After the sombre evening at the cellular jail it was time for fun on the beaches of these magnificent islands. We had already booked our tickets on line for the 8 am Makcruzz cruise ship to Havelock Island. We were advised to reach the Phoenix Bay Jetty in Port Blaire Harbour an hour in advance that meant we had to leave at 6.30 am. It was to be an overnight stay in Havelock Island where main attractions were the beaches. I packed the backpack with emergency waterproof poncho, sandals, shorts, T-shirts and two changes of undergarments with a small towel besides the jeans and a sweat shirt I was wearing. Other essentials included sun shades, moisturiser, sun-screen lotion and the broad rimmed military felt hat, apart from my usual light travelling companions comprising of minimum toiletries, medicine and mini water boiler with tea bags, milk and sugar sachets. Just as well that we reached an hour in advance as there was a long process of scrutinising the passes and getting into the jetty followed by checking infor the waiting lounge and embarkation.
Makcruzz is a private shipping company that runs passenger ferry boats between the major islands of the archipelago. Manufactured in Singapore these boats are sleek, small and fast, a kind of cross breed between a speed boat and a small cruise ship. With a capacity of about 200 passengers our boat was very smart looking, clean, comfortable and professionally operated. Passenger amenities inside the boats were good but the jetties with connected facilities, under government administration, left much to be desired.
There were three categories of accommodation; the first level at the entry was premium @ Rs 1525 per seat where the chairs were smaller with lesser gaps in between. The second level or the second deck, up a short staircase was deluxe @ 2056 where the seats were bigger with comfortable arm rests and generous leg space. The top most level was Royal with 8 seater enclosures @ Rs 3236 with still bigger chairs and more space in between, ideal for large families. They would serve light snacks to the premium and royal passengers but as it turned out these were just nicely packed vegetable sandwiches and mini mineral water bottles. The entire boat was air-conditioned.
There was a sizeable crowd of all ages, families with children, couples, singles or groups like ours. Most passengers were carrying a light suitcase and a back pack that is now a worldwide favourite with travellers and tourists. As anywhere else in the country the “check in” lounge was packed to capacity with passengers for two cruise ships, Mak 1 &Mak 2. The process of boarding into the ship was friendly and courteous but slow. The reason as I could see was that for almost 400 passengers of the two ships, there were only two check in counters of which only one was functional. The staffs were efficient, polite and helpful but they could only do that much to manage so many passengers. Needless to say, like all good Indian travellers, the passengers were genetically programmed to be noisy, unruly and haphazard with a reluctance to stand in queue or bunch up chatting even while standing in the queue. Finally, after about half an hour’s wait we got the call for Mak 2 boarding and all of us lined up for exit out of the lounge and onto the open air sun kissed jetty. The staff guided us courteously to the designated place at the jetty where luggage other than back packs had to be left before queuing up for entry into the cruise. Fortunately, the entry was orderly and we finally set foot on the gently rocking ship. The first level was premium class and upon showing tickets, the conducting staff guided us towards the staircase that took us to the next level. The deluxe seating area was spacious with lounging chairs in three rows. Our seats were comfortable with ample leg space to stretch out and to keep our back packs by the leg side. Luckily, I got a window seat from where the vastness of a gently chopping sea at low tide was visible. It was a beautiful experience accentuated by the gentle rocking of the boat. I was told it would be different during high tide in the afternoon. I would have preferred an open deck with seats to feel the wind and splash of waves but the ship was designed for speed and comfort hence had only enclosed air-conditioned areas. I understand some ships have uncovered decks for the willing passengers to experience the open sea and dance if they wished, although at their own risk.
