The Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India are possibly the least documented places of our vast country. While sporadic accounts exist online by tourists who've penned down their experiences, there is hardly any stuff written by people actually staying on the islands. Since I've had the fortune of actually staying here, I'll try and write as a resident rather than a tourist....
Being posted to the Andaman and Nicobar islands as a meteorologist is a bit of a challenge really. There is a very high chance you might end up being the brunt of those typical ‘weatherman’ jokes which have been doing the rounds ever since the breed of meteorologists has roamed the earth. Oddly enough, even people with extremely low IQs and abysmal communication skills are pretty eloquent when it comes to berating a weatherman’s forecast. Considering the fact that the islands are so far removed from the rest of the country so as to render most meteorological data useless, weather forecasting here is indeed fraught with danger.
I have had the singular misfortune of having to brief extremely incisive bosses who like nothing better than to read up about the science of meteorology in their spare time. So while most of my colleagues speak about the weather like a professional spewing wisdom about his field of expertise, I am often made to feel like a rookie answering the viva-voce for his higher degree. I like to believe I have withstood this onslaught steadfastly enough since I still am the weatherman. But seriously, there are possibly fewer places where Nature conspires in almost every way possible to ridicule all streams of Earth Sciences devised by man.
It rains eight months of the year here. That wouldn’t be so bad in itself except that it rains with a ferocity and intensity that are almost frightening. It rains in excess of 3000 mm through the year, every two out of three days. The islands are the first springboard for the South-west monsoon. Well, that isn’t so bad in itself either, except that the arrival of monsoon over the islands is seen as a sign for the onset over the “mainland”. So, you see, no one takes the trouble of forecasting the arrival of the monsoon over the islands per se. That extremely risky (career-wise!) task is left to people like poor li’l me who, as I said before, always have bosses with a nose for the weather and superior intellect to boot.
The other little problem is historical in nature. Some decades ago, when the powers-that-be wished to install a seismograph in the country, the poor seismologists expressed their complete inability to do so for want of a suitable place. This seemingly insurmountable problem was overcome by utilising the premises of the next most convenient branch of Earth Sciences, i.e. meteorology. That was it. The seismologists completely washed their hands off all things ‘tremblor’ in nature and as time passed, a poor meteorologist was usually found ‘quaking’ under the pressure to do a job for which a gleeful seismologist was collecting the salary. But what does this have to do with the islands, you might ask. Just the little fact that the island chain sits astride one of the most seismically active zones on earth – the confluence of the Indian and Burmese microplate. If this fact was clouded in obscurity a few years ago, the mega earthquake and resulting tsunami of Dec 2004 definitely set that right.
Take some time off and study the map of the Bay of Bengal. The first thing that strikes you is that the islands are no more than just a fleeting rash on a model’s face – so vast is the ocean and tiny the islands. The point I’m trying to make is that usual concepts used in forecasting like heating of land, effect of the mountains and topography in general are redundant here since Nature considers the islands no different from the rest of the ocean. Also, their separation from the rest of India (insensitively referred to as “the mainland” by most) has been a bane in that there is a mindset that the islands are not really a part of India and that getting here is almost like going abroad! Consequently, weather observatories along the island chain are thin on the ground and those that do exist, are manned in the listless fashion so typical of government agencies. Data from our own observatories therefore, becomes critical here.
The vagaries of weather in this part of the world affects life in more ways than one can possibly imagine. With over 570 islands, it is natural that most of the inter-island movement is by boats or helicopters – the two modes of transport so overtly affected by weather. You want to play golf, plan a party, water the garden or simply have a laugh, just call up the weatherman. If the price of tomatoes has become unaffordable, it has to be because of the weather. Looking for an excuse for not having done your job? Well, you could try blaming the weather (or the weatherman). It usually works! Oh I am not in the least suggesting that I mind all of this. In fact, I have enjoyed unparalleled attention as a meteorologist on the islands simply because I seem to influence so many major decisions here. But I’d like to put forth a little theory of mine here. I believe there are no ‘bad’ meteorologists. There are the ‘good’ ones all right, who usually get their forecasts right and then there are just meteorologists – since most of them get it wrong anyway! But that does not automatically mean that one should try and become a ‘good’ meteorologist. Being recognised as a ‘good’ weatherman is like a double-edged sword. Let me explain. When they don’t know you, you are simply a (bad) meteorologist. The underdog – from whom there are no expectations. Life is simple. Then you make the folly and get one forecast right. And another! And God forbid! Another..! You are now branded as the ‘good’ weatherman. You are finished – because with every forecast you get right, it changes the way people plan their events. Earlier, they would plan and then ask you for the day’s weather. Now they ask you when they should plan the event! Since most events are attended by rather high-ranking gentlemen, it’s easy to appreciate the risk involved here. Picture the gory scene where the men who planned the event are pointing to the poor ‘good’ weatherman as the VIP is soaking his Sunday best in torrential rain. I shudder even at the thought. So you see the better a weatherman you are, the more are the chances of being slaughtered as a scapegoat. So I make it a point to break the chain of correct forecasts once in a while!
