One of the highlights of our visit to the Andaman Islands was hiring a car and driver and exploring the interior, travelling north on the only road to traverse between South, Middle and North Andaman Islands, with ferries to connect between the islands.
Because the “highway” goes through land reserved for one of the five native tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, vehicles have to travel in a convoy, are not allowed to stop under any circumstances and are absolutely forbidden to take photographs.
Bleary eyed, armed with a picnic of tandoori chicken, dhals and roti, we set off in the dark and cool air of the early morning.
Nothing had prepared us for the number of vehicles that were queued up and ready to travel through the wild forested area of South Andaman Island. Each one had to be checked, number of passengers noted and in our case, being the only non-Indians, papers – passport, visa, special permit to visit restricted areas – examined and copies taken.
Intriguingly, four of the tribes in the Andaman Islands are negroid in appearance – looking more like African tribespeople than of Indian, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Indonesian or Thai origin. The tribes fiercely protect their land and mostly live as hunter gatherers. The Jarawas, the Great Andamanese, the Ongas and the Sentinelese are all classified as particularly vulnerable.
During our trip along the Andaman Trunk Road, we would be travelling through the land of the Jarawa people whose tribal reserve measures 1928 Square Kilometres spread over South and Middle Andaman Islands. There are only 418 Jarawas on the reserve.
Once feared for their hostile attacks, the Jarawa groups we saw appeared to be pleased to see us. One wonders if their isolation is self imposed or whether they are forbidden to cross the reserve borders by the government. It was hard to tell.
At the convoy checkpoint makeshift stalls were set up selling fragrantly scented hot chai, vegetable pakoras cooked in vats of hot oil and stodgy doughnut rings which even the hordes of dogs playing around the parked cars, trucks and buses refused to eat.
As the day fully dawned we were off – 78 cars and 23 buses and trucks set off, rumbling through the silent and majestic forest. Soon, as the convoy spread out, and we couldn’t see the car in front any longer, we had forgotten we were travelling with hundreds of other people. The air was cool and sweet and high up in the trees unknown and unseen birds warbled and called as we bumped along, avoiding the worst of the potholes where possible.
The towering trees were magnificent and many were covered in strangler vines and creepers – some with several varieties all intertwining together.
We began to travel through the Jarawa tribal land, and the soft smell of breakfast fires began to drift through the trees. Travelling round a bend in the road we came across a group of women and girls who looked as if they were off on a foraging expedition. They called a greeting out to us which sounded like an approximation of “hello” but it could just as easily have been “clear off” in Jarawa!
Further along we met an old man with a bow and a spear and a bit later as we slowly crossed a rickety bridge, three young men wearing coloured headbands stood, staring curiously into our eyes as we slowed to cross the creek. They probably rarely see white people so we must have been of particular interest.
Later on we saw more young men walking along the road but we went by too quickly to take their presence in. I am sure they are as curious about us as we are of them and when possible come up the road to see the cars and buses full of people travelling along the highway.
Eventually we came to the ferry crossing between South Andaman and Middle Andaman Islands and were rather baffled when it appeared that the car we were travelling in was parked, along with most of the other vehicles in the convoy.
We soon realised that this was as far as we were being driven and that we now had to get a move on and get in the ferry.
As we joined the press of people and entered the loaded boat which was filled with chattering hoards it occurred to me that we could be walking into one of those headlines you read from the comfort of your armchair on a Sunday morning: “Overloaded ferry in remote Indian territory capsizes, 325 people lost, four Australian tourists missing,”.
The short ride across the strait was uncomfortable but fine and soon we were being pushed and manhandled off the ferry, carried along by a mass of humanity – a group of women on the way to or from a wedding, solicitously caring for the bride, variously touching her, petting her and guiding her through the crowd; villagers returning home from the “big smoke” of Port Blair; many more were Indian tourists, keen to get off first to be at the head of the queue for the motor boat hire to get to the Limestone Caves.
After some waiting around, more examination of papers and negotiations to join a boat which each took, typically, around 10 people, we were on our way down the Homfrey Strait, the place where a week previously we had visited, (maybe somewhat out of order) on Quintessa, and where we had been stopped by a police boat.
This time with permits in hand, we joined twenty or so boats to travel down the strait for about 25 minutes until we came to a timber jetty at the end of a boardwalk.
For more about the Limestone Caves and the rest of our trunk road trip go to
Or go to my previous blog update at: