Monday, December 12, 2005

A Journey to the Edge of the World

Published in Outlook Traveller Oct 2005 as "Andamans: Desert Island Days"

“Let’s go take a close look at that crocodile,” Neel suggested and Harry and I agreed gamely. We were at the Wandoor jetty, South Andaman watching a seven-foot salt-water crocodile swimming sedately in a narrow channel between Alexandra Island and us. Neel revved the zippy inflatable boat straight towards the croc. Harry and I thought he was giving us an adrenalin rush and we were determined not to react. When it seemed that we were imminently going to land on top of the crocodile I began squeaking incoherently. But it was too late. The astonished saltie (not a savory but the affectionate name by which croc specialists call the salt-water crocodile) dived underwater as we zoomed up to where his head had been. “What are you doing?” I spluttered. “What if the croc had bitten through the boat?” He couldn’t believe a croc would do that. He had obviously not read those infamous tales of salties biting propellers and outboard motors in Australia. The Andaman saltie hadn’t either, so why was I getting worked up about it, Neel asked. I made a mental note to lend him my book of croc attacks for bedtime reading when we got back home. That should enlighten him, I decided, but it would have to wait. We were preparing for an expedition to South Sentinel Island, a tiny uninhabited island near Little Andaman Island and this near-disaster was the first field test of the rubber boat before we packed it.

The daylight trip would take us to the island at low tide when it would be too shallow to pull up the long massive dugout canoes, Rom had declared after peering for a long time at the Bay of Bengal pilot book. So the plan was to anchor offshore and use the rubber boat to ferry the gear and people to land. Harry, Neel and I had spent the day stocking rations, organizing barrels to carry fresh water (there was no fresh water on the island), diesel for the two motors and petrol for the generator to charge batteries. Harry had just single-handedly managed to obtain permits after two months of running around and there was no time to lose.

South Sentinel is one of the two outlying islands west of the Andaman chain. If you are looking at a map, the little dot way off the west coast of Little Andaman is the island we were headed for.

That night while we sat on the wooden deck of the kitchen, swatting mosquitoes and sipping whisky, I overhead Neel deep in conversation with Saw Pawng (whom everyone called Uncle), our 80 year old chief of the boat crew. Uncle was appalled to hear that the world was round and not flat. Splendid! Here was our boat captain who thinks he might fall off the face of the world if he kept going straight on. I hurriedly bid everyone goodnight before Neel began bringing Uncle up to speed on the scientific developments of the last two centuries. What Uncle didn’t know hadn’t hurt him and what I didn’t know that Uncle didn’t know, couldn’t hurt me.

Rom arrived the next day. After reviewing the food, water, fuel, gear and people, Rom had to ask Neel to stay. “You drink too much water, man,” he tried to explain to his dejected brother. Through the day Neel guzzled as much water as his high metabolism sweated out. But having swung into the spirit of adventure, to be grounded must have been disappointing.

While packing the two canoes with everyone’s bags, rations, and equipment, Uncle was muttering something about the world being flat. Oh, how I wish Neel had not gotten this bee into Uncle’s bonnet! Once everything was strapped in place Uncle shouted “Chaabo!” (Let’s go!), the Karen call to adventure. “Remember the world is round, Uncle!” shouted Neel with a wink and a wave. I glared darkly at Neel while Uncle hesitantly brought his hand up to wave and I swore I was going to give him the goriest croc attack book on earth. With pictures of body parts.

Along with us five mainlanders were six Karen. The Karen were brought over from Burma by the British in the 1920s to work in the islands. Two of them were in charge of each canoe – one operated the motor and the other bailed out water that seeped in. Traditionally the Karen rowed and poled their way around the islands until one day an enterprising Karen did something ingenious – by patching together a regular 8 hp Kirloskar water pump motor, a length of pipe and a propeller, he had a motor boat. Overnight the motorized dugout canoe became the most efficient vehicle on the waters of the Andaman Sea. Before we teamed up with the Karen, we used fiberglass and trawler boats but if something went wrong (and it always does) in the high seas, there was no one to call. Even on dry land, it was pretty hard to find a resourceful mechanic to fix the problem. But with the dugout canoes, the Karen could pretty much strip the pump down and put it back together with the efficiency of a drill sergeant.

