Baratang - A Geological Wonder
There is more to Andamans beyond the crystal clear seas and pristine nature. A trip to Baratang Island, 150 km north of Port Blair, reminds us of the evergreen beauty where lots of adventure can be expected, not only on road but also via sea. The trip itself to the mangrove creeks is adventurous. Situated between the Middle and South Andamans, Bartang is known for the thick mangroves, limestone caves and the mud volcano. If you like to bond with nature and if you are a history lover, then your visit to Andamans would not be complete without exploring the Jarawa tribe reserve, where the original inhabitants are struggling to survive, cut off from the mainstream population.
Visiting Baratang should be planned early in the day and it is best to go via tours as the journey in itself is through dense forests with valid permits. I started the journey at around 6.30 in the morning by a AC 13 seater Tempo Traveller and though the roads were giving us knee jerks, we reached the place to the entry to the forest well before 8.30 am. The road distance from Port Blair to Jirketang is approximately 46 kms and this is the point where permits are required to enter the forests. One can see the long cue of vehicles lined up waiting for the convoy which are allowed only at 6, 9, 11 am and 3 pm.
One cannot expect good food or refreshments at the entry point. The forest journey lasts for almost one-and-half-hours and washroom facilities and small hotels are present. Small food outlets selling typical south Indian foods like idli vada, dosa chutney, poori bhaji, parotta, peas curry welcomes all. We had a mini breakfast to fill our stomach. This is the best place to fill our tummies as for the next 3 hours there would be no stops and nothing in sight. Our driver made sure that we fill the permit forms for submission with copy of our identity. After getting permission, the vehicles are allowed one by one and the convoy is led by a state bus armed with guards.
The entry into the forests itself is thrilling. One would be loaded with thoughts of what we could see when going through the forests. The forests opened its arms with the paths shaded and the thick atmosphere. The elusive and exclusive Jarawa tribes live in this forest and do not come out. The endangered Jarawa tribe are highly vulnerable to diseases and hence tourists have been warned not to interact or photograph them or even offer food. Clicking photos of them is an offence and would invite a hefty fine. Offering food to the tribes is forbidden and vehicles are not allowed to stop. If we are lucky we could spot a few of the Jarawas on the way.
Our vehicle entered and we were all in rapt attention watching through the windows the beauty of the forest. The sunlight was filtering through the green leaves and we were eagerly looking for the tribes. All of us were in rapt attention trying to spot the Jarawa tribe like spotting animals. Suddenly our driver signaled us to look out through the left. Small children numbering 2 or 3 were standing on the sides of the road, waving to the vehicles. With dark eyes and a cherubic smile, semi-clad, they looked as though the tourist movement were inhabiting their habitat. All those in the vehicle were staring at them but I felt something amiss and trying to fathom what makes these kids lead a life exposing them to tour operators antics.
The journey continued and we were all tired travelling a long and tedious journey. We could not even afford to close our eyes as we may miss this secluded tribe. The beauty of the forest astonished me. The fantasy of the forest is much larger than my fantasy. After 20 minutes or so, our vehicle came to a stop abruptly. What happened. We wanted to know. Standing in front were 2 Jarawa tribal men. Dark and thin, with a red rope tied over their head, long and sturdy hands, they looked physically fit for hunting. They had their bow and arrow on their. One of the men moved to the right of the vehicle and asked the driver for water. We were shell shocked as I was sitting in the front row next to the driver. The driver immediately told me to lock the door. The Jarawas are known to open the doors of tourist vehicles and take away the belongings. The driver slided down the window panes and took the bottle. He poured water into their bottle. Happy that their demands were met, he asked for pan. The driver handed him a little of pan. Looking aghast at the developments, I looked at them from top to bottom. One man moved towards the left and tried to open the door next to me. Feared to the most, I did not know if I should stare or smile. He stared at us. The vehicle moved slowly.
The journey continued and for another half hour, no Jarawas could be located. Dozing off, I was awakened by the vehicle driver who again wanted us to have a look at a woman tribe standing with her kid. The dimunitive, dark skinned woman, I could see only her bare back, are the proud people of the forests who now have been reduced to begging for packets of biscuits and pack of chips. The dwindling population of the Jarawas, is of concern for the government who have made strict Do’s and Don’ts for the tourists.
By the time our convoy reached the other end of the forest, the trip was breathtaking. Knowing that the forest journey has ended, we were taken in a jetty to the Baratang Island which is located in the middle Andamans. The huge iron jetty not only carries humans but also trucks, buses and cars. After alighting from the jetty, we were taken in a fast diesel boat ride to the limestone caves. The ride through the wonderful canopy of green is enthralling going through the dense mangroves to reach the Limestone Caves, a geological wonder. This island is on the tropical side of the Andaman Islands. The boat ride is refreshing through the heart of the dense mangrove but our spirits were marred due to the heavy drizzle which later turned to a heavy downpour. The thick plastic sheets gave us temporary shelter and the journey is a lifetime experience you don’t often experience. I remember seeing these kind of journeys only in science channels. The end of the sea journey where you enter the tiny water lane, the whole scene completely changes. The rains had a respite and you can see that the boat almost touches the mangroves. You can also feel the breathing roots of mangroves. This is mesmerizing.
After alighting from the speed boat, a 1 km walk to the limestone caves through the mangrove infested areas and rocky passages. It was adventure at its peak and by the time we reached the entry to the limestone caves we were exhausted. It was complete dark and our guide explained the visual treat. The caves are lined up with stalactites and stalagmites. With a shade of yellow and white, the top layers remained untouched. After some time it was getting a bit crowded. As you walk through the limestone walls on both sides you see the unusual limestone formation. Some take different shapes and in the dark, we could manage to get a glimpse of nature’s beauty. We could just venture to just 1 km and the caves run to almost 3 kms.
Having come this far, some people also visit the mud volcano which is another 3 kms from here. We decided to skip it for want of time and also due to the bad weather. The return is almost same like what we came through. We returned to the mainland, completely exhausted, joined the convoy and it is back to Port Blair. On our return, we were not able to spot any tribes throughout the journey. Maybe, the tribes might have gone into remote areas as the forests offers them more than they want. At the end of the forest ride, a few children were spotted who shouted biscuits, biscuits. Our vehicle driver politely said Kal dhediye Kal.
We missed the mud volcano and the Parrots Islands where people say at sunset parrots descent in flocks to their nesting place.
And we left the forest coming back to reality.