But, all said and done, studying the weather over the isles has been a rewarding experience. I am richer in both, knowledge and experience, humbled and awed by both, Nature’s fury and beauty and most importantly, I actually help people to plan and execute critical tasks – an immensely satisfying feeling. And oh! Did I mention it has made me look up at the sky and thank the Almighty more often?
Meet your average tourist on his return from the Andaman Isles and he’ll show you spectacular photographs of the sunset at Radhanagar Beach Havelock, the pristine blue of the Elephant Beach and may be a few of those poor elephants stranded on Havelock Island. Prod him some more and he’ll rave and rant about the awesomeness of the Cellular Jail and declare that the Light and Sound Show caused him to break out into patriotic goose pimples. Then you drop the bomb and ask him about Neil Island. Chances are, you’ll draw a blank. A shadow will flit across his face and he’ll screw his eyes up as if in recollection and finally give you a look of disdain that says “Can’t you appreciate the fact that I’ve just returned from visiting the fifth most beautiful beach in the whole wide world?” (That’s how Radhanagar Beach, Havelock is described in some surveys)
If that has happened to you, you’d better read on, for as far as I am concerned, Neil Island, located rather close to its more famous cousin Havelock, is at least four times the Havelock experience. The fact that I’ve been to Neil four times and Havelock just twice should convince the sceptics as well!
One of the reasons people don’t really go to Neil Island is because the ferry timings heavily favour the Havelock tourist. Nature has ensured that though they are quite close to each other, their jetties aren’t and it’s a solid two hour trip from one to the other. I had a hard time believing this since I first saw Havelock from Neil and I could have sworn a well stuck golf drive from there (at the closest approach) would have safely landed on the white sands of Havelock! Now I’m either kidding or I could give Tiger Woods a complex. Add to this the fact that the Tourism department shares the average tourist’s mania for ticking Havelock on his list and you have the lop-sided ferry schedule.
In any case, I took a boat to Neil Island at six a.m. one clear morning and this was possibly my best decision yet on the islands. The boat named Wandoor (another beautiful beach just off Port Blair), was a speedboat I was told. I reflected upon what my fate on the slower boat would have been as MV Wandoor clipped across the Andaman Sea at a thundering pace of five knots. Now the trick to enjoying these ferry boats is to remain on upper decks – even on a sunny day. There is hardly a view from the seats inside and the stuffy interiors and odd smell these boats seem to have in common effectively kill much of the enthusiasm one has for the destination. The trip to Neil offers quite spectacular vistas especially the Ross Island and North Point lighthouses which appear on the starboard and port respectively as you leave Port Blair harbour. Thus, about two hours and fifty photographs later I found myself disembarking at Neil Island by eight a.m.
I have never really understood what it is with our countrymen that pushes them to exit a vehicle even before it has come to a stop. Irrespective of the mode of travel, people will throng the exit, however narrow, to try and win the battle of who touches land first. The disease is so rampant that even foreign tourists who’ve spent in excess of a month in India begin to participate in this mindless egoistical enterprise. I’ve seen it on buses, in trains, even in aircraft (the low cost carriers are no better than flying buses anyway) and now I saw the same desperate attempt to be the first to get off the Wandoor. Almost made me check if the boat had sprung a leak. As I made my way across the jetty I could see the winner of today’s Disembarkation Deathmatch soaking in the congratulations of his believers while the defeated slunk away, sulking, to fight another day I’m sure.
