Monthly Archive for February, 2009

Dan: Tiny White Dots

In London I once lived in a house with a huge Map of the World that hung on the bathroom wall. Each time I showered I was able to study this map and ponder which of the exotic locations I would ever end up visiting.

Somewhere that always stuck in my mind was a small group of islands stranded in the open ocean between India and Thailand. On my map this incongruous collection of tiny white dots had been given the label:

ANDAMAN ISLANDS (IND.)

Surrounded in every direction by a thousand miles of empty blue sea, I’d often wonder if I’d be lucky enough to see such a far-flung patch of tropical paradise.

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Last month, a full-scale Price War broke out between India’s biggest airlines. Intrigued, I checked the Air India website and found that the cost of flights from Chennai to Port Blair (capital of the Andaman archipelago) had hit rock-bottom. Although we’d not planned to leave the mainland during our travels around India, over dinner that night Grania and I agreed that such a low price could not be ignored. The next day we booked ourselves on the Air India flight, stocked up on sun-tan lotion, and purchased two sets of snorkel, mask & fins. One week later we found ourselves in a half-empty airplane high above the Bay of Bengal, tearing towards that incongruous collection of tiny white dots…

We touched down in Port Blair early in the morning of January 30th and were welcomed at the airport exit by the usual scrum of rickshaw drivers and hotel touts. Much more welcome was the salty tang of laidback island air – a refreshing change from the shocking pollution of grimy old Chennai.

We spent only one night in Port Blair before catching the government ferry to Havelock Island. The trip took four hours and took us through plentiful shoals of flying fish… As we ploughed through the choppy blue, flocks of these peculiar animals leapt from our wake, breaching the surface by only a few inches but gliding above the waves for forty or fifty metres before disappearing with a startled splash back into their own element. I thought I’d seen flying fish before, but this was an altogether more spectacular performance.

On our arrival at Havelock jetty we took a rickshaw to our chosen accommodation. We were staying at the ‘Emerald Gecko’, a small guesthouse on a beach that we’d heard good things about. Laying down our backpacks for almost the last time, we checked in to the simple thatch hut that would be our home for the next week.

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Surrounded by palm trees, and cooled by the occasional breeze wafting in from the reef just offshore, we started, finally, to unwind.

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A pattern soon emerged in our daily routine. After breakfast we’d cycle to one of the many snorkelling beaches scattered around the island. Putting on our masks and fins, we’d spend an hour or so exploring the reef and tracking down its quirky inhabitants. We quickly ticked off the usual tropical suspects – angel fish, puffer fish, clown fish and parrot fish; barracuda, snapper, grunts, groupers, & wrasse.

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Later we discovered that the Bay of Bengal is home to an impressive population of metre-long black & silver sea-snakes (sometimes known as sea kraits) – quite deadly but thankfully extremely shy. (The sea krait’s venom is one of the most poisonous on earth, but its jaws are absolutely tiny – so tiny in fact that its fangs can barely pierce human skin, although earlobes and the fleshy bits between fingers and toes are soft enough to be vulnerable.) Using their tails as a rudder, these dazzling reptiles glide effortlessly through the water. Watching them slide across the coral and up to the surface for air is a mesmerising experience.

We also spotted a Hawksbill turtle just off the reef. When we noticed him he was swimming along, absent-mindedly going about his business as turtles do. We swam with him for a while as he pottered about the reef below us. Like us, he’d come to the Andamans with his home on his back… Holding our breaths and diving down, we were able to spend some eye-to-eye quality time with this incredible traveller before he turned around and headed back out to sea.

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When our time on Havelock ran out we took another ferry, this time to nearby Neil Island. The pace of life here was even slower than on Havelock, and we spent an enjoyable four days reading, snorkelling and generally relaxing before our time in the Andamans came to an end and our schedule compelled us to return to Port Blair.

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Our travels were coming to an end. Soon it would be time to leave the islands and fly back to Chennai. Two days after that we would fly home to the winter snow of a freezing UK…

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