Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Greener Side of Andamans - Part 2 : Mt. Harriet's Trekking Secrets

Prologue: I am a certified 'green' guy and that is why I coined the term 'woodcrawler'. One free day, and I'm off searching for some place green to wander around in. So when the trip to the Andamans came up my green antennae started quivering. I wanted to do something different and go off the beaten track. Andamans have, besides the beaches and coral reefs, large tracts of virgin rain forests. While researching for detailed information on trekking in the Andaman's rainforests I realized how little information is available on this. The purpose of this post is to help other woodcrawlers make a start.

Of Leeches & Lizards....

When you get off the flight in the Veer Sarvarkar International Airport at Port Blair the thing that is very obvious are the clothes worn by the passengers disembarking with you. There are all  sorts of reds, blues, yellows and oranges but rarely green! I guess that has something to do with what most people do when they go to the Andamans; jump the clear blue waters of the Bay of Bengal! It is therefore, very rarely anyone gets off the plane in olive green because that is a colour associated with the forests. I belong to this breed of creatures who will search out the nearest patch of green even in a city!

I realized very quickly that my grandiose plans to do three treks and some snorkeling would not materialize for two reasons. The book release function, mentioned in the last post, itself was not sorted out fully so I could not 'fix' a plan. The weather was not looking very good and the timing of our trip to Havelock was also uncertain.  I just about managed to squeeze in a trip to Chidiya Tapu on the evening I landed (see previous post) but a trek there had to be abandoned. Mount Harriet was the next on the agenda and I was determined to do at least one serious attempt, weather notwithstanding.

5th September, 2013

It seemed that the 'best laid plans of mice & men' jinx was following me. I had instructed the driver of my cab to report at my hotel at 8 AM. The drive to Mt.Harriet itself passed through a lot of areas rich in water birds so I thought I'd go by road instead of taking a shortcut by ferry. 8.30 AM and no sign of my transport so I called the driver but he tells me his boss hadn't given him any instruction. I wondered if that driver was deaf or had poor memory. He was the one who told me that he would be there outside my guest house at 8 AM!

Anyway, the taxi operator sent a substitute vehicle a little after 9 AM but I was wondering if it would be worthwhile anymore. As I mulled over the possibilities I realized my car was standing in a queue to board a ferry at the Chatham Jetty! For a moment I felt my blood boil. It seemed that all the drivers I got were either  deaf or morons. I had told him I wanted to go by road and here he was waiting to board a ferry. Then realization dawned on my muddled head; Providence had intervened.

If I had driven by road I'd have reached Mt.Harriet for lunch, considering the amount of time I usually spend coaxing the feathered kind to pose for me! My lunch, Gagan's biryani, was to be picked up by my sister and carried to Ross Island where we were supposed to meet and have a picnic with some carnivorous chitals! So there was nothing on me, save a bottle of water and chewing gum! If I had gone by road, I'd have collapsed due to hypoglycemia in some corner of Mt.Harriet National Park! Luckily, my driver decided that I was an idiot and did the next sensible thing!

The alternate route, and the shorter one is to take the ferry (one every half hour) to Bambooflat across the channel. The ferry ride is 15 minutes and you may have to wait for 10 to 15 minutes after boarding. If you don't have a vehicle of your own you can cross by ferry and hire one of the rickety jeeps standing outside the ferry terminal.

From Bambooflat it is a 15 minute drive uphill. The Mt.Harriet National Park gate is about 3 kms before the summit where you have to pay a small fee for your vehicle and yourself. The nice gentleman did not charge me for my camera. Once you reach the top there is a forest rest house like in Chidiya Tapu, which can be booked from Port Blair. Unless you are very keen on a trek early in the morning you'd be better off staying in Port Blair. There is a short path from the FRH to the view point and there is a board showing the direction to the trek path beside it. The actual trek is some 14 kilometers and goes all the way down the hill to the Madhuban beach. If you can get a boat to pick you up (I'm not sure if it's possible) you can make it back to Port Blair faster.

 It is a downhill trek mostly with a few ups and downs. Going forward is less tiring but the return can sap you if you are unprepared. It is a RAINFOREST on the coast. Humidity is high, and the canopy does not let in much sunlight but it makes you sweat in bucketfuls so carry plenty of water. If you are afraid of encountering wild animals, your fears are misplaced. There are wild pigs but you rarely see them. Reptiles will be there but they won't pounce on you unless you get careless with them. Don't mess with them, just let them be.

The walk had me floored, literally. I had arrived in the wrong season so there was an intermittent drizzle. The ground underfoot was covered with rotting leaves so it was difficult to assess how firm it would be. Sometimes my feet sank into the mud, sometimes it gave way that I almost slipped on my bottom. Throughout the two hours I spent walking the trail I only encountered six people. It was like being in an Indiana Jones movie.

Sunlight rarely penetrates to the forest floor so it was wet and slushy. Even the trees were wet and covered with green moss.

I was hoping to encounter some snakes but it just wasn't my day. There wasn't enough sunlight to draw them out for their warming up. Lizards were everywhere and I'd have missed them if I hadn't been looking for the snakes.

It was obvious they weren't exposed to the presence of humans because they did not attempt to run away even when I went close to them. They just hunkered down and waited for me to pass.