The view from Neil Island jetty on a clear day is breathtaking. The jetty juts out quite a long way into the water like a bony finger so standing right at the end, I felt I was almost looking at the island from a boat – something like the hanging balconies they have nowadays which allow you to see your own building from the outside. To the left is a beach almost completely in shade of overhanging trees. A few Andaman fishing boats, or donghis bobbed gently in the unbelievably clear water near the jetty as the morning sun glinted off the surface of the water. To the right was a mangrove in a stunning range of green providing a vivid and fresh foreground to the sparkling blue sea. I clicked a few pictures and made my way to the island.
The jetty is narrow and meant for two way traffic. However it appeared that the locals believed whoever was on the jetty had a fundamental right to knock off every obstacle in their path, whether animate or otherwise. Lost in admiring the beauty around me, I had a couple of close calls as cycle rickshaws almost as wide as the jetty trundled up and down with gay abandon. The island end of the jetty is a typical tour guide haunt with drivers holding placards to receive expected guests. Fortunately, I had planned in advance and soon I saw a distant resemblance to my name on one such placard. I waved out to the driver who came forward, beaming. I beamed back and he proceeded to rattle out our schedule for the day. Distracted by a noisy family engaged in drinking (nay, they were eating the white meat too) coconut water, I decided to try some myself. I recommend this drink to each and everyone I meet. Never had sweeter coconut water.
Neil Island is perhaps singular in that it has four very different beaches, which is why I say it provides a more wholesome experience than most other places. My driver and guide decided I should experience Sitapur Beach, bathe at Bharatpur Beach, visit Laxmanpur Beach II and finally savour the sunset at Laxmanpur Beach I, in that order. I obliquely pointed out to him that he’d missed out a few key members of Lord Rama’s immediate family. Surely they could have avoided I and II with so many names still to go!
Sitapur Beach turned out to be the most perfect crescent shaped beach I could hope to imagine. Standing at one end, I marvelled at the blueness of the water and the dazzling white sparkle of the crashing foam contrasting with the silver sand. “Beach no go in high tide”, said my knowledgeable guide, “You go see caves now”. I took his advice and walked along the water along the length of the beach. It must be about three-quarters of a kilometre. Right at the end are two limestone caves which were, well, OK but this beautiful and romantic beach more than made up for the unexciting caves. I saw just one couple strolling ahead of me and I made the walk back trying to click award winning photographs titled “Footprints in the Sands of Time” or some other such esoteric subjects. I am told Sitapur Beach has an amazing sunrise too, provided the horizon is cloud-free which it never is whenever you plan to wake up early.
I moved on to Bharatpur Beach which turned out to be the shady beach I’d seen from the jetty. By now the sun was well up in the sky and the trees provided welcome relief. The water was absolutely calm with an odd lazy breaker rearing its head occasionally. In the near distance (whatever that means!) I saw Havelock Island (Refer to me remark about the golf shot earlier!). This was too good an opportunity to miss so I donned my designer Speedo trunks and splashed around for a while, a bit like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. The amazing thing about the waters of the Andaman Sea is that one does not feel icky and sticky afterwards. In fact, one can do without a fresh water shower later. But that’s my strictly my opinion! After the swim I possibly touched the pinnacle of idyllic luxury when I lay down on the beach, in the shade with a book and nariyal paani so thoughtfully being sold there. And did I mention that I was the only one on the beach that day?
If there is a grey area on Neil Island it has to be the eating places. In all my visits to the island, I have not yet dared to eat at any one of the places which seem to be involved in the business of selling food. There are quite a few of them in the main village square but they are squalid and look unhealthy. There is one place though where there is a constant presence of foreigners, but it’s hard to tell if they die after the first meal or are repeat offenders.
My guide urged me to hurry. “Come Sir! Low tide go, you no go”, were his cryptic words. We hurtled off in the Maruti Omni which I think is the one of the worst abominations on Indian roads, or off them for that matter. Soon he had veered off the narrow metalled road and the Omni’s tyres were struggling to grip the increasingly sandy terrain. Just as I was about to caution him, he stopped and declared “We have arrived”. We proceeded to a little thicket by way of a narrow track and suddenly, as the track descended rapidly, I found myself looking out at a vast expanse of bones and the sea beyond. Closer examination revealed they were not bones but millions of pieces of finger corals deposited over what, a million years? My guide took me across this white ocean much like Dumbledore leading Harry Potter across the evil cave. I saw a magnificent rock arch reminiscent of the photographs of Krabi in Thailand which, by the look of things, must become awash at high tide. But it was around this arch where the real secret of Laxmanpur Beach II lay. The water had receded at low tide leaving behind a fantastic array of corals and natural aquariums. Thankful to digital technology, I took out my camera and became oblivious to all but the click of the camera shutter and the drone of the guide’s voice till he reminded me I’d miss the sunset if we did not hurry.
