Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Narcondam - “Pit of Hell”

The full version

Published in July 2010, Outlook Traveller

At daybreak, the ‘Pit of Hell’ emerged hazily from the horizon like a mirage. We had spent almost 24 hours fighting the wind across the Andaman Sea and for much of that time, totally out of sight of land. Four hours later, we reached the end of our almost 260 km voyage from Port Blair. We anchored off the north-eastern shore at Police Post Bay so-called for one of the remotest camps of any police force in the world. Inexplicably the ancient Portuguese called it “Barata (Cockroach) Bay”! It is also probably one of the few outposts that has no civilians in its precincts and consequently, an enviable nil crime rate. A group of paramilitary police of the Indian Reserve Battalion safeguard India’s claim to the most isolated island of the entire Andaman group. It seemed like a paid, policeman’s holiday but as we found out later, these brave-hearts marooned in the “pit of hell” were homesick and afraid of the wild jungle.

Police Post Bay

There was no idyllic sandy beach but the island had all the other hallmarks of an earthly paradise: a picturesque, densely forested hill looming 710 m out of the deep blue sea. So why the contrarian name: Narak-kund (Sanskrit for ‘pit of hell’)? Popular theory says that perhaps ancient Indian cartographers christened India’s only volcano (now drily and unimaginatively called Barren Island) as an infernal sink. But over time (as early as the year 1701), the larger, extinct volcano lying 150 km northeast of the rightful-owner of the name became known as Narcondam. It’s worth remarking that none of the other islands in the Andaman group were named by Indians. If a foolhardy crow was to fly from Port Blair to Rangoon (Burma), he’d spy verdant Narcondam along the way, about 114 km east of North Andaman.

A male Narcondam hornbill

About six months after the tsunami of 2004, Narcondam reportedly lived up to its name by spewing mud and smoke. This sudden activity in a volcano that last erupted more than 12,000 years ago ought to have made front page news (but didn’t). However, the news sang through the internet frequencies exciting volcano spotters around the world. Some speculated that the massive earthquake may have set off some magma movement under the tectonic plates. Eventually geologists at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, reported that it was a damp squib: clouds of dust caused by a landslide had given the impression of an eruption. This did little to convince the police personnel who were evacuated and the outpost abandoned for eighteen months. Nonetheless, there was still a shred of doubt: we wanted to be certain that India had only one active volcano.

For the following three days, we were to live aboard the 48 foot yacht, the Emerald Blue, and commute to shore in an inflatable dinghy. April, with its calm waves before the monsoonal currents set in, was one of the best months to land. Narcondam is a 1700 metre high, solitary oceanic mountain, of which more than 1000 metres lies below the surface of the sea. There were hardly any shallows and landing was tricky; the dinghy would have to surf onto a small ledge on the slope. Amongst the smooth round andesite boulders (of volcanic origin) bordering the shoreline, was a tiny little sandy beach with conveniently just enough space for all of us to make a quick jump into knee deep water before the next wave came crashing in.

Eight of us, with an interest in wildlife and wild places, were crammed on board the Emerald Blue for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While an extensive list of birds seen on Narcondam had been compiled by previous teams of birders, little was known about the rest of the animal and plant kingdom. Members of the team now hoped to add to that sparse information.

A recent birdwatchers’ newsletter had raised concerns about goats over-running the island. Since the 1500s it was a common mariners’ practice to drop off livestock such as goats, pigs, chickens and even giant tortoises on islands as nourishment for shipwrecked mariners. Indeed Alexander Selkirk, the prototype Robinson Crusoe, survived four years as a castaway on one of the Juan Fern├índez islands, off Chile on such feral goats. Narcondam was no exception: in 1899 A.O. Hume quoted Robert Tytler saying that “pigs, goats and fowls” had been released there. We don’t know if these were eaten up by unfortunate sailors or whether they eventually died out, but in 1976, the Indian Police brought two pairs of goats to keep their personnel stationed on the island well-stocked with animal protein. Perhaps the men got sick of eating mutton every day, because, by 1998, there were 400 of the voracious caprines rapidly eating their way through the native island vegetation.

Ornithologists lobbied for the removal of these animals, going so far as to argue that the island was being held together by tree roots and implying that should forest regeneration be adversely affected then not only the hornbill population but the whole island could collapse. Their worries were not misplaced, as one other iconic island bird, the dodo, was driven to extinction by introduced pigs, monkeys and carnivorous men a couple of centuries earlier on Mauritius. Although the Narcondam hornbill isn’t nearly as harried, the tiny size of its island home (7 severely handicaps its ability to survive any threat. So checking on the goats was high on our agenda.

