Friday, December 26, 2014

Photo-gallery: Bangaram island in Lakshadweep

Tented accommodation at Bangaram

Map of Bangaram

Fresh water lake at Bangaram




Photo-gallery: Thinnakara island in Lakshadweep

Thinnakara island


View of Bangaram from Thinnakara

Ship-wreck site

Parali I & II

Thinnakara beach

During low tide

Parali II

Parali I

Coral reef (low tide view)

Shell Crab

Shell Crab

Outdoor dinner site

Photo-gallery: Kadmat island in Lakshadweep

Aqua blue sea at Kadmat
Sunset at Kadmat

View in front of our cottage at Kadmat


Amini island visible from Kadmat

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mesmerizing charm of Lakshadweep

My recent trip to Lakshadweep has been an out-of-this-world kind of an experience.  Not only is the scenic beauty of the place breathtaking but it is also the overwhelming warmth and affection of the natives which makes you reluctant to leave Lakshadweep (formerly known as Laccadives). The word Laksha is derived from ‘Lag’ which means attached or fixed. It also signifies ‘a mark’ or ‘a sign’. True to its name, it surely leaves an indelible impression on one’s mind.

Lakshadweep is a part of India, yet even Indians are required to secure a permit from the government to enter this Union Territory of the country. To maintain the fragile eco-system of the islands such restrictions seem to have been imposed. The permit mentions the names of the islands one can visit as well as the duration of the stay. Indians can travel to more islands (but not all) as compared to foreigners. I will write a separate blog dedicated to planning a trip to Lakshadweep.

I boarded an early morning flight on November 29, 2014 from Delhi to Kochi (Cochin). The earliest morning flight is also not good enough to enable one to catch the connecting Air India flight to Agatti on the same day (there is only one flight during the day from Monday to Saturday). So, I had planned a brief travel within Kerala before travelling to Agatti.

My family joined me from Goa in Kochi (Cochin) and we stayed at a hotel close to the airport, so that we could conveniently catch the flight to Agatti on the morning of December 1. In an hour’s time, we reached Agatti in a small carrier of the Air India flight. The sea view at Agatti is really good and this made me pleasantly curious about our journey ahead. Interestingly, tourists are not allowed to stay in Agatti. Once our luggage arrived, we were taken by car to the island’s jetty, where we were also served lunch. Thereafter, we boarded a boat for a three and a half hour ride to our first island destination -- Kadmat.  On our way, we were lucky to spot dolphins and flying fishes. The idea of fishes flying in the air and then diving into the sea was a sight to behold. This was simply amazing.

Dec 1-4th: At Kadmat, we were greeted by the smiling staff from SPORTS [Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports – Lakshadweep Tourism] and fresh coconut water was served as a welcome drink. After settling down in our sea facing cottage, we decided to go for a stroll on the white sand beach. Kadmat is the only island in Lakshadweep surrounded with lagoons on the East and the West. The island is approximately 11 km long and 550m wide at its broadest point.

The bedroom or the front side of the cottage has a beach view and is only a few steps away from the sea beach. Even the entrance of the cottage, is at a walking distance from the beach. Everywhere you look around the view is spectacular. The sunrise and sunset at the island (in fact at all the islands) are worth the gaze. 

All along I had been confident that Lakshadweep will be a good place to visit but I wasn’t quite sure how the experience would be for my family. As they are vegetarians, don’t know swimming and prefer mountains over beaches (strangely I am the only exception). I had been teasing them by saying that in a lot of places fish is not considered as non-vegetarian, so maybe it’s time for them to try a new delicacy. All my doubts were put to rest when on the very first day my parents blessed me for bringing them to such a picture-perfect place. 

Baby turtle in the deep sea at Kadmat
Next day, we took a glass- bottomed boat ride to see the corals and the marine life. We were excited to see a huge turtle as well as a baby turtle. After a sumptuous lunch, I was back in the sea -- snorkeling. Moray eel (morena) around 1.5m long, sea anemones, sea cucumber, star fish, multi-coloured fishes, apart from corals were the main attraction. During the course of the day, I made several friends and they all contributed in their own way in making the trip more enjoyable. Over the next few days, a post-dinner walk with my friends used to easily last for two hours.

The complex had a fitness club- cum- table-tennis room with a beach view. I could not resist playing table-tennis with such a lovely backdrop. On day three, my soon to be snorkeling partner lost to me in the match and during the trip tried hard to play another match with the hope of getting even but we were so pre-occupied with so many activities that his wish remained a dream. 

In the afternoon, I did kayaking and like always was a pleasurable experience. While some of my friends tried a banana boat ride. It was fun to see them fall into the sea multiple times and click their photos.

During my stay in Kadmat, mornings and evenings witnessed high-tide and only during peak afternoon time, there was low tide. The waters in Lakshadweep are naturally temperature controlled. If the weather outside is cool (as in case of early mornings and evenings) then the sea water is appropriately lukewarm and when the temperature is hot as it is during afternoon, then the water is cool. The more you explore Lakshadweep, the more one is fascinated about Mother Nature.

On day four of the trip, we thought of exploring the corals and marine life on our own during the low tide.  Two of the group members, decided to stay near the shore as they were uncomfortable venturing into the middle of the sea, while the other members of the group (including me), decided to explore the marine life. I was thrilled to see the wide variety of marine life (in fact, it was better than what I had seen underwater a few days ago) and the sheer opportunity to be so close to them due to the low tide was exciting. One of the coral’s was particularly interesting as it would sparkle underwater but when I stood up in water, the view from the top was different- the shine vanished and the tri-coloured coral became dual coloured. After a while we landed into trouble when we were surrounded with corals on all sides and the water became so shallow that swimming was not possible without being badly bruised by the corals. We, however, found a small sand patch on which we could stand and look for ways to get out of this maze. We were unable to find a way out for more than half an hour. Soon the coast guard came on the shore and enquired from our group whether we knew swimming or not. My group informed that one of them knew swimming while the other did not. The coast guard advised us to quickly move from there as high tide would start soon and it could get difficult (where we were held up only a stretch of coral reef provided a natural boundary wall to the deep open sea and this boundary would cease to exist during the high tide). He used some sign language to explain to us but we could not understand as we were at a distance.  We knew that we had to act fast. We finally decided to step over the dead coral reef barrier as there was no other option to escape. Those three-four steps bare-foot were very painful (and only later during my trip I realize that I had hurt my right foot) but was relieved to be out of danger. Then, we just went around the sides of the corals (high tide had started by then) and returned to the shore after a good swim. Then, we apprised our group about what had gone wrong as they were concerned about us but were unable to understand why it was taking us so long to return. Overall, we were underwater for approximately three hours and it was worth it.

This was the last night at Kadmat and the thought of leaving this place was disturbing everyone. After supper, all of us talked and walked for a very long time.

On the way
Next morning, all of us were leaving together but our destinations were different. The entire staff came to bid farewell to us. I would like to say that the staff is very caring and affectionate.

After travelling two-thirds of the distance (Kadmat-Agatti route), we were transferred to another boat which could take us to Thinnakara. For the first time in my life I saw the boat transfer take place in the middle of the deep sea with neither of the boats being anchored. But the people out there are so experienced and adept that not even for a moment did we fear about anything going amiss. We first went to Bangaram and then were transferred   into a speedboat for a 10 minute ride to Thinnakara.


Dec 5-6th: Thinnakara is a tear-drop shaped island surrounded by idyllic pristine waters. It is most often visited by foreigners and when we arrived only a Brit-Dutch couple was staying as guests and was leaving the next day. This was in marked contrast to Kadmat where there were quite a few guests. We enjoyed the tranquility of the place. After having lunch, I went snorkeling. For the first time, I saw a lot of giant fishes in large groups (believe me, if the water is shallow and they will come face-to-face and one would get scared but this time there was enough water and space for all of us. In addition, I was accompanied by an expert who knew the waters thoroughly). I also saw a few fishes which were resting (though they were awake) and some which were having an afternoon power nap (this is the first time I saw fishes sleeping). This gave me an opportunity to take a 360-degree swim around the fishes which were sleeping or resting. For instance, I saw a boxer fish for the first time and since he/she was resting I had a very close look at it. I also followed some of the giant fishes which were present in groups but appeared to be playing in the water. It was a breathtaking sight. The clarity/purity of the waters is superb (I don’t think the water we drink every day is that transparent and clean), the live corals are fascinating and never before in my snorkeling experience had I come across such gigantic fishes. I was super-thrilled and the expert accompanying me sensed my excitement and said that he would take me to another better site for snorkeling. After I came out, my mother who does not know swimming also went to this site for snorkeling. I am so proud of her that she tried and did well. I did want her to see the underwater life. She thoroughly enjoyed and also got a little scared of some of the things she saw (the sheer scale of corals is humungous in certain parts). Lakshadweep is such a place that inspires even the non-swimmers to take the plunge (I have already quoted two such examples). 

Thereafter, I walked end-to-end across the island in low tide (during high tide one cannot walk around the complete island). 
Parali I & II

Oyster shell weighing 3-4 kgs
Next day in the morning while I was having my morning stroll, a boxer fish got caught in the fishing net and was let back into the sea. After breakfast, the snorkeling expert told me that we were going towards a shipwreck site where there are lots of corals and fishes. Based on whatever I have seen on Discovery channel regarding underwater shipwrecks, I felt I would not enjoy seeing a rusted ship. I conveyed the same to the snorkeling expert but immediately he showed me a video on his smartphone that was developed by a tourist who went for shipwreck snorkeling. The very next moment, I was onto the boat to go to the shipwreck site (it’s believed that the ship sank some 200 years ago) in the middle of the sea. He was so very right. I was greeted by gigantic multi-hued fishes and the corals which were also good. I also saw a red coloured star fish, so many new varieties of fishes, sea horses, octopus, amongst others. The waters are crystal clear (I was expecting some darkness because of the shipwreck) and there was so much to see that there was no opportunity to ask about the variety of fishes I was seeing. All I managed to do is communicate from time-to-time, through sign language that it was awesome. The ship came a little handy when I stood on a portion enabling me to get my head out of water to unsuccessfully attempt to fix a problem that I was facing with the snorkeling gear which was hurting my jaw. There was so much action happening underwater that I quickly got into the water and concentrated on seeing heaven on earth or shall I say a new world. In some portions, the current was very strong and my breast stroke movements made me feel like a resting fish that is not moving at all. But with some effort and guidance, I figured a way out. What I saw was simply spectacular and no photo/video can do justice to this experience of mine. Later during the trip, I realized that the underwater experience in Thinnakara was the best vis-à-vis the other islands in Lakshadweep (and also in comparison to what I have seen underwater so far in Malaysia).

While we sat in front of the beach, we saw a Mother turtle teaching some life skills to its two baby turtles. We observed them for hours and adding sparkle to the postcard like setting were hordes of small silver fishes which rhythmically dived (just like dolphins). It was a sheer delight to observe the sea -- watch the colours of the sea water change according to sunlight and spot various kinds of marine life. 

My gift to Thinnakara

After lunch, we walked to the islands of Parali I & II which are uninhabited and saw shell crabs. On the way, we came across large oyster shell (white and yellow in colour) weighing 3-4 kgs. approximately. I carried it back to Thinnakara and gifted it to the staff. It has now been placed at the entrance of Thinnakara. I told the staff that the shell will remind them about me.

In the night, we were the only guests at Thinnakara and incidentally it happened to be a full-moon night. We had a moonlit dinner buffet laid outside, right in front of the sea and exclusively served by the staff. I thanked God for giving me this opportunity (I never imagined of being on an uninhabited island all by ourselves and being served by professional staff. Momentarily, I felt like a celebrity). 

Dec 7-8: A ten minute speed boat ride took us to Bangaram. The sea water in Bangaram has stark colour combinations but has deep waters. Bangaram has found its way on the world map and is considered as one of the Top 10 destinations in the world which is quiet as well as exotic.  
We were served fresh lime water as a welcome drink. Then, we went to see the fresh water lake inside the island. After observing the sea for a while, it was time to have outdoor lunch buffet. During lunch, I happened to have a small conversation with the head of scuba diving. The map of Bangaram had a sting- ray point and I was keen on seeing a sting ray or manta ray. He told me that sting ray are present in deep open sea and only professionals get to see them. In fact, there are sharks, dolphins and whales but all in the real deep sea. He asked me to try scuba diving and said if you go today, you would definitely want to go tomorrow. I told him that I will think about it during lunch and respond later. After lunch, I agreed for scuba diving. They made me read and sign a form. Once you read the contents of the form, it reiterates that it’s a serious activity. Initially, I was given a lot of instructions and was wondering whether I will be able to remember and act accordingly underwater. Later the instructor streamlined the instructions. After some rehearsals, we headed for the dive. After going down 2 metres, I developed some pain in my ear (which can happen and if not corrected can lead to deafness) and I was told about an exercise but I wasn’t too sure how to do it as one mistake and water will enter the mouth. I was not able to exactly communicate the problem with sign language, so we came up and then I told the problem and was explained the necessary course of action. We went back inside the water.  I started following what I was asked to do and after being at the bottom of the sea (4m), my instructor asked me to go back on the top. When we came up, he told me that once I had breathed through my nose which was wrong. I am not sure how that happened as my nose had been sealed for a while but trusted the instructor and thought have I made a mistake by attempting scuba in the first place. So, I had to go inside water all over again. This time I was feeling tensed but once I got comfortable I started enjoying. The instructor made me touch different types of corals -- the feel of each is very different. We communicated in sign language indicating that I was doing fine. After a while, the instructor signaled to go up and I communicated that I was fine and could remain underwater for some more time. This went on for some time. Later, when we came to the surface, the instructor told me that we had completed our time limit inside water hence, he was signaling to go up. The best compliment the instructor gave me the following day was that he felt that I should go for the professional scuba diving course as my breathing technique was smooth and I was very stable underwater. Darr ke aagey jeet hai!