Loathe to leave this most spectacular of beaches, I unwillingly walked back and we found ourselves at Laxmanpur Beach I. The sand on this beach is absolutely remarkable. It is soft – and I mean soft and fine and wonderful to touch. I kicked off my shoes to savour this walk up to sunset point. I turned the corner at the southernmost point on Neil Island to be greeted by a clear horizon and an out of the world sunset. The sun was like an orange comet descending into the grey waters as a speedboat went by, perfectly silhouetted. I could have died right there. That is why I say Neil is my Havelock.
The next day I went back to the jetty to catch a boat back to Port Blair and realised that the only thing that can rival the Disembarkation Disease is the Embarkation Epidemic! But then that’s half the fun of staying in a country called India!
When I first heard about Ross Island, I dismissed it as just another “touristy” attraction every place invariably has – the kind a visitor must visit for fear of being ridiculed amongst peers, but which never quite live up to expectations. So much so that I delayed my inevitable visit to the island as much as I possibly could. I am happy to report that in this case, my fears were completely unfounded.
Interestingly enough, my first glimpse of this almost triangular island was from the air. It sits at the entrance to Port Blair harbour and gives a commanding view of the Andaman Sea to its East. From the air all I could make out was a really dense forest cover and a solitary small jetty jutting out towards Port Blair. As I settled into Port Blair, I came to know that the island belonged to the Indian Navy – a fact which made me even more complacent about planning a visit there, since I now felt it could be done “anytime”. And we all know how these things never work out.
Happily though, it did not come to that and about a month after arriving at Port Blair, I found myself waiting for a boat at the Aberdeen Jetty, camera slung around my neck and a Chinese cloth kite in my bag. Ross Island looms large when seen from Aberdeen Jetty, whose only other remarkable features are that it is surprisingly clean and now features a statue of the erstwhile Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The statue, in an attempt to be unique I suppose, features the great man in a pose which made me wonder whether he was throwing the garland or catching one flung at him. Another instance which strengthened my belief that busts and statues of people need to be designed with great care or not at all.
The boat sidled up to the jetty. As I embarked the considerably weather-beaten vessel, I understood the true meaning of “creaking planks” and “weak rails”. The boat crew were cheerful – the kind of cheerfulness that comes from accepting the fact that every trip could be your last. I began to have serious doubts about the vessel’s sea-worthiness to handle the ten-minute journey to Ross Island. However, even this could not take anything away from the pleasant trip to the island, once you found a place away from the noxious diesel exhaust fumes the boat seemed to specialise in. Ten minutes later, having stepped over two little crabs on the jetty steps, I was on terra-firma, facing a board which said “Welcome to Ross Island”. Given the boat trip, I swear I could make could the word “Congratulations” hidden on that board somewhere.
From the moment I stepped on the island, it was like I was in a time warp. The thick forest cover I’d seen from the air starts off a bit further inland and as I stepped off the jetty, I found myself in a beautifully manicured open area with a central pathway running along the Western edge of the island. The area is dotted with coconut trees and I turned to look back at Aberdeen Jetty and Port Blair to be greeted by the most picturesque of sights. The vista is punctuated by perfect silhouettes of coconut trees, while ferry boats, almost toy-like in the distance, loll lazily in the tranquil waters of the Andaman Sea.
