Trans-Island Odyssey

It has come to our attention that the Indian government has recently been turning a blind eye to “human safaris” in which tourists are illegally visiting (or should I say harassing) the Jarawa. ContemporaryNomad.com does NOT encourage any form of visit to the Jarawa and we STRONGLY support the ban on travel to the Andamans until such issues have been resolved. Visit Survival International for information on the Jarawa and their struggle. We emphasize that our encounter with the Jarawa took place during the crossing of a collapsed bridge in 2009 before these organized safaris began.

Our trip from North Andaman to South Andaman could have been so simple: an overnight ferry from Diglipur back to Port Blair. So how the hell did we end up in a Jeep racing against time, having a midnight run-in with angry wild elephants, walking in the Jarawa tribal reserve (highly illegal), and camping on a filthy sidewalk? Well, that’s a typical day in India, but let me start from the beginning.

Our original plan had actually been to take the bus down the main island group – North, Middle, and South Andaman – which is connected by bridges, ferries, and the famous and highly controversial Trunk Road leading right through the Jarawa tribal reserve. We were willing to undertake this long bumpy trip in the hopes of possibly catching a glimpse of Jarawa people who occasionally can be seen in the forest along the road or, if you are lucky, even crossing the road. It was a long shot – but there was a chance. At least until a bridge collapsed in the reserve and all bus services leaving North Andaman stopped. Major bummer!

Most travelers stranded in North Andaman didn’t worry too much about the Jarawa, they had more pressing matters on their minds – a scheduled flight back to mainland India, for example. At the time, we were traveling in a group of five. The German couple Petra and Dirk from Munich had four days, Tony and I three, but Al from England had only a couple of days before his flight. Needless to say, all of us wanted to get back to Port Blair quickly, and we collectively decided to take the next overnight ferry.

Of course, the ferry ticket business was a story in itself – a story of intimidation. The space in front of the three ticket windows – one for women, one for senior citizens, and one for the rest of us – was caged in. At 9:18 AM the door into the cage was thrown open (18 minutes late) and people pushed in filling the barred cell within seconds. Everyone elbowed and clawed their way towards the windows, leaving the old and frail behind especially since the window for seniors never opened. Experience in Havelock had taught us how to scream, elbow, and link arms to defend our space. Imagine a game of Red Rover with the prize being ferry tickets. This time, the whole ordeal “only” lasted three hours. Lucky us!

When we got to the jetty the next day at 7 PM, Al had exactly 20 hours until his flight, with a comfortable 6-hour gap between the ferry landing in Port Blair and takeoff. But something was not quite right. The port seemed strangely deserted. “Ferry canceled,” a security guard called in our direction, “next one maybe tomorrow.” Al almost fainted. That was it, there was no way he was going to make it. Or was there?

There was one last option. We quickly regrouped and discussed the possibility of hiring a jeep. Going all the way to Port Blair was impossible because of the broken bridge, however we could hire a jeep for $60 to take us half way down the island chain to Rangat on Middle Andaman. Rumor had it that buses were restarting the following day carrying passengers to the broken bridge where they could cross the river on foot and then continue on in a second bus that would be waiting on the other side. In order to still make his flight, Al would have to reach Rangat by 5 AM. “No problem,” our prospective jeep driver told us promising to get to Rangat by 1 AM. Come on, what else could possibly go wrong?

Everything went fine for the first few hours, but we started to notice our driver and his ride-along friend eyeing the jungle and chatting nervously in Bengali with the English word elephant clearly heard every few seconds. It quickly became obvious that our 21-year old driver was growing more and more nervous. He suddenly seemed more like a very small child on the lookout for monsters. After some pushing on our side, he told us, elephants had crushed cars in the past, and that an especially angry elephant had attacked a bus the night before. Not good news.

Al, Petra and Dirk, however, thought it very exciting to get thrown into a safari for no extra cost obviously blind to the danger elephants can pose. Tony and I on the other hand had had our own run-ins with unhabituated wild elephants before – they can be quite dangerous. In addition, just days before, an Indian biologist had graphically described seeing a wild elephant dismember a man in front of him, and these horrific descriptions were still fresh in our memories.

So with that in mind, we reluctantly pressed forward.

After about 20 minutes, the driver suddenly screamed, “Elephant!” and slammed on the brakes. We all stared off into the forest – we could see nothing. Nearly hysterical, he did a 3-point turn and off we sped into the dark from where we had just come. None of us had seen anything, and as I was wondering if it was all in his mind, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned my head, two more elephants broke through the edge of the forest missing us by only a few feet. Damn!

Everyone was wide awake, heart pumping as we scanned the road illuminated only by our headlights. When the driver finally stopped the car, we were outside a ranger hut. While the driver went off to look for help, we stayed in the car with the headlights on, our eyes darting all around. Then Petra and Dirk couldn’t take it anymore – they needed a cigarette and crawled out of the car. The rest of us reluctantly followed not quite sure how safe it was out there. At least, in the open, we could jump, run and roll if need be.

