Every Indian child’s first encounter with the Andaman Islands comes through stories of the infamous British jail where freedom fighters were incarcerated. We had packed our days so full of things to do that it was only in the evening of our last day in Port Blair that we managed to find time for the Cellular Jail.
There was a sound and light show which starts at 7:30 in the evening. When we arrived in time to queue up for it, the first thing that struck me was how small it was. Through the rest of the day we had wandered around the outskirts of Port Blair bumping into grand structures built by slave labour from this jail, but the famous jail was surprisingly small.
Unfortunately, I never managed to take a good look at the inside of the structure. As I went in I brushed against an exposed nail which gave me a long and deep gash along my calf. If you ever need medical attention in Port Blair remember that the hospital is just behind the cellular jail. The out-patient department is efficient and clean. Perhaps on our next trip to Port Blair we will get to see the Cellular Jail.
The rest of the clan arrived a little before noon on Christmas day. I asked Shakti what we could do for half a day, and he offered to drive us all to Wandoor beach. This is right across the island on the west coast, about an hour and a half’s drive away. I’d read that glass bottomed boats left for Jolly Buoy island from here. Senthil said that it is a nice place for a swim.
It is. There is a part surrounded by a net where it is safe to swim. The beach is not very long, but it wasn’t very crowded either. In my mind our holiday was divided into two parts: the first part was birding, and it was over. The second part was swimming and it was beginning. My nieces are good swimmers, but they stayed in waist deep water until I splashed one of them. Then they went for a long swim.
The water is neck deep at the furthest point of the net. There are some life guards on the beach, but they don’t have much to do, since most people stick to waist deep water. My nieces swam along the net, and the two of them made up about half the number of people who were swimming so far out. The life guards declared the beach closed a little before sunset. We found only one changing room with a shower, so we left the shower for later.
There were a few shops with tea and snacks. We sat there with the munchies and hot tea watching the sun go down. It was a nice beginning to the second part of our holiday.
The Family noticed that Senthil’s family had planned a nice surprise for him. His extended family had come to Wandoor with his wife and three year old daughter. We waited until his daughter left with her mother and uncles before driving back. We’d been thinking of the beach as a place for tourists. We’d completely forgotten that people who live in Port Blair would also go to the same beaches.
On the way up Mount Harriet, Senthil pulled up to the side of the narrow road and pointed out this view. You could be as hard pressed as us to make the connection: this is the picture on the back of the twenty rupee note. The light house is the Port Blair light house.
For our last birding trip this holiday we’d woken up at sunrise on Christmas day to take a ferry across the bay to a jetty at Bambooflats. From there it was an easy drive up to Mount Harriet. The ferry runs every half hour. Mount Harriet is a protected forest, which means that it is fenced off, and has a gate manned by forest guards who open it at 8 every morning, and close it again at 5.
The guards on duty were very pleasant, and gave us a brochure of the park with a check-list of birds. The Family took a quick glance at it and said “There’s a lot we haven’t seen yet”. Later when I looked at it and said, “We saw so many”, I got a withering look from her. We added Andaman green pigeons to our list, and had more sightings of birds we had already seen before.
Our attempts at bird watching soon came to an end as the road filled up with a series of loud jeeps, some honking. We were told that a judge of the supreme court was visiting. His security detail drove up and down the mountainside making sure that it was safe for him. Birds don’t like this kind of disturbance, and retreated into the forest. We also gave up and left. On our way out the forest guards said that our tickets are valid till closing time, so we could come back later. We thanked them for this consideration, but we had other plans for the evening. In any case, we had a new bird in our list, and a couple of good photos of butterflies.
We did birding in four spots around Port Blair, marked by the green patches in the map here. Chidiyatapu was a mix of forest and shoreline. Since the Andaman Trunk Road passes through the forest, and disturbs the birds, our best viewing here was early in the morning. Sippighat and Ograbranj are wetlands, and yielded very good sightings. Mt. Harriet in Bambooflats is another place where a day can yield good sightings. We visited Sippighat in the afternoon of December 22, Chidiyatapu the same night and again in the morning of December 23. We did birding in Ograbranj in the afternoon of December 23, and went up to Mt. Harriet on December 25.