Every step forward took me into a totally different world. I was alone, with no particular agenda or pressures of the outside world. Gagan's biryani had disappeared from my thoughts 10 minutes into the trek! I do not know how the rainforests of South America or Borneo are but this was a special place, and it is in India!
"My personal pool"

A strange snail

Obstacle course

Reaching for the skies

When you walk this track, it is like God envelopes you in your personal cocoon, with music from the invisible birds and insects around you.

Love does strange things! A tree hugging giant creepper.

Straight out of the movie 'Avatar' ...Mother Tree

I was too busy searching the roots and rotting logs for signs of reptiles that I lost sense of time. The rain forest does that to you. Every step brings into view something beautiful that your feet don't move.

When your feet don't move they are magnets for a certain friendly little creature called the LEECH! Mt.Harriet's forest has it's share of leeches but even the most queasy individual will fall in love with them! They are brown, slimy & very, very tiny compared to some I've seen in other places. I guess that is because there are no warm blooded creatures worth mentioning in these forests. The occasional wild pigs are the only ones the leeches on the forest floor can feed on.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden movement and I thought "Snake!".  Unfortunately it wasn't a snake but there was this little fellow on a fallen log with one leg up in midair.
Spot the reptile!

If that shaft of sunlight hadn't hit his head and upraised leg, he'd have got away without any attention from me. He kept his posture despite my poking my camera almost into his nose. The only thing that moved was that shifty eye!

He was so well camouflaged and I'd have missed him 8 out of 10 times without that sunshine falling on him. It was as if he was part of the moss on the log! That leg was always in the air. I let him be and moved on.

There is a small clearing about a kilometer and a half from the view point, with two narrower paths going off at right angles to the main track. They looked like potential areas for snakes so I went into one of them. It was getting narrower and steeper as I progressed and there was clayey wet soil underfoot. I was alone and with a bad back I decided that discretion was better part of valor. If I went slip-sliding down no one would know. I back tracked, marking a way point on my GPS. I have to come back here again.......

There is so much on Mt. Harriet if you are a woodcrawler. I was thinking, if I could go down to Madhuban beach on the first day, camp over and look for the robber crabs and salt water crocs, then return early morning back to the top; it would be a wonderful experience. Any takers?!

On the way back my driver stopped at a point where you could see the light house. Apparently this was the scene printed on the back of the old 20 rupee note! I didn't have a 20 rupee note, old or new,  but you can check it if you have one on you!

As we reached the bottom of the hill I sighted the only significant bird that morning. A juvenile white bellied sea eagle sitting high on a bare tree. Too far for a good picture but still a picture for my records.

I'm coming back to Mt. Harriet and want to spend two days there........

Travel facts:
  • The best place to stay will be the Forest Rest House on Mt.Harriet so you can get an early start. Dawn comes early on these islands.
  • If you are staying in Port Blair you can reach Mt.Harriet in two ways. A longer (55 kms) drive by road through farm land and forest (if there is a birder in you), or the shorter route by catching the ferry from Chatham Saw Mill jetty to Bambooflat jetty (15 mins on the ferry). You can hire a jeep from Bambooflat to Mt.Harriet but ensure that the waiting time is discussed properly. The jeep drivers usually give you only an hour's stop at the top!
  • Carry food and water. There is nothing on top. The Forest Rest House will arrange food if you are booked in. High energy chocolate bars with water should see you through the trek. Of course, you can carry Gagan's biryani for lunch!
  • If you want to trek, wear a pair of trekking shoes. Your beach sandals are useless. Once the slush get on the sandal you have no grip and your sandal goes one way and foot the other!
  • If you dislike leeches wear a long pant or use gaiters. Leeches are harmless and their bites are painless. As a matter of fact, allowing them to feed on you cleanses your blood!
  • If you have a hand held GPS, carry it along with you, there are no guides for trekking. My Garmin could pick up the satellites despite the dense canopy. AGPS on your mobile phones might be useless.
  • Mt. Harriet is also supposed to be a good spot for birding but I guess my timing was wrong. I heard a few, saw next to nothing. If you plan to carry heavy gear for bird photography be very careful while walking, especially when it rains. Light is not good, and the trees are too tall so you need very, very long and fast lenses. The routine zooms may not be adequate for these forests. 
  • It is a good place to try out your macro & wide angle lenses. Carry them along. I assure you that you'll get better pictures than what I got. I was on a 'test trek' and had a light camera bag!
Watch this space for more on the Andamans............


cappuccino said...

am glad your trip was worth it...forest looks straight out of Lost!

Rajesh Radhakrishnan said...

Come to think of it, it really does look like the setting for Lost

R Niranjan Das said...

Wet, green, moist and beautiful. It would be a great experience to get lost in that world. Nice write up and photographs. I have always associated Andamans with blue, but now I can can with green too.

Anuradha Shankar said...

wow! thats a totally different side to the Andamans from what we usually see.... hope i get to see this side too someday

CII Tourism Fest 2013 said...

What a great Green beauty of Andamans, This island is a beautiful, natural must visit place at least once in a lifetime.

Anant Nanda said...

"My Personal Pool"--Quite a nice photograph. Archive it. Thanks for sharing your an intense manner.