Andaman Chapter 2 – Journey across the Island

by Payel Kundu on May 13, 2019

Previous chapter in series : A day at Port Blair

 

Waiting before the start

The room was mostly dark, except for one little light shining directly above the couch where we sat with our bags. At the other end of the room, a staff leaned over the reception desk trying his best to look awake and waited patiently. I felt a pang of guilt at that, somewhere probably in a deep untouched corner of my heart. But apart from that, I mostly felt worried and frustrated. Time was ticking away, quite literally and louder than usual, and the car was running late.

Hotel Lobby
Lobby of Diviyum Manor Hotel

This was a day of travel for us. A long undesirable journey. The main island of Andaman stretched for a little over 300 km and we were going to travel the whole distance in a day. Months ago while planning, this didn’t seem much. I had travelled more than that in a day and with quite an ease. But only when we started to research on rental cars few weeks before the trip, did we realize how much time that meant in the island. With couple of boat rides across rivers, driving in a convoy through a reserve forest area and long patches of extremely poor and narrow roads, it was expected to take us around 15 hours. Lucky for us though, they were all ready to start early. Way too early.

We were up by 2:30 am, which even considering the time difference between east and west (India) was extremely ungodly, and were ready before 3. That was when the car was supposed to come. But unfortunately for us, our driver had a change of heart at last moment and decided to carry on with his sleep by switching off his phone. So we had to resort to contacting the travel agents directly. And a few of dozy, slightly annoyed conversations later, we are assigned a replacement car. And this was the car we were waiting for sitting at the hotel lobby.

It finally reached our hotel at 3:40 am, forty minutes behind our schedule. Forty minutes above the fifteen hours that we had already been dreading. We said goodbye to the receptionist to his relief, took our bags and boarded the vehicle. The car took a U-turn to face away from the town of Port Blair and we headed towards the infinite darkness that laid ahead.  

 

Journey through the remains of the night

The night was dark and streetlights were scarce. I could see the stars glinting between the clouds at the far away sky beyond the dark lining of tree tops. It hadn’t rained since we left, which was a blessing. I could feel the road turning frequently even in my half sleep. It was also bumpy and rough. By the light from the headlights I could see the narrow road slithering ahead between the lines of trees. But I couldn’t tell what laid behind them – a village, a small town or just unbound wilderness. Once in a while I could see a feeble light from a distant place, somewhat assuring of civilization’s existence. There were a few subtle uphill and downhill in the route, but nothing too drastic. Mostly we ran along through the night in a dull unexciting manner.

 

At Jirakatang Gate

Sleepy Village
Misty village near Jirakatang Gate

It was 5:15 when we finally stopped. The darkness was fading fast giving way to the upcoming day. Somewhere out there a sun might have been rising. In the mild light of dawn we saw the line of cars standing ahead in an absurd sense of symmetry that only a multitude of silent car engines can produce. We stepped out and noticed the line stretching ahead as far as our eyes could follow. This was the queue for convoy entering the Jarwa land. And somewhere ahead there was the Jirakatang gate protecting their land from the civilized lot, or maybe it was the other way around.

The road was still narrow, but I could see much further on both sides now. The right side of the road sloped down a bit and then extended into a flat land ending at a silhouette of a sleepy village. Further behind the village I could make out a shape of a hill which for the lack of light looked to be in a shade of grey. Later I would learn that the forests of Andaman could make an illusion of hill with their shapes and sizes and some particular arrangements of same. For now I believed it to be a hill. On the left, there was an actual hill which elevated beside the road and was covered in thick bushes and frequent tall trees. This was only a glimpse into what was to come beyond the gate.