The thoughtful Karen had built a tarpaulin shade for us wimpy mainlanders. If it were not for this shade, we would have all begun shedding our skins in a couple of days from sunburn. As we sat cooped up inside hiding from the blistering sun, the Karen were having the time of their lives. These normally taciturn guys became lively and agile when their canoes skimmed the waters, the sun beat down on their bronze weather-beaten skins and the wind whipped their straight hair away from their faces. Schwete, the most reserved of the Karen, transformed into an exuberant whooping cowboy. With the two canoes racing at full speed nose to nose, Schwete nimbly jumped from one boat to the other to pass the thermos of tea. Just when I thought, “Phew! Did you see that?” he stood straddling the two boats, a foot on each canoe, as they knifed side by side through the azure blue waters. If you thought Kevin Costner was cool in ‘Water World’ you should have seen this kid!

Five hours later, with the sun directly overhead we lost sight of land; we were out in the high seas with no landmark, no stars, nothing to indicate which was north or south. Neither Uncle nor Saw Pamwe (the other boat captain) had a watch, compass or any technological gizmo to consult. Had somebody brought a compass? The thought hadn’t occurred to anyone. I knew we were heading southwest, but the crux of the issue was what degree southwest were we? If we went too south-westerly we would zip between North Sentinel and South Sentinel islands without catching sight of either and make landfall in Sri Lanka or worse, Madagascar. Uncle just bit into his beedi and puffed, his eyes fixed on some imaginary spot on the horizon. Was he going to take us to South Sentinel or to confirm that the earth was flat? There, out in the middle of nowhere, without the familiar profile of land anywhere, I began to question the sanity of this enterprise. The heat and humidity clogged my brain and soon I was asleep.

I woke up gasping for fresh air; the foul fumes of exhaust filled my lungs. We were chugging slowly and I looked around for an explanation. We had arrived. South Sentinel looked like an island should – waves beating on the sand with the calm rhythm of the world’s heartbeat, the white coral sand, the cool green of the forest beyond. The only thing that spoilt the picture was a lighthouse that stuck out like a middle finger above the forest. The engine finally went dead and we anchored. It was about 3 pm. The inflatable boat was pressed into service and the long process of unloading began. It was well past dusk when we finished. The once pristine beach was pulped and churned by human footprints. There had been a water monitor track on the beach when we had first arrived but it was quickly obliterated.

In the meantime camp was being made. While dinner of rice and dal was cooking, we bathed in the sea and used one mug of fresh water to rinse off before toweling dry. Sitting around the campfire, eating the most delicious dinner, watching the phosphorescent waves gleaming in the dark and smelling of insect repellent in the air was enough to make anyone sigh contentedly.

We woke up early the next morning to see enormous tractor tracks up and down the beach – nesting green sea turtle tracks. High above us a pair of white-bellied sea eagles wheeled over the island, like guardian angels. After a quick breakfast, everyone kitted up and set off for a walk into the island. It’s a tiny island, only 161 ha. Along the forest edge the sand moved with millions of hermit crabs of varying shapes and sizes and the much larger land crabs of different colours from brown, orange to yellow. Tall pandanus trees shielded the forest from the strong winds blowing off the ocean. The further inland we went, the taller the trees rose. The soil was sandy and several trees had keeled over. We found pieces of broken coral, seashells and other relics of a time long ago when this island was merely a patch of ocean bed.

Smack in the middle of the island was a large circular clearing with an island of beautiful palms and tiger ferns. It looked as if someone had manicured it to make it look just right. We soon found out why the area was clear – it was a tidal swamp. When the tide came in, seawater seeped up from underground and filled the clearing. When the tide went out, the pond drained to become a clearing once again. We found several enormous coconut crabs, the largest land crab in the world, milling about in the clearing. While we stood there silently taking in the vision, I felt something tickle my ankle. It was a coconut crab checking me out, its antennae quivered with unfamiliarity. Schwete tactfully grabbed the crab behind and held it up for me to take a good look. These purplish 10-legged creatures probably have seen so few humans that they were curious.

