ‘Spotify’ game interesting and also gives you a chance to navigate without hurting your leg!
We spend a good time in the caves and finally headed back to the pier. In the mid way, we came across a lemonade stall which was run by the local farmers.The way to the caves proved to be a good physical exercise and sure did raise the thirst level. A lemonade stall in between the way with no fellow rivals was surely a promising entrepreneurial venture. The one thing that I noted in Andamans was that the moment you begin to eat or drink something, there’s a dog that pops out from nowhere! The Limestone Doggie (Good Name, No?) couldn’t be offered lemonade so we moved on. It was amazing to see the dog follow us all through the way till the pier. How faithful is that? Sadly, we had to waive him a goodbye with nothing to offer!
We dodged back again this time while we moved through the trees. I still have the view fresh in my mind. Beautiful it was! We de boarded the speed boat at 1100 hours and had some quick meals in Baratang. Next, we needed to hire a gypsy (a jeep) in order to go to the Mud Volcanoes. Sadly, the way to Mud Volcanoes was closed as some maintenance work was in progress. Baratang had nothing else to offer, except Mud Volcanoes, Limestone Caves and Parrot Islands. We thought of to go to the Parrot Islands but all was in vain when we discovered that the island is good to see only in the evening when parrots and other birds prove to be a visual treat.
With nothing to do, we were forced to return back to the convoy spot. The next convoy was at 1430 hours. We had to spend nearly two hours at the spot. After a good wait, we started back our journey to Jirkatang. Though this time none of the tribal species were spotted! We were in the city by the evening and decided to visit a few handicraft markets. The city of Port Blair is famous for its traditional handicrafts which are mostly made from sea shells and corals. Earrings, Necklaces and other Jewellery made of sea shells were good to see. Yet another beautiful day in Andamans was about to end but not before another interesting fact that I got to know in the market itself.
Did you know: The people of the city of Port Blair haven’t had a taste of Milk as they don’t have any cows or buffalos! Yes. True. The city uses Milk Powder to prepare tea and coffee!