26th Birthday Plan – Dive deep into the turquoise blue waters of Havelock island.
Every year, I hunt for the exotic locations to memorialize my birthday. Somehow I came across a beautiful picture of the Havelock island in the Andaman archipelago and decided to go down the ocean to explore marine life under the transparent sheet of water.
As the destination was finalized, soon the search for the flights & resorts began. There were no direct flights from Mumbai to Port Blair. Either I had to go via Kolkata or Chennai and I chose both; going via Kolkata and coming via Chennai.
Next part was to get a nice place to stay in the Andaman. The tiny Havelock Island had many options. Many of them were expensive one but I got a good deal with Emerald Gecko resort on Havelock as well as Neil Island too.
Now that the itinerary had been finalized and required bookings were done, all I needed to do was, just pack my bag and go for the islands.
Layover at Kolkata
31 August, 2016
I deliberately booked my flight to Port Blair via Kolkata so that I can get a chance to explore the former capital of British India. But unlike Mumbai, I had no idea that Kolkata sleeps so early. The clock was ticking 9 at night, when I stepped out of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport. My luggage was already transferred to the next flight. I had just a camera on me.
Outside the Airport, old yellow Antiquated Hindustan Ambassadors were lined up to welcome tourists to the city of joy. I thought to get into one of these but they are quite expensive as compared to Ola/Uber. No trams and metros were running at that time. Hence I had left with no choice other than Ola Share, which indeed proved to be good choice as I was able to chat with fellow passengers to know about Kolkata a little. I wondered how Kolkata is ranked top among the six metro cities of India for efficient transportation.
On the way to Howrah, I could see the tramways cutting the empty roads in the middle. The old style buildings lined up along the road. The driver dropped me just before the Howrah Bridge as he was in hurry to finish his last trip after day long hard work.
The Howrah Bridge – one of the most Busiest Cantilever Bridge in the world was empty when I was walking over it at midnight. Constructed during 1936-1942 on Hooghly river linking Kolkata to Howrah, the Howrah Bridge carries daily 100000 vehicles & 150000 pedestrians. At that time, I couldn’t get any good vantage point for photographing this engineering marvel. So, I decided to wind up my short trip and drive back to the airport to get some rest.
The official name of Howrah Bridge is Rabindra Setu but it’s still popularly known by its original name.
Flying over the Bay of Bengal
01 September, 2016
The alarm woke me up at 3 o’clock, when the security gates opened. I moved quickly to get passed through it. The main motive was to go to the Lounge & get a taste of various food items available there. Also, I want to charge my camera to get ready for the next long day.
The flight took off from the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport. The chaos of bustling Kolkata fade away in the mist. Soon I was flying over the Sundarban, World’s largest delta created by the holy Ganges before getting merged into the Bay of Bengal. I was so engrossed by the view across the thick glass that I was not aware of the breakfast served by air hostess in-flight.
The view was then replaced by the deep blue sky and shimmering unfathomable water below. Occasionally, the clouds kept me entertained by forming various shapes and sizes. In couple of hours, the pockets of islets scattered into the turquoise blue water became visible, when the pilot had announced that we were about to land at Veer Savarkar International Airport in Port Blair.
Port Blair – the Capital of Andamans, is surrounded by the rugged coastline and tropical rain forests. The blend of cultures is unique in this provincial town, as most of the inhabitants are Bengalis, Tamils, Telugus, Nicobarese and Burmese living together in harmony. I wished to stay a bit longer but my tight itinerary couldn’t allow me to wander.
As the government ferry will leave only at 02:00 pm, I got a couple of hours in hand which I decided to spend exploring Cellular Jail of Port Blair.
“I was desperately trying to fit the vast labyrinth of Ganges delta, the enormous amount of blue water of Bay of Bengal & the emerald islands of Andaman archipelago into the oval-shaped windows of the plane”
The Doors of Hell..
That was an emotional moment, when I stood in front of the Cellular Jail – a dark reminiscence of British rule. This most dreaded prison was constructed in 10 years between 1896 and 1906, and used to keep away the freedom fighters from their mother land. Many notable activists like Batukeshwar Dutt, Yogendra Shukla, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, among others, imprisoned here during Indian Independence struggle. Now the building has been declared as a National Memorial to honour their sacrifice.
