Along the Spice Route
Like a sparkling jewel pendant, the Andaman and Nicobar islands angle below Burma in a turquoise sea, studded with coral reefs, rich with sea creatures. But surprisingly this archipelago of some 570 islands, measuring 700 kilometers from north to south, does not belong to Burma, but to India far to the west.
For hundreds of years the Malays, the Chinese, and even Marco Polo visited these islands. The inhabitants had a reputation for being wild, fierce people who ate human flesh, enough to put anyone off landing there in those days. It was the East India Company, on behalf of the British government, who first established a colony on the Andamans, but malaria killed many of the early settlers and by 1796 most of the colonists had left. The British, keen to retain this strategic possession, decided it would make a good penal settlement for the revolutionaries of the 1857 Indian uprising. By 1858 the first 200 prisoners arrived and were jailed on Viper Island in the Port Blair's harbor. The Andaman and Nicobar islands became part of India at her independence from Britain in 1947.
Today the islands offer a magnificent cruising ground and although yachts can only visit the Andamans and not the Nicobars, there are so many islands to see it is impossible to do them justice in the one month allowed. Lying only 400 nautical miles from the mainland of Thailand/Malaysia, the islands are a great destination in the northeast monsoon season, either continuing on to India or returning to Thailand.
My husband and I sailed from Phuket, in southern Thailand, on our Oyster 435 Deusa taking four days in northeast winds of 10 to 15 knots. Port Blair on South Andaman Island is the capital and check-in point for visiting yachts. Despite the bureaucracy the officials are polite and friendly.
Once liberated from our yacht, we had to see the Port Management Board for authority to visit specific islands. Six distinct tribes inhabit the islands, four tribes of Negrito origin, the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onges, and the Sentinelese, and two of Mongoloid origin, the Shompens and the Nicobarese. Unfortunately these people are fast becoming extinct and the only tribe managing to hold on is the Nicobarese. It is for the protection of the indigenous people that yachts have to submit a cruising plan and some areas are completely out of bounds, like Sentinel Island off the west coast of South Andaman.
In Port Blair one immediately feels the excitement of stepping into a new and exotic destination. This is India, with the bustling, noisy traffic of old cars and scooters, cows and goats wandering undisturbed on the sidewalks, little shops spilling over with brightly colored bolts of cloth, warm spicy smells of delicious Indian food wafting from simple roadside restaurants, and elegant Indian ladies in flowing saris bargaining for choice fruit and vegetables in the market.
There are several interesting landmarks on nearby Ross Island, which has a regular ferry service departing from the terminal downtown. In 1858 two British prisoner ships from India arrived at Ross Island. The prisoners were put to work clearing the thick vegetation in preparation for the construction of administrative headquarters and barracks to house the English troops. Once the construction was completed the prisoners were moved to Viper Island where the first jail was built. An Anglican Church, storehouses, a bakery, shops, a hospital, a post office, a bazaar and clubs were added later. In fact a self-sufficient settlement of beautiful buildings was created: a miniature England with stately homes and manicured lawns in the heart of the Andaman sea.
After the British left the Andamans and Nicobars, Ross Island was abandoned. Today Ross Island is a haunting ruin. What was once the "Paris of the East" has been reclaimed by nature, with twining vines and strangler figs amongst the crumbling walls of a once vibrant elite society.
On this, our first visit to the Andamans, we chose to visit only a few of the islands, starting with Havelock Island northeast of Port Blair. Our first stop was off a lovely beach framed by huge trees with a low-key campground nestled in the shade. A couple of small roadside restaurants provided adequate meals for campers and hungry yachties, and even rented out decrepit scooters for inland explorations.
Havelock is rural with many small farms. Puttering along on our dubious scooter we saw elephants working in a logging camp and met ladies spreading their rice on the road to dry, leading buffalo out to the fields, and even carrying baskets of bricks on their heads, feminine and graceful in their saris.
After a few pleasant days we raised anchor and sailed to Middle and North Button, stopping a couple days at each one. These are small, uninhabited islands with lovely beaches covered in driftwood and shells, surrounded by thriving coral reefs full of colorful fish.
Tacking northwards up the channel our next stop was Long Island where a village with small shops offers dry goods and a few vegetables for stocking up. We strolled along the neat concrete walkway, and met the local schoolteacher and his friends. Everyone was interested to know about us, as not that many boats visit the Andamans, and our presence was always greeted with friendly curiosity and kindness.
With the wind behind us, we sailed south to Baratang Island where the anchorage offered a splendid uninhabited beach and a backdrop of magnificent tall trees with exotic names like padauk, kokko, chuglam, marblewood and satinwood. The betel nut palm grows wild in the Andamans as do cinnamon, pepper, pandanu, causarina, and the ever-present coconut—a major source of income to the islands.
There is not much fauna, only feral cats and pigs, a species of iguana, and a rare green lizard (phelfuma andamans), as well as some poisonous snakes such as the cobra, hamadryad, blue krait, pit vipers, and banded sea snakes. There are many birds for the enthusiastic watcher and the Nicobar pigeon is among the more striking with its spectacular metallic-green plumage and copper highlights.
One month was too short to explore all the lovely anchorages and interesting passes and channels and we look forward to returning.