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Magical islands in the bay

HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER



An artist's delight of shades of aquamarine ... the sea off Havelock island.

IT'S a little after dawn. The sky in the east gleams like burnished brass gilding the wavelets on Phoenix Bay. A ferry, silhouetted black in the early light, etches a silver wake on the metallic sea. High above, two sea eagles swoop and dive, the light flashing bronze tints off their backs. It is as evocative as an engraving.

We're sitting in the balcony of our room in Port Blair, striving to capture the textures of our experiences. We've decided on a change of cadence, this time. We'll take the four islands as facets of a separate reality beyond urbanity, technology and stress. For us, it was a voyage across the seas of time.

The bridge of the m.v. Narcondam, was the back of an oceanic elephant as it swayed and ploughed through drifting banks of grey mist. Port Blair dissolved behind like a forgotten dream, and a school of dolphins played tag with us effortlessly: air breathing mammals who had abandoned the land and returned to the sea as if prescient of global warming and the rising of the oceans. They left us as the cobalt blue waters of the deep changed to aquamarine above the massed reefs of coral. We tied up on a jetty on Havelock Island with blue boats bobbing in its bay and rising hills, covered in forests, as a background.

Havelock is a 90-minute fast-ferry ride from Port Blair, but it's much further back in time. We drove through a Keralan-like shanty town, down roads green with palms and bananas and signposts pointing to "resorts". Many of these are little more than a collection of tiny huts, set on stilts, cheap havens for back-packing youth escaping from the rigors of their western homelands. We stayed in the government-run Dolphin Resort; independent cottages on stilts set in manicured, park-like, grounds. A sandy beach, submerged at high tide, stretched in front. Next door, Linda and Benny Jacob from Bangalore, had overseen the building of the thatched-roofed Wild Orchid Resort and they now run it as an eco-friendly getaway. We drove inland.

The hinterland of Havelock opened to large stretches of rice fields, golden in the sun. Mat-walled village huts clustered close together and seemed to be settlements of Bangladeshi refugees. And then the forests closed in again as we approached Radhanagar Beach. It's backed by a magnificent grove of towering trees, rising like cathedral pillars. A colourful tented camp spread under these sylvan giants and virtually every tent was occupied. We were delighted to find that a fair number of Indian couples had opted for camp life by the beach. Affluent domestic tourists were, clearly being weaned away from the glitzy, Bollywood, ideal of dolce vita: the hedonistic heights of affordable luxury!

But even Havelock was cosseting compared to Hut Bay in Little Andaman, a six-hour ferry ride from Port Blair. Only dedicated eco-tourists would venture this far but, after we'd got over the soporific effect of being cooped up inside a rolling, pitching, ferry for so long, we were happy to set foot on terra firma. This, in spite of the fact that Hut Bay looks like a haphazard collection of huts and houses grown out of a logging settlement. Logging has been banned by the Supreme Court and so the Forest Department has turned to tourism, but it is still rather unsure of itself. And that, really, is Hut Bay's real charm: its lack of pretensions.

We stayed in basic comfort in the PWD Guest House and then went out to see the attractions around. They were worth seeing. We lost our hearts to a baby elephant in the Elephant Training Camp: elephant calves tend to look like animated stuffed toys. Then, driving through terrain that was a cross between the gentle tropical woods of the Seychelles and the lush jungles of Borneo, we stopped at the wide-screen sweep of Butler Bay beach. Once again we stood in awe under a belt of soaring trees rising at the very edge of the high-water mark: a unique feature of the Andamans. Vanvikas Eco Tourism, a.k.a. V.V.E.T., has a thatched restaurant and bar here. And, under the trees there was a cute Nicobaree Cottage: a circular blue thatched hut raised on stilts and made entirely of wood, matting and bamboo slats, except for its modern loo. We found it very appealing and, if we had known about it in advance, we'd certainly have spent at least one night here within whisper-distance of the sea.

Even more attractive, however, was Hut Bay's secret locked in a thick jungle. We drove to the edge of a brown, jungle stream where salt-water crocodiles occasionally lurk. It was spanned by a hump-back bridge leading to a jungle path alive with the orchestrated hum of insects. Then we came to a grove of tall trees and the Whitesurf Falls stopped us dead in our tracks. A river foamed down, snow-white and shredded-silk-soft, over a cliff of successive black boulders like the placid backs of an elephant herd. The spray reached out to us, softened and greened the earth, and kept the jungle at bay. And between the falls and us was a baize-green water-meadow, netted with silver streams and crossed by tiny bridges. It was as magical as a Tolkein setting and if a Hobbit had popped out of the mossy earth we would not have been surprised. They were certainly the most beautiful waterfalls we have ever seen.

We held that memory close to our hearts when we chugged back to Port Blair, and it was still with us when we boarded a speed-boat and sped across the unique Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park off Wandoor Beach. There are 15 islands in the clear, coral-rich, waters of this park but only two are open to visitors. We tracked a white wake behind us as we passed islands covered in dense forests, often protected by natural sea-walls of mangroves standing on their stilt roots. Our boat nosed into the soft sand of Jolly Buoy: thatched beach umbrellas shading rustic tables and seats, changing rooms, water as clear as molten glass, resplendent coral gardens seen through a glass-bottom boat. No one lives on Jolly Buoy: it's a day trip for visitors. We left when other boats began to speed in.

We headed for the even lonelier island of Redskin and, here, we had the whole island to ourselves. Now we were far back in time with only our footprints being washed by the lacy edge of the surf. Time was the susurration of the sea as if we were living in the singing heart of a gigantic shell. And then, when the shadows lengthened into late afternoon, we spotted bug-eyed mud skippers clambering up wet rocks at the edge of the sea. The eons flipped back to a hot and steamy age far before any creature put its footprint on the damp earth. We were back in the Devonian Era when little creatures, like these, first wriggled out of the blood-warm sea into the swamp-scented air. And became our distant ancestors all of 360 million years ago ....

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