I had heard that the Andaman Islands were “insanely exotic,” but my experience there was more like uncovering a “rare time capsule,” said Tony Perrottet in Condé Nast Traveler. The archipelago in the Bay of Bengal is the “least-known, least-populated, and least-visited corner of that sprawling cabinet of wonders, India.” These tiny specks of tropical paradise were actually closed to foreigners until 1995, and even today, only 38 of the 550 islands are open to tourists. In all, 90 percent of the Andamans are protected as national parkland or tribal reserves for the native inhabitants—four tribes among the most isolated on earth. This “place of unearthly perfection, where crabs climb trees, elephants swim, and man has barely left his mark,” would soon be mine to explore.
Shortly after landing in the old colonial capital of Port Blair, I was sunning myself atop a ferry en route to Havelock Island. Though the most visited of the islands, Havelock is still “homespun, small-scale, and personal, like an Indian version of Hemingway’s Key West.” This is a place where the local fishermen double as tour guides and wildlife outnumbers humans. Robber crabs—the world’s largest—climb trees and carry coconuts home to eat. King cobras devour their dinners in the bushes. A 12,000-pound pachyderm, known as Rajan, swims in the bathwater-warm Indian Ocean, using his trunk like a “giant snorkel” as he drifts weightlessly through the waves.
It seemed as if things couldn’t get any more isolated, but I decided to indulge my “Crusoe island fantasy” with a three-day camping trip to the uninhabited islands just north of Havelock. In the mornings, my guide, a Karen tribesman, would wake me with a glass of chai, and I’d set off in a kayak just as the “sun erupted in a pink ball from the horizon.” It was here that I had my first and only encounter with indigenous Andamans. I was aboard a bus when a trio of Jarawa women, “naked except for fringes of string around their waists,” appeared on the road. They stared at the oncoming bus and then disappeared into the brush—a fitting end to my journey into the “ultimate tropical mystery.”
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.