Phuket sailing, The Andaman Islands, Adventure in Paradise
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Phuket Sailing :The Andaman Islands

Phuket sailing, The Andaman Islands, Adventure in Paradise
 Adventure in Paradise
 

 

In March 2002, Harry and Susan Usher departed on an adventure that
would take them to the little known Emerald Isles, a labyrinth of
islands shrouded in mystery and intrigue located 1000 miles from
mainland India in the middle of the Andaman Sea. Sailing on their yacht, Eos, the 400-mile voyage from Phuket to the Andaman and Nicobar Group took four days. Harry related to us some of his lasting impressions from their four week adventure in paradise.

"We were attracted to the Andaman Islands initially because of their proximity to our base in Phuket and the fact they are Indian territory where you have the best of India in a low-key, island culture and community. There is very little crime and the governing body is proud of its untouched islands, beaches and clean sea - this has been achieved by preventing over development and limiting offshore trawling."

These colourful islands form part of the Andaman and Nicobar Group lying in the Andaman Sea/Bay of Bengal at 12 degrees North and 92 degrees East - the Nicobars are out of bounds to tourists.

"The Islands are steeped in beauty, culture, history…. and food! Beauty in the form of pristine beaches lined with huge hardwood trees over 184 islands, untarnished coral and marine life in 20m+ visibility and Indian people in colourful dress. The islands are aptly named "Little India" as Hindu, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalis and Sikh live harmoniously beside members of the Muslim and Christian faiths, Karen people from Burma and four Negrito aboriginal tribes. In the administrative center of Port Blair, several streets have active mosques, churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples in a row. The historical significance of the Islands stems from the penal colony which was set up by the Indian-British government in the mid 1800s to accommodate the criminals and mainland Freedom Fighters for Indian Independence. The food in the Andamans, which may be regarded as part of the culture, is worthy of a special mention. Fresh samosas, chicken musala, pratha, roti, curries and an abundance of fresh fish and vegetables kept our bellies full and cravings satisfied - we were able to catch enough fresh coral and pelagic fish for "the pot", each day!'

Much of the history of the Andaman Islands is unknown and scholars can only speculate as to how and when they became inhabited. The islands were initially colonised by Lt. Archibald Blair in 1789 while he was undertaking a survey of the Andaman Sea on behalf of the East India Company. He returned in 1790 to set up a small penal settlement at Port Cornwallis, now Port Blair, on South Andaman Island. This was subsequently moved to Diglipur in 1792 under instruction from Commander Cornwallis, brother of the Governor General of India at the time, Lord Cornwallis. Due the hostile environment and sickness, this was closed in 1796 and the community repatriated.

The British government returned about sixty years later in 1858 with 200 Indian prisoners and completed a new jail on Viper island, close to Port Blair, in 1867. Problems with water, malaria, escapees, conflicts with the indigenous people and the increase in prisoners resulted in the construction of the dreaded Cellular Jail in 1896. This was during the War of Indian Independence and was specifically built to hold political prisoners - by 1881, there were about 14,000 prisoners. This new jail was completed in 1906 and continued in operation until closure in 1945. The remains of it are now a National Museum paying tribute to the brave Freedom Fighters who fought for independence from Britain. With the advent of Indian Independence in 1947, displaced people were allowed to return to their home countries, however many stayed under the lure of various rehabilitation schemes launched by the new administration.

During the British occupancy, administration headquarters were established in grand colonial style on Ross Island, close to Port Blair, but were evacuated during Japanese occupation in 1942 when 18,000 Japanese soldiers were based on the islands.

Now the islands have their own Resident Commissioner in charge of a bustling administrative center in Port Blair. The 1981 population census listed the total population at 188,741 (the Andamans 158,287 and the Nicobars 30,454) however this may have increased as the islands are now used as a joint Indian navy and airforce training center.

