Andamans Diary – Leaving for Chiriya Tapu (Birds Island)

Jennifer Nandi’s Andaman dream almost crash-lands before it takes off again, wobbly but steady

As a child, I remember a photograph of my father being garlanded by an elephant on the Andaman Islands where he had been surveying using the old plumb-line technology that Indian Naval officers in the hydrographic branch used. Few people I knew had visited those far-flung islands. The dream to go there one day was, over the years, pushed back, giving precedence to other seemingly more interesting ventures. But that dream-day was upon us and I was besides myself with excitement. So the disappointment, when it came, was deafening. 

Ken was one of the two foreign tourists on the plane; the rest of the passengers were families of those workers employed in factory construction. Even at the airport of Port Blair, it was apparent that other planes arrived here having ferried families mostly from South-Indian states. Tourists, Indian or otherwise, were in short supply. 

As we drive away from the airport, I stick my head out of the window into the balmy air to look for an effulgent wildness. Instead, I find a scatter of shanty towns that sit like a slur on the scarred hills. Between the heaps of scrapped vehicles, rust and oil remnants of industrial corrosion line the narrow roads. Port Blair is worse than an overgrown Indian village, little better than when it was first established as a British penal colony in 1858. There is no nature here, I sadly admitted to myself, only a world of bankrupt development. 

The Fortune Bay Resort, a name more impressive than the hotel itself

The Fortune Bay Resort, a name more impressive than the hotel itself, offers a miserable breakfast. Not even our sea-facing rooms do anything to revive my drooping spirits. I quickly go to pieces. A sore throat affliction that I was nursing exacerbates into a chest cold, and cements my general malaise. In order for me to be healthy and happy I have to affiliate with nature. I believe the phenomenon is called ‘biophilia’. 

After breakfast we plan the day’s activities with our guide Vikram. I had spoken to him from Kolkata first suggesting and then telling him that we needed a bird list of the area; what we intended to see, so on, and so forth. My persistent requests for the bird list falls on deaf ears. He’s a nice enough guy, but without a clue. 

We drive out of Port Blair to a patch of water where Sunda Teal hang out. They are drab brown birds with white around their eyes and under their necks. My spirits pick up instantly. It’s a bird I’ve never seen before, and I feel we are off to a good start. We set up the spotting scope to view other exotics but just get good views of common Indian birds. Our Guide walks on ahead and we linger at some reeds and bushes on the other side of the road, knowing that whatever we see is going to be exotic. Sure enough, we see an Oriental Reed Warbler, a winter visitor to North-east India. We refer to my bird book and see that the distribution-arrows also point to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Once again, I’m ecstatic. I’m already feeling better as I watch a Yellow Bittern work the reeds and on occasion show itself. 

Much later, still on an upbeat mood, we search for a restaurant to eat and maybe have a beer. Our guide takes us to a really grimy place. I leave Ken in the car to do some scouting. It’s filthy. I try to explain to our guide the conditions of a restaurant conducive to eating! He mulls over what I have to say, then points across the road. Somewhat bewildered as to why he had made an unsuitable suggestion when a better alternative was staring at him right across the road, I run across, once again, leaving Ken to his own devices. Up the stairs to an air-conditioned room, there are fairly decent tables and chairs and waiters. I read the menu, look at the tank of live fish and crustaceans and decide that we’ll be safe. In fact, it turns out to be quite satisfactory indeed. 

After lunch we dismiss the invitation to look at the Cellular Jail, constructed between 1896 and 1906 to house Indian convicts and political prisoners, and opt instead for a visit to Chiriya Tapu or Birds Island, a tiny fishing village, some 25 km from Port Blair. This involves a walk on the main road. Looking up at the wall of trees with occasional windows, we discern the Long-tailed Parakeet, another endemic. The bird looks very much like the Blossom-headed of the Northeast but with a green crown. It also lacks the red shoulder patch. There are swifts in the sky and we peer through our binoculars to look for the detail that would identify the Glossy Swiftlets — tiny birds with square-ended tails and a white belly. We do indeed see them and other more familiar birds. 

In the fading light we take a short drive to end of the road and look out at the now grey sea. Upturned trees lie on the beach, mute reminders of the tsunami. We would’ve liked to have walked here but it’s too late now. Perhaps another time.

Text and photographs: Jennifer Nandi
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