The Alba Chronicles
Neville Howarth
Sat 28 Jan 2017 02:25



25 January 2017 Port Blair, Andaman Islands

We had a lovely night’s sleep.  Port Blair is in the top ten of natural harbours in which we have anchored.  Apart from one entrance channel, it’s totally land locked and is deep in most places - the Indian Navy has a big naval base here with a couple of warships at dock.


After breakfast, we headed for the dock between Chatham Island and the mainland, where we were met by Umopeti.   There’s no really safe place to leave a dinghy because there’s quite a surge around the concrete dock.  Our man, Umopeti, has cornered a niche market and looks after yachties’ dinghies while they go ashore.  He always seems to be there and is very helpful.


He takes your dinghy off to a mooring line away from the nasty, sharp concrete dock and then brings it back to you when you’re ready to go back to the boat.  For this service he charges a small fee.  This is a negotiation, which started at 300 rupiah (£3) for a full day and 150 rupiah for ½ day. I negotiated him down to 200 rupiah, but later found out that I’d been weak and other people were paying 100 rupiah.  I’ve now beaten him down to 150 rupiah for tomorrow and no doubt could beat him down to 100 Rupiah, but I think that he does such a valuable job that I might just pay him 200 rupiah.  I think I’m getting soft in my old age.


We caught a tuk-tuk to find the Harbour Master.  The driver spoke hardly any English and had no idea where we wanted to go, but after much pointing at Google Maps on my phone, we were dropped in the general area at some port authority.  Fifteen minutes later, after many confused conversations, we discovered that we were in the wrong place and walked back to the Port Management Board.


At every entrance into any government building, there are guards with serious looking weapons and it took some explaining to get us into the compound.  The guard spoke hardly any English and didn’t understand “Harbour Master”.  I said I needed to pay “Port Fees” (which I didn’t), but the concept of me wanting to pay something seemed to override any fears of me being a terrorist and he let us in.


Once in the building, we asked for the Harbour Master and were pointed upstairs.  I went into the Harbour Master’s Assistant’s office and they asked if I wanted to clear in or out - phew!  - found the right place.  We were shown into a palatial office, the size of a half a tennis court, where the Harbour Master sat behind a desk the size of two table tennis tables.


He was extremely pleasant, spoke excellent English and we started to go through our planned itinerary asking questions about where we were allowed to go.  There are many restricted areas in the Andaman Islands either for nature conservation or to protect the Indigenous Andamanese people, who live in reserves.  I gleaned this information:


The Andamanese people are the original aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.


The Andamanese are pygmies, who lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and have lived mostly in isolation for thousands of years.  They arrived at the Andaman Islands around the latest Ice Age about 26,000 years ago.


By the end of the eighteenth century, when they first came into sustained contact with outsiders, there were an estimated 7,000 Andamanese divided into five major groups, with distinct cultures, separate domains, and mutually unintelligible languages.   In the next century, they were largely wiped out by diseases, violence, and loss of territory.  Today, there remain only approximately 400–450 Andamanese. One group has long been extinct, and only two of the remaining groups still maintain a steadfast independence, refusing most attempts at contact by outsiders.


The most isolated are the Sentinelese who still live in their original homeland on North Sentinel Island, which lies only 20 miles to the west of the main Andaman Islands.  They are largely undisturbed and have fiercely resisted all attempts at contact, to the point of firing six foot long arrows at anyone who approaches their island.  In the summer of 1974, the Indian government organized an expedition to the Andaman Islands and produced a film about the native peoples of these islands - they weren’t welcomed.


The Andamanese people on the main island are being threatened by a trunk road that has been constructed through the middle of their reserve.   This has allowed access to tourism.  It is forbidden to have any contact with the Andamanese, but there have been many interactions, so the Andamanese are now wearing western clothes and their culture is rapidly being eroded.


The Harbour Master told us not to go to Twin Islands because of conservation issues and not to go through the Andaman Straits, which is a winding causeway that cuts the main island in half.  We were hoping to sail up the west coast and then navigate the Andaman Straits to the east coast and then explore the islands on the east coast.  However, the Andaman Straits passes between two indigenous reserves and there is a chance that we might have contact - this would cause major bureaucratic complications.


Other boats have raved about the wonderful experience of negotiating the Straits, but it will only be a short “river” passage and we’ve already had long excursions into the Darien and Orinoco deltas, so we’re going to be good cruisers and avoid the place.  In my humble opinion, the Andamanese people need to be given the chance to decide on their future and need to be left alone.


After a fifteen minute chat, the Harbour Master summoned another guy (called Das); ripped a strip off him saying that he didn’t have time to handle the detail of changing a yacht itinerary; handed him our papers; and then, nice as pie, asked us to take a seat on one of his couches and read the newspapers while our documentation was being sorted out.


Fifteen minutes later, Das returned and we were escorted down to the ground floor.  Das was not happy because we’d bypassed him and gone straight to the big boss.  He politely asked that in future we go and see him first.   Das is the Signal Superintendent in charge of Vessel Related Charges.  All cruisers should ask for him first.  (He’s on the ground floor - from the main entrance turn immediately right through a door and proceed past some small booths to his office in the corner.)


We apologised profusely and told him that the reception desk had directed us upstairs and the assistant had taken us directly to the Harbour Master (God).  Das seemed to be placated by our apology and had one of his minions take photocopies of our other documents and we were finished.


One cannot but marvel at the bureaucracy of the Indian Government.  Paperwork is king.  While we were in the Harbour Master’s office there was a constant stream of civil servants bringing him documents to sign.  Every transaction seemed to have at least four documents.  While we were with Das, we looked in awe at a pile of paperwork piled in the cubicle of one of his staff.


Having completed our clearing in process, we walked into town, which is a riot of people, colour, traffic, smells and noise.  There are hundreds of Tuk-tuks and motorbikes crowding the streets, with people weaving their way through the traffic.  Every other vehicle seems to be tooting a horn and there’s an all pervading smell of curry.  It’s glorious.


Yesterday, the Immigration officers told us that the best telecom provider is BSNL, which is a government controlled telecom company.  Unfortunately, SIM cards can only be bought at the main BSNL office, so we caught a tuk tuk up there.  Expecting a paperwork nightmare, it was actually very simple - I supplied a copy of my passport & visa plus a passport photo, paid 230 rupiah (£2.30) and we were handed a sim card with 1 GB data.

After a short walk back to the Aberdeen Clock Tower in town, we had a curry at the Gangan restaurant, which was good - our first real Indian Curry.  We spent the next couple of hours exploring the town, then caught a tuk tuk to the National Park Authority in Haddo.


There are a lot of Salt Water Crocodiles in the Andaman Islands, which have been known to occasionally grab tourists and drag the bodies off to their lairs.  We’re obviously keen to avoid this, so the plan was to ask the National Park Authority where the safe and dangerous areas were.  They told us to go to an office on Chatham Island, but after we’d walked fifteen minutes to get there, they were either closed or we’d been sent on a wild goose chase - very frustrating.


We were mildly dehydrated and tired by the time we got back to Alba, but invited Mike & Jennifer from “Mahili” over for a beer or two.