Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lost In The Andamans: Arre Waah, Jarawa! (Ch 7/8)

On my list of absolute must dos in Andaman, is a drive through the Jarawa reserve forest, and a visit to the Limestone Caves of Baratang.

Bright and early on a misty morning!
 Numbering between three hundred and four hundred as per recent estimates, the Jarawas are one of the oldest native tribes of Andaman, having inhabited the South and Middle Andamans for several thousand years. They stayed relatively isolated, until the 70s, when the Andaman Trunk Road was built, slicing through their territory. With low immunity, many died of diseases upon exposure to “civilization”. Repeated exposure to tourists and voyeurs, who frequently bribed them to dance and perform like circus animals, in return for favors like biscuits, was finally put to a stop by a Supreme Court directive that also heavily restricts use of the Trunk Road. Now, only four convoys of vehicles are allowed through each day from either side, with police escorts. Stopping and overtaking along the fifty km route is banned, speeds have to be maintained at forty kmph, and all interactions with the Jarawas, including photography, is strictly prohibited. 

The 600 am convoy is ready to leave
Traveler Pro Tip: The fifty km ride through the reserve forest takes ninety min, and you cannot stop or halt along the way, so visit the washroom before you set off, and carry whatever refreshments you may need!

At the end of the forest reserve, you reach Baratang, from where a twenty min speedboat ride takes you to an elevated walkway through the mangroves. A couple of hundred meters later, the walkway ends and you continue along a sandy jungle path, which soon opens up into a vast open field, at the far end of which is this most amazingly clean and beautiful village with a clutch of huts. Squeaky clean courtyards host ducks and geese, cattle and goats, a few dogs, and a lone mommy cat with her kittens!

The lovely village at the entrance to the Limestone Caves
Just beyond the village lie the limestone caves, a surreal world of stalagmites and stalactites, formed by centuries of water seeping through the rocks above! Let your imagination run wild, and the caves show off their beautiful sculptures – from crocodiles to lotus flowers, from human noses to Hindu deities.

If the Jarawas haven’t got you already, the caves definitely will!

Traveler Pro Tip: There are only four convoys through the day from either side, spaced by three hours each, the first one at 600 am. You need at least sixty min to reach the reserve gates from Port Blair, so plan to leave by 445 am to make the first convoy. The road isn’t in great shape, so a few extra minutes don’t harm.

Entrance to the limestone caves
We were returning back from the Baratang, when suddenly a truck came hurtling down the slope in front of us, it’s front axle broken, and crashed into the ditch on the side of the road, turning on its side in a huge cloud of dust. Our convoy ground to a halt; we ran to check on the occupants. Suddenly we were joined by a group of Jarawas, making Tarzan like cries -  one with a sickle in his hand, watching intently just a couple of feet from the rest of us "civilized" folks!

The two occupants of the truck were alright. The cops asked us to get back into the vehicles, and we set off on our journey again.

A close shave, indeed!

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