An Island Retreat - Havelock

The article "An Island Retreat" originally appeared in THE ASSAM TRIBUNE, September 4, 2010.

It was blue and blue all the way; the blue ocean spread itself until it reached the blue sky in the far horizon. We were on board the MV Rani Changa, on our way to the Havelock Island, a three hour ship journey from Port Blair. In our five day Andaman tour we visited Havelock on the third day, and realised it was the most relishing part of the trip.

Well, to give you a brief intro, you will fall in love with Andaman once you land at Port Blair. The fresh air reaching your lungs keeps on reminding you that far from the Indian mainland you are in a city somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The capital of Andaman Islands, the island city of Port Blair is clean and developed and the people, quite friendly. On one hand there is the abundance of scenic beauty and on the other there is a dark history associated with the place. The Cellular Jail is one of the darkestchapters in the history of the colonial rule in India. Though the prison construction was completed in 1906, the history of using the Andaman Island as a prison dates back to the Indian rebellion of 1857. The Light and Sound show in the jail premises satisfactorily recreates the horror of the old jail, and its deadly tortures on the Indian prisoners. The other places of major tourist attraction in the city are the Samudrika museum, the Anthropological museum, the Aquarium and the water sports complex.

From Port Blair you can visit different islands with distinctive features of interest. Tourists visit the Ross Island from the historic point of view, as the island is basically a ruin of the British colony that was once there. Maintained by the Indian Navy, this island, only twenty minutes by ship from Port Blair, houses the ruins of the residences of British officers, a bakery, tennis court, and a Gothic church. People go to the Viper Island, to see the ruins of the gallows that once existed there. Then there is the North Buoy Island where the beach is lovely and the snorkelling experience is wonderful. And people go to Havelock to see what amazing beauty nature has got to offer. Havelock Island is the largest of the islands with an area of 113.93 square kilometres which comprise Ritchie's Archipelago, a chain of islands to the east of Great Andaman in the Andaman Islands. Havelock is situated 57 km North East of Capital City Port Blair. The population numbered 5,354 as of the census of 2001. The island is named after Henry Havelock, a British general active in India. The island's current population consists of Bengali and south Indian settlers.

Our ship cruised past steadily crushing the oceanic current and the water splashed on the faces of all those standing on the front deck of the ship. You could lick the upper part of your lip and feel the salt! And what added to the thrill of this magnificent and picturesque journey was the sighting of shoal of sea dolphins jumping and moving near our ship. We reached Havelock and after checking in into our sea facing resort, made our way to the Radhanagar beach. The Havelock Island is mostly covered by reserve forest and the forest part doesn’t have any human habitation. Only a small part of the island has human dwelling and tourist resorts and hotels, and a few market places. The island has two major beaches: the Radhanagar beach and the Elephant beach. Radhanagar beach was rated as the “best beach in Asia” by Time magazine in the year 2004. The Elephant beach is a rather rocky beach but has some of the best coral belts near it. Snorkelling and scuba diving are open for tourist near the Elephant beach. The various resorts and the Radhanagar beach are connected by the only road that has been built at Havelock, a twisted and narrow path. After a rather bumpy ride (and to some extent back-breaking) in an old Mahindra jeep, we reached the outskirts of the beach and we heard the sound of waves striking against the land....Believe me, your expectations won’t be marred and you won’t be disappointed once you look at the marvellous beach.....The hills, the forest, the silvery sand and the bluish green sea all come together to compose this beautiful beach and leave an everlasting impression on your mind just like an original Da Vinci seen at the Louvre will do. The beach is quite well maintained and even you can say eco friendly courtesy the changing rooms and sitting arrangements, all made up of cane and the roofing done by some indigenous leaves. What attracts a sensible tourist is that the commercial ventures like small shops selling coconut water or soft drinks or other dhabas are quite a distance away from the main beach area and that helps in the maintenance of the place. The locals we talked to seemed to be quite proud of their island and the world famous beaches they have; the shopkeepers keep reminding you not to litter the beaches; everyone is tourist friendly and the islanders appeared to be quite free from the hassle of city life and happy about their subtle existence in a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. Havelock offers you the much desired retreat and seclusion in the lap of Mother Nature, free from commercialization or any other type of manmade penetration into the magic of nature’s offering.