After all the passengers were settled, the stewards proceeded with the mandatory security instructions much like in commercial airliners. These were duplicated on the TV screen for all to see. The ship started moving sharp at 8 AM and was soon skimming the waves while swaying gently. Some passengers started moving around taking selfies while few others bunched up around friends or relatives blocking the TV screen for the rest. After half an hour of sailing two young and smart stewards got busy distributing packed sandwiches and mineral water to the passengers. I ate my cheese and vegetable sandwich and took few swigs of water. I would have preferred a cup of strong coffee but they were not serving beverages. An elderly European lady sitting behind me seemed to have been fascinated with my military hat. She asked me innocent questions through the gap between the seats and I explained to her the significance of the hat as well as the medallions pinned on it. I looked out of the thick double glass windows but got only a limited and hazy view of the sea. The Makcruzz was cruising fast and I could see that it was aerodynamically designed for speed. No wonder the scheduled travel time was only one and half hours. Unable to enjoy the view of the sea I took out my book from the backpack and read myself to sleep. At 9.30, exactly after one and half hours of boarding at Port Blaire the ship docked at the jetty of Havelock Island. The exit was orderly and we found ourselves standing at the jetty where some of the passengers were waiting to pick up their suitcases that were being unloaded. I was told that they operate this ship even when it rains and the sea is rough, however, people with sea sickness may not have the best of times during such a turbulent sail.
The Dolphin and the Beach
As we walked out of the jetty and crossed the gate there were lines of drivers holding name cards waiting for the tourists. I walked slowly scanning through the names and finally found mine towards the end. The young driver led us to the SUV, a Mahendra Xylo and drove us to the hotel through a maze of narrow roads lined with palm trees, fields, shops, mostly small restaurants, dhabas and wayside stores almost screened by plastic bags containing chips and biscuits. We also passed through small properties with resort name boards but obviously these were just small hotels or lodges. The word Resortwas a common fashion statement here just like Home Stayis a misnomer elsewhere in India. The Hotel we were booked in for the night was called Dolphin, a semi government resort. The tariff including breakfast was Rs 5500 plus taxes for a deluxe room. Considering the good standard of rooms, the layout of the property square on the beach and the stunning natural beauty of the wilderness of the island, the rates are very reasonable.
As we alighted and approached the reception building of the Dolphin Resort, I was impressed by its tropical architecture and size of the reception cum lobby. It was a colonial style building with conical red tiled roof over a huge hall underneath. A short flight of stairs led to the spacious and airy lounge. I saw a long reception counter against the wall towards the far end while the hall itself was supported by huge colonial pillars on all sides. Devoid of walls on the three sides the hall was bright and airy. Cane sofas and chairs were placed generously along the sides in groups and quite a few tourists were lounging around. The reception staffs were very helpful and polite. They told us that the check in time was 12 noon while check out was at 11 am and the house keeping staff were just cleaning and getting the rooms ready. It was only 1030 a.m. and the staff advised us that we could grab some tea, coffee or breakfast in the resort restaurant located in the adjacent building. We put our suitcases together in a corner and walked towards the restaurant following the well marked arrow indicators along a cemented path that wove around the entire property connecting cottages and duplex guest houses.
The restaurant was a spacious hall with a counter and groups of dining tables with chairs spread out at comfortable distances. A black board placed on an easel adjacent to the manager’s counter showed a limited menu with reasonable rates. We took a window side table with a lovely sea view and ordered tea, coffee and pakodas for snacks that were served almost immediately. Sipping our hot beverages and snacking on crispy and peppered pakodaswe admired the view amidst light hearted banter. The entire property was beautifully located and from the restaurant window we could view the beach just about 200 meters away. Also, it looked that there was no problem of space in the dwelling units of this tiny island archipelago as the cottages were well spaced on the sandy waterfront. Later, while paying the bill and chatting with the restaurant manager at the counter, I learnt that the resort had initially started with 34 single room cottages that was operated by Andaman Tourism Department while the new block of six single storied deluxe cottages and seven double storied deluxe cottages totalling 32 rooms, was leased to the tourism corporation for operations. The manager further explained that besides the restaurant the resort also has a well-stocked bar and conference hall facility as an extension of the same complex.
