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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Barren island, Andaman and Nicobar: Smoke on the water

What’s this?" I asked the shipping assistant who handed me a large polythene packet at the cabin’s entrance. “You’ll know," he replied tersely, with the air of a man not given to answering many questions.

This was not the kind of “disposal bag" airlines hand out; this one was more elementary: a packet without a zip lock, large enough to put your head in.

I read a warning in the assistant’s curtness: The sea might be rough tonight.

It was 2005, six months after the Indian Ocean tsunami. I had spent a month in the Andamans as a research fellow with an international humanitarian organization, working for the rehabilitation and livelihood restoration of the islanders. My world had been overwhelmed by facts and figures—the span of death; the unimaginable destruction wrought by unsparing waves sweeping through entire islands; the saline ingress into agricultural fields; the altered surface of the land; the vulnerability of aboriginal tribes; and the heart-rending stories of survivors.

I needed a break—and I picked Barren Island. It would be my first journey by sea.

About 135km north-east of Port Blair, this tiny island in the Andaman Sea has India’s only active volcano. The local press was reporting that it had started spewing mildly again. Keen to revive the tourist industry, the administration had increased the frequency of tourist vessels around the island. If I was lucky, and Barren Island was in form, this was going to be nature at its most primordial.

For a first-timer, there is nothing as bracing as the sound of a ship’s horn, its intense baritone finding reverb on the shores being left behind. At the 10pm departure call, I made two important decisions: On my first sea journey, I would not stay strapped to my cabin seat, and I would remain awake through the night to experience the sea and see Barren Island at first light. With most passengers remaining in their seats, it wasn’t difficult to find a place at the ship’s most cherished real estate, its bow, from where there’s nothing but the infiniteness of waterscape before you.

As our vessel moved past the last post of civilization, a lighthouse, it became apparent how luminescent the sea could be at night. The ship cut through the water and ferreted out an endless harvest of light green frothy phosphorescence. Occasionally, a moonbeam freed itself from the monsoon cloud cover and lit up the distant horizon in a glorious sliver of light. Stars were reflected on the calm water; it seemed like a moment in eternity.

On the small bench at the bow, the moisture in the air, the gentle roll of the ship, and Neil Young playing through my headphones must have lulled me to sleep. I awoke to a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime sight.

For a moment, I thought I was hallucinating. But there it was again: bursts of light in the night sky; erratic explosions; primeval booms of pent-up energy.

Two hours before we reached our destination, the Barren Island show was on.

The ship slowly skirted the 10 sq. km island. I kept an eye out for its small population of feral goats. A popular story is that a passing ship offloaded some of these on the island in 1891. The goats, which are known to drink saline water, have survived eruptions. But I couldn’t spot any.

According to a 2013 report in The Hindu, the Barren Island volcano—situated at the cross of the seismically active Indian and Burmese plates—is estimated to be 1.8 million years old. Dormant since 1803, with an unconfirmed eruption in 1852, it was active again in 1991, when the eruptions went on for over six months. And again in the mid-1990s.

We were witnessing the first eruption in 10 years. But our ship wasn’t intent on spending any more time there; halfway into the stipulated waiting time of 30 minutes, it was turning back. The sea had become rougher. It had become difficult even to take photographs, and most people retired to their cabins. The ship’s crew seemed edgy, eager to return. Something was up.

On our way back, I witnessed yet another spectacle: a raging sea. Turbulence had taken over last night’s torpid waters, and the horizon was going topsy-turvy. Our ship was flung about. It climbed every roll of water heavily, landing with a huge splash. Waves crashed on the lower deck as the public address system ordered passengers to return to their cabins. I retreated from the deck area to an enclosure close by, holding on to the posts and pillars for dear life.

Waves began reaching the deck, bringing with them small and big fish. Some of the crew, in orange suits, crouched on the deck floor for fear of being thrown overboard. In all this, one managed to latch on to a surmai, no less than 2kg in weight.

The sea’s fury tossed us around for 2 hours. Our ship continued to plough through, negotiating enormous crests and troughs. As we approached Port Blair, I went into the cabin. Dozens had fallen sick; the plastic bags had proved useful. The stench made me want to throw up. Some passengers had to be helped out of the ship when it arrived at the Phoenix Bay Jetty in Port Blair.

We were back, in a state of both exhaustion and exhilaration.

Having made landfall, I hunted down the shipping assistant who had greeted me with a polythene bag. He seemed more affable now.

Years of experience had told him that a suddenly spouting volcano was not just an indication of seismic activity, but could be a precursor to an earthquake—this must have been what we felt at sea. Barren Island’s recent flare-up had all the ingredients of a great stirring in the earth’s crust.

The next day, I read that an aftershock had been felt along the Andaman coast. The tremors were felt all the way to Port Blair, and the wall of the guesthouse room where I was staying had a thin crack.

Looking at the crack, I wondered how closely related our best travel experiences are to the mood swings and churns of nature. I had sought escape from the gloom of my research; the Barren Island experience just reiterated for me the fragility of our facts and figures.

There seemed to be no escape.

Getting there

Ships for Barren Island leave on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Phoenix Bay Jetty, Port Blair. The schedule is subject to change, depending on the weather and number of passengers. The fare is 400 (for a seat), 750 (for a reclining chair) and 1,000 (for a bunk). There are regular flights to Port Blair from Kolkata and Chennai. Passenger ships also ply from the two cities for Port Blair in season.

Places to stay

Nobody is allowed to get off the ship at Barren Island. Port Blair has a choice of hotels, from luxury to budget.

Places to eat

Port Blair has many eating options, from delicious vegetarian fare at the Annapurna Cafeteria to seafood at Bayview or the Light House Residency. Port Blair’s demographic mix ensures that most popular Indian cuisines are available, though one shouldn’t leave without trying the fresh seafood.

Things to do

People on short visits often visit Havelock Island, known for its beautiful white-sand beaches. On a longer vacation, you can take the Andaman Trunk Road to the less-visited North and Middle Andaman. In Port Blair, don’t miss out on a visit to the historic Cellular Jail or Ross Island, a short boat ride away.

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