Thursday, April 26, 2012

Andamans: Green Waters n Blue Skies

After planning for years, finally I managed to make this a reality. We(3 friends n me) booked a flight to Andamans about 1.5 months in advance and then I started to look for a place to stay at and a dive institute to dive with. After talking to a lot of friends and researching on, I finally zeroed down on Barefoot Scuba and DIveandamans(Island Vinnie's). I sent a mail to both of them, but it was Barefoot's instant responses that made sure that I would stay and dive with them.

As I had already dived in Phuket, Thailand I wanted to do a certification course now. Then came the complications. We were flying into Port Blair on 6th noon and flying back on 10th morning. In all, I had just 3 full days there. But the certification course required 4 days. I spoke to Barefoot people and they suggested that I do e-learning to save a day which I actually did. Next came the issue of flying back. Somehow, the flights back from Port Blair are so scheduled that the last flight leaves before 1st ferry from Havelock reaches Port Blair. So we had to book the expensive but brilliant seaplane to come back from Havelock on 10th morning and fly back to Delhi.

DAY 1:
After researching a bit on places to stay in Port Blair, we reached there on 6th morning and I asked the Taxiwala to take us to Megapode Nest to check for availability there. We got lucky and got 2 Nicobari Cottages there. Again, this was pretty costly but the cottages were brilliant with balcony opening onto the sea and a window opening into the woods. We wanted to visit Cellular Jail that very day, but it being Good Friday, the jail was closed. So we visited Ross Island that day. The island is pretty small with ruins of british establishments there. This was their headquarters in Andamans and the place from where they enjoyed while our freedom fighters toiled in the jail. We came back from there in just an hours and enjoyed our awesome balcony view for the evening.

DAY 2:
Next day, we left for Havelock in Makruzz. The sail was pretty beautiful but they wouldn't allow the passengers to go onto the deck which made the 1.5 hour ride quite boring. After taking a small nap, we docked onto Havelock Jetty and I immediately took notice of the green waters. I had assumed Havelock to be a bit sparsely occupied but it was full of tourists and a number of auto rickshaws were there to take us to our resort.

Once at the resort, I immediately started with my course and learnt how to use and maintain my scuba gear after giving a small test. After that, we went for working on a few skills on a beach to simulate confined water dives. Slept early to wake up for open water diving next day.

DAY 3:
I woke up at 6 and after having some fruits for breakfast went to the dive shop where our diving gear was ready. Our first diving site was Lighthouse which is a reef near an old lighthouse. The sail to the divesite was beautiful with morning sun making the green reflections look just the perfect shade of green. Here we had a 45 min dive upto a depth of 11.2m with some skills training in between. During a skill in which I was supposed to let go off my regulator and breathe using my buddy's alternate air source, I put the alternate source upside down into my mouth and failed to breathe. After fumbling a bit, I tried making an ascent to get air. Thankfully, my divemaster was quick enough to purge and put my regulator into my mouth before that. The relief of getting air to breathe when you have run out of it is incomparable to any other pleasures of life. Our next divesite was MV Mars which is a wreck bottomed at about 18-20m into the water. A wreck provides fishes plenty of places to stay n play around, so there were plenty of small fishes here. While swimming around the ship's deck and Captain's cabin, I tried visualizing what might have happened on that fateful night.
After reaching back in our resort, we washed our scuba gear and got our first Dive Log, which we immediately filled and got stamped from our instructor. It was a tiring day, so we just chilled out in the resort and went to Full Moon Cafe in Island Vinnie's for dinner. The restaurant at barefoot Scuba, Cafe del Mar is pretty ordinary but decent considering its a resort totally focused on diving.

DAY 4:
Today we were going to make deeper dives. Also, our divesite was pretty far from the resort. It took us about 1 hour to reach there. The sail took us around a couple of small islands and we couldn't just stop appreciating the color of the sea while also speculating on the possibility of salt water crocodiles in the marshlands. The name of our 1st divesite was i-95(we had no idea why it was called so). Here there were plenty whip corals which seemed like sticks planted into the bottom. Here we went to a depth of 17.4m and saw some long fin bannerfish and moon wrasse(failed to identify the rest of the fishes ).
The real surprise awaited me, when we reached the surface. As I am not a good swimmer, so I was afraid of a swim-test of 200m required by PADI for this certification. We came up pretty far from our boat, and our instructor told us to remove our weight-belts and BCDs and swim to the boat using masks and snorkel. It looked tough as there was a slight current taking us away from the boat, but the fins and extra buoyancy provided by salt water made swimming much easier than in a pool and I managed to reach the boat!!  Next was a 10 min float test, which was a cakewalk thanks to salt-water providing buoyancy.
Our next divesite is called The Wall as its a 50m deep almost vertical wall under the sea. There was a strong current here and loosening grip on our rope could have meant a tiring swim back to the boat. Thankfully the current was much weaker under water and we could enjoy our final dive without tiring much.

Today, I went to Radhanagar beach after coming back from the dives. The drive to Radhanagar or beach number 7 was very pleasing to the eye as we moved through what seemed like a jungle with very sparse housing to disturb us. This beach is ranked highly among the best beaches in Asia and it clearly deserves it. The sands are flawless and the beach is not littered like most other beaches in India. After enjoying the sunset here, we rode back to our resort to pack for our early morning departure from Havelock next day.

