Just 2 kms away from Port Blaire, Ross Island is nature’s paradise and a heaven for environmental enthusiasts to explore the rich diversity of flora and fauna. Almost an extension of Port Blaire, the island is approached through a short ferry ride. We entered part of the island while visiting Mt Harriet and enjoyed its rich diversity of nature. The entire island, except Mt Harriet is under the operational control of Indian Navy and it has a beautiful Naval Museum, Smritika which displays an incredible collection of old records of historical interest. The island also hosts the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and Forest Museum. Another historical attraction in the island are the ruins of British era buildings and churches such as the state ball room, the chief commissioner’s house, the old Andamanese House and the British Government House. These are well maintained and surprisingly, painted pink. The beautiful island was devastated by an earthquake in 1941 and again by the Tsunami in 2004 but has risen like a phoenix back to its perennial beauty. The island is closed on Wednesday and there is no ferry service either. Neil, Barren and Smith are the other interesting islands nearby.
Mt Harriet, the Legacy of a gentle British Lady:
After enjoying the beautiful beaches it was a good idea to get on top of a mountain and see the view of the sea and the beaches around Port Blaire. That was how we decided to visit Mt Harriet, the highest point in port Blaire and the third highest in the archipelago at 1,257 ft next only to Saddle Peak 2,402 ft in North Andaman and Mount Thullier1, 864 ft in Great Nicobar.
On 10thmorning after a leisurely breakfast we set off for the mountain peak. The distance from Port Blaire was only 20 kms but interestingly, the route passed through the sea. Halfway through, our SUV was loaded into a government run ferry that chugged the short distance across the creek in about 15 minutes. After the alighting in the crowded jetty we drove along a narrow road that knifed through fields and few houses before a short drive through a thickly forested area. As the vehicle slowed down to a halt, the main gate came into view that had Mount Harriet National Parkwritten in bold letters. I then realised that the entire area was a national park with Mt Harriet as the epicentre. We bought our entry tickets at the Forest Gate counter @ Rs 75 per head and crossed the gate towards a narrow black top road disappearing into the green jungle beyond. It was a refreshingly pleasant walk of about 2 kms along the narrow road that tunnelled into the green foliage of the tropical jungle. It was an easy gradual climb that even our lady Savita Jadhav, with newly installed high-tech knees, could manage comfortably. When we reached the top of the peak it was an oval kind of flat area, almost like a table top and dotted with flower beds and lush green lawns. A red tiled pathway snaked forward to the far end of the table top through the lawn and garden where a few gardeners were tending to the flowerbeds. On the left side of the pathway was a cottage rest house maintained by the forest department. Ahead of the rest house in the lawn stood the ruins of an old cottage made by the British-just the walls. Beyond this, towards the edge of the plateau was a massive base of a 2ndWW antiaircraft gun (less the gun), well maintained but blackened by the humidity and rainfall. There was a board with a brief history written about the gun explaining that it was installed by the British but used by the Japanese to destroy British aircraft. Nothing was written about the missing gun. Maybe it was destroyed by the Japanese or maybe it was in a museum elsewhere. Beyond the gun base along the path was a model of an Andamanese hut with an egg-shaped thatched roof under which was a room on a wooden platform that had to be reached through a short wooden staircase. The hut was almost an exact replica of the original but made of cement and wood. Beyond the hut, towards the further end of the table top we were greeted by a spectacular view of the sea and the horizon that included North Bay and Ross Island. Interestingly, unknown to many Indians, the picture on the back side of ₹ 20 note is a shot from Mount Harriet Peak that shows the famous light house of Northern Bay jutting out to the sea like a knife. My effort to take a similar shot was rewarded with partial success.
From this mount there is a trekking route of about 15 kms through the thick jungle to the beach below. The route exhibits a rich diversity of flora and fauna with a rare variety of colourful butterflies and birds. However, the entire jungle is full of leaches and that includes Mt Harriet top. As such, there were caution boards against leaches in and around the lush green lawns. It would be advisable for trekkers to adorn pants and full sleeve shirts and wear hats and importantly carry salt or tobacco to deal with the blood suckers once they drop on the unsuspecting passer-by. The trekking route was closed for the season due to heavy undergrowth. However, the sordid aspect of the mount was a cliff called Kalapather, about 2 kms away, from where British masters used to push the condemned prisoners down the precipice to their certain death.
