In the early morning light, a Negrito emerged from the jungle with a drawn bow. Others joined him, all of them dark-skinned, well-built, with bark strips around their biceps and long arrows tucked in their bark belts… But as we moved closer, one fired his arrow, hitting our photographer in the thigh.” – Raghubir Singh, NG 1975
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been part of India since 1869 when the Danish only too happily offloaded them to Britain after 100 years of misery, mainly thanks to malaria. But the native tribes of these islands with names such as Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese, have been here for much longer –according to some researchers, at least 30,000 years.
The islanders who ‘greeted’ Mr Singh’s party from National Geographic in 1975 were from the mysterious tribe on the island of North Sentinel. This small band of pre-Neolithic hunter gatherers are one of the very few, perhaps only, uncontacted tribes relatively untouched by modern civilisation. And, after several hostile encounters with outsiders, the Indian authorities have decided they are best left alone.
I’m visiting the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a sliver of a landmass with a combined land area just half the size of New Caledonia, as part of a Silversea Expeditions voyage aboard their well-travelled 128-passenger vessel, Silver Discoverer. This is my second such trip with the company who pride themselves on bringing luxury to the expedition cruise sector.
Entering service in 1989, the ship spent most of its working life as Clipper Odyssey, visiting remote and otherwise inaccessible regions of the planet. A 2016 refurbishment to public spaces and technical areas keeps this vessel fit-for-purpose.
Colonial and natural elements
Shipboard accommodations deliver luxury levels now increasingly in demand in modern expedition cruising. Suites ranging in size from 17–40sqm offer butler service, champagne on request, refrigerator stocked with guests’ choice of beverage, European bath amenities, premium Pratesi bed linen with down duvet covers, iPod docking station, plush bathrobe and slippers, wi-fi, flat-screen TV with on-demand movies, music and satellite news. Suite service includes daily evening turndown and dark chocolates.
Silver Discoverer’s recently renovated lounges and open bar is the popular gathering point where travellers swap tales and relive the day’s adventures. Cuisine of Silversea’s lofty culinary standards make up imaginative menus in The Restaurant, featuring dishes inspired by Relais & Châteaux grand chef, Jacques Thorel.
Guests will often relax outside in the fresh air on the sunny pool deck, a location that also serves as a perfect platform for birdwatchers and photographers. For the energetic souls, there’s a fitness centre plus a beauty and massage salon for easing tired muscles, particularly attractive after an adventurous day ashore.
During Silversea’s 12-day Phuket to Colombo Asia Expedition, we’re looking at a mixture of colonial, natural, marine and ethnological heritage throughout the region of the Andaman Sea from Phuket in Thailand to Yangon in Myanmar via an extended detour to remote islands halfway out into the Bay of Bengal across their namesake sea.
The Andamans are virgin territory to me and it’s a fascinating sight as we sail into the busy harbour at Port Blair at dawn on South Andaman Island. The sheltered anchorage is full of all sorts of smaller craft from spluttering local ferries, rusty old tramp freighters, decrepit Asian fishing trawlers and some Indian naval patrol craft.
This harbour, although designated a major port by Indian authorities, is restricted to shallower draft vessels under 150m and Silver Discoverer, at 103m, is about the largest ship in port. It’s not long before Captain Adam Boczek has us tying up and preparing to go ashore.
Port Blair has all the feel of a small Indian provincial city. The trademark rickshaws buzz about the narrow streets, dodging motorcycles while the relatively few cars and commercial vehicles thread their way through the mayhem.
Despite Indian tourism painting the picture of the Andamans as a tropical eco-tourism paradise for divers, trekkers, game fishers and nature lovers its history, while fascinating, is anything but cheerful. Apart from the strategic location of the islands for whoever’s military is in charge, the first major utilisation of the Andamans was as a brutal 19th-century penal colony to accommodate the oversupply of prisoners generated by the burgeoning Indian independence movement.
In 1906, the massive jail was completed and served for 40 years as a venue for the suffering and degradation of the many political prisoners who were brought from the mainland to what was euphemistically known as Kālā Pānī (Dark Waters). The massive structure dominated the port and was built with each of its seven, three-storey wings radiating from a central tower and contained almost 700 solitary cells arranged in such a way that communication between prisoners was impossible.
The regime of harsh labour and mistreatment was a life sentence for the inmates with many either executed or dying from disease and malnourishment. Few ever saw their homeland again. Today it serves as a memorial and museum to the Indian independence movement.
Back to the jungle
Ross Island, which stands as verdant gate guard to the entrance of Port Blair and was for many years the administrative headquarters for the whole Andaman and Nicobar Island territory. It too began as a penal colony in 1858 and once held as many as 12,000 prisoners, mostly in appalling conditions. But the white overseers, their families and staff enjoyed almost resort-like facilities such as tennis courts, dance halls, swimming pools, open-air theatre and splendid gardens.
All this hedonism, however, only partially mitigated the ever-present misery of malaria, dysentery and typhoid.
Today Ross Island is slowly returning to the jungle. Creepers embrace the ruins while semi-wild deer roam the still manicured lawns once toiled over by the beleaguered prisoners. The imposing ruins of the Presbyterian Church still stand at the highest point of the island, affording expansive views all across the harbour and waiting, it would seem, to offer solace to the next wave of unfortunate souls.
In 2004, the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago was struck by the Boxing Day tsunami. Port Blair escaped major damage thanks to its sheltered location. Elsewhere, weird things happened. Many of the underwater reefs were destroyed, such as Staghorn Garden in the Cinque Islands south of Port Blair. Other islands were split and huge sandbars subsumed back into the sea.
Our visits among the islands include shore excursions, expertly conducted by expedition leader Louis Justin and his crack team, include bird watching, scuba diving, snorkelling, picnicking and cultural visits to museums and historic sites like the aforementioned Ross Island.
Much to my disappointment, we are not pelted with arrows by irate tribesmen or witness to gory jungle rituals, but rather we indulge in civilised exploration by motorised Zodiacs, air-conditioned coaches and are fed and tended to by staff whose only task is to make us comfortable and spoiled.
We might long for the romantic days of early exploration but – believe me – discovery by Silversea preserves the thrill of first contact yet soothes the pain of exertion in a way we can all quickly come to terms with.
Silversea offers creative cruises for adventurers.
The Andaman Sea is just one of the many exciting and remote destinations delivered by Silversea Expeditions and its fleet of three luxury expedition vessels. A fourth vessel, Silver Cloud, will be refurbished for expedition operations in 2017.
Silversea’s expedition ships Silver Explorer, Silver Galapagos, and Silver Discoverer, encompass itineraries spanning all seven continents and feature worldwide luxury cruises to the Mediterranean, Asia, both polar regions and over 700 fascinating destinations in between.
Ship: Silver Discoverer
Tonnage: 5218 tons
For more information, contact your travel professional or Silversea Cruises on (02) 9255 0600 or 1300 306 872 or visit silversea.com.
The writer was a guest of Silversea Expeditions.