Upon returning back to the reception we were allotted our rooms in the duplex cottages close to the beach. The two couples and I had beautiful sea front rooms. As always, I immediately opened the huge French windows to make way for the breeze and soaked in the awesome beauty of the beach from the open window. Eager to hit the beach we quickly dumped our stuff, walked out of the rooms and headed for the white sand just 100 meters away.
The Reception Cottages seen from the Beach
Strolling around the property we reached the beautiful white expanse of sand that stretched endlessly till swallowed by the blue waters of the sea. Being forenoon, the sea was calm and we could wade through knee deep water almost about 100 meters into the sea. This was Vijayanagar Beach, a long stretch of white sand dotted with few clusters of rocky outcrops, a smattering of small trees and few driftwood tree trunks carelessly thrown by the sea that became part of the beautiful landscape. The beach varied in expanse ranging between 50 to 100 meters towards the land. It was lined with a long stretch of Mahua trees which afforded a distinct and uniquely attractive character to the sea front as also provided ample shade. The beach was clean, beautiful and truly serene. Multiple hues of changing shades of the sea ranging from azure blue to turquoise green, that stretched afar to meet the horizon, was an expression of nature at her best.
There was this unique partially submerged lone tree that had an alien looking root formation. The small sooty roots shot out of the beach surface around the gnarled old and wet tree trunk almost like tiny Lilliputians coming out of their underground world. Another beautiful sight that I luckily captured on my camera was a pied king fisher perched atop a small rock jutting out of the water some distance away. I felt the water level rising and submerging the better part of my legs, as such, little alarmed, I got up and waded towards the shore.
When I turned around, the rock I was sitting on had disappeared under water within few minutes – ominous signs of the approaching high tide. I realised that nature is always on the move, never constant, just like the movement of the earth, moon, sun and stars. Although the sea looked calm and peaceful, its surface as well as the world underneath was constantly on the move; the water level was rising steadily.
After enjoying the beach for about an hour we drove down to Radha Beach, about half an hour’s drive from Dolphin. The narrow road meandered through lush green fields and palm trees that complemented the landscape dotted with native huts. The approach to the Radha beach was lined by rows of eateries, restaurants and tea shops while taxis were parked on the right side of the approach. The weather turned cloudy and as suddenly, it started raining. We walked up to the beach lined with palm trees only to soak in a mesmerising site of the vast sea stretching to the cloudy sky far into the horizon. As the wind and the rain picked up gusto, the sea joined in with huge waves splashing the beach with regular frequency. People playing on the beach started scampering back towards the shore for shower and shelter. I noticed two unattended toddlers playing in the sand not far away from the not so friendly or gentle waves. Luckily the parents woke up to the dangers and quickly pulled the kids away. Well sheltered under a palm tree and the broad rimmed felt hat, Brig Shivpuri and I stayed away from the beach not really liking the wet bad weather. Basic amenities such as toilet and resting benches and sheds were conspicuous by their absence. There was a temporary shack with a shower some distance away from the shore to which people were making a beeline. The whole place, the shops, few poor quality shacks and the shower were disappointingly substandard. Such a beautiful beach should either be left completely to its natural self or developed with modern and comfortable amenities. This half-hearted attempt was only exhibiting an impoverished state. I guess the need was an imaginative approach towards building clean, organic, simple and practical infrastructure for the ease and comfort of the visitors. Giving up on plans to eat lunch in one of the eateries at Radha Beach, we left the place in a hurry. On the way back to Dolphin, we noticed some eating places and stopped by for lunch. As the gang went for vegetarian food, I explored a wayside dhaba with sea food. It was a simple open lounge eatery filled with red plastic dining tables and chairs set to blaring Bollywood music.
I ordered rice with red herring fish curry that was served in 10 minutes, well accompanied by generous pile of salad. The red herring, cooked with lots of spices and coconut, was huge, soft and exceptionally tasty. I enjoyed a lovely meal that was truly worth the Rs 600that it cost me.