A giant fig tree

Around the police camp were extensive coconut, banana and areca plantations (in 1916, this area was recognized by its groves of Burmese fishtail palms) and the place reeked of human feces. A yearling water monitor lizard and a gorgeous brilliant green Andaman day-gecko watched us from the safety of trees. Koel calls rang through the forest. In the absence of crows, whose nests would they parasitize? Pigeons, replied Divya Mudappa.

The force of the monsoonal stream had sliced through the embankments of a dry streambed as neatly as a knife through butter-fruit. The vertical walls of boulders were held in place by roots of trees. Still, a pipeline carrying water from a tiny perennial waterfall further upstream to the police camp had to be protected from rolling rocks dislodged by heavy rains and frequent earthquakes. Indeed in several locations, mangled lengths of pipes lay twisted and trapped under piles of debris.

The air was still and very humid; a hill myna high up in the canopy prattled away until silenced by the wild shrieking of a juvenile white-bellied sea eagle being mobbed by two pairs of squawking Narcondam hornbills. It was their nesting season, and predatory raptors were not welcome in the immediate air space. Further up the wash, the boulders below a huge tree were splattered with little brown scat-spots, telltale evidence of a nest directly above our heads. Soon the parents returned after seeing off the eagle, victoriously chuckling to one another. This was our first good look at this charismatic species: the father was a handsome honey-brown fellow while the female was an ordinary black. Since their enormous yellowish-red beaks were in the way, they had to tilt their heads comically sideways in order to see us. By counting the rings on the casque above the beak, we could tell the male was six years old. Disgusted by our presence, they took off screaming invectives.

Kalyan Varma urgently beckoned us over and pointed to a rusty brown bird lurking in the undergrowth. It was a slaty-legged crake, a species not recorded in the Andaman Islands before. Kalyan had been washing his face by the pool when he felt something pecking the Velcro on his footwear. It’s hard to tell whether the crake was mystified by the man or his Tevas. In an ironic situation for a photographer, the bird was much too close to his long lens for a picture!

The hornbills would have been similarly trusting of the first humans they had ever met. Indeed in 1898, the commanding officer of the ‘Elphinstone’, Lt. J.H. St. John, had observed that the birds were tame. But in the intervening century, they had been shot for museum specimens by visiting ornithologists as well as for the pot by the police force, so sadly the hornbills have become fearful of humans, just like any mainland animal. Not only the birds, St. John says even water monitors were as “tame as pet mice and one climbed into the lap of the Chief Commissioner’s niece and seemed to be quite at home.” Needless to say, these lizards were now scarce (apparently hunted by the resident humans) and the few big ones that we encountered went crashing into the undergrowth. The only trusting animals were the numerous skinks who investigated the falling crumbs from our mid-day snacks.

A young water monitor lizard

The forest undergrowth wilted in the heat, reflecting our state of being too. The resin (dhup) of the huge Canarium trees remained uncollected, unlike other islands where it is intensively harvested. At a tiny little beach, we spotted a hornbill chick in a nest hole high up on a tall, straight-boled Tetrameles tree. While the rest decided to get pictures of the parents feeding the little one, a couple of us set out for the lighthouse on the northwest tip of the island. It was a steep climb. The reward for climbing to the top was a spectacular view of Pigeon Island surrounded by an indigo blue sea.

Pigeon Island

Back at the boat, all of us jumped in the water to cool off after the long sweaty day. In the distance we could hear the hornbills squawking, there was a freshly caught snapper frying in the galley and we had the rare privilege of being in one of the most spectacular and isolated spots in the world. Narcondam, the hell-hole? No way! More appropriate would be Swargam, the heavenly abode! The only fine print is that the sun rises at an ungodly 5 am in this paradise (you can blame the westerly Indian Standard Time line).

Very early one morning, we set sail for the west coast. My main goal was to climb the summit, and we hoped to follow the detailed route mentioned in the latest edition (2009/2010) of the Southeast Asia Pilot (the Andaman section appears to have been written by two British nationals and it would be interesting to know how they got permission to go ashore). The estimated duration of ascent was three hours for the “reasonably fit and agile,” and descent was likely to take another two hours. It sounded like it could be done all in a day’s walk but much depended on our ability to land. That morning, the currents were strong and the waves crashed roughly over the rocky beach which was the designated starting point. Nick Band, the captain, made a quick reconnaissance and the prognosis was grim: landing there was a definite recipe for broken legs. Plan B was to attempt an ascent from the hornbill-nest beach on the north coast of Narcondam.

We managed to land but not without getting soaked by the turbulent waves. Within a few paces of starting up the hill slope, we were startled to see a trail. Goats? Rom Whitaker however, noticed the path leading into the roots of a tree. Any goat would have to be a midget to crawl into that tiny space; it could only have been a rat trail. The climb became steadily steeper and more difficult to negotiate with fallen rotting logs blocking the path. Marveling at the massive dhup trees that rose high and lofty as rockets and their fin-like buttresses provided a welcome break from the arduous climb. It was tempting to think that no human had climbed this ridge but in this increasingly explored world, one cannot say that with any certainty.