Then our driver came back with bad news. No ranger in the station and no cell phone reception. We were left to devise our own plan which, at first, was to wait and hope the elephants would move on. By 1 AM, after an hour of waiting, Al was pushing the driver to try it again. It was getting late and because Al needed to catch the 5 AM bus, he was determined not to be stopped by a bunch of unruly elephants. That didn’t comfort me.

I had a big knot in my stomach and refused to go on, when someone came up with the “perfect” solution. Take a bamboo stick, wrap an old shirt around one end, dip it in petrol and light it on fire. A torch, are you kidding me? Actually, the end result looked more like a flaming lance. Were we going to joust with wild elephants? I gasped. Clearly, they had seen too many B-grade movies. I went off, “This is insanity, it’s like a bad Jurassic Park sequel. We’ll never make it.” But to no avail. Tony and I were overruled.

Just as they were discussing whether Al should walk ahead of the car, sit on the hood, or just hold the burning torch out the window, we heard the distant rumbling of an engine. Something big, and non-organic, was coming our way.

“Quick, into the car!” the driver yelled. Exhausted and too tired to question him, we all got in. When Al was told to let go of the torch, and with it all his fantasies of fighting our way to freedom, you could see the disappointment in his face (and the relief in mine). We all sat in the jeep and waited for the coming vehicles.

At last, two dump trucks approached at high speed, and as soon as they passed, we pulled out and took the tail position in the short convoy. Nobody said anything, or breathed for that matter, as we sped on close enough to the truck in front of us to touch it. My mind went in circles. I imagined elephants running out of the forest at any moment and knocking over our car. Then they would sit on it crushing our bodies into the muddy ground, stopping once in a while to sniff the air. It could happen – am I the only person who has seen Jurassic Park? There is an important message in those movies: don’t mess with animals that can crush your car.

And, suddenly, there they were.

Four massive elephants lit up by three sets of headlights standing by the side of the road. While three of the smaller giants took a step back, the biggest one turned angrily toward us, flapped its ears, lifted its trunk and trumpeted threateningly. I was terrified and, I’ve got to admit, excited at the same time. Would it come forward and crush us like a bug, or would it take pity on us? There was no time to contemplate the question, and, within seconds, we had wiggled by the herd without being flattened. Looking back through the rear window and seeing the elephants dissolve in the dark, I started breathing again, but I was far from relaxed. And neither was our driver.

Bug-eyed and high on adrenaline, he flew along the curved road until we were out of the forest. We stopped in the next village to calm down, which meant more cigarettes for some, cookies and coke for others. Appropriate satisfaction for each addiction. After a short exchange of I-can’t-believe-its, that-was-amazings or we’re-still-alives, we continued on and got to Rangat by 2:30 AM still in time to catch the early morning bus.

We had over two hours to kill and wanted to take a little nap. Unwilling to leave the bus stop for fear of missing the 5AM bus, Petra and Dirk crawled back into the Jeep to snooze while Al, Tony and I decided to set up camp on the sidewalk of the small town which was quiet and deserted apart from some cows and dogs roaming the streets. Eeww! Is there anything worse than sleeping on an Indian sidewalk?! (Come to think of it, I could probably list some). Anyway, as soon as we got comfortable on our sarongs, which protected us from the crust of filth below, something started bugging us – mosquitoes! But Tony and I are inventive, we set up the tripod between us using it to hold up our beloved mosquito net. Safe from the devilish pests, we went to sleep protectively hugging our daypacks tightly.

When we opened our eyes a couple of hours later, we were surrounded by Indians staring down at us curiously. I must admit, if I had seen something like that in the small town in Germany where I grew up, I would have been standing around curiously gawking too. Oh well, we are used to being stared at, so we just stretched, waved hello and packed up to get ready for the next leg of our trip.

When the 5 AM bus hadn’t arrived by 5:30, Al’s hope of catching his plane started to dwindle once again. Then, Petra noticed a guy selling what looked like tickets from behind his motorcycle across the road where we had been sleeping. A lucky stroke. We hurried over only to be told “No tickets, bus full,” as the guy was handing over the last bus tickets to an Indian couple. “Pleeeeeease!” Al started, “I need to catch my flight this afternoon.” And so the pleading and begging began. After several minutes of this exchange “Please I need a ticket – no, not possible,” the ticket guy got tired of the pestering foreigner and sold him a “standing room only” ticket for the 6-hour bus ride. A huge smile appeared on Al’s face which got even bigger when the bus suddenly came around the corner.

The plan was to let Al go ahead and then take a later bus, whenever that would be. But as soon as the bus stopped, we all threw our backpacks on top, tied them up and pushed our way inside following Al who was already inside. It all happened so quickly. I’m not sure why we didn’t stick to the plan – I guess we wanted to see how this would all play out.

Desperate to stay on the bus, Tony and I scrambled for a couple of empty seats – a gutsy move for which we were duly rewarded. We fully expected to be thrown off but the conductor sold us tickets with no questions asked (except maybe “Who the hell was the guy outside telling us the bus was full?”).