The Andaman group of Islands is full of endemics (marked with a star in the list below), and also has winter visitors. Even though I had done my reading, I was startled by the variety of visitors. I’d never expected to see Daurian’s starlings here. Andaman is so far from our normal birding grounds that our bird list is full of lifers (marked in bold):
Alexandrine parakeet: Chidiyatapu
* Andaman drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
* Andaman bulbul: Chidiyatapu
* Andaman collared kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj, Neil Island
We are amateur birders, and I hardly have a spotter’s eye. The Family spends more time on it. We did our birding in Andaman with Shaktivel, Gokul and Senthil. Shakti guides tours in the Andamans, and his next project is to take a group to Great Nicobar. Gokul is a zoologist, collecting data for a checklist of birds in the Andamans. This will be the core of his Doctoral thesis. During our three days of birding, we met up with Mark Smiles, who is an excellent birder, and guides bird tours in Dubai.
It wasn’t till Christmas eve that we had the time to actually walk around Port Blair. The previous days had passed in a flurry of travel from wetlands to forests and back again. Now that we had a little time in the evening, we asked an auto driver about the big bazaar in town. He assured us that we wanted to see the beautiful Aberdeen Bazaar, and dropped us there.
The shops started from a circle with a large statue of Gandhi. The first thing we noticed was that even now many shops were selling Christmas trees and decorations. The market was buzzing, and only about half the people there were tourists. You don’t get a real feel of a town until you walk about a market. Now for the first time we noticed what a melting pot Port Blair is. We heard snatches of conversation in languages from across India, and saw faces which came from everywhere in the country: the north-east, east, heartland, north, and south. I heard a snatch of Dogri, but when I looked around I couldn’t see who could have spoken it.
We passed a junction where three lanes met up with the road. Near one of them was a large stall selling flowers. This looked permanent enough to be an everyday affair. The chains of marigolds were probably hanging in many of the nearby shops. We walked up to a bizarre clock tower in the middle of the bazaar (photo here). I’d noticed this in passing before. The eye-watering blue lights were probably Christmas decorations.
We had to turn left or right, and I couldn’t remember which way we had gone the previous evening. We saw an interesting looking Gurudwara to the right and turned in that direction. The next day we found that this was a mistake; if we’d turned left we would have reached the Christmas market. Near the Gurudwara we found a very interesting looking establishment; probably a wholesale grain shop (photo here). Most of the shutters were down but a row of clerks sat at their ledgers under the eagle eyes of past owners, whose portraits were on the wall. A few ominous drops of rain began to come down on us. We looked for an auto and just managed to get in before the skies opened up and sheets of water poured down.
We’d found a nice restaurant before we came to the bazaar. The rain hadn’t let up by the time we reached the place, but a doorman came with umbrellas to escort us inside. Our Christmas dinner turned out good: with fresh sea food done well, and a large slice of chocolate cake to follow.
It was a dark and stormy day. Well, not stormy as much as rainy. But the wind was strong enough to ruffle the feathers of a common sandpiper by the sea-shore (featured photo).
In any case it was a dark and wet day when we met up with a lone birder standing by a bend in the Great Andaman Trunk Road near its end in Chidiyatapu. We had a scope, binoculars and cameras. He had a scope and binoculars. The first words he said were "Andaman shama". When you hear a call like that it confirms that you have met a birder.
We spent about half an hour in that one spot by the road. It was not very early, but since the day was pretty dark, the birds were feeding late. In a short while we saw not only the Andaman shama, but also the bright scarlet minivet with its yellow companion (The Family’s favourite), a small minivet, a couple of black-naped orioles, a spot-breasted kingfisher, an Indian fairy bluebird, an Andaman treepie, an Andaman drongo and a white-headed starling. Mark Smiles, the birder we met on the road, was a fantastic spotter.
