Quite like the heritage destinations, I am completely enthralled by caves. There is a certain mystery attached to them and as much as possible, I would hate missing out on exploring these. It is amazing how I get into the avatar of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft when it comes to exploring caves. Even more so, when there is some heritage attached to it. Andamans gave me enough of such opportunities to turn into Lara Croft. My visit to Ross Island was one such experience and the other was visiting the limestone caves of Baratang Island.
Baratang Island is located in the middle Andamans and reaching this island is literally a journey. Even though this is just 100 kms from Port Blair, you have to traverse through thick tribal areas, endure some crazy roads and cross over in ferries to find these unusual caves. The journey is the adventure but whether you like the fruit at the end of it or not, is a perspective that you as a traveler will need to decide. I personally, liked it and here is how my entire journey to Baratang Island went.
1) The Preparation for Baratang Island
Not many outside Andamans knew of Baratang Island and the one person who did, was not very thrilled with it. All I knew is that I wanted to get to this island. Naturally, the first information that I gleaned off my hotel staff in Port Blair was on how to reach this island. Thankfully, it is not so unexplored once you reach in Andamans and literally every hotel, taxi driver and tour operator are happy to share and direct you to this Island. What we learned was that being a restricted area, we were required to join an army convoy to Baratang and that every day, there were just 4 such convoys that you could join to visit Baratang Islands.
We decided to take the first tour as we did not want to stay overnight at Baratang. Despite having 4 kids with us, we decided to brave the wee hours of the morning and head out for the first convoy at 6 am. For the same, we were required to be at the forest check-post by 4 am. Our journey started with a wake-up call at 2:30 am. Bleary-eyed, we sleep-walked our kids into our private taxi and took off.
2) Convoy Ahoy!
Traversing a lovely green forest of Andamans would have been a pleasure, had it not been for our red eyes. I thought we would be one of the first to reach the gates but to my surprise, we were quite late. There was already a winding line of vehicles parked ahead to form the first convoy that would leave for Baratang Island. Our Taxi Driver parked at the end of the line and then, went about getting us to fill our permit forms for submission to the Forest office. While he went about the formalities, we took a bio-break and headed to one of the many little breakfast places to fill our stomachs. We were warned that this was the best to do as for the next 3 hours, there would be nowhere to stop and nothing in sight for breakfast.
Thrilling Travel Tip: Please keep your Govt. IDs handy as you need to submit it along with your permit forms at the forest check post. Having said that, remember to collect it back before you leave the checkpoint.
3) Crossing Over the dense tribal areas
At sharp 6:00 am, the convoy left for Baratang. For the first time, I was a part of convoy and that itself was a thrill for me. The roads wound around hills and went through dense forests – one that I would have read of in some storybooks. Interestingly, this is the Jarawa Tribe reserve and the one thing that everyone asks you after this trip is – ‘Did you spot any of the tribals? “. It is quite an irony as normally we try to spot wildlife but here we were talking about elusive and reclusive tribal humans. To answer the same question, yes, we did spot some tribals – both on the way to and from Baratang Island. They did look a little ferocious and as per what our taxi driver said, they were quite dangerous. There were incidents where they had captured some of the people and it took a lot of help from the forest officials to get them back. Naturally, it was best to avoid them.
As a law, you are not allowed to photograph any of these areas – neither the forest nor the tribals and any offense were punishable by law. Naturally, I kept my camera and phone locked in my bag for the entire journey.
4) Reaching Baratang Island
To reach the Baratang Island, you need to cross the Baratang Jetty in a huge iron ferry that not just carries humans but also, trucks, cars and buses. 🙂 This is just a 15 minutes ride but what will kill you is the wait for a speed boat at the other shore of the Island. There are a limited number of boats and to reach the limestone caves, you have to engage one for a 30 minutes ride. Since our taxi driver kept assuring us that our number was one of the first few in the queue, we kept waiting and did not engage a private boat. A big mistake!
The waiting was quite a painful affair. After waiting for over 1.5 hours, we got our boat. Sadly we missed our 12 pm convoy back but then, it also, gave us some breathing space to explore the caves. And with that positive thought, I was off to visit the Baratang Limestone caves.
Thrilling Travel Tip: Make sure you find out your queue sequence and get your boat on time. Alternatively, you can just pay a little extra and get your own private boat to save time. This is to ensure that you get your convoy back on time
5) The Enchanting Mangroves of Baratang
The ride through the narrow sea strip is quite refreshing – with lovely green islands all around and gorgeous blue waters around. And once you enter the tiny water lane to the limestone island of Baratang, the whole scene just changes. This is perhaps, the best view of mangroves that I have ever had. Your boat actually, goes under the low branches of the trees and you can almost, touch the breathing roots of these plants. I managed to spend some time capturing this lovely piece of nature.