The population of the Islands today can be broadly divided into three categories, namely the aborigines, the descendants of convicts and political prisoners and public servants. Four aboriginal tribes have inhabited the islands for thousands of years and still live a hunter-gatherer type of protected existence. The Onge live on Little Andaman Island, the Great Andamanese on Strait Island, the Jarawas populate the western coast of South and Middle Andaman and the Sentinelese occupy the North Sentinels. The common misconception, that travellers are likely to encounter primitive clans of lean naked spear-wielding tribesmen, will disappoint amateur anthropologists, as the areas, which are still occupied by the tribes, are strictly off limits to tourists. Today there is little contact between the tribes and the outside world. Perhaps this is a small price to pay to preserve the unique customs of these interesting people. Their lifestyles are well illustrated in the Anthropological Museum in Port Blair.

Sadly, the Great Andamanese race is on the brink of extinction. In a census conducted back in 1991 their numbers stood at a meagre 31. The establishment of the penal colony brought the Andamanese into direct confrontation with the colonial settlers. Modern firepower was too strong for native bows and arrows resulting in the deaths of hundreds of warriors in the Battle of Aberdeen, fought on 17 May 1859.

Over the years, the convergence of divergent cultural, social and linguistic backgrounds have evolved into a unique cultural pot-pourri full of colour, vibrancy and charm.

The Andaman Islands' economy relies strongly on agriculture; mainly spices, coconuts, potatoes and rice. Harry enthused, "they grow some of the tastiest potatoes I've ever eaten." One of the only environmentally sensitive practices in the Islands spurs the largest export market; plywood. The large hardwood forests are logged selectively on a small scale, by hard manual labour, no chainsaws only axes, double-ended bush-saws and elephants trained to move the felled trunks. High quality grade plywood for construction and boat building is exported to western countries. Fishing and tourism have been slowly creeping into the equation and will likely bring about an economic uplift to the territory, as more islands become open to foreign tourists. Commercial fishing is limited and prohibited within three miles of the shore and this surely protects the immaculate conditions of the reefs and the abundance of colourful marine life.

With the enormous 281.50 sq. km. Wandoor National Marine Park comprising of a maze of pristine islands, the Andamans scream with eco-tourism potential. Unfortunately, or fortunately, only two of these islands are accessible to tourists for conservation reasons. The coral reefs that abound the marine park have been described as the "triumphant achievement of coral polyps." Hence, this fragile eco-system, so abused in other parts of the world, remains untouched, hosting an immensely diverse range of marine life in crystal-clear waters. Diving is only allowed with a registered dive company unless special permission has been granted by the Commissioner.

On land, more than 92% of the geographical area is blanketed with tropical forests filled with evergreens, the largest of which average a height of 42 metres. Roaming the forest floors are spotted deer, Andaman wild pigs, civets, shrews and elephants to name a few mammals. A rich avi-faunal diversity attracts bird watchers; as many as 246 species and sub species of birds inhabit the islands. Another factor contributing to the unsullied condition of the environment is quite unique as Harry explained, "one of the most impressive aspects of the islands' management is that the use of plastic bags is entirely illegal. Purchased goods are wrapped in biodegradable brown paper, which spares the land and seas."

Reaching the Andaman Islands from Phuket is easiest by boat. Travellers need to arrange a six month Indian visa, with a one month restricted pass for the Andamans, at a cost of THB 3,000. On arrival at Port Blair, the only point of entry, yachts must give the harbourmaster their intended itinerary. Passengers will then be informed of the areas that are out of bounds. Yachts are expected to report their positions daily by radio. There are regular flights and ship passages to and from Calcutta and Chennai (Madras) and it is understood that the airport is to be upgraded to International status, as the current Administration is active in encouraging eco-friendly tourists to visit their beautiful islands

"It is an amazing place, full of colour and character. The people are friendly and welcoming, the environment is beautiful and the culture and history are fascinating. This was our second trip and we would like to return. The Resident Commissioner has agreed to a boat rally to the Islands from Phuket scheduled for February 2003.

Details are available on www.andamansearally.com

 

 

- January 2003 Volume 6 ,Issue 1


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