Inaccessible, uncomfortable yet worth it

India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands lack something called tourist infrastructure. But this is part of their charm. By Nick Clarke
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The captain screamed at his passengers in Hindi. His tirade went something like this: "For God's sake, get away from the side of the boat or else we're going to capsize!"

As the fat little ferry manoeuvred very gingerly away from its moorings, hordes of Indian tourists rushed from one rail to the other in order to get the best view. Every time they did so, the vessel keeled over towards the murky water. I noted that there was only one lifejacket between about 350 people.

Eventually, the captain managed to persuade everyone that there might be a problem; for a few minutes at least, we distributed ourselves more or less evenly around two decks. Then the boat chugged very slowly into the open water between the mangrove swamps. We mused that it hadn't been such a good idea to arrange a trip to Jolly Buoy Island on a sunny Sunday aftemoon.

The Jolly Buoy ferry is typical of life on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They lack what you might call tourist infrastructure. In fact they don't have much infrastructure of any kind. Yet the potential of this tropical backwater is spectacular. How many other destinations on the tourist circuit can still boast untamed native peoples whose response to the outside world is to reach for a bow and arrow'?

There are 572 islands in all, and a journey between any two of them is likely to be hazardous. In fact, getting there in the first place has its problems. Our plane from Madras was only two-thirds full: and that's the key both to the charm and the dilemma of the Islands. The runway at Port Blair airport is 6,000 feet long and if the planes were any heavier, they'd run into the main street of the town. The entire island complex, straggling across hundreds of kilometres of the Bay of Bengal, can muster just 1,300 hotel beds.

Now, a new Lieutenant-Governor, says he wants to open the whole place up. If he succeeds, the runway will be extended and the numbers of flights will be increased, which in turn will bring the hoteliers and resort developers, justifying the expenditure of government money on roads, shipping and leisure facilities..

At the moment, Port Blair (which lies on the biggest island, South Andaman) is sleepy and much less aggressive than mainland towns. There's little sign of the abject poverty so common - and so disconcerting - elsewhere in India. The town's most notable tourist feature is the cellular jail, built by the British at the turn of the century to house dissidents: or, from an Indian point of view, freedom-fighters. Since independence, the place has been preserved as a shrine to those who were left to rot there: long, forbidding balconies with a series of barred cages. The nightly son-et-lumiere is visually compelling - but make sure you choose an English language night (Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday). I think we might have lost something in the Hindi version.

The British occupation is also marked by the remains on Ross Island, just across the bay from Port Blair. This was the hub of colonial power - a fine church, mess buildings and a swimming pool. After the British left, Ross Island returned to nature: the jungle simply subsumed the buildings. Trees intertwine with crumbling walls, creepers embrace the gravestones, palms sprout randomly on the tennis court.

But these are the exceptions. This is not a place for the armchair tourist who likes sights on a plate. Heading the list of attractions in the local brochure is the Chatham Saw Mill. Next comes the Anthropological Museum, which is very small, dusty and unimpressive. And there's a rather apologetically- named Mini-Zoo.

For years the authorities have kept a tight grip on all developments, for political reasons. The islands are close to Burma (or Myanmar), with whose government India has uneasy relations. In addition, Indian efforts to absorb the native peoples has resulted in the importation of thousands of Bengali settlers who now form the bulk of the population of 280,000. The only native group to survive and thrive are the Nicobarese, in the southern islands which are still out of bounds to foreigners.

The rest of the tribes are teetering on the brink of extinction. The comparatively friendly Onges, of whom just 98 remain, the Andamanese (reduced by "diseases from the outside world" to 36 souls), a couple of hundred Jawaras (no one can get close enough to count them), and the hostile inhabitants of North Sentinel Island who will, with bad grace, accept gifts dropped overboard in watertight containers. The closest we got to a genuine "tribal" was a grainy photograph in the half-light of the museum.

Sensitivity about the tribals helps to explain why visitors are allowed access only to a handful of islands. Indeed our guidebook informed us that there was only one place outside Port Blair where foreigners could make an overnight stay: Havelock Island.

Havelock is four hours sailing from Port Blair. We steamed along a rich, green coastine spattered with silver sand. There wasn't a soul to be seen until we reached the little settlement clustered round the port. Our motley band of tourists emerged to board a decrepit bus, which trundled down a narrow lane to the new Government Guest-House, Yatri Niwas. It was one of the most peaceful places we've ever found: simple beach cabins, with white conical roofs, looking out through palm-trees across a bay of filmic azure. We failed to reach the finest snorkelling beach on Havelock, Radha Nagar, because the coach broke down, and for the same reason, our return to the port was on the back of a filthy lorry. But it didn't matter. This was something rare: a place which still seemed pleasantly surprised to meet a visitor - with an open smile, rather than an open palm.

My guess is that this is the perfect time to go to the Andaman Islands, while there's still a real sense of discovery and while people are keen to help, without feeling the desire to milk tourists for every last penny. You can investigate empty island roads by moped, or seek out deserted corners of coastline. You can hunt out the spices which once made the islands prosperous, or watch birds, such as the white-bellied sea-eagle, drifting across the sky. lt may not be always be comfortable or convenient, but it certainly won't be dull.

When to go

The climate is a fairly constant 23-31C with 80 per cent humidity. The south west monsoon season is from mid-May to October, and the north east monsoon from November to January.

How to get there

The Air India consolidator Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627) sells tickets to Madras or Calcutta for pounds 465. Indian Airlines operates connections from each city to Port Blair three times a week (in theory, at least), for a return fare of pounds 180. There are also sporadic ferries between linking Port Blair with both Calcutta and Madras, taking three or four days.

Who to ask

Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork St, London W1X 1PB (0171-437 3677).

What to read

The Rough Guide to India, pounds 13.99; 1996 India Handbook (Trade and Travel, pounds 16.95), available from 11 September; the sixth edition of India: a Travel Survival Kit, will be published in January by Lonely Planet (pounds 14.95).