The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago follows Indian Standard Time despite being located more than 1,000km off the east coast of the Indian peninsula. This effectively means that while cricketers on the innumerable maidans of the mainland have at least an hour’s daylight left to complete their matches, the sun is swiftly setting over the 500-plus islands that comprise the Andamans. The obvious, yet ignored, time difference may seem trivial.
But it assumes tremendous significance if you’re lost in one of the islands’ tropical jungles—forests cover 92% of the islands—and racing against the rapidly dipping sun to find your way out.
Sea bound: Gearing up to snorkel at the Elephant beach. George Binoy.
It had all begun on a whim. We had trekked up a semi-dry stream, which winds its way out from the forest, passes under a small bridge and into the sea. The trail had seemed uncomplicated and we had taken care to pay attention to its twists and turns hoping to retrace our steps back to our scooters, parked on the road skirting the jungle.
After about half an hour of going forward, ever-mindful of the early dusk, we turned around and, within moments, realized that we’d overestimated our scouting skills. The forest revealed paths which we had not noticed on the climb up and threw up forks where there had been none. The terrain looked at once misleadingly familiar and determinedly alien.
Armed with the self-assurance that comes from years of finding one’s way about in urbania, we believed it would be only a matter of time before we’d crash through the undergrowth and on to the road. A few minutes and numerous wrong turns later, we had to admit we were lost, without any idea which way to head, and kicking ourselves for leaving the compass and the water bottle back in the tent.
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The belief that we could make it began to fade as darkness closed in. “I don’t believe in God, but I’m willing to take help from anywhere right now,” proclaimed my atheist friend, the nervousness in her voice belying her attempt at self-deprecatory humour. With a night-out looking increasingly likely, another recalled an earlier conversation with a local, who had said that there were no dangerous animals in these parts.
With the last wisps of the twilight threatening to disappear, we decided on one last-ditch effort: Aware that we had entered the jungle from the east, we climbed the nearest hillock and tried to gauge the direction in which the sun had set. Our way out would lie roughly opposite. The navigation was rudimentary, but after ploughing east for a while, we heard the very sound that had brought us to Havelock island—of waves breaking upon sand, undisturbed by seafood vendors beating a rhythm on their sizzling pans and children demanding horse rides.
The Radhanagar beach was voted as one of Asia’s best beaches by Time magazine. George Binoy.
But then Havelock is not your regular holiday destination. There are no monuments to see, no heritage sites to visit—the Cellular Jail in Port Blair is a safe 57km away—ergo, no tour guides to heckle you the moment you step on to the pier. There are few watering holes, no nightclubs and the stock at the local liquor shop runs out quickly.
The weather is warm throughout the year and rivals Chennai in terms of humidity. The mosquitoes are enormous and experts at penetrating clothing. But the beaches, simply put, are superior to any sandy stretch on the mainland.
For some strange reason, the beaches here are known by numbers. At Beach No. 7, though, the old name of Radhanagar persists. Voted among Asia’s best beaches by Time magazine a few years ago, the broad white strip of sand separates the blue sea from the verdant forest. When the weather is fair, the sea is placid and the absence of waves lulls you into thinking of the expanse as an infinity pool, one that actually has no limits.
Beneath the calm surface, though, the sea teems with life. Floating on a donghy, a small boat, over coral reefs off Elephant beach and South Button island early one morning, we slip on snorkelling masks and come face to face with multicoloured Napolean wrasse, look for elusive sea critters and lose all sense of time and direction. Again.
We swim on, moving from one underwater novelty to another, making mental notes of sizes, shapes and colours, hoping to identify the species from a chart on the boat. Suddenly, the reef drops away into deeper waters and the turquoise blue water turns dark. We can barely see the seabed any longer, and the chill I feel has nothing to do with the temperature of the water. Unfounded thoughts of larger and more dangerous fish come unbidden into my mind and it takes some doing to tear my eyes away from the underwaterscape and towards land, to note how far we have come from the shore.
The tents at Island Vinnie, also known as Dive. George Binoy.
The wonder of snorkelling, though, fades quickly once one dons scuba gear and masters the art of breathing underwater. Underwater hand signals in place and buoyancy skills more or less under control, I dive in with the renewed hope of seeing sea snakes and octopuses (having been told that spotting sharks and manta rays is out of the question as they inhabit deeper waters). I’d thought I’d seen most of what the reef had to offer from the surface, but swimming at touching distance from the fish and the seabed brings with it an entirely different perspective.
Suddenly, I’m not so sure about wanting to spot a sea snake any more, let alone a shark.
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