Fulfilling a long-held dream, Brook Mitchell travels to the remote Indian territory of Little Andaman Island, home to one of the oldest living cultures on earth and a resilient population still recovering from the 2004 tsunami.
As a motley crew of farm animals sprinted past Natarajan’s humble dwelling on the shores of the usually sleepy Hut Bay, he sensed something was seriously amiss. The ground had shaken more violently than at any time in his 87 years here. It was time to go.
Grabbing his cane, Natarajan joined the frantic procession and headed as fast as his ageing legs would carry him to a nearby hill, with just seconds to spare. Turning his gaze back to the sea, he watched as the Boxing Day Tsunami, higher than the tallest coconut palms, swept away his home and the entire town beneath him, washing back and forth until there was virtually nothing left.
Before Boxing Day 2004 this man, now 95 and still in possession of a razor-sharp wit and a set of piercing brown eyes, was one of the oldest of his generation on this forgotten speck of land called Little Andaman island. It’s a little known Indian territory, and about as far removed from the modern world as you could imagine.
Sitting perilously close to the epicentre of the infamous earthquake, yet perhaps furthest from the world’s consciousness in the wake of the disaster, Little Andaman is geographically closer to Thailand than India. It’s the largest in the Andaman and Nicobar chain – a string of lush tropical islands in the Bay of Bengal that is home to some of the more fascinating tribes left on the planet, along with an ever-increasing number of Indian settlers and tourists.
By nightfall on Boxing Day 2004, Natarajan would be the single oldest survivor by many years on an island then home to about 8000 Indian settlers, a scattering of Nicobarese Islanders from the south and the native Onge tribe, a mysterious group who have inhabited this place for more than 40,000 years.
Vying with Australian indigenous people for the title of the oldest living culture on earth, the Onge, and their method and exact timing of arrival here, are still a mystery to anthropologists. DNA matches suggest the Onge originated in East Africa, with evidence indicating they are the purest Negroid people in the world today. Only 80 or so of the Onge remain, with their prospects for long-term survival looking bleak.
According to the locals and another traveller I meet, who was a regular visitor before the tsunami, some senior Onge used to roam into the main town around Hut Bay for supplies. But they haven’t been seen for years, except by a very select few medical workers granted access to Dugong Creek, an Onge reserve in the far north of the island strictly off-limits to outsiders.
When the big wave hit, the Onge, along with Natarajan and the island’s animals, had the intuition to head for the hills, as if driven by a sixth sense. Not a single person from the tribe was reported killed while the death toll among the Indian population was catastrophic, as was the damage to the island’s infrastructure, which is only now starting to recover enough to cater for new settlers and visitors.
Little Andaman had been on my wish list for a long time. A surf movie I watched as a teen, featuring the first instalment of music from the now ubiquitous Jack Johnson, showed perfect waves and glimpses of the Onge. The island, people and waves became firmly lodged in my imagination. More than a decade later, circumstances conspired favourably and I was on my way.
After a day spent daydreaming over the rusty rails of a ferry from the Andaman capital, Port Blair, and formalities in Kwate-tu-Kwage on Little Andaman’s Hut Bay, I arrived via rickshaw in a small village at Km 16. Towns and villages on Little Andaman are simply named by their respective distance along a straight road spanning the eastern side of the Island.
There is a handful of backpacker-style accommodation in the area but everywhere is full. So it is that I find a concrete cell to call home near to a beach I knew had surf, with just myself and a local man next door. I’ll come to know this man as the bearer of an unfortunate pre-breakfast drinking habit, which ends most afternoons in drunken rants to whoever would listen, repeated requests for money and one, ultimately humorous, attempted dash to nowhere with my camera gear.
Heading straight for the beach on foot, I find the swell I’d come for. At first the waves hitting the point look all but flat, yet the great distance they travel to arrive on Little Andaman means patience is key here, with long waits between dismal ripples and Indonesian-style perfect waves when they finally roll across the reefs. Their crack and fizz is heard by a few fisherman and even fewer surfers.