Recounting the experiences of a visit to the island a couple of years ago, a friend of mine said, “After the beach, the hot chicken and roti from the nearby dhaba tastes excellent”, and I completely agree with him. After the all the bathing, swimming and sun bathing, you will find the food, though simple, quite tasty. We returned from the beach and witnessed a colourful sunset from the veranda of our cottage in the resort, and the rest of the evening passed into a slow and silent night amidst idle gossip sitting by the Indian Ocean.

Our next day began looking at the coloured Sun rise from the depths of the ocean, sitting in the balcony of our cottage. But then, out of nowhere black clouds covered the sky and it started to pour. What a splendid sight it is! We thought our beach plans would have to be cancelled due to the downpour but then after about half an hour it stopped. As scheduled we left for the Elephant beach after an early breakfast. The interesting fact about this beach is that there is no road connectivity with the beach. It’s on the same island yet you have to go there by a motor boat! Our journey to the same was short but adventurous, moving through the sea water in a small motorised boat accompanied by two guides-an old man and his young nephew. On the way to the beach, there is a certain location where they anchor the boat and take the tourists for snorkelling, as the area has a wonderful coral growth. The glasses, the air pipe and off you go! Snorkelling in the salty water of the Indian Ocean, paddling through the strong waves and glimpsing at one of the most beautiful coral belts of the world-the boulder corals, the brain corals, sponge corals, sea anemones- and a large number of fishes-the parrot fish, the zebra fish- is a delightful and lifetime experience. While at it, just look around you; all you see is the ocean and may be a lighthouse some hundreds of nautical miles away; look above, the blue sky and white clouds greet you in all earnestness.

Corals are marine organisms in class Anthozoa of phylum Cnidaria typically living in compact colonies of many identical individual "polyps". The group includes the important reef builders that inhabit tropicaloceans, which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton. A coral "head," which appears to be a single organism, is a colony of myriad genetically identical polyps. Each polyp is typically only a fewmillimetres in diameter. Over many generations the colony secretes a skeleton that is characteristic of thespecies. Local economies near major coral reefs benefit from an abundance of fish and other marine creatures as a food source. Coral reefs provide many medical benefits for humans. Chemical compounds taken from corals are used in pharmaceutical medicines to fight cancer, AIDS, severe pain and much more. As one gazes at these massive underwater reefs, he is bound to wonder about the mysterious bounty of marine life. After the snorkelling experience we moved on to the Elephant beach and spent some quality time there, sitting on the rocks and observing the sea and of course, clicking pictures. After the beach, we returned to the main shore and enquired about any interesting places to visit on the island. After consultation with the tour operators and guides we set off to see the vast mangrove forests on another side of the island. For that too, there was no road connectivity, and you have to move along the edge of the mangrove forest in a boat. We went on a boat similar to the one which took us to the Elephant beach and the experience was memorable. The boatmen told us stories about how salt water crocodiles attacked an American tourist at the Radhanagar beach in May 2010, how these crocodiles got into the brackish waters of the mangrove forest and stayed on for a couple of days, and how they were often sighted to the utter horror of fishermen and other boatmen. After returning from the forest trip, we had lunch and were back to the Havelock jetty, waiting for our ship back to Port Blair. As we stood on the jetty, and looked back at the island, memories of the exotic beaches and the spine-tangling snorkelling experience kept returning to the mind. In flashes we remembered our Dolphin Resort and the sunrise from its veranda, the mangrove forest and the shocking stories of crocodiles, the driver of our jeep and the bumpy ride. In a few minutes we were on board the MV North Passage, and from the rear deck of the ship the tourists saw the small and beautiful island moving away.

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