Rom, my spouse, carved out a large territory on the map with his thumb nail and said, “We can’t go there. Tribal Reserve.” His nail then traced an arc across the rest of the island, “That’s protected area.” I asked with dismay, “Where can we go then?” While jabbing his finger at a sliver of land on the east coast, he answered, “There.” I surveyed the map of Little Andaman closely. Was there enough to see and do on that slice to write for a travel magazine?
I asked Tasneem who manages the Madras Crocodile Bank’s field station in the Andaman Islands. She listed: “Waterfalls, limestone rocks, gorgeous beaches, bird-watching, snorkelling, crocodiles…” I heaved a sigh of relief; I may be in business after all.
Although I’ve been visiting the Andaman Islands for nearly twenty years, I had never been to Little Andaman before. Excitement levels were off the charts as we flew to Port Blair, the capital of the island group. As soon as we boarded the ferry at 6am, fellow passengers staked claim to floor space by spreading bed sheets — out on the open deck and below in the cabins. The reason became clear when the ferry pulled away from the dock: everyone lay down and went to sleep on the hard metal floor, unmindful of the small cockroaches swarming over luggage, seats and walls. No one stirred for the nearly six hours it took to cover the 120 kilometres.
I imagined the ferry to Hut Bay would be jammed with vacationers, but Rom and I were the only tourists among ninety passengers on board; everyone else was a resident, entrepreneur or government employee. That’s puzzling as visiting Little Andaman doesn’t require any paperwork, unlike several other islands in the archipelago. Once they have a Restricted Area Permit on arrival at Port Blair, even foreign tourists are free to land on the island.
A kilometre from the Hut Bay jetty is Gandhi Bazar, the commercial centre: a couple of hotels, grocery stores, a fish market and a few eating joints. That was it. Social life? Non-existent. I wasn’t disheartened; I was there to prospect the island’s natural life.
All accommodation is of the backpacker variety. When I saw cockroaches crawling around the room at night, I cried, “I can’t recommend this.” I’d camp in the open than stay in a dump, but camping on the beach is verboten. We ensured all our bags were closed tight, before going out to dinner. The fresh fish fry lifted my spirits. Now that was something to write home about. Vegetarians, don’t fear. Little Andaman grows a good variety and quantity of produce that is shipped as far as the Nicobars.
Although various settlements on the north-south road have names, they are more commonly referred to by the kilometre distance from the jetty. At fourteen kilometres is Butler Bay Beach, my first spot of call. Mid-morning sunlight pierced the canopy of the straight-boled mahua (bullet wood) trees as we made our way to the beach. White coral sands separated the blue-green waters from lush coastal vegetation. Such a gorgeous spot ought to attract tourists like iron filings to a magnet. That morning, the only other people on the beach were two fishermen and their dogs.
Bobbing in the waves, I couldn’t shake off the feeling I was in a picture postcard. I had heard there was good snorkelling. But the wetland across the road from Butler Bay had a crocodile warning. Come to think of it, every freshwater stream along the way had similar signboards. Were there really that many crocs? Or were the authorities being over-cautious?
My spirits sank. Besides the large areas that were marked off-limits, the ferry was filthy, accommodation basic and now there was a proverbial reptile in paradise. My career as a travel writer was vaporising in front of my eyes.
The croc warning spooked me enough that I couldn’t bring myself to don snorkelling mask and flippers. Had someone accompanied me, I would have been more confident. Although I was vigilant, the cool water soon lulled me into a dreamy state. Surfing-perfect waves crashed ashore with cyclical rhythm.
On a full moon night, we walked along the beach hoping to see a half-ton leatherback sea turtle laying eggs, but didn’t find any. But on the tourist-no-go west coast, a consortium of organisations, including the Bangalore-based Centre for Ecological Sciences, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team and the Forest Department, has been conducting a scientific monitoring programme since 2010.
To follow the turtles’ travels, the team fitted satellite transmitters on seven behemoths. One swam south of the Maldives headed for the Seychelles, two passed Cocos (Keeling) Islands apparently on their way to Australia and two others hugged the Sumatran coast. The transmitters soon stopped functioning, so the turtles' final destinations remain unknown. Astonishingly, when the time comes to lay eggs, these long-distance seafarers are able to navigate their way to this obscure speck in the Bay of Bengal.
At the southern edge of Butler Bay are huge, sharp-edged limestone rocks called Kalapathar. I wriggled through a tunnel, the size of a ship’s porthole, and climbed up on to a cliff on the sea-facing side. Below, waves tried to break down the rock wall and disturbed snails and crabs in tiny puddles. The gorgeous cove spread out in front of me and, overhead, trees growing on the limestone sent their roots snaking into crevices. In times past, did the Onge sit here and contemplate the nature of the universe as I did?
Little Andaman is home to one of the last remaining negrito tribes, the Onge. Since the early 1900s, a majority of them fell victim to common diseases when they came in contact with the British and mainland Indians. Today, the tribe is less than a hundred strong.
In keeping with the tourist-free theme of the trip, we had White Surf waterfall to ourselves too. We followed a well-laid path that ran along a freshwater creek with the inevitable crocodile warning nailed to a tree. Lizards, from babies to adults, basked on every sunlit patch. The path led right up to a large pool at the base of the fifty-foot waterfall.
The ticket collector said there had been two large twelve-foot-deep pools at the base of the waterfall with boating facilities. But the December 2004 earthquake sent boulders tumbling down and filled up the pools. Indeed, Little Andaman suffered the worst damage of the island group, being closest to the epicentre.
At Siva Hotel, a roadside eatery, the proprietor-cook said the tsunami had destroyed the market area and washed away the road. Sixty-four people were killed, and it took eighteen months to rebuild the infrastructure.