While walking through these corridors, my heart was filled with immense patriotism. In these cells, the legends like Veer Savarkar had spent their time in solitary confinement. I stood silently in a room measuring 4.5 by 2.7 meters in size and 3 meters in height, looking at the image of Veer Savarkar, which was kept on a wooden platform along with his poem – Kamala Kavya. Overwhelmed with deep respect and gratitude, I spent some time in a cell where Veer Savarkar had spent more than a decade.
The Photo exhibitions and art galleries inside the jail complex are holding the glimpses from the past. The old photographs and sculptors helps to imagine the pain and sufferings of the prisoners and visits by notable personalities over a period of time.
Originally, the Cellular Jail had seven three-storied wings originated from a central watch tower. But only three wings along with watch tower are still standing intact carrying tangible evidence of inhuman persecution of prisoners. I went up to the watchtower from where the Ross Island is clearly visible, but it was not on my itinerary.
Cellular Jail was among the darkest chapters in Indian History during British rule, stood as an emblem of inhuman treatment, torture and extreme cruelty of its prisoners.
The government ferry to Havelock island was about to leave at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The Directorate of Shipping Services (DSS) runs ferries between these islands. As I didn’t booked the tickets in advance, I went little early to make sure that I would get the same.
Fortunately, I got the tickets and hopped into the vessel MV Bambooka, which took two and half hours to reach Havelock Island. During that 56 km long voyage, I spent most of the time on the deck watching vast amount of blue water. By the time I reached Havelock, it was 4:30 pm. The sun has already descending towards the horizon. Clouds began gathering in the sky.
The resort arranged an auto to pick me from the Jetty. It took me few minutes to reach Emerald Gecko resort. Of Course I didn’t wanted to waste my time, so I dumped my rucksack in the Bamboo hut & rode off towards the Radhanagar beach to catch the sunset. They had arranged a bike for me just before my arrival, that was so helpful.
But I was running out of time. Being on the far east of mainland India, the sun sets 2 hours early on these islands. The sunset happened at 5 pm, when I was on my way to the Radhanagar beach which was just 12 km away from my resort. The climate had changed dramatically and I realized that going ahead will be of no use. So I turned back in halfway.
Soon the rain started pouring in. Meanwhile, I thought to have a dinner in nearby restaurant. But surprisingly, the hotel I stopped by was damn expensive. The normal things were priced four times higher than their usual cost. I didn’t want to spend unnecessarily, so I left the place for cheaper one.
The hectic day came to an end when I came back to my resort. I was exhausted by the long day journey by taxi, plane, ship, auto and bike. My eyes got closed automatically as soon as I hit the ground and my mind refused to think about my birthday celebration & wishes.
On my 26th Birthday –
“I was alone somewhere on the Havelock island, slept in a Bamboo hut on the beach, away from the chaos, away from everything I’m attached to..”
02 September, 2016
The sun rays began to poke through the chinks. I had missed the Sunrise but still hurriedly rushed to the Govind Nagar beach, waving silently in front of my hut. Few boats were floating aimlessly over the quiet waves. This white sand beach was secluded and peaceful. The bamboo huts were scattered inside the coconut groove along the beach.
Breakfast was ready by the time I came to the café. Bread Butter with omelet and a cup of tea was served. I had already planned for the Scuba Diving on my birthday. With a reference from the resort, I decided to dive with Andaman Bubbles. So, I called them, went to their shop, filled a self declaration form. Then quickly hopped into their vehicle to fetch the required equipment. I changed my cloths and got into skin-tight wetsuit. We loaded oxygen tanks attached to buoyancy compensators, fins, boots and other necessary stuff into the jeep.
Among many other famous diving sites on the Havelock island, they had chosen Bay View site by considering the weather. To begin with, my instructor had taught me some of the important signs which are vital while diving underwater. I had done this before, but still I listened to him carefully. He showed me, how to release excess pressure on the ears under deep waters. After completing the initial training session, I was ready to dive deep into the sea.
Eventually, the turquoise blue water had swallowed me up, but I was well equipped to stay underneath for a long time. Slowly, my body was sinking and waving like a fish, while being extra careful about the corals reefs and their delicate eco system. It takes thousand years to develop such beautiful coral reefs. The colorful shining cluster of fishes were hovering around my face. Under water plants, sea cucumbers and many varieties of sea creatures were roaming around me, and I was gazing at them.