Arriving to perfect empty waves like this is rare, and I duly spend the afternoon yelling at the top of my lungs like a madman with nobody around to witness my joy in finally arriving in this sublime place I’d dreamed of for a very long time. It’s a moment that will always stay with me; pure freedom and release through that increasingly rare combination of solitude and disconnection that’s the elixir of travel.
Heading back along the beach in the dark, I remember the island has a reputation for crocodiles, the uncompromising saltwater type. Later I’ll learn that a 14-year-old girl had been killed weeks earlier in a nearby attack, yet, for that moment, I forget about the risk as a blood-red full moon rises and swarms of fireflies light a path through misty forest back to the main road.
Over the next month, with a spluttering 1970s Yamaha motorbike for transport and some great company from the only other surfer on the island, I find myself occupying my time exploring the few pockets of Little Andaman not off-limits to tourists and hanging out with the amazingly open and friendly Nicobarese Islanders.
The Nicobarese were relocated here in large numbers after their homes on the islands further south were destroyed, their slice of paradise sitting virtually next to the epicentre of the 2004 quake. Living a simple life working in the palm plantations, fishing and playing daily on the postcard beaches, they are seemingly some of the happiest people I’ve been lucky enough to meet.
Apart from the surf there is plenty to see and do here, although undoubtedly the main attraction for the travellers I meet is the sheer isolation and sense of adventure. There are many worthy waterfalls and beaches to visit, although directions are tough and guides are often busy or fishing. At the time of my visit it seems the local authorities are unprepared for the increasing numbers of visitors, with rules on where we could and couldn’t visit seemingly changing by the day.
During a flat spell of surf a call is made for a few drinks at the only watering hole on the island, a seedy dark hole of a place that attracts some truly unhinged individuals. It is down the road from this little pub late one afternoon where I spot the unstoppable Natarajan, his slim frame silhouetted by a kerosene lamp as he chuckles to himself on the balcony of his tiny government-built shack.
With some help interpreting his Hindi, we come to learn something of his life and remarkable tsunami escape. Apart from a few years spent on the mainland while serving in the army, Natarajan had spent his entire life on the island. Before the roads went in, his existence had been limited to just the few blocks around the old town. His life was happily lived in this 20 kilometres square radius, then as now, in an almost totally forgotten part of the world.
Eventually (after a very clichéd tumble over the handlebars of my motorbike) it is time to leave. It has been just on a month and my permit for the islands is running out, the surf is flat and my drunken neighbour’s antics are getting increasingly hard to ignore.
The Onge reservation of Dugong Creek is apparently the most special part of what is already a postcard of a place. From all reports, it’s a large bay filled with small islands, dugong and fish in plentiful enough numbers to sustain the remaining population.
As much as I’d have loved to have met them, the thought of the remaining tribe living out their days in that paradise is enough. I’m sure there must be surf there, the morning sun glinting off waves breaking with no fear of intrusion by privileged outsiders.
At the other end of the island sits Natarajan, laughing with passersby while perched on the balcony of his little shack; sometimes chatting to himself, mostly sleeping. I can only smile imagining the stories he must be recalling, especially the one where he outran waves bigger than the trees in his front yard, following farm animals and his intuition to safety.
The best way to get to the Andamans is via regular domestic flights from Chennai and Kolkata in mainland India to Port Blair, the islands’ capital. spicejet.com goair.in airindia.com
30-day permits are issued at Port Blair airport with clear instructions on where you can and cannot travel within the islands. A daily six-hour ferry runs to Little Andaman.
On Little Andaman the choices of accommodation are scarce. Hut Bay has perhaps the island’s best hotel, though it’s also a good 20 kilometres from the best of the beaches. Also check out Blue View Resort nearer to Butler Bay Beach. Island transport is via local buses, motor rickshaws or rented motorbike.
Ask for Muthu, the lone local surfer who has a few boards to rent and can provide all the information you need on the local conditions.