Now that we all made it on the bus, we actually believed Al had a realistic chance. The whole time leading up to this point, we thought he wasn’t going to make his flight but, nonetheless, we tried to stay positive. “Sure, you’ll make it, no problem.” Then we would turn around and mouth, “So sad.” Finally, everything looked good. But, of course, doubts always remain. On a 6-hour bus ride, too many things can happen. Would there be other obstacles?

Of course there were – and the biggest obstacle of all was the limited time.

It was slow going on the broken-up pavement, and every stop to pick up or drop off passengers by the side of the road slowed us down even more. And there were a lot of those stops. Then came the two ferry crossings from Middle Andaman onto Bharatang Island and from there onto South Andaman. Once at the ferry stop, everybody had to get out of the bus, get onto the ferry and press up alongside the railing to make space as the oversized vehicle rolled up the planks on board.

After crossing the second inlet something odd happened, an armed guard got on board and positioned himself at the front of the bus. I was studying his prehistoric wooden rifle wondering what the hell was going on when we passed a sign declaring that we were entering the Jarawa tribal reserve. The armed guard was on board to protect us from the Jarawa who have, on occasion, attacked outsiders. Our Lonely Planet guide makes the cynical but rather appropriate comment that the guard also serves to protect the Jarawa from mainland Indian tourists who have been known to taunt the Jarawa by making obnoxious monkey noises if the bus should happen to encounter them along the road.

And so, guard on board, we drove into the reserve. Tall, dense, beautifully intact jungle with tree-like ferns and towering trunks surrounded us. We stared out the windows, scanning the forest for one of the Andamans’ most traditional tribes.

Having seen little traffic on the road, we noticed a growing commotion as we approached the broken bridge which had caused all bus services to stop earlier in the week. The metal bridge had collapsed into the stream below and was now being cleared by a big yellow bulldozer. As we rolled to a stop, we immediately noticed a Jarawa tribal woman standing on the edge of the forest curiously watching the huge metal beast. We were so excited, we couldn’t help but stare at her.

Topless, short curved knife in hand, wicker basket on her back and clad only in a skirt made from strings of red beads or seeds, the Jarawa woman suddenly noticed us – foreigners. She reacted as though she were seeing a ghost, perhaps she though that’s what we were. As we were piling out of the bus to cross the river, she ran into the jungle hiding behind a thin veil of bamboo. There, half hidden from view, she continued watching us. All we could see were terrified yet curious eyes staring back at us. Equally curious yet recognizing her fear, we all stood in place awkwardly staring in her direction realizing this was an extraordinary opportunity to see a member of one the most traditional tribes left in the world.

Tony climbed up on to the bus to hand down our backpacks. While Tony was on top of the bus untying and laboriously handing them down, I kept scanning the area for other tribespeople. But whoever was there blended in perfectly with the dense forest. In a loud whisper, Tony yelled down that two other women were hiding further down the incline behind some bushes. (Tony is so lucky that I made him get the luggage.) We didn’t have much time to explore because everyone from the bus had already crossed the rather precarious impromptu footbridge to the other side, eager to take the last seat on the second bus waiting for us. Fortunately, it wasn’t the last we saw of the Jarawa.

As we continued our bus journey through the reserve, we struggled to keep our eyes open, totally exhausted from the night before. The warm wind coming through the pane-less windows didn’t help and lulled me into an even deeper unconsciousness – until Tony snapped me out of it. “Get your head under control,” he yelled, “it’s flying around like a cannonball! Jesus, how can you fall asleep in a reserve full of incredibly cool tribal people?” So I shook myself awake just in time to catch a glimpse of another Jarawa woman who was standing deeper in the forest watching the bus go by. Amazing! Wow, how lucky were we to have had an armed guard on board, these women could have killed us with shyness (well, we didn’t see any of the Jarawa men – maybe they are the real warriors).

It was smooth sailing from the edge of the Jarawa reserve to Port Blair. 17 hours after our odyssey began, we rolled into town with a huge sigh of relief, especially from Al’s corner. That was a hell of a trip! But everyone was happy. We had a crazy encounter with wild elephants, we had the extraordinary opportunity to see several Jarawa people, and Al made his flight back to mainland India. Gee, how boring would a regular ferry ride have been back to South Andaman? Once again, the tough road proved best.

Read our post about the Jarawa and the Grand Trunk Road here. It explains more about this road passing through sensitive tribal land.

3 responses to “Trans-Island Odyssey”

  1. avatar greeneyes says:

    Great Balls of fire!!!

    I’m exhausted just thinking about this experience.

    Think I’ll go take a nap.

  2. avatar laurelle says:

    Thank you for taking us along on your journey.

    I want to include a link to the website for Survival International, an organization dedicated to protecting native peoples around the world. They have several pages on the Andaman tribal people, and the videos are well worth watching, especially a 14-minute video called “The Tribes of the Andamans”.

  3. avatar carrieannmarco says:

    And the first few lyrics to the song, I Will Survive are now in my head! You two rock! xoxo

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