As I walked along the pathway, my camera clicking frenetically, I could almost imagine the sahibs with their ladies out for an afternoon stroll in the latter half of the 19th century. Ross Island is so far away from the bustle and clutter of Port Blair that it seems frozen in the 1850s. Wishing to know more, I asked around for a guide. The ever helpful Naval Petty Officer informed me that a woman named Anuradha was the official guide for the island. It was to be a memorable meeting. Anuradha, said the sailor helpfully, was a repository of Ross island trivia and what was more, she could even converse with the deer and squirrels on the island. Seeing my disbelieving look, he nodded vigourously and took me to a small gathering of tourists under a nearby coconut tree. As I moved amongst the throng to see what was keeping them in thrall, I found myself face to face with Anuradha herself. A diminutive bundle of energy, Anuradha greeted me with a beaming smile and for some reason (possibly a sly frown from the Naval sailor), decided to shower me with all her attention from that moment on. I, rather sheepishly, asked her about the supposed conversation with animals. “Oh! It’s almost feeding time for the deer. Come!” she trilled and made off towards an open area to the left. By the time I caught up with her, she was in the midst of about fifty-odd deer who were feeding on bales of grass provided by the staff on the island. I watched, incredulous, as she called out to the deer by name and the shy animals actually responded and came over to her. Clearly enjoying the attention, she then proceeded to call out to some squirrels on the neighbouring trees. Well, the little nut-eaters came out and began a conversation with her as if it was the most natural thing in the world! I began to get an idea as to how Lewis Carroll thought up Alice in Wonderland. There used to be over 500 deer on the island but apparently the multi-horned male Cheetals had taken it upon themselves to implement Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ on Ross Island. As it were, the present count was about 350, lamented Anuradha.
The island, I was told, was the seat of British power in the Andamans as also the headquarters of the Indian Penal settlement for nearly eighty years from the year of the Great Revolt of 1857 to 1938. The island had everything – a bazaar, a bakery, stores, a water treatment plant, churches, a printing press, a hospital, a cemetery (of course!) and even tennis courts. The British actually came to Ross Island in 1788 by way of a sanatorium and a hospital which was abandoned in 1796 as the mortality rate was too high. I quizzed her about availability of water on the island. Anuradha gave me a special smile for having asked this most incisive of questions and informed me that it was the plentiful supply of water that had driven the jail superintendent JP Walker to Ross from Port Blair in 1857. And by the way, the island was named after Sir Daniel Ross who was a marine surveyor.
Rather overwhelmed by this information overload, I decided to lighten up and do a few things of my own. So I crossed over to the helipad (Yes, there is a helipad) where the relative lack of trees meant that sunlight was allowed to reach the ground and unfurled my clown-faced Chinese kite. It was the turn of the Ross Island staff (and Anuradha) to gape as my yellow clown-kite leaped joyfully into the stiff sea-breeze and was soon smiling wolfishly at us from its rather elevated position. Flying a kite from an island out over open sea is a most liberating experience; possibly the best it can get – if you can keep the kite aloft for a respectable length of time, that is. Seeing I was thoroughly enjoying myself, the kite suddenly caught a downdraught, and before you could say “Daniel Ross!”, plunged headlong into the blue waters. There followed an embarrassing salvage operation with the help of naval sailors with barely suppressed grins, but I had gone on record as the only chap in recently remembered history to have flown a kite from Ross Island.
To the casual enquirer Ross Island comes across as the place where the British kept the worst cases of freedom fighters and did unspeakable things to them. The average British officer is painted as a fiendish and remorseless demon completely committed to inhuman acts. Even the excellent film on Ross Island (which I am told is extremely popular amongst the tourists) errs in this regard somewhat in its attempt to dramatise certain events and send the viewers into a patriotic frenzy. Coloured by the same perception, I was quite taken aback to realise that Ross Island was never a prison at all but merely the headquarters of the British who were in charge of the Indian Penal Settlement. The prisoners were tasked to build the infrastructure at Ross after which they were sent to the sinister sounding Viper Island nearby where the first prison was built.
At this point I recall my meeting with Rayleigh Trevelyan – an individual with a very special bond. Rayleigh Trevelyan was born on Ross Island in the year 1923 when his father was in-charge of the garrison at the Indian Penal settlement. All of eighty-seven years old, Rayleigh Trevelyan came back to Ross Island in 2009, drawn to the place where he was born. As he made his way towards the site of his father’s bungalow, he said recalled a photograph of him sitting on his mother’s knee on the steps of the bungalow. Less than half his age, I had to put on a brave face just to keep up with him as we toiled up a killing slope on the island on a hot afternoon. I left him alone to savour the moment when we reached the ruins of the Commissioner’s bungalow (as it is marked on the island). While Rayleigh Trevelyan was lost in nostalgia I looked around the spectacular ruins of the Commissioner’s bungalow. In fact all the ruins on Ross are truly awesome. The roots of giant trees seem to have come from behind every wall to completely embrace them – a bit like a scene from a scary movie – but the combination of old bricks, peeling mortar clasped in the sinuous embrace of ancient roots makes for a truly arresting picture, especially when clicked in sepia!