There were many food stalls along this road with density increasing with proximity to the gate. We took a walk down the road till the gate which was almost half a km from our car, without any exaggeration. We ate some Samosas and Idlis in one of the smaller stalls, which were both quite tasty. While the stalls varied in shapes and sizes, the food type mostly remained similar – Idli, vada, Poori, Samosa and so on. It covered both typical Bengali and South-Indian breakfast options. We went to use the paid toilet facility that was available at the gate, where it would seem most of the halters were (looking at the length of the queue). And while I didn’t know it then, it was going to be the worst toilet facility that I would have to encounter during our whole trip.

 

Welcome to the jungle

Forest
Forest viewed from the boat

At 6 the gate opened and we entered behind a long line of cars. The forest started off as soon as we were in and the road ran between tall trees. We started off slow. There were too many cars ahead and slowly each of them were picking up speed. We too would be soon rushing up. The road went upwards a bit in the beginning, but most of this route would not change in altitude till end. The road was smooth and the whole 48 km inside the forest passed through a land that can truly be described as undisturbed. The forest laid on the both sides of us, sometimes sloping upwards on a hill, sometimes in a pit and most times just flat all around us. And the forest! Oh the forest!! It was nothing like anything I have seen before. Where most forest beckon me with magical allure, this one made me feel reasonably frightened. If one has to feel the true meaning of a jungle, this was the place to experience it. On a first look it just looked like a monotony of greenery, or rather web of foliage. From the top most tree to the lowest land, no inch of the forest was spared of green. On a closer look, you could observe the layers. The tallest of the trees were actually quite thin and they stood close to ten stories high building. Most of its leaves remained on the top and the rest of the stem was without any green. That is to say from the tree itself, there were enough greenery otherwise. There were creepers rolling around this stem and reaching for the top and some of the other ones just hanging tangentially from the top till down to the ground. This made kind of shamiana over the trees. There were other shorter trees, thick and thin. And then there were the bushes and plants. I saw versions of many fancy plants that people keep at home in a pot. Like ferns or palms or other colourful plants. But they were much taller here, taller than a tall man. They felt like giant versions of those cute little things we keep at home. Beneath it all laid the grasses. And they all together made an image of an obscure land inhabited only by unattended foliage.

Forest
A glimpse of the forest

It wasn’t the case though. This forest was inhabited by the tribe called Jarwas, one of the still living tribes of Andamans. Once they lived in the coastal area where now Port Blair was located. But post British arrival they moved further inland and occupied a land once belonging to Great Andamanese tribe which got depopulated over time. Now this beautiful but frightening forest was their home sweet home. At the starting of our journey, we saw a Jarawa couple walking and going about their business. Both dressed decently and their skin covered in ash or mud, which could be a protection against the cold. Later we saw another man, a little older, walk by our vehicle dressed minimally and layered with mud again. On our return journey we would be stopped by two groups of boys and girls for food (in a very harmless and non-violent way), but that was still in the future.

 

First River of the day

River
Crossing the channel between Middle Strait and Baratang

After about two hours we reached the other side of the forest which just ended at the bank of a river (or is it a channel or backwater?). It was Middle Strait Jetty and that was our first river of the day. Our car joined the perfect line of cars that were waiting for the boat to arrive from other side. But we had to stand with the waiting people, who were mostly forming a gathering near the dock resembling no actual form of a queue. The boat arrived soon and offloaded passengers, cars, a truck and a bus. For a boat riding on a channel, it was quite big.

Boats on Water
Boats for Limestone Caves near the Jetty

We slowly boarded and went in towards the front, away from the incoming vehicles. When the boat was full, the ramp rolled up and we started to move diagonally across the river. As we started to move away from the land we could see how small the jetty was compared to the wall of forest that stood upright on both sides of it. Some of it was what we crossed, some of it we didn’t even touch upon. Even on the other side of the river there were more greenery waiting for us, but the trees in the front row were typical mangroves that stuck out from the water and stood about 10-12 feet high. There were many boats scattered on the water near the jetty. These boats were used for taking tourists to the nearby Limestone Caves, which was part of our itinerary as well.