DAY 5:
Although this sounds like the end of the trip, but even this was as serene as I could have dreamed of. We hopped onto the 8 seater seaplane and apart from the luxury it felt like, the aerial view of the islands provided us with the best pictures in the entire trip.
Upon reaching Port Blair, we decide that we had just enough time to visit Cellular Jail. So we called our old Taxiwalla to come and pick us up from the defense airfield, where we landed and take us to the famed, Saja-e Kalapani. We visited the jail in a whirlwind, but I personally couldn't appreciate it enough because of all the new paint and beautification which didn't allow us to feel the original fear of the place.
Finally at 12 noon, we bid adieu to the heavenly Andamans and hopped for our 5 hour flight back home. A much desired trip finally done.

Where Tigers rule: Ranthambore National Park

When I visited Ranthambore last year for a day and failed to see a tiger, I had decided that I will come back here again. I always had a feeling that I missed seeing one by a very slight margin.
So I decided to drive to Ranthmabore on a Friday night, have four safaris over Saturday n Sunday and drive back after the evening safari on Sunday.
Last year I committed a big mistake of doing these safaris in a Canter, which is like a minibus with its top removed. Though you can still see a tiger but the canter with its inability to maneuver easily and the time it takes in picking up all the tourists reduces the probability of seeing a tiger significantly. So I booked my safaris in gypsy with Ranthambore Bagh. I would highly recommend this place to anyone going there. With the owner himself being a wildlife photographer, this place is built with a passion that won't be seen in other resorts in Ranthambore.

Safari 1:
We got zone number 3 in our 1st safari. Its surely the most scenic zone with three lakes here. Also, the chances of sighting a tiger here are good as these lakes provide nice habitat to a tiger with enough water n prey present. Zone 3 falls into the territory of T-28 male tiger, T-17 female and T-19 female with her 3 cubs. However, we were out of luck as this zone was totally dry during our safari. No pugmarks, no warning calls. We had to make do with just crocodiles, deers, monkeys and a number of birds.

Safari 2:
When we reached back to our hotel, we found out that people in zone 4 and 5 had seen multiple tigers, so we requested the agents to get us those zones for the evening safari as tigers hardly move during the day. We got zone 5. Its the biggest zone and the ride is quite harsh on your back in this zone.
The start to this safari was similar to the earlier safari with just deers, monkeys and birds to give us company. However, i still had hope as tigers normally move late evening when its a bit colder. After about 2 hours, we saw a canter and a gypsy parked saying that there is a tiger nearby. We moved closer to them and there she was. Sundari(T-28), a female tigress big enough to ruling a territory as big as male tigers of 40-50 sq kms, sleeping on a rock.
After lying there for sometime, finally she got up to move towards the stream. This was our chance to have a closer look at her. With atleast 7-8 vehicles there, our gypsy driver drove in reverse gear for over 100 meters on such difficult terrain to get us probably the second best view of the beautiful tigress. She sat in the water for about 15 mins giving us enough time to take pictures. After that she walked into the woods and we exited the park for the day.

Safari 3:
Though we didn't want it, but we got Zone 3 again. By now, I had started trusting my luck though having seen 3 tigers in my last three safaris. I actually did get lucky as we had just entered our zone when a gypsy came backwards with the guide announcing the approach of a tiger. After a bit of commotion with all the gypsies moving backward and forth, he came out of the bushes, crossed the road and climbed onto the ruins to analyze his territory before disappearing into the bushes on the other side.
T-28, Star Male
Fort Territory
This was T-28 or Star Male, the biggest tiger of Ranthambore. Though Sundari was big but T-28 seemed massive compared to her. More than that, I just loved the attitude with which this tiger crossed the route totally unperturbed by all the cars around.
Rest of the time in this safari was spent looking for T-19, the female with 3 cubs. However, she is known to be shy and not easily spotted. That belief was proved when we couldn't find any trace of her but still came back mesmerized by T-28.

Safari 4:
I wanted to see the grand old dame of Ranthambore, the oldest tigress in the wild, 17 year old Machli or Crocodile killer or Queen of the Lakes. While male tigers are known to be dominant and stronger, it was Machli's 10 year reign of the highly desired Fort territory of Ranthambore that made her a legend. She finally left the territory for her daughter, Sundari. With her canines broken and a weak old body, she now lives in Zone 4. For this very reason, I requested my agent to provide us Zone 4. However, we were again allotted Zone 5. Though we were pretty disappointed, but our guide almost promised us that he will show us atleast one tiger. That helped in soaring our spirits high.
He didn't have to work hard to keep that promise. We had just entered the National Park and were on the common road for the park and Ranthambore Fort when we saw almost all the jeeps parked. We understood that we are in luck again. It took about 15 mins before we could spot the black n yellow stripes in the woods. It was T 39 and she was walking towards us after drinking water at the stream below. Finally she came out of the woods right next to our jeep and looked towards us. She seemed hungry and our guide concluded that she must have just fed her cubs by looking at her nipples. A forest guard present there was happy to see that as that confirmed that there were new cubs in the Park. After staring at us for a few seconds, she moved parallel to the road before jumping onto it and move into the woods on the other side.
She was the closest I could be to a tiger. Anymore closer, she would have been in our jeep.
Then we went into our zone hoping to find Sundari again but that didn't happen. We came out of the park after our final safari of the trip and were more than satisfied after seeing 3 tigers from close.

1. If you are going from Delhi by road, go to Jaipur. From jaipur move on Tonk Road(NH 12) before turning left from Kothun. Continue on this till Lalsot and turn right from there. This is the best route among all you will see on Google Maps.
2. Do whatever it takes to get a gypsy for safari.
3. Do atleast four safaris to enhance your probability of seeing a tiger and enjoy the wildlife.
4. If you still don't see a tiger, go back again!!