6) A trek to the Limestone Caves
On alighting from your boat, you will meet a guide who takes you along a 1 km walk to the limestone caves. This is more or less a flat walk during which the guide explains how the limestone caves were formed. Essentially, this is owing to the oceanic pressure on marine life and corals which form the glistening limestone blocks. The hike to the caves is quite easy and is very very scenic, with green fields and lovely rocky passages. There are enough of scenic points for you to click pictures. Sadly, you are given only 45 minutes here to do a tour before your boat is back to pick you. I wish I could have spent some more time here. Maybe another reason, to consider a private boat.
7) Limestone Galore at Baratang Island
Entering the limestone caves was just enthralling. At first, you walk through narrow passages which have limestone walls on either side sheltering a narrow path. Later, these two walls just close over and voila! You are in the cave. It was as if slowly two parts of the earth came over and merged with each other to form a hidey hole.
The guides here just hurry you and showcase several unusual limestone formations – some of them quite memorable and artistic. My favorite was this swan-like formation.
And then there was the famous Shiva Linga and the tiger’s jaw formation. The limestone in some cases, just glistened in the torchlights and I could not help but marvel nature’s architecture.
The caves run for over 3 kms but less than 1 km is what you can venture into. The Government has restricted the other areas owing to certain sections being affected by the Tsunami and earthquakes. Even though it was just a small area, there seemed so much to absorb and I personally, was very irked by the guide who kept shoving us around and not allowing us enough time. My visit felt a little incomplete as I wanted to absorb a little more. As restricted as I was, I had no choice but to turn back.
Thrilling Travel Tip: Carry a bright torch. Mobile phones are decent but a powerful one does help you explore better. The guides carry one but then, if you have one of your own, you can explore a lot more freely
8) Other Attractions of Baratang Island
The return journey was quite the same as the way we came in. We returned to the mainland, joined the convoy and headed back to Port Blair. Things were pretty much the same as morning except that we had a small break-down, luckily after we had crossed the forest border. Thankfully, our taxi driver arranged for an alternate vehicle and we reached our Port Blair hotel by 8:00 pm.
What I did not see was a bubbling mud volcano – a short walk from the landing jetty at the Baratang Island. It is a small bubbling one and frankly, given the reviews did not impress me.
The other thing which I would have loved to see required me to park myself overnight at Baratang Island. This was the Parrot Island where they say at Sunset you see flocks of parrots descending home. They say that the sight is unbelievable and maybe, some-day I will make it back here to just experience it.
9) To go or Not to go to Baratang Island
This is a point that I would leave you with a choice of visiting or not visiting this Island. For many of my fellow travelers, this trip did not seem worth the effort – given that the journey was arduous both in terms of time (6 hours of convoy drive, 2 hours back and fro from Port Blair, 2- 3 hours of wait at Baratang Island) and the condition of roads and at the end of it, the limestone caves were just a small enclosure that did not require so much time. Granted and quite rational for them.
However, for me, the limestone caves were quite unique and the journey was an adventure itself. I enjoyed the whole feeling of the convoy and the natural, unspoiled beauty of the Baratang Island. I wondered who had discovered these. Imagine – some island, far out there, where no one stays, were these geological wonders. Someone had stumbled upon them and realized their importance and share it with us. Who was it? No idea! However, the fact that it was discovered was itself mystifying for me.
In the end, I would say, to each their own. If you do choose to visit this island, remember that you have a long journey and it is best to be prepared for it. Enjoy the journey and the destination will automatically appeal to you. Let me know what you think.
- One needs to get to Port Blair in Andamans first. For this, you can either take a flight from Kolkata or Chennai to Port Blair or take a cruise from these places.
- Getting to Baratang Island is quite arduous as I mentioned. You will either have to join a tour bus from Port Blair or hire a private car from here. Any of the tour operators or hotels should be able to help arrange for one.
- Here is the link to the official site of Andamans. You can get some basic details on Baratang Island on this.
- To stay at Baratang Island, you will need to pre-book a government guest house. The contact for the same is available on the official website as given above.
- Remember that you will need to carry your Govt. ID cards during this trip.
- There are 4 convoys on all days except Monday which is a holiday. The 4 convoys from Port Blair start are at 6 am, 9am, 12 pm and 2:30 pm.
- The roads to the Baratang Island from the forest check-post are quite bad.
- A private cab to Baratang and back will cost you anything between INR 3500 to 4500
- A tour bus would cost you around INR 1500 per adult. The bus would pick you from your hotel at an appointed time. However, please make sure you pre-book the same at least a day before.
- The food at the forest check-point is quite basic but decent. You can opt for hot idlis or dosas while here
- Remember to carry some snacks with you for the journey as it is quite long and once you are in the convoy, you cannot stop anywhere.
- The restrooms at the check post are fairly ok and are on a pay-per-use basis. They are not very clean but there is no avoiding them, especially since the journey is long.
- There are no fancy restaurants along the way.
- At the island of limestone caves in Baratang, you will find small outlets selling coconut water, lemon juice, and basic snacks.
- Here is the price-list of the speed boats that you have to hire at Baratang Island to reach the limestone caves and Parrot Island.