After lunch as we moved back to Dolphin, the weather cleared so we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beautiful Vijayanagar Beach in front of our hotel. We spent a long time on the pristine beach, walking around bare feet, wading knee deep in water almost 200 meters into the sea, lazing on the sandy beach just gazing at the vast sea and the choppy waves. The sun slowly inched its way towards the western horizon morphing the entire landscape of the sea and the sky into beautiful, gently changing hues of multiple colours. I took many shots of the beach with its drift wood laid out most artistically by the sea, the flurry of low flying birds diving in to catch their sea food. Diverting from the far horizon it was another dimension of the sea to feel and watch the life forms on the seabed below the crystal- clear knee deep water. It looked like the entire sea bed along the beach was teeming with life forms, touching and tickling my skin as the gentle waves teased these living organisms. There were hundreds of live organisms on the move, in and out of their tiny homes in the sea bed. There were verities of crabs, snails and tiny microscopic worms, always on the move, looking for food with their super sensitive antennas and invisible sensory glands.
The tingling sensation of walking bare feet in the sandy water was very therapeutic and pleasant but sometimes painful while stepping over prickly sharp pebbles and shells. The beach with its pearly white sands, vibrant life forms and innumerable pebbles, moss covered rocks and few trees thriving in the water was a complete and vibrant world by itself. I soaked in the reality of raw unspoilt nature. Breathtakingly beautiful, it was only natural to melt away into this vast bottomless world of minute life forms in their small homes under the sand, under rocks and pebbles and under water. Other humans walking around the beach were not even noticeable, submerged, as I was into the depth of this beautiful and exclusive world of nature co-existing in peace and harmony. The experience reminded me of the Beatles song, Octopuses’ Garden:
I’d like to be, under the sea,
In an octopus’ garden in the shade,
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been,
In his octopus’ garden in the shade,
I’d ask my friends to come and see,
An octopus’ garden with me,
We would be warm below the storm,
In our little hideaway beneath the waves,
Resting our head on the sea bed;
In an octopus’ garden near a cave, We would sing and dance around,
Because we know we can’t be found,
I’d like to be…………
Adding to the wonder of the fascinating ecosystem of the archipelago are the spectacular coral reefs that are truly out of the world. The island is home to the biggest crabs, the largest turtles, the most vibrant fish and the most beautiful butterflies and much more. These Islands have the country’s best nesting beaches for three species of marine turtles; Hawksbill, Green turtle and the Leatherback, which is the world’s largest sea turtle. The nesting population of Leatherback turtles in Nicobar is over 1,000 making it amongst the highest in the Indo-Pacific region hence its global ecological importance.
All good things come to an end and our date with the beach was over for the day. With the setting of the sun when the darkness started enveloping the sea, the beach and its million tiny life forms and the horizon vanished into darkness. Reluctantly, we walked back to our rooms for hot cups of tea over warm conversation about the day’s experiences. Instead of hunting for a good restaurant in the vicinity of the beach, we had decided to dine in the bistro of our resort, which was close by and offered a good variety of food at reasonable rates. Besides, I wished to hit the bar for the usual evening shots of whisky, this, in-spite of the fact that my ex bosses and their wives were diehard teetotallers. Never the less I managed to drag Col Jadhav for company. The bar was well stocked with the choicest liquor complemented by trained and courteous bartenders to serve. I had my two satisfying whisky shots before joining the gang at the table for dinner. The vegetarians ordered vegetarian Thalis while I ordered anon-vegetarian Thali with fried prawn curry. The food was delicious. There was an add-on sweet dish in the form of kheerto round up the dinner date. Unable to resist the temptation, we started walking towards the beach after dinner but found that the high tide was in full fury with tall waves rising and falling over the stretch where we had loitered in the afternoon. Strong waves were hitting the protective walls of the property and rising over it. Trying to be more adventurous, I started walking on the parapet of the protective wall feeling the spray of the waves crashing nearby. Suddenly a huge wave rose up rather high and part of it crashed over me. I quickly jump out off the wall to safety but was fully drenched. Had I been little late I could have been knocked out by the thundering wave and if the fall was towards the sea the result could have been fatal. God saved me to a stern reprimand by the two former Commanding Officers. I was reminded to behave myself as per my present age and refrain from being over adventurous as if I was 25!!