After many a photo shoot we walked back to the base and chatted over a relaxed cup of coffee in the small canteen run by the forest department. That is when I looked around the walls and noticed boards with the hazy photograph of Mrs Harriet and brief historical notes on Mt Harriet. The National Park is named in commemoration of Mrs Harriet Tytler, the wife of Capt Robert Christopher Tytler, a British Infantry officer, who was the superintendent of the Convict Settlement at Port Blair during the period 1862 to1864. He was a keen naturalist and a photographer. However, the Peak was named after his wife, Harriet because of her immense contribution in preserving and documenting the flora and fauna of the Island. She is also well remembered for documenting the monuments of Delhi and her very personal eyewitness account of 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. It is said that she was the only lady on the spot to witness the mutiny and the resultant siege of Delhi on which she wrote a book, titled Only Lady. Pregnant with her first child, Mrs Harriet gave birth to her son in the middle of the Mutiny, perhaps in her quarters in the Red Fort at Delhi. She was the daughter of a military officer and was born in India. Robert Tytler was a true Infantry Officer of the 38th Native Infantry and like all Indian Infantry Officers; he loved his men, stood for them and took care of them. Both the husband and wife spoke fluent Hindustani. Keeping in mind the love of the Harriet couple for the Island, its people, its flora, fauna and above all their love and respect for the men he commanded, it was only befitting that the peak got its name after Mrs Harriet Tytler. Hopefully, this name will not be changed.
Along the events of the Island’s chequered history, the vast tropical jungle around today’s Mount Harriet National Park was in its virgin and unsullied form when it was designated as a reserve forest by the British administration. It was only in 1979 that it was converted into a national park. The area of the national park is approximately 11,520 acres but the government has plans to extend it to include adjoining mountain ranges and the marine ecosystem on the eastern coast. The highest part of the Mt Harriet is where the view point stands today. The entire area has a mixed tropical deciduous and evergreen forest with approximately 134 varieties of trees, shrubs and plants. Well enriched and satisfied with the diversity of nature and magnificent views, we left the national park with appreciation of good work done by the long gone young British lady.
Corals of Jolly Buoy Island
The next port of call for 11th Dec was Jolly Buoy Island to experience the live coral world up close. To reach Jolly Buoy Island the route was through land and sea. The first phase of the short journey was to reach Wandoor Jetty by road, about 30 kms drive from Port Blaire, from where we would sail to the small island. Since all the boats from Wandoor were to steam off at 9 am we were advised to reach the Jetty by 8.30 am. Accordingly, after early breakfast we started from the mess at 7.30 AM so as to avoid untoward traffic hiccups. The road was narrow and rough but we reached the Jetty by 8 AM to find tourists already queuing up for the boat.
We had pre-booked our tickets for the Island visit that was Rs 75 per head and Rs 177 per head for the boat ride both ways — rather cheap for 45 minutes of sailing time. Upon reaching the jetty we joined the queue to get into the boat as also to collect water bottles by depositing Rs 100 for three bottles. Plastic bottles and other plastic items are not allowed in the Island beyond Wandoor jetty so as to keep the fragile eco system of the tiny island’s corral lives safe from marauding plastic. It was good news for the nature lovers. The boat was locally made and driven by a diesel engine. There were two rows of wooden benches with an aisle in between. Each bench accommodated three people and the capacity of the boat was about 50 passengers. There was a rough locally manufactured plastic roof covering the better part of the boat. Getting into the boat was easy except for those with a knee problem but everybody managed. There were safety checks and we were given orange coloured life jackets and instructed to wear them. Sharp at 9.15AM the two boats shot off from the jetty. As we sailed off, the skipper came up and explained the safety measures. He also explained that besides Buoy, there were Red Skin, Tarmugli and Grab Islands with great corral life, however, only Buoy and Red Skin Islands are used for tourism. He further explained that in order to preserve the safety of marine life and to ensure healthy growth of corrals, only two islands viz Buoy and Redskin were used alternately every six months. This was a good way to protect the rich bio diversity of the islands, its beaches and the corrals. The boat’s course took us through gaps between the land mass that gave us a close view of the mangrove fringed islands as we sailed through them at a leisurely pace. I enjoyed the ride sitting as I was in the corner seat almost touching the water from where I was able to take some fine pictures. Exploring through the close up lenses of Nikon camera, I observed interesting undergrowth and root systems quite like what Hollywood director; Ang Leehad shot in his famous movie, Life of Pie!