A giant dhup tree

Half way up a steep climb, an exhausted Rom copped out. He promised to wait but knowing him too well, he’d be off either looking for lizards in the luxuriant valley below or heading back to the beach. There was precious little by way of birds or animals on this climb to keep a bored human entertained. Neither were any hornbills visible nor the fig trees that sustained them. It became steeper and more slippery; dislodged rocks rolled perilously downhill barely missing people behind, and like gibbons we used our arms to take our weight as footholds couldn’t be trusted.

A cool breeze blowing gently off the sea invigorated our catch-our-breath stops. Four hours from the starting point, we reached the top of a 430 m hill, but the summit of Narcondam still towered over us. Several humans had left evidence of their presence here by gouging their names on trees; the culprits must have come from the police camp which was at the foot of the hill on the eastern side. To reach the tallest peak we would have to descend at least 100 m to a valley and then climb another 400 m. Shankar Raman declared, “It would just take 2000 paces to climb that hill”. It seemed so simple, but there wasn’t enough time to do it and camping up there was out of the question. The vegetation at the higher elevations looked denser than the deciduous forest we had just climbed and therefore the going would be slower. (The thickly forested summit also bore testament to the fact that Narcondam hadn’t recently aspired for active volcano-hood.) We could descend to the police camp directly, but we were committed to returning the way we came as we had left Rom behind.

After a half hour rest, our clothes were still wet with sweat, but we decided to make a move. I was also beginning to worry about Rom; I saw visions of him lying unconscious or in pain with a broken leg. The descent was even more slippery than the ascent. We tried to climb down gingerly without dislodging any rocks but a few did escape. Like lumberjacks, we hollered down to the people ahead, “Rock!” but with the slope being so steep there was little they could do to get out of the way in time. Fortunately the rocks missed them; but once, Naveen actually jumped up in the air acrobatically to avoid being hit by a tumbling boulder. Quickly we learnt to wait till the others were behind a tree before sliding down a tricky incline. I imagined that Rom was probably asleep under a tree way down below, unaware of the rocks we were dislodging and perhaps one would hit his head. My disquiet grew worse; I refused to let anyone take any breaks, and I set a punishing rhythm.

A couple of hours later, we arrived exhausted at the beach to find Rom fully stretched out having a snooze to the soothing rhythm of the crashing waves. Apparently he had tacked a note for us on the tree where we had parted, but since we couldn’t remember the spot and being in a hurry, we never saw it. (If any of you find it, please mail it to me.)

Back at the police camp, we chatted about life on the island. They complained about hordes of rats that destroyed everything. We had caught glimpses of the rodents scurrying around in the trees near the plantations. Could they have jumped ship and colonized the island? In 1893, Major David Prain noted that “a rat swarms everywhere” and was the commonest mammal on the island. A decade ago we had experienced a similar situation on South Sentinel Island, another remote island almost 400 km in a straight line to the southwest, so perhaps it was normal for such a high density of rats to live on these isolated islands. Or maybe some early ship seeded these islands with rats as a surer food source than goats and pigs! Of goats, we had seen nary a sign; no pellets or tracks. Thankfully, besides a pair seen by a few police personnel just the previous week, an almost thorough removal had been executed.

On our last night we feasted on king mackerel seviche. Rom bemoaned that he hadn’t been able to see Narcondam’s only recorded snake, the paradise flying snake, a species found in Southeast Asia, but only on this island in Indian Territory.

Next stop was Manta Bay (nicknamed ‘Silly Manta’ after the description of the place read “silly numbers of mantas” in the Southeast Asia Pilot). As we pulled in, a medium-sized black manta swam below the surface. Excited, all of us jumped into the water, a couple with scuba and other with snorkels. Disappointingly, no other mantas were seen.

The Emerald Blue

Just past noon, with three sails hoisted and a strong wind behind us, we set course for Port Blair. Nick cut the engine, unfurled the two additional sails and silently, except for the sound of the yacht knifing through the waves, we sailed the old fashioned way. On a couple of occasions, we had to change direction to avoid colliding with oil tankers and cargo ships. From the early days of shipping, the distinctive profile of Narcondam has been a navigation aid, and even today this area appears to be a busy shipping corridor. As the island disappeared over the horizon, the nagging thought of not having reached the summit had me making plans for a return. That would entail the gauntlet of getting permits again. The devil in my head suggested: to hell with them, go on a fishing/diving trip and then find an excuse to climb the hill. Apparently by their very nature, the Gardens of Eden lead humans astray!