Yet again, we were alone on the island and enjoyed an outdoor dinner in one of the most beautiful backdrops.

The next day, I went for a morning stroll and was overjoyed to see a baby sting ray fish on the sea shore. I was overjoyed and followed the fish for a while till it cruised into the sea. Then, came across an octopus and, finally, saw a turtle. This was the most eventful morning walk of my life.

After breakfast, the scuba instructor came to take me for another round of scuba dive in much deeper sea. However, due to the hurt caused in Thinnakara during snorkeling I had swelling in my jaw which got aggravated after the scuba dive and I had constant pain. Thus, I decided to forego this dive and just went swimming into the sea.

View of Thinnakara Island from Bangaram
Though I had decided that I would take it easy but while on my evening stroll I saw a group of people snorkeling and I could not resist it. I immediately returned to my tent to change and then went to get the snorkeling equipment. Since I told them that I was still having pain in my jaw, they gave me a portion of the scuba equipment minus the cylinder as it was softer. By the time, I reached the snorkeling site; most of the group had left. I was surprised how and why they went away so soon. But this provided me another opportunity, the instructor was free and I got personalized attention. It was low tide now, but we were snorkeling in 4-5metre deep water. The clarity of water was less vis-à-vis Thinnakara. I again saw some new fishes including the tiger fish. After a while, the instructor felt assured that I could manage well and was not scared, so he took me to another site. After we finished snorkeling, the instructor told me that the group went away as the depth of water scared them. I, too, had tried to enter the water (snorkeling site) while swimming in the morning when it was still high tide and the depth seemed to be 7-10meters, so I avoided getting into the spot all alone. Glad I could go in the evening. The group’s loss turned out to be my gain. 

Dec 9: I again went for a swim in the sea and after breakfast, we left for Agatti. We were the only passengers in  the boat. After spending the last few days snorkeling, I developed a keen eye for spotting marine life. From the boat, I was able to see fishes and corals, even in sea depth of more than 10meters. It’s not so much for my eye-sight but the crystal clear sea water which aided me in spotting marine life (including coloured fishes). It was almost like a 3D screen. The best was yet to come. Suddenly, we spotted a few dolphins and headed in the same direction. We saw a baby dolphin do an acrobat in the air and then dive back into the sea. Soon, there were dolphins on the left and right side of the boat. Then, to top it all, dolphins underneath the water which were just a handshake away from where I was standing (the water was around 50 metres deep yet the clarity of water was stupendous). That’s when I saw the massive size of dolphins. Surely that’s the biggest fish I have ever seen. This was the third time I had seen dolphins in the sea but not this close ever and they were more than 50 dolphins. The boat was stopped in the middle of the sea to watch this spectacular moment. We saw it for a good 5-10 minutes but were getting late for the flight, so had to move on, leaving behind the playful dolphins. We were glad that we were in an open-air boat with no other passengers (I am not being selfish but the fact is if there were more passengers they would have made so much noise out of sheer excitement that the dolphins would have moved away. We were so wonderstruck that we didn’t even utter a word. In fact, there was no time to waste. My eye-balls were moving at the fastest rate to cover the 270 degree view). The navigator of the boat told us several times that we were so lucky.

I wonder why Lakshadweep has still not being conferred with UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status. In any case, I am glad to have explored a hidden jewel of India.

More information:

  • Majority of the inhabitants are Muslims and speak a dialect of Malayalam. So, preferably dress according