After dinner I read my notes on the coconut crab. It is eaten as a delicacy throughout its range – islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But no Indian has developed a taste for it yet and it seemed to be thriving here. It grows to a phenomenal two feet in length, and weighs as much as four kilograms. It is known to climb coconut trees, chop the fruits letting them fall down, walk head first to the ground and hack through the fruit with its pincers to get to the tender flesh inside; but not always in that order. The most far-out thing about these crabs is this - their breathing organ is a cross between gills and lungs and it can breathe only when the organ is wet with seawater. So a pair of legs is totally dedicated to keeping this organ clean and moist. The notes also said that if you wanted to see these crabs during daytime on Christmas Island or any of the other islands of the Pacific Ocean, you had to dig them out from burrows. Obviously whoever wrote the paper hadn’t been on South Sentinel. Here, they come over to nibble at you curiously in broad daylight!

In the morning Harry hauled out a massive wooden chest. Were we going to play ‘treasure island’? Harry replied it was for keeping coconut crabs. The Port Blair zoo wanted us to bring them a pair of the crabs. Wasn’t it overkill? Harry replied, “The box has to be strong. Otherwise, the crabs will rip their way through.” I pursed my lips and considered the chest. It seemed unlikely any living creature could get out of there – it was solid. I mean, REALLY solid. It took four people to haul the chest and we headed off into the jungle.

Rom caught the first coconut crab and tried to put it into the wooden chest. By the time he got done, his hands was gouged and scratched by its sharp claw-like legs. We searched long and hard and could find no more signs of the water monitor lizards. This was a big disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing the lizards foraging in the coral reef at low tide as Harry had described it. Back at the camp we tried to feed the crab the contents of a chicken egg. It ate some but got distracted and tried to crawl into the camera lens instead. “It’s spooked,” said Rom. To me, it seemed hungry for media attention. While I was playing with the crab, a team headed off into the jungle to continue the hunt for monitor lizards. I went to get something more interesting for the crab and found some dried salted fish. I rinsed off the salt and returned to the crab only to see that it had completely mangled the steel tumbler I had been drinking tea from. I shuddered at the thought of what it could have done to my Achilles tendon on our first meeting. I promptly decided to return him to his box – a job easier said than done.

The team came back with the news that they had sighted about 14 lizards in a wet marshy area but they acted skittish, dashing off in a split instant. We began wondering what could have caused this nervousness – the lighthouse builders, poachers? We decided to visit this marsh again the next day.

We approached as silently as we could. No lizards. It was to be expected but still very disappointing. Rom had an idea that if we constructed a hide near the marsh and waited quietly, we might see some lizards. So the Karen set to work and I volunteered to stay in the hide. Coconut crabs and land crabs scurried busily all around me in the dry leaf litter. White-eyes flitted close by. Parakeets filled the air with their raucous cries. I waited and watched but nothing exciting happened - unless you count a coy pigeon making a sorry example of a nest exciting. Perhaps the lizards were still edgy from yesterday. It’s amazing how tired and hungry one gets sitting immobile in a hide.

Within a few days, we were low on water and Uncle had to go to Little Andaman’s Bumila Creek to get more water. The sea had been getting rougher everyday and he had a hard time getting into his canoe; two of the younger Karen boys had to hoist him up. Just then Harry discovered that the captive coconut crab had escaped. I thought he was kidding – that box was a little Fort Knox. But it was true, the crab had pried the edge of the chest apart fibre by fibre and had made a hole big enough to escape. That was the end of that idea.