After about 20 minutes the dark clouds that had been forming in the not so distant horizon, started lashing us with slanting rain. Passengers opened umbrellas for whatever worth it was, some families tried to huddle together, but then it needs to be understood that in the world of nature, it would be worthwhile to experience and enjoy her bounty in any form be it rain or storm. It is not every day that one gets to be lashed by hard rain while sailing in the sea! As the rain intensified the sea became little rough and the waves started rocking the boat much more. Adventure can be scary sometimes. I did notice fear on many faces around and I was no exception. A passing thought occurred to me that if the boat capsizes and we are thrown into the turbulent water, our only safety would be the orange life jacket. As a reflex action I found myself pulling the strings of the life jacket tighter. Fear is inherent in all beings but what matters is how one deals with it and comes out on top, besides, exploring the nature we need to be prepared to face its fury too. As quickly as it had appeared; the rain eased to light trickle and the sky cleared when our boat approached the Buoy Island. From a distance it looked rather tiny but upon noticing movement of people and few huts I realised that it was our destination of the day, Buoy Island. The boat anchored very close to the shore and tiny little diesel driven boats appeared by its side. We were guided to the small boats to see the corrals as per the tickets. The cost was Rs 500 for three islands corral view and lesser for two islands where as one island was catered for, within the visit ticket. The midget boat had a plastic sheet roof under which we had to duck and sit on the benches on either side while a magnifying glass ran through the centre bottom of the boat. Once about a dozen passengers sat on the rough wooden benches on either side, the boat sputtered to life and started riding the waves with ease. A lady with a baby in her arms sat next to me and sure enough the little one was screaming all the time. The drizzle changed into light rain pelting the plastic roof while the boat man told us to look through the glass into the sea. Lo and behold, suddenly, marine life appeared under the boat like never seen before. There were corrals and more corrals of multiple sizes and shapes. There were corrals being born, still growing into full magnificent forms. There were shoals of a variety of fish all over the corrals. I felt as if I was looking into another world through a magic portal. The guide cum boatman continuously threw mugs full of water over the glass bottom that made the view clearer. He also indicated and explained various types of corrals and fish. The highlight was the beautiful star fish sprawled over a few corrals. However, to me it looked artificial, almost like a cemented star stuck on the corral, but then, it was for real and that was what star fish was supposed to look like in its purest form in its natural habitat. Many of us clicked away taking pictures and videos of the awesome marine world under our boat. After finishing the first island the boat moved towards the second island and soon there was another magnificent view of the corrals and fish. Because of the magnification of the glass the sea bed with corrals and fish looked so close as if we could put our hands out of the boat and touch it. The third island was a repeat and on hindsight it was not even necessary. The long a boat ride in the not so calm a sea with chopping waves gave us nauseating giddiness and headache. Finally, much to our relief, the third island was also done and the boat banked by the shore of the Buoy Island. We disembarked into shallow, knee deep water and walked with sandals full of sand. By this time the elderly bladders were full and the men folk were desperately looking for a toilet or a place to ease ourselves. Upon enquiry, we were directed by a local guide towards convenience outlets which had to be approached through a small clearing of undergrowth, bushes and trees. It was like walking along an animal track. There were shower cum changing rooms and toilets for ladies and gents. Unfortunately, the toilets were of Indian style hence difficult for the elderly and people with knee problems. Needless to say it was something better than nothing. The silver beach was primeval in its purest form and there were areas marked with buoys for swimming where people swam happily. There was only one small make-shift fast food stall manned by the guides or the forest staff that sold fresh coconuts and chips in plastic wrappings; we bought some and enjoyed them with coconut water. That was the time, after the tiring and wet boat ride through the corrals that we actually needed a mug full of hot tea or coffee. I made a mental note to carry a hot thermos full of coffee for such eventualities. We explored the beautiful clean and silvery white beach and took some interesting photographs. People were snorkelling and swimming in abundance and enjoying themselves. Sailing back to Wandoor Island took the same time but it seemed shorter. After disembarking at the jetty we walked into the nearby Marine Interpretation Centre, in other words a small marine museum but it was locked. We were told by the local official that the small museum exhibits the marine life of these islands but no one can really predict the whimsical opening and closing timings of government enterprises in remote areas.
The Buoy Island, the boat ride, the corrals and the rest of the marine life were each an experience of a lifetime. Few years back I had done an almost similar trip to the Corral Island across Pattaya in Thailand where the viewing of the marine lives and corrals through the glass bottom boat was of a comparatively much poorer standard. The glass was of ordinary material without magnification as such we could hardly see any marine life. Jolly Buoy on the other hand was a beautiful and bountiful unforgettable experience. We returned back hungry and a little tired with great appetite for a welcome lunch.