Out here, virginity takes on new meaning, and law is a word best forgotten. Its reputation of restrictions imposed on foreigners seems to have kept travellers at bay. But there are numerous islands to visit, some restricted, but there’s nothing an offer of whisky won’t solve. The countryside boasts authentic tropical jungle, the people are suspiciously friendly, and there’s always a surprise around every corner. You’ll chance upon relics of the big wars and remnants of British oppression, with a little Japanese torture thrown in for good measure, but it’s stuff like this that gives the Andamans an enjoyable uncertainty.
Today, I’m planning to scuba dive off a “highly restricted” island in the north. Not as big a deal as it sounds, but it seems wise to keep a low profile—this is my 10th attempt. I plan to dive between two islands and get an underbelly view of a wild elephant crossing. Well, at least our local guide has convinced us that they are wild.
Presumptuously, I sit in full gear under the blazing sun, waiting for these guys to make a decision. It’s not as if they have a schedule to keep, and several hours and a few buckets of sweat later, my dive buddy apprehensively announces that our one and only local guide has passed out drunk. Before we have time to dwell on this new development, we hear the rustling. It’s random and soft, but loud enough to churn the insides of my stomach.
We have two distinct problems here. One: We seem to be strategically located in the trampling path of a bunch of elephants. Two: These animals, if spooked, will actually go wild. The experience is starting to take on an ominous drift. As the thumping of the herd amplifies, we have to work our plan without delay. Though it would be helpful if we had a plan. Without wasting any time, we get into the channel and, as we float on the surface, we decide to drop just 30ft below, somewhere mid-channel, and get an under-view of these enormous creatures swimming.
Exciting, isn’t it? And then, as if on cue, everything goes wrong. The guide wakes from his drunken slumber and starts panicking hysterically. The rustling matures into a stampede, but the other way. We get a blurry view of the entire opera as we are swept away on the surface by the strong current in the channel.
A few kilometres downstream, we decide to quit bobbing up and down and descend along the fringe of a large outcrop. My initial fears of tales concerning saltwater crocs dissolve as we drop into a school of gigantic humphead parrot fish. This immediately makes up for the elephant fiasco. And then we glimpse pure magic. Millions of fusiliers (almost neon blue fish) pepper the seascape, forming a swirl of life, cocooning us within. Suddenly, they scatter in all directions as a mature white-tip reef shark springs out of the coral head in front of us. The sound of whistling is followed by several dolphins that glide above us. Some flip around to get a closer look at these clumsy creatures with oversized tanks on their backs. We scale down a reef wall, and a large greenback turtle curiously ambles headlong into my mask. What more could one ask for? The bed is resplendent with life, my tank is on reserve.
As we start our ascent, rather chuffed with life, a large shadow falls upon us. The sudden darkness spells either a whale or a large ship. Now, the whale would be preferable to a gigantic propeller slicing through the water. Either way, we descend a bit before attempting to look up. I lie and tell my buddy that everything will be okay, but he seems transfixed on something behind me. And there it is. As I wet my wet suit, expecting the largest elephant to kick me on the head, I turn around and see the mother of all manta rays glide above my head. A stealth bomber, it glides around, oblivious to my excitement. Alas, it seems worth all the effort.
Finally, we get back to the shore, obviously nowhere near where we had started off. The experience makes for great campfire conversation. But for now, it’s fast forgotten as we walk down a village road, looking for a bus in our skintight suits, nothing short of being humiliated and heckled by a whole village that has erupted in peals of hysterical laughter.