 

Visiting the Limestone Caves

One thing we realized very soon in our journey was that renting a car in Andaman was never just about renting a car. Since most tourists come to the islands with packaged tour organized by travel agents, even when you only rent a car from them, they tend to take up more responsibilities than you intended. Before we even landed at Oralkatcha jetty on the other side, our driver had already arranged a group with whom we could share our ride to Limestone Caves. First we were reluctant about sharing. But soon we realized that it was too expensive to hire a boat for yourself. Even after sharing among ten people we paid 700 per head for the ride.

Canal
Canal through Mangrove Forest
Boat
Boat navigating the canal

The tickets were collected by the boatman, we were lined near a small exit gate to the river, provided with life jackets and then were marched towards the river and our designated boat. The whole thing was organized in a manner that made me feel like a small kid in a school excursion. The speed boat took off quickly after we had settled down and started its journey across the length of the river towards south. We could still see the forest of Jarawas on our right, but we were riding closer to the land on the other side, which belonged to Baratang Island.

The boat moved through the water smoothly in a hopping manner and it moved quite fast. Sometime it splashed water on us as it turned slightly right or left. The landscape remained same, except for occasional branches of the channel flowing inland cutting through the mangroves. We ignored most of them and moved on. After about half an hour of this journey we finally slowed down near a similar branch and started to move inwards on the small canal through the mangroves. The water here was of muddy colour and it ran through a narrow channel between trees with a leafy roof over our head made of leaning branches from both sides. As charming as it was, this journey lasted only a short while before we had to stop by a dock area made of bamboos. The same platform had extended into the forest as a bamboo walk leading towards the limestone cave. We disembarked from the boat and started to walk in that direction.

Limestone Caves
Limestones inside the dark cave

It wasn’t a long walk. It took us about 20 minutes to reach the cave. The route which was a narrow unpaved road, ran through trees and rural landscapes. It was wide enough for two to three people walk side by side. Near the cave, the rocky structures started to appear making sort of doorways on the route. Slowly they closed in and gradually formed the caves all around us. Inside the cave it was dark and damp. And due to space constraint, crowded as well. Further we went inside, it got darker and damper, and at some point I started to hear water dripping. Everything around us were made of white limestones which seemed to have frozen into the solid shapes at midstream while flowing from top, and often they had ended up making some interesting structures in the process. Using flashlights we inspected them. The guides who had come with us or other tourists were more interested in showing various structures rather than explaining about the cave or limestone in general. So eventually we lost interest. Also the crowd and the darkness and the dampness were getting on to me. So we decided to walk out and started our return journey till the boat.

 

Baratang Island

Restaurant
The modest place which served us lunch

It was beyond 11:30 when we came back to the jetty. The whole business of Limestone Cave had taken us about 1.5 hours and we were eager to start back our journey. At this point we had completed less than one third of our overall travel and eight hours had already passed by. We finished a quick lunch at a place close to the jetty. There weren’t any fancy eateries in our route, we made do with the basics. The food was alright and service was quick.

We finally hit the road at 12 noon. As we moved away from the jetty the houses and shops became less frequent and further we went they got scarcer. After a while we were only riding through the wilderness or barren fields. It was only around 23 km across this piece of island which would lead us to our next river. However this probably was the worst part of the route. The road was narrow and rough. Every time a vehicle approached from other side, both drivers would have to slow down and make room for each other by applying driving skills to the best of their abilities. Not that the vehicle moved much faster otherwise. There were too many potholes and uneven patches. In fact more part of the road was covered with potholes than not. So we moved on slowly through these worn-out roads.