We were off to Chidiyatapu for breakfast. Since Mark also wanted to go there, we gave him a lift. At Chidiyatapu we saw two different kinds of kingfishers, three kinds of parakeets, and the Andaman flower-pecker before Mark left. The sea was calm (see photo above) as we settled down for breakfast. It had been a most unusual trip to Andaman till now.
We rose before the sun to meet Senthil already waiting for us. We picked up Gokul and Shakti and were off for a second day’s birdwatching. With the horizon about to dip towards the sun, there was enough light to finally see the road we had already taken twice the previous night. The road ran next to the sea, and a series of small bays cut into the shoreward side. The place looked misty and overcast. Birds clearly rise before cows, as you can see in the photo here. The mynahs were chirpy and active while the cows still behaved as if they were waiting for their morning cup of coffee.
At this time of the day one could see a lot of water birds near the shore. After the brief sunny spell at sunrise, clouds had started to gather. The tall trees that you see in this photo were full of birds, but in the gloomy light they were difficult to photograph. Among the common birds of the Andaman is a lovely red-collared dove. With its red sandstone coloured body, it looks exactly like the doves one sees in the forts and palaces of north India. But when it turns a profile to you, the bright red band of feathers circling its neck can be seen easily. There were flocks of them fluttering about in the landward bushes. This was our first view of these lovely birds.
Ethnic Bengalis and Tamils predominate on the islands, and everyone seems to speak Hindi as a matter of course. In the middle of a small collection of buildings we stopped to look at kingfishers. A single-roomed building seemed to serve as a school. After I took the photo above, the porch boiled over with children waving at us. Probably their teacher had not arrived in class yet and a stranger is always good entertainment. It was close to the new year, but the sign you can see is a little out of date. Later we saw much larger schools on the islands. I’m not sure whether this is a government school or private. Unfortunately we never came back along the road to see whether the sign was updated.
On the descent into the airport at Port Blair I looked out at an unfamiliar town and got a quick impression of lots of wetlands around it (see the featured photo). The Andaman islands are closer to Thailand than to India, but remain on Indian time. As a result, the sun sets by 5:30 in December. The Family and I did not want to lose this first afternoon on the islands. Shaktivel had promised to meet us at the airport so that we could go birding immediately. It turned out that he’d planned to take us to the wetlands I saw from the air. This is called Sippighat.
It is a wonderful area for water birds. In the first few minutes we had a couple of lifers. But then I noticed that there were trucks dumping mud into the waters in an attempt to reclaim it. Shakti told me that this was farmland until the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquakedropped it below the level of the sea. I hadn’t bothered to look at the geology of the Andamans till then. But now it clicked.
We were on an island which sits at the geologically active boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plates. Three or four million years ago, their collision fractured the plates and created the Burmese and the Sunda microplates. This tectonic activity threw up the island chains. The slow subsiding of the extinct volcanic cones has created the wonderful coral reefs which I saw first from the air. Even now, as the Indian plate is sinking under these volcanic islands, elastic strain is being built up in the continental plates.
This strain was partly relieved by the 2004 earthquakes along the Indo-Burman plate boundary. The Andaman islands were repeatedly shaken by enormous after-shocks, each a major earthquake on its own. Sippighat and its wonderful birds (which I will list later) were just the first consequence that we saw. A dry account of the geological catastrophe of 2004 can still inspire awe. A five minute period, almost exactly twelve years ago, shifted the islands downwards by about a meter and changed rice fields into the watery landscape where we now stood.
The calm swampy land glowed in the light of the setting sun. Continental plates shifted catastrophically to create the seemingly peaceful photo you see above: a landscape full of egrets, plovers and bitterns. It would take me the better part of a week to begin to appreciate how much ecological stress persists even today. But this impoverished ecology is much more diverse than what I normally see in Mumbai.