One morning I climbed up the lighthouse to get an “aerial” view of the island. A series of metal ladders welded to the metal structure shook in the strong wind. Even as I was climbing to the treetop level, my knees were trembling and I forced myself not to look down. But once I surfaced onto the platform atop the structure the magnitude of the view took my breath away. Even as I was trying to figure out the various features of the island sprawled around below me, something white in the sea caught my attention. It was an albino green sea turtle. Knowing fully well that none would believe me, I managed to get a rather shaky video shot of it to be produced with flourish later. A few months later, we were to discover that white green sea turtles were not a rarity at all. They come up with fair regularity on the Sri Lankan coasts and a couple of sea turtle hatcheries there maintained a few in captivity. But nevertheless, it was exciting at that moment to witness a living specimen of aberrant nature. “What a fantastic place!” I wrote mundanely in my journal at a typical loss for words.

Towards evening we began to get worried. There was no sign of Uncle and the Karen who had gone to fetch water. They were supposed to have been back by afternoon and we were down to the last bucket of water. Although we weren’t extravagant with the water, we cut down our consumption further, drinking a sip only when we had to. But we decided to wait one more night before getting worked up about it.

We lazed in the shade of the camp, not wanting to work ourselves into a sweat when we were low on water. The sea eagles resumed their vigil over the island, their lonely calls piercing the air. It was mid-morning when the canoes came into view as they rounded the limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the island. A collective sigh of relief went up. The river mouth in Little Andaman had been pummeled by tall waves, Uncle said, and they had risked being drowned when they attempted to get out into the sea. The boys apparently hadn’t want to leave in such choppy waters but Uncle knew we would be really low on water and was determined to make it. As we sat on fallen logs hungrily eating fried fish, a school of dolphins came bounding like a lot of marine puppies. They had hemmed a school of fish against the shore. This was the life – good food, pristine beach (well, almost), good sleep under the purest skies and lots of fresh water. That’s when I heard Uncle talking to Uncle Pamwe in Karen. I couldn’t understand their language but I knew instantly what they were talking about. Uncle’s hands were saying something like “Did you know that the earth is round?” I smiled. Uncle may not know these larger facts of life but he sure as hell knew where every speck of island, inhabited or uninhabited, was around these parts and that is all that mattered.

At sunset one evening, Johnny went diving under the surf and came up to present me a big gorgeous live cowrie. I was touched but tried to tell him gently that I don’t like to take live animals. I felt bad rejecting his present – he was only trying to give me a gift in return for the cap I had given him earlier.

The next day we headed back to Wandoor. The sea was calm and the canoes could be brought ashore. This made loading so much easier and quicker. Within half an hour almost everything was on board. After ten days on the island, I looked forward to a clean bath but I was also sad that we were leaving. We skirted North Sentinel and the sharp eyes of Uncle spotted a couple of Sentinelese on the beach. Dolphins raced alongside us until they got bored – our boats were too slow for the speeds they were accustomed to. It was dark by the time we dropped anchor at Wandoor. We discovered Neel had in the meantime vacationed on Havelock Island so he couldn’t guilt-trip us. After all these days of washing in the sea, my hairbrush was thick with greasy dirt and my hair was limp and sticky. I got most of the gritty fine sand out of my hair that evening and cherished the privacy of a room for the first time in a long time.

After dinner when Neel got started off on how the earth revolves around the sun all of us burst out laughing. Uncle looked puzzled for a moment and he laughed too. He had been right all along – Neel had just been pulling his leg.

Epilogue: Schwete died tragically of cerebral malaria after a trip to the Nicobars at the age of 21. The tsunami pushed the island up about a metre out of the sea but the beach we camped on is underwater while the inter-tidal pools are now permanently exposed. No one knows yet if the coconut crab population was affected. If the accretion of beach on other islands is anything to go by, a beach may soon start forming on South Sentinel again. Someone should make the trip out there and check it out.


Nami said...


read ur blog u travelled to south sentinal island.can u just tell me whre did u started the journey frm and r thr any inhabitants thr? wat time it takes? wat route did u take?

Janaki Lenin said...

As the article says from Wandoor to South Sentinel. And as it also says, the island is uninhabited, meaning there are no people. In Jan/Feb. It's pretty much a straight line route across the ocean; there are no roads!