Rustic Boat
Rustic boat carrying people and vehicle to other side

At 1 we ended this part of our journey and reached the jetty. This jetty looked almost desolate in comparison to our previous experience of the day. There were a handful of cars waiting for boat, and there were hardly any other tourists in view. A few local people were sitting in rows of chairs made for waiting passenger inside a shaded area. A few hawkers could also be seen selling mostly vegetables and one particular selling rasgullas in plastic bags. Finally when the boat arrived after about ten minutes, that too looked more rugged and worn out. The river on the other hand felt very peaceful. It had a leisurely noon vibe to it. Or it was the vibe in the air caught and reflected by the rippling water. We crossed the river in peace and landed on the other side at Uttara Jetty, thereby entering Middle Andaman region.

 

Middle Andaman

The landscape had changed. We were not traveling through barren lands or forest anymore. While the flora and fauna remained similar, there were much less of it now. Instead there were more people, more settlers. It was a rural landscape, like any quintessential Indian countryside. The forest had been cut down to make room for farmlands and houses and the remains of the forest can be seen at a distance in shape of a hill. Sometime there were clusters of houses forming a neighbourhood or a village and sometime only a single hut surrounded by useful trees and plants. There were people also on their way somewhere or waiting by the road for someone or just sitting in a shade and conversing. The area was called Kadamtala. As evident from the name, this place was populated by Bengalis or more specifically settlers from Bangladesh during 1971 war.

Rural landscape
Random landscape near Kadamtala

After crossing Kadamtala, we entered into a second Jarawa reserve. This wasn’t as strictly regulated as the previous one. There was a man sitting inside a small booth by the side of road quite hidden from view, and a toll gate blocking the road which could be manually uplifted. And there was no one or nothing else in view as we came upon this. Our driver still diligently went inside the booth to collect required permit before lifting the gate and enter the reserve. There weren’t much forest in there and unlike the reserve area from the morning non-jarawa population also lived inside here. We didn’t find too many houses, but once in a while we would pass by some clusters of houses with local people living a normal lifestyle. Our driver said both jarwas and settlers lived in harmony in this part. I can’t say how much harmony they were able to maintain, but they indeed lived alongside. We even saw two Jarawa women picking fruits (or something) from a small bush next to the road. They showed us as much interest towards as we felt for them. This was about an hour long drive within the reserve area. And after that one hour we left the official barrier of this place as uneventfully as we had entered and continued our journey in a route that looked pretty much similar to what it was before.

Sea
Passing by the serene sea on our route

At around 2:30 we entered the town called Rangat and not much after we exited as well. It wasn’t long drive across the town, it wasn’t even a big town. But as per Andaman standard, it was considered one of the good ones. By that I mean there were shops, restaurants, atms and even some industrial areas in this town. It also had a port that connected Rangat to the rest of the Island and many local folks used this commute to go for errands in Port Blair. After Rangat the road led towards the sea and then ran parallel to the shore for about 12 km. This was the only part of the route that ran by the sea, remaining two hundred and ninety something kilometres kept to the middle of the island maintaining safe distance from the ocean on both sides. At the end of this 12km, where the road started to turn away and went inland again, there was a place called Dhani Nallah. Not too popular, but definitely starting to gain some interest in recent days. We wanted to visit the place and we would on our return journey, but it was 3:30 pm and we had 130 km more roads to cover. So we skipped it for that day and moved on.

 

A bit about Dhani Nallah

Dhani Nalla
Bamboo walkway through mangrove forest

Dhani Nallah is a long mangrove walk, which basically means a pathway created through the mangrove forest from where one can enjoy various type of mangroves of the Andamans. The path made of bamboo is slightly higher from ground which ensues a better view of the trees. It meanders through the forest for about 700 metres and then leads to the beach at the end. There are placards with information about the mangroves put up across the pathway at various places and the plants are also tagged appropriately with their corresponding names. Although I didn’t remember any of the names, but the mere variety of them was enough to astonish me. I had no idea there could be so many types of mangroves. The pathway is beautiful, and the walk is very pleasant. The beach doesn’t stand out compared to Andaman beaches, but it’s quite secluded and peaceful.

