Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Andaman adventures

The moonlight was so bright every mangrove leaf and twig formed a perfect shadow on the sand. The only sound was the scratch-scratch of hundreds of hermit crabs of every shape and size. We could see the whole length of the beach, from the river mouth on our right to the rocky mangrove-studded shore to our left. If a turtle was going to come ashore to nest, we would see her. Right place, right state of the tide, phase of moon, time of year and day....if only someone had told the turtles! We never saw a turtle nesting at Kalipur, although it was this possibility that had brought us up the Andaman chain to the jungle-covered island of North Andaman. That night waiting on the moonlit beach is still one of my favourite moments of the trip.

A few days earlier we arrived by plane from Chennai to the small but bustling capital of the Andamans, Port Blair. Horns toot just as loudly as mainland India and rickshaws vie to rip you off the most, but there's something a bit more tropical and relaxed about it all. The Andamans may be much closer to Indonesia, but they are still very Indian at heart. While in Port Blair I couldn't miss a visit to the brilliantly named Mount Harriet National Park (I didn't even get discounted entry), where brightly coloured butterflies flit between massive leaves, and the view of jungle and coast has been immortalised on the Indian 20 rupee note.

The jetty, Neil Island
Our journey North, made with the hope of sighting those elusive nesting turtles, was ten hours on the most industrial 'passenger ferry' we'd ever seen. The only seats were in a cramped and windowless room, so we opted for the dirty metal deck, joining the race for small patches of shade that formed behind rusty cranes and funnels.

 Luckily turtles weren't the only appeal of the North, where the highlight was having a real Robinson Crusoe experience on Craggy Island. Not a priest in sight, this is a deserted islet reached by swimming across the currents of a jellyfish infested channel! Unsurprisingly, we had the island and its white sand beach to ourselves and the snorkelling was well worth the effort. Like swimming in an aquarium- too many fish to take in, from clown fish defending their anemones, to the massive Napoleon wrasse with his bulging forehead and dozens of brightly coloured parrot fish munching on the coral.

Unfortunately, the previously abundant coral reefs of the Andamans have taken a massive hit in the last decade. First there was the earthquake and tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, which tilted the islands to such an extent that coral reefs rose out of the sea, causing a complete shift in the topography of the islands. Many beaches disappeared while others were formed, lumps of coral can be found far inland, and vast areas were flooded. Then an El Nino year and rise in the sea temperature caused the bleaching of much of the remaining coral. Most of the shallow coral reefs are now dead, and it's only in certain areas (like Craggy Island) with cold water currents, or by diving to 30m depth, that you can experience the variety and beauty of corals that used to be commonplace around the islands.

Forest devastated by the tsunami on Havelock
You can't go far in the Andamans without being reminded of the devastation of the tsunami, with barely a family untouched. Estimates of the death toll are something unfathomable like 50,000, but with large numbers of illegal Burmese immigrants working on the islands at the time, no one really knows. Many areas remain flooded, dotted with ruins of buildings, while on others bridges have been repaired, mangroves replanted, and life somehow goes on.

After Kalipur, our next port of call was tiny Long Island- the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, women sit chatting by the well, and everyone smiles at the sweating white people hauling their backpacks along the island 'road' (a path) to the only place to stay. The sole village of distressed wooden clapboard buildings in faded pastels looks more wild west than tropical island, although set around an English style village green. This is where we had the privilege of experiencing a Hindu wedding, to which the whole island was invited. It was unlike any wedding we've been to. In the sweltering heat of the village hall the bride and groom sat formally on a stage, standing to pose for a solemn-faced photograph with each guest. Meanwhile, stray dogs wandered in and out, children played, disco music blared, and biryani was dished out from huge cauldrons to feed the whole village.

The heavenly Neil's Cove, Havelock
Our next stop on Havelock, the most visited island in the chain, was a far cry from the village life of Long Island. There are a lot of resorts here, but development has sensitively been kept back from the beaches, which are stunning. White sand, turquoise shallows, all backed by forest and perfect for slinging up a hammock. Neil's Cove might just be my favourite beach in the world. A small arc of white sand, sloping down from pristine forest to emerald breakers and a shallow reef where I saw three octopuses in one snorkel session. We didn't even have to share this gorgeous spot. The reason? An American tourist was eaten by a salt water crocodile in this cove in 2010. That adds a bit of anxiety to sea bathing here, but the crocodile is now in the zoo (only in India..) and there have been no further sightings. The water is so clear we were convinced you'd see a crocodile coming, although I'm not sure if that's a good thing. It was achingly beautiful here though and, with our hammock strung up in the shade of a tree, I could have stayed for days.

Eating out on Long Island
Most of our time in the Andamans we were far too busy to lounge around in hammocks though- with a whole chain of islands to explore, not to mention the underwater world, we could hardly keep still for our 16 days there. We zipped between thatched villages on a shiny red scooter on Havelock. On the slower paced Neil Island we explored on creaking bicycles, rose at sunrise to successfully spot the resident manatee, and tasted jack fruit at the night market-where chickens are killed at one stall, men gamble at the next and every variety of deep fried snack is available, all served wrapped in newspaper.

The scuba diving from Havelock was fantastic, and although Karl hadn't dived for ten years we both got straight back into it. The deeper corals are brilliant here, from otherworldly funnel shaped sponges to soft feathers unfurling and swaying in the current and fan corals silhouetted against the blue, where big schools of barracudas circle above. With amazing visibility, perfect sea conditions and bath-warm water, it's clear why it's considered a world class diving destination.

Our time in the Andamans was far too short and there was so much more to explore, but with flights already booked we had to tear ourselves away. All in all it was probably the highlight of our time in India- a real backpacker's tropical paradise, but still secret enough that it felt like a proper adventure.