An hour spent under water, among the amazing sea creatures and vibrant aquatic plants, was one of the best time I had in Ritchie’s Archipelago. Along with my body, my thoughts were submerged under the deep consciousness. More like a meditation, I was roaming there with a curiosity of a year old child. I had lost my existence and dissolved everything that was holding me back into the ocean.
The deeper you go, the better it feels..
Radhanagar Beach – Asia’s Best Beach
The serene beaches of Havelock Island are identified by the boring numbers from #1 to #7. The beach #7 is Radhanagar Beach which is also declared as 7th best beach in the world and Asia’s best beach by Time magazine.
It is just 12 km away from Emerald Gecko resort. The narrow road through the jungle took me to the Radhanagar Beach. Undoubtedly, it was among the best beaches I have ever seen. The turquoise blue water, white silky sand, thick green vegetation and the cleanliness was a distinguishing factor. The beach was crowded from small children to the senior citizens, all were enjoying the beautiful sunshine and mild waves.
For photography, the elevated viewing platform offers a great vantage point. The panoramic view of the curved beach was amazing. The beach is ideal for swimming due to it’s shallow depth and sandy bottom. Also, some stretch has beautiful corals which makes it perfect location for snorkelling.
I like to watch different kinds of people playing football on the beach, surfing the waves, making sand sculptors and having delicious food..
This is pure joy, which originates in the Nature’s company
Beauty of the Dead – Kalapathar Beach
Unlike Radhanagar Beach, the Kalapathar Beach was completely secluded without any traces of human beings around. As the name suggests, the beach has unusual landscape with dead corals deposited on the black rocks. When I reached there in the afternoon, the low tides exposed the distinctive terrain. Moreover, the aqua green water was pulled inside showcasing a deep blue curve on the horizon.
I had my keen eye on the watch because I have to catch a ship leaving at 02:30 for the Neil Island. So, I spend some quality time in solitude. Taking photographs while walking long stretches of beach was an habitual by now. The trees on the shore has artistic roots exposed due to soil erosion. The beach has rocks with sharp edges, which makes swimming impossible here.
After spending some time on Kalapathar beach, I went back to the resort. Soon, I checked out of the resort & took an auto to the Havelock Jetty. There I managed to get the standing ticket for the Neil island. The journey took one and half hour, showcasing the Havelock Islands beauty from the distance.
I can’t believe, how the dead corals had turned the beach into surreal canvas..!!
As soon as Ship docked to the Neil Jetty, the rain started pouring in. The network strength was very weak, but somehow I managed to contact the resort who then sent an auto to pick me up. The auto driver took me to the other end of Neil island where the Emerald Gecko bamboo bungalows were situated. Unlike Havelock, the Bamboo huts here were amazing.
Now that, as the rain stopped, I can hear the sound of waves from behind the woods. The resort is constructed near Sitapur beach, so I set out to explore the same. The high tides and ferocious waves blocked the way to the beach. There was a narrow path through the tall trees surrounded by shrubs leading the other side of the beach. I took that one to get to the huge stone boulders with ferociously crashing waves making loud noises.
The clouds were still angry and were moving in my direction. There was a tiny island into the sea without any sign of civilization. I couldn’t take much photos due to low light and bad weather. So, I returned to the resort before the thunderstorm begins. On my way back, I saw a snake crossed right in front of me and disappeared in the shrubs. I took a pause for a moment. Because of the mud, I couldn’t run away. After some time, I walked out of the jungle quietly.
There was a house nearby. I had my dinner with that local family and their pets. The seafood they made was pretty delicious. Also, the guy had told me the history of the islands through his life events. I didn’t realize that how much time I spent with them.
Taste of the local food along with the unique stories of the island, was an amazing treat.
03 September, 2016
With just 5 kilometers in diameter, Neil island has variety of beaches named after characters from the epic Ramayana. Next morning, again I went to explore Sitapur beach. The view was completely different from yesterday. The turquoise blue water was crashing on the rocky shore. Unlike other beaches Sitapur beach is not a sandy beach, instead it has rocks and trees along the coast. Also, I spotted few different birds which I had never seen before.
