Once known as Kalapani – Black Waters – for their role as a feared penal settlement, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are now a relaxed tropical island outpost that belongs to India but is geographically closer to Southeast Asia. Superb, near-deserted beaches, incredible corals and marine life, an intriguing colonial past and the remnants of a Stone Age culture lure travellers to these mysterious islands, 1000km off the east coast of India in the Bay of Bengal.
Until the beginnings of colonial rule, the islands were populated mainly by indigenous peoples, but today the majority of the Andamans’ population are mainland settlers or their descendants who live in and around Port Blair, the capital, on South Andaman. The territory comprises 572 tropical islands (of which 36 are inhabited), with unique wildlife and lush forests, although the Nicobar Islands are off-limits to tourists.
The islands are close to the epicentre of the undersea earthquake that caused the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which, in turn, led to devastating loss of life and homes on the southerly Nicobar Islands and Little Andaman. Apart from flooding on low-lying areas of South Andaman Island and damage to the reefs near Wandoor, the main Andaman island group escaped major damage, though other islands such as Havelock and Interview noticeably tilted with the earth movement. Pre-tsunami, small-scale tourist infrastructure had been slowly developing but the almost total absence of tourists during 2005, coupled with the cost and energy of repairing the damage, demoralised many islanders and there’s still much to do to revive these beautiful islands’ tourism facilities.