Next day, the 9thof Dec, our departure back to Port Blaire was in the late afternoon and we had more or less the whole day to ourselves. Accordingly, we scheduled a visit to kala Pathar (Black Stone) Beach; about 40 minute’s drive from Dolphin Resort.
The weather was clear but intermittent clouds ensured a pleasant shade. A narrow road led to the entrance of the beach where a high gate made of tall tree trunks with overhead cross bars from the branches welcomed us. The first cross bar over the gate was supporting an elongated natural looking board over which was written Welcome to Kalapather Beach. Starting from this gate both sides of the narrow road were lined with small shops selling fresh coconut, fruits and trinkets made from the natural resources of the sea. On display at the counters were colourful shell bracelets, shell danglers, bangles and a verity of conches. The items were colourful, attractive and well- priced. There were few tea shops too but no eateries and the place was neat and clean, a pleasant change from the previous day’s outing to Radha beach. As we alighted and turned left towards the beach we were welcomed by the beautiful vastness of the azure blue sea and white sand stretching for miles on both the sides. Gentle sea waves splashed this stretch as if nudging and teasing the patient sands. I left the group and walked towards the vastness of the beach that strained towards the distant horizon ahead of the blue sea. Mercifully the place was not crowded and I chanced upon a young, newly married couple perhaps in their early twenties. I wished them and struck up a conversation. It turned out that they were married the previous week and I guessed having got tired of exploring each other, they had come to explore this pristine beach. I noticed with a smile that they would not let go of each other’s touch and were holding hands relishing that zingof physical and mental excitement. I gave them a high five and left them alone to their own pleasurable exploration. Almost invigorated by the young couple’s romance I happily clicked to capture their moment on the beach albeit from the rear with the backdrop of the sea and distant islands. A little while letter, feeling thirsty, I walked back to the shops on the road and bought 5 fresh coconuts for the gang. Legs stretched towards the sea in complete relaxation, we sat on the sand savouring the fresh and sweet coconut water with plastic straw pipes while gazing at the mesmerising sight of the emerald sea and feeling its waves as they teased us with gentle splashes over our legs. The place was so beautifully natural and pristine that we were reluctant to let go when it was time to return back to the hotel. Back in the resort restaurant, we ate a wholesome lunch of rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry and fried prawn curry. After clearing the restaurant bill we picked up our bags from the rooms and left for the jetty to catch Makcruzz 2.
Sailing back to Port Blaire from Havelock was smooth except that being late afternoon; the sea was a little rough and choppy causing some passengers to get sea sick. The rocking of the ship lulled me into an enjoyable nap. When I opened my eyes, we were already at the jetty and I trooped out in a daze, half asleep but refreshed. Back to our guest room, I took a shower and slept till late evening. Col Cherian, a veteran from our regiment is one of the only two military officers settled in Port Blaire where he runs a security business. He had invited our gang to dinner in the Officers’ Mess. The evening was a pleasant regimental get together in the lush green lawns and blooming garden surrounded by thick foliage of the tropical jungle. Savouring the fine whisky in a beautiful crystal cut glass in the North East Tribal theme bar, I asked Col Cherian as to how he decided to settle down in this island and whether he missed his home in Chennai, hundreds of nautical miles away. His answer was candid as he told me that home was where his wife and work were. It turned out that Mrs Cherian was a local Andamanese of Punjabi origin whose doctor father had migrated from Punjab during the British period. When I told him that I came across many Bengali people in the island he explained that before the 1971 Indo Pak war, when Pakistani Army was carrying out atrocities in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, India had shipped a number of willing Bengali refugees to the Andamans where they had permanently settled and thrived. As it happens in the Andamans, a heavy rain suddenly appeared from nowhere and started lashing the lawns and the veranda of the mess. It cooled off the heat of the day and disappeared as suddenly, leaving the environment with a pleasant wetness of shining leaves of the foliage, flowers and the lawn.