While taking pictures, I went on to the other end and realized that the water level was increasing gradually. During high tides the beach will not be accessible. So, I need to get back to the starting point before the waves blocks my way. Somehow I came out with wet legs.
The breakfast as well as rented motorcycle was ready back at the resort. The tea was served in Square cup along with bread omlette. After finishing my breakfast, I took a bike and rode out to the famous Natural Bridge. I had to walk a little through the jungle before reaching the natural bridge. But due to high tides, that beach was also not accessible. The guy who was selling Tees, told me to come back in couple of hours. But he has directed me towards the viewpoint, from where I can have a look of this amazing rock formation from above.
Bike Riding is one of the best options to explore Neil and Havelock islands;
Just don’t forget to wear the helmet, everyone here follow the rule.
Laxmanpur Beach – Picture Perfect Beach
These narrow roads on Neil island were so beautiful, surrounded by green fields with houses scattered along. There are no petrol pumps here, but we can always get the petrol from local shops with slightly higher market price. One litre will suffice to complete the island tour by road.
Again, few more kilometers ride took me to the pristine Laxmanpur Beach. I parked my bike among the super tall trees which are uncommon in mainland India. May be these trees were standing there from thousands of years. As I came out of the shrubs, the white sand beach was shining in the bright sunlight which made me to close my eyes. I was left with no other options but to adjust, because I didn’t have any sun glasses with me.
Laxmanpur beach was visible from the boat while coming to Neil island. Now, I was able to see the Havelock island just across the strait. The beach was secluded and peaceful. There were few wooden blocks scattered along the beach, giving an artistic touch. There are no shops, humans around which was evident from the cleanliness the beach has.
I never imagined such beautiful beaches even exists in India. The hues of vibrant blue were hypnotizing.
Swimming at Bharatpur Beach
So far, I had visited 3 beaches in a single day but none of them are ideal for swimming, due to the rocky terrain and deep waters. Only beach on the Neil island which is recommended for the swimming was Bharatpur beach.
The beach was bustling with the people, various antique stalls, food items and street vendors. That was a familiar feeling of visiting a beaches. Unlike Bharatpur, the beaches I had visited before were far more beautiful, but they were empty and quiet. But here, the scenario was different.
The wait was over finally. I took my cloths off and jumped into the beautiful sea in front of me. The boats floating aimlessly tied to the trees by long rope. I used them as a platform to jump into the water again and again. Though the water was crystal clear, don’t try to open your bare eyes under water. That mistake caused an irritation in my eyes due to salty water. Anyway, I enjoyed swimming there for about an hour. Then I had some food along the beach while enjoying the beauty.
Swimming in the crystal clear water with hot sun shining over head, riding a bike through the dense forest & photographing the beautiful beaches – That’s all I did on Neil.
The Natural Bridge
Before going back to resort, I went again to see the Natural Bridge, hoping to get low tides. As expected, the sea retreated exposing a way towards the natural bridge. I hopped over the rocks and reached at the marvellous formation of rocks.
The stone arc was so huge and elegant. The beach also had rocky terrain with grooves under which the crabs and other sea animals were hiding. The scene was picture perfect. I captured shots from all possible angles. I knew that was the last place I would be visiting on this little island.
Soon, I returned to resort to get the luggage. I had to catch a government ferry to Port Blair at 4 in the evening. I had booked tickets already at 11 am in the morning while going to Bharatpur beach. There was a long queue to board MVS Rajlaxmi for two and half hour journey. It was fun watching the sun going down the horizon, flying fishes jumping around the huge vessel leaving a white water trail behind. Apart from out ship, I saw an another Navy surveillance ship floating around.
Natural bridge, a unique arc standing gracefully is one of the most picturesque site on the Neil island.
Jarawa Reserve Forest
04 September, 2016
It was dark, when the ship finally docked at Port Blair. I needed to find a good place to sleep. Also I wanted to catch the light and sound show in Cellular Jail, which begins at 7 o’clock. The Auto driver helped me to find a reasonable hotel. Hurriedly, I thrown my luggage in hotel room and rushed to the Cellular Jail.
The sound and light show was just about to begin. I chose a front seat to avoid any distractions. Soon, the show started narrating the horrific things happened in this very building. But in the midway, the rain ruined everything. Everybody just got up and ran for the cover. We had missed some part of the show due to the this chaos.