Our jeep driver suggested we see Harminder Bay, south of the jetty. When he turned away from the seaside and drove up a hill, I thought, “That’s an odd route to the beach.” Soon we came to a Nicobarese settlement and the driver drove around in circles. Kids paused in their games to wave, while the adults went about their business. Fat pigs wandered along the clean streets. Entire houses were made of tin. Before the tsunami, they were traditional structures, raised on stilts and made of woven-bamboo matting. Every hut had a neatly tended vegetable patch. There was not a single non-Nicobarese face to be seen. Around the settlement, extensive coconut plantations, the economy of the Nicobarese, spread as far as the eye could see.
Then realisation slowly flickered: the point of the drive to Harminder Bay was not the beach, but to gawk at the Nicobarese. Embarrassed by my rudeness for blundering into their village, I insisted on going to the beach located at the end of the road.
Access to the beach was by sliding down the side of a wooden bridge and wading across a clear sparkling creek. A few distinctive rocks jutted from the sea, adding character to the gorgeous scene. Morning glory creepers in full bloom spread across the white sands. This was even more picturesque than Butler Bay.
I heard of a second waterfall at Krishna Tala, said to be more spectacular than the first. We drove through a 1,600-hectare-grove of neatly tended oil palms, locally called ‘Dalda plantation’. While most of the way was an easy ride, we had to rev the bikes up steep hill slopes and glide downhill perilously. Thorny cane and sharp spine-edged pandanus lined the path most of the way, scratching our bare legs if we weren’t careful. I fervently hoped the thorn-edged tendrils of cane didn’t hook an eyelid or ear. At the speeds we were driving, it was impossible to see them and react in time. But we couldn’t go any slower. Nothing here comes without a price, I thought unhappily.
On seeing three other motorbikes parked in a clearing, I groaned to myself, “Company.” We followed a well-trodden path through the forest and, half an hour later, stood at the base of a spectacular waterfall that some call Whisper Wave. It wasn’t as high as White Surf but made a pretty picture.
A couple sat on the banks watching the gushing water. Their guide had seen a crocodile in the pool below the waterfall. It dove underwater and disappeared, he said. Salt-water crocodiles (or salties) here apparently climb up boulders and trudge through thick forest to inland streams much like mugger crocodiles do in mainland India and Sri Lanka.
We scrambled up alongside the waterfall and found a smaller one, and then, another above it. A couple of tipsy foreign tourists were having the time of their lives, diving off a large tree stump into a deep pool. I found a quiet spot and soaked my leech-bitten and thorn-scratched legs in water, and listened to bird calls. The difficult drive seemed entirely worth the effort.
At Hut Bay, everyone I spoke to said there were more crocs since the tsunami than before. I speculated that perhaps the logjams created habitats where there had been none before. Or had the tsunami churned up saltie nurseries and seeded the reptiles all over the place? On a night drive, crocodiles’ eyes shone back at us from pools, streams and wetlands on either side of the road.
Both the salties now and the Onge then had it made. The island has more freshwater streams than any of the other islands, plenty of seafood, including abundant turtles, and a rich jungle with wild pigs, masked civets, water monitor lizards and many green pigeons. It’s so remote that no other land mass is visible from its coastline. Unless you are a leatherback sea turtle, it’s easy to forget that a world exists beyond these waters.
Little Andaman may not have swanky resorts, crocodile-free waterways and unfettered access across the island, but it is a last frontier for an intrepid traveller to the Andamans. And — I say this unapologetically — it is better for it.
Non-stop flights are available from Chennai and Kolkata on a variety of carriers, including Air India, GoAir, JetKonnect and SpiceJet, though the cheapest options are Air India (Chennai) and GoAir (Kolkata, approx. Rs 13,000 return for both).
At Port Blair, there’s a daily ferry service from Phoenix Jetty to Hut Bay, Little Andaman. The ‘speed boat’ is not a glamorous vessel capable of noisy high speeds. The 92-seater makes the trip in 6hrs compared to the 10-12hr journey made by the slower 150-seater ferries. There’s no food aboard the faster ferry. Eat breakfast at any of the two or three idli shops near Phoenix Jetty before boarding the 6am ferry. The slower ferries have canteens that serve beverages and food. It’s better to buy tickets in advance (Rs 130 per head) from the Directorate of Shipping Services counter at Phoenix Jetty. Return tickets can be bought only after you alight at Hut Bay. Bear in mind that ferry services are often cancelled if the weather turns nasty, so don’t time your passage back too closely with your flight out of Port Blair.
Where to stay
At Hut Bay, Sealand Tourist Home offers reasonably clean rooms (Rs 400 non-AC/`700 AC; 03192-284306). Inexplicably, the 21 rooms face away from the sea. They also rent out surf boards. VVET (Van Vikas Eco Tourism), run by the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation Corporation, has 6 non-AC rooms. While the rooms are clean, the bathrooms have roaches (Rs 300 doubles; 284155). Panchayat Samiti Guest House is a relatively new building with clean rooms. At 11 Kilometres, Jina Resort and Blue View also provide accommodation.
Where to eat
Sealand has a restaurant. Across the road, Palmgroove restaurant, run by the Forest Corporation, serves food on prior order. Siva Hotel, a roadside eatery between Sealand and VVET, has good masala dosa, fish fry, and biriyani. If you plan to be away the entire day, they do take-away. There’s a restaurant at 16 Kilometres.
What to see & do
Bird-watching at 18 kilometres (R.K. Pur) Dam and along forest paths; picnic at the oil palm plantation.
What to pack
Insect repellant, binoculars, hat, swimsuit, snorkelling mask and flippers, sun block, camera with a spare memory card. Trekking sandals that dry quickly are better than sneakers. Bed sheets to sleep if you catch the overnight ferry or if you wish to follow local practice.