 

Middle to North Andaman

Sunset
Close up Sunset

After crossing Dhani Nallah, we travelled another 40 kms of land across Middle Andaman through its villages and small towns. The journey was mostly uneventful. Before reaching Mayabunder, another popular town, we took a detour and went in the direction of North Andaman region. There we came upon our third river. Fortunately we didn’t need a ferry this time, there was good long bridge across the channel making this a much easier travel than the previous ones. The timing also couldn’t have been more apt.  It was 4:40 pm and the sun was about to set. The horizon and the vast pool of water in front of us had already turned pink and the yellow sun on the western corner reflected against the clouds around it. The forest bordering the water behind which the sun was about to go down, was slowly losing its dark green colour and turning into a black mass. All around us whichever direction we looked, there was either water or the endless forest and all of it contained under the pinkish blue dome of the sky. We stopped our vehicle in the middle of the bridge to relish this moment before we could move on again.

By the time we crossed this bridge and entered North Andman Island, the day had already started to turn dark. We stopped for tea at a small village, which probably had only ten households, a few tea shops and by some miracle that can only be credited to consumerism, a pay-and-use toilet. After having tea made by a very homely lady, we left and progressed towards our destination. Here we saw two other tourist cars, both heading towards the same place as us, and also the same resort as us.

Sunset
Sunset behind the forest by the river

Soon we entered forest again as the day kept turning into evening. The roads were bad once more, even though not the worst we had encountered since morning. As the last ray of sunlight fully disappeared, the forest suddenly woke with a loud shrill noise. It was coming from every corner of the forest and it was coming in perfect monotonous rhythm. To me it sounded like a temple bell rang in a very high frequency. To others it felt various things. We just looked around in amazement to find out the source of such atrocity. The driver jumped in to enlighten. It was an insect, something like a cricket. They were scattered across the forest and made this engrossing noise to communicate with each other. And their time sense was extraordinary as they always started right after the sunset. We continued rest of our journey through the forest fascinated by and in the constant company of this sound.

 

Slow travel through night

We had lost track of time by then. We were moving, that’s all we knew. And it felt like as long as could remember we were always moving. But eventually we had left the forest and came back into a rural area. The roads were also getting better and it made us slightly hopeful. Until of course when we stopped… all of a sudden… behind a long line of cars. Something was going on ahead that had brought the traffic to standstill. After a bit of investigation we came to know that there were three gigantic bulldozers ahead which were moving slowly and the road was too narrow for them to give way to other vehicles. And that’s why we started slow travel behind these giants.

It was quite dark by then and traveling at this speed made us feel the full spectrum of the day. We started much before sunrise, we saw the day breaking and slowly turning into noon, then we experienced the sunset by the river and witnessed the darkness slowly spreading again. Now it was as dark as the time when we started and we were nowhere close to reaching. This was indeed frustrating. And at that moment we all must have wondered, was it worth it coming all this way!

I am not sure how long this travel persisted. Hard to say. But it felt like a long long time. Eventually and one at a time each of those enormous vehicles found a place to park by the side of road and gave way to the cars. And eventually we left them behind and moved ahead. But by that time our mood was sullen and the journey was starting to get unbearable.

 

Diglipur

We entered Diglipur after 7 PM. I discovered to my utter surprize that this was actually a big town. Maybe biggest in Andamans, even considering Port Blair. The roads were wide and in good condition. And after last few hours of travel this place suddenly felt too much alive with its people and shops and lights. But journey wasn’t over for us yet. The hotel that we were going to, in fact the only good resort of Diglipur, was another 25 km from the town.

Resort
Pristine Beach Resort

So we crossed the town, left the lights and the people and drove into the darkness once again. We went through villages and hills and barren lands. We passed by the sea very closely once. And another forty minutes of drive later we finally saw the lights of our hotel – Pristine Beach Resort. And there after 16 hours on road, we finally, finally ended the longest journey I ever had.

 

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