Leaving Paradise Can Be Hell
Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India
The “Hobbit Forest”, the wonderful rainforest behind the beach where the Tent Resort and Jungle Resort are set.
Of course a beach is more than just perfect, idyllic nature. There are two small places to stay on the beach, and another slightly inland in the tiny village itself. Joanne and I stayed in the Tent Resort, where 300 rupees (US$6) a night got us a huge canvas tent with electricity, fan and a clean Western-style toilet and shower.
Most backpackers opted for the Jungle Resort, 10 minutes along the beach, where the same price bought tiny grass 3-sided huts set cheek by jowl with each other, with a dubious bathroom situation, but included a delicious dinner every night. Joanne and I chose to enjoy the best of both worlds, staying at the Tent Resort but dining exceptionally well every evening in the convivial atmosphere of the Jungle Resort before wandering home along the beach.
Others opted for paying 100 rupees per person to stay a 15-minute walk from the beach in huts similar to the Jungle Resort. The Jungle Resort also provided an upmarket alternative in comfortable, private wooden fan-cooled cabins set far apart on the edge of the forest, for a highly negotiable 3000 rupees (US$60) a night; it seemed likely that these could be had in low season for more like 1500 rupees.
Life quickly attained a routine: awoken by the calls of parakeets in the early morning, we would have a swim in the glassy ocean, then retire to the village for a delicious, cheap breakfast of fresh tropical fruit and the inevitable Lonely Planet dish of banana pancakes with honey. More lounging on the beach, or snorkelling (limited equipment was available in the village), would be followed by lunch either in the village or in the huge elevated gazebo restaurant at the Tent Resort. More suntanning, swimming, reading, writing, snorkelling or beachcombing and soon Joanne would announce “Time to buy limes and tonics,” and I would scurry off to the village for these vital ingredients in our sundowner cocktails. Mixed with enough ice-cold tonic water and enough lime, the local rotgut “gin” was quite palatable. And then it was time to watch the sun set over the ocean and wander down to the Jungle Resort for dinner and a few games of cards, or a chat with the tourists and staff. As ways of life go, this wasn’t bad.
Of course, beach bums do not live by food, suntanning and gin-and-tonics alone. Occasionally we would develop an urge to wander farther afield. A few times we rented motor scooters to explore the islands, but as these frequently lacked important elements such as brakes and starters, we gave up after a couple of crashes. We made our way out to Elephant Beach, several coves north of Number 7, to snorkel and to explore the mangrove swamps behind it. It was there that we saw a small school of dolphins one afternoon cruising along the shore, fishing just off the coral reef. The snorkelling, though, was hardly up to the standards of Number 7, so we eventually gave up going there.
An excursion further afield was a boat trip to uninhabited Middle Button and Long Islands in the Jungle Resort’s version of the SS Minnow. We had been told about Middle Button by a Canadian yachting couple who had moored off Number 7 and come ashore for supplies and a few drinks. Mike, the skipper, told us that, having spent 7 years sailing around the world, and having visited the Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, Tahiti, Fiji and most points in-between, he rated it as the best snorkelling he’d ever done. We were skeptical, but when we went there to see for ourselves, we were captivated.
The water was exceptionally clear, with fish and seashells perfectly visible from the boat in 15 metres of water. The hours we spent swimming around the pristine reefs seemed to pass in a blur; never had we seen such a variety of coral and, especially, of conch, cowrie and helmet shells. We found a pile of empty shells that told of a hungry octopus somewhere in the neighbourhood, but search as we might under rock ledges and inside fissures in the coral, we couldn’t find him, although we did find a few morays. We followed lion and scorpion fish around, and floated above clouds of brightly-coloured parrotfish, fusiliers, Moorish idols and clown anemonefish. The only downer was returning to the boat to discover that, while we had been off snorkelling, a school of 60 dolphins had passed by the boat and the people on the boat had been unable to get our attention.
We also dropped by Long Island, another favourite backpacker island. Here the attraction is not the beach, long and white though it may be. Backpackers, particularly Israelis, come here to camp out along the beach and live out Robinson Crusoe castaway fantasies, aided by the presence of a village with a pump and a tiny general store. Being able to pitch a tent in a small, sheltered alcove in the forest edge established by previous groups of campers, string a hammock between two trees and laze away a week or three playing guitar, barbecuing fresh fish or doing absolutely nothing appeals to many backpackers. On the other hand the sheer amount of time spent gathering firewood, collecting water, cooking and generally surviving is large, and so lazy travellers, such as Joanne and I, chose to spend our time on Havelock, paying others to do these tasks for us.
Neil Island, the third of the favourite traveller islands, is closer to Port Blair and is known as the place to go for diving. Being keen divers, we contemplated going there for a few days, but a crackdown by the Indian authorities on diving operations that were flouting one or another of the myriad rules governing such businesses had closed down most diving in the Andamans the day we arrived on Havelock. Those travellers who did make it to Neil reported that the beaches were nothing compared to Havelock or Long, but they liked the laid-back atmosphere of the hotels and villages. To each their own; we stuck to our white-sand idyll.