The next day, I boarded a bus at 4 am in the morning to the Baratang Island. The route passes through the Jarawa Reserve Forest, where the indigenous people of Andaman islands lives. These people were isolated for thousands of years from modern civilisation. But when British conquered Andaman islands, they killed many Jarawas in conflicts. The rest of the population moved upwards in dense forests.
Post independence, the islands were opened for tourists. But tourism leads to the encroachment and poaching of this aboriginal tribe, living for about 60000 years on these islands. In a move to prevent their exploitation, the Government of India cordoned off the area and declared as a Jarawa Reserve Forest.
The Great Andaman Trunk Road passes through the Jarawa Reserve Forest. All vehicles needs to be moved in convoy leaded by police vehicle only for specific time period. There is no stopping in between 54 km stretch. Also, no photography is allowed during the journey. The Jarawa people don’t wear any cloths. I saw only few of them during one and half hour bus journey through the forest.
In the end, the bus reached at the middle straight. There was no bridge built over it. One huge boat came, in which all the people along with their vehicles entered. The ship then dropped us on the other side i.e. Baratang islands.
It’s sad to hear the horrific stories of – What humans can do the other humans.
I had never seen Limestone Caves or any kind of Volcanos, so chose to visit Baratang island. After reaching there, I had booked a ferry to the limestone caves. The boatman himself was our guide throughout the trip. He took us through the middle straight, giving glimpses of Jarawa Reserve forest from the distance.
Suddenly, boat turned to its left inside the mangroves, resembling a tunnel formed by the trees. Soon, we got down at ferry point, from where we had to trek for about a kilometer to reach the caves. The boatman warned us to stay together and away from the swamp due to the history of Crocodile attacks.
The trees on these islands were so huge, that I had never seen such things in my life. I felt dwarf in front of them. My mind was busy estimating the height of the sky-high trees along the way. Easily they will be touching 100+ feet in height.
After some time, the route becomes squeezed between the rocks. The path became narrower with the volcanic stones leading to the amazing Mineral Calcite caves. The caves were amazing, with various shapes of limestone hanging around. These Limestone Caves in Baratang Island has splendid stalagmites, stalactites & pillar rocks. The guide was explaining it so dramatically that one forgets all the science behind its formation.
The caves are getting narrower day by day, due to the constant deposits of limestone. No wonder one day, the caves will shut themselves off from the outside world.
After coming back to the Uttara Jetty, I wanted to see the Mud Volcano. Fortunately, I got a jeep on sharing basis with another bengali family. The driver was driving furiously over the narrow path through the jungle. It took just few minutes to reach our destination.
There was a pathway with neatly arranged wooden compound. After getting up there, I saw a square area cordoned off having mud everywhere. It is a landform created due to eruption of mud along with water and gases. Definitely, it was not a picturesque site but it has its own geological importance.
From the morning I was running here and there without any food. I asked the driver to stop at some good hotel on our return. He took us to the perfect place where we all had nice fish meal. Then I crossed the middle strait through the boat to get to the other side. The convoy was about to leave the Jarawa Reserve Forest. I was running from the Jetty to the gates. Somehow I managed to hop into a bus going towards port Blair. I knew, If I missed a bus, then I will never be able to get my next day flight.
Mud volcanoes are not true Igneous Volcanoes as they do not produce lava and are not necessarily driven by magmatic activity.
Flying back to the Mainland
05 September, 2016
Veer Savarkar Airport, named after the legend who had given up his life for the independence. Again I was standing in front of the Savarkar statue on the tiny airport. My mind was revolving around so many things I experienced during last four days, from immense patriotism to admiring natural beauty, from listening to the heinous crimes against indigenous tribes to exploring the geological wonders like limestone caves and volcanoes. So many things happened during a short span of time.
The Air India flight announcement brought me back to the reality. Quietly, I boarded the flight to reach Chennai from where my next flight to Mumbai was scheduled in the evening. The SpiceJet aircraft touched down the Mumbai airstrip along with the setting sun, and thus ending the long journey across the sea.
With many amazing experiences, again I filled my bag of memories to cherish. I was feeling good to choose Andaman islands to celebrate my birthday. I couldn’t get any better place than this.
Sometimes, traveling hurts, by exploring the sins committed by humans against each other. But also traveling strengthen our belief that – Humanity will always prevail.