“I was brought home from hospital along with my mother in a palanquin borne by two murderers and thereafter cared for by a Burmese murderess named Mimi” reminisced Rayleigh Trevelyan, as we savoured the breathtaking view at Ferrar beach on the Eastern side of the island. “Contrary to popular belief, in its early days the penal settlement largely contained criminals and murderers and not freedom fighters. About thirty-three percent of the inmates were convicted of crimes of passion”. Quite an astonishing statistic that one, eh? Never would have thought passions ran so high in these parts of the world.
Ferrar beach deserves a special mention though. If anything, this beach has become even more beautiful after it bore the brunt of the tsunami in 2004. There’s not much of the beach that Lt Col Michael Lloyd Ferrar (the butterfly-mad Commissioner of the penal settlement in 1923) would have walked on left anymore – the island just sort of broke off into the water, presumably because of the quake. It’s more cliffy and craggy in nature. The coconut trees are almost strewn around like chaff and those that have held their own, lean precariously over the water’s edge at impossible angles. The pristine blue water washes on the rocky coast below me as I take another classic picture postcard photograph. Remember to visit this place on a full moon night for an ethereal ambience.
I stop over at the little museum in the evening. It’s a hut really, but like everything else on the island, quaint and frozen in time. It even has the musty smell of old documents and faded photographs. I remember Rayleigh Trevelyan poring over each one, trying to identify with something. He also pointed out a few photographs he’d donated to the museum a few decades ago. The English sure lived in the lap of luxury even though it was created by prisoners in such a remote part of the world.
It’s time to catch the last boat back to Port Blair. I drag my feet back to the jetty savouring the orange light of a spectacular sunset. I leave behind the friendly deer, a peacock silhouetted on the jetty wall, Anuradha’s incessant chatter, Farzand Ali’s grocery store and the eerily magnetic ruins of the Church as I am helped aboard another of those sea-going death-traps. The boatman gives me a smile to suggest I would definitely perish this time. But then I really do not mind for I have seen one of the world’s great sites. Grossly underestimated and largely unsung, Ross Island is arguably one of the finest heritage sites of the country.
It is not often that you actually find a place “tucked away”, off the beaten track and untouched by the ever-increasing all pervading malignant human presence. I know it sounds a mite harsh but then I really do feel strongly about the way we have gone overboard with the travel bug without having adequately developed our civic sense to preserve nature. But that’s another story. So I heard about this place called Colinpur from a colleague and decided to go there as he said it does not figure on most tourist itineraries. But nothing prepared me for the stunning show put up by Mother Nature at this fantastic corner of the world.
To get to Colinpur Beach one first needs to find the village of Colinpur. I tried to read up on who the village was named after. The best I could come up was Sir Colin Campbell, the hero of the Crimean War, and the commander-in-chief of the British forces in the subcontinent at the time. Possibly Campbell Bay, way down South, is also named after the same gentleman. But then again, I might be completely wrong.
Getting to Colinpur village involves a drive and a very pleasant drive it is too. I have always maintained that the Andamans are a unique mixture of the hills and vales around Ootacamund and the coastal splendour of Goa. Another lovely thing about the Andamans is that you can drive almost anywhere with your windows down (except when it’s raining) – so pure is the air. So I buckled up into my trusty Esteem and set out to find this little known neck of the woods.
Getting out of Port Blair, I open throttle on the wonderfully smooth road leading to a rather run-down suburb (if I may call it such) called Bathu Basti. There are quite a few variants to this name and I’m told each version has its own die hard fanatics. Obviously, supporters of Bathu Basti cannot be expected to see eye to eye with guys who swear by Bhati Basti or even Bhatu Basti! At least they all agree it’s a Basti. Even the road here appears to have been constructed by a poor contractor – and I don’t use the adjective out of pity.
Anyway, the road improves dramatically on the other side of the Whatever Basti and I motored merrily along the road to Wandoor Beach. At about the halfway mark, a new road germinates. This I discovered, was the beginning of the Great Andaman Trunk Road which runs along the entire length of the South Andaman Island. I recalled someone telling me it was the Japanese who first made roads in the Andamans. Bouncing along certain rather uneven stretches I’m convinced they were the last to repair them as well.
The range of landscape I encountered within the first five to ten kilometres was quite extraordinary, with a sandy stretch suddenly giving way to a quite densely vegetated one. The road, oft weather-beaten, managed to hold its own after the initial scare and I crossed the quaintly named Ferrargunj at a fair clip. I pulled over to ask for directions (contrary to what those Mars and Venus books say) and was told to look out for a turn-off at Colinpur village. Armed with this new knowledge, it was only a matter of time before I trundled up to Colinpur, the village.
My recollection of Colinpur is actually just a bubbling little square. The people lounging around the shops and roadside and seemed mostly of Bangla origin and very keen to ensure I did not miss directions to the beach. I turned off the Andaman Trunk Road and found myself crossing a really old but sturdy metal bridge over a nullah. If the road was a bit narrow earlier, it now became barely of vehicle width and I seriously wondered what I’d do in case I encountered oncoming traffic. But apparently the road led exclusively to just the beach so I drove on, soaking in that unique blend of Ooty and Goa I was talking about.
The road ended abruptly in a small clearing – almost a dead end. I got out and looked for my bearings. The smell of salt and the wash of surf hit me though I was surrounded by lush greenery. I spied a small pathway leading off from the clearing and followed it towards increasing sound of water. Abruptly, I broke into sunlight and one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. Welcome to Colinpur!
The beach was typical of most beaches on the isles in that it had vegetation very close to the water’s edge. In fact, at Colinpur, the water touches the tree line at places during high tide. As I looked out to my right, the beach stretched out long and straight – the sand interspersed with broken branches and sometimes, even whole trees toppled over. I took a leisurely stroll along the water’s edge, enraptured by the ceaseless but gentle movement of the “in-between-tides” water. As I turned back I was struck by how peaceful everything was. This was not Wandoor or Chidiya Tapu where one could suddenly brush against a distasteful packet of wafers or step upon the ubiquitous plastic mineral water bottle, completely destroying the idyllic experience. This was not Havelock where you waited an eternity just to click that snap without people in the frame to spoil the scene. This was perfection – slow, lazy, peaceful, uncluttered and sublime.
However it was the other end of the beach which was the icing on the cake. Colinpur beach ends in a slight crescent such that one end of the beach is a bit more sheltered than the rest. There, among the trees that hugged the sand, I spied a cosy little cottage. Just one cottage. I was instantly reminded of the Phantom’s very own slice of paradise – Eden Island. There was an ochre coloured boat pulled up half ashore with a securing line pegged into the sand. All very picturesque. Even as I watched, a bunch of kids, clad only in shorts, raced out on the beach from nowhere and pushed the boat into water, screaming and whooping for joy. As the boat bobbed around in the knee-deep water, the children had the time of their lives jumping into the water and clambering back on again. I clicked six kids suspended in mid-air, joyful abandon apparent on their faces – a priceless picture indeed.
This end of the beach also has a partially submerged Japanese Bunker from World War II. Though a man-made feature with straight lines and sharp edges, it blends in with the beach as it juts out of the water, one turret clearly visible – a mute testimony to the mindless destruction from both, the World War and the tsunami waves.
Colinpur Beach saved its best for last. I have rarely seen such an extensive palette on display within the space of about twenty minutes. An egg-yolk yellow sun dipping into the grey black water behind the Japanese bunker against a violent red-orange sky was my most lasting memory. I am always amazed at how quickly the sun disappears from view once it touches the horizon. It is a fascinating sight. I quickly clambered back up the path to my car in the gathering dusk and drove back thinking I had spent a rare moment of true oneness with Nature at Colinpur Beach.
Back across the metal bridge, Colinpur’s village square was bustling with activity. The lights were on, the little chai hotels doing brisk business. I stopped for a cuppa and spied quite a few carrom boards set up beside the tea stalls. The local pros were hard at play, furrowed brows, powdered hands and all. I edged nearer for a closer look. One of them immediately invited me over to play. This instant warming up to a complete stranger is unique to India. Soon I was sending the carrom-men flying into pockets egged on vociferously by a totally unknown group of good-hearted men. It was a heady feeling. The chaiwallah announced my tea was ready. I dragged myself away from the board and savoured the strong tea typical of the roadside stalls and wondered if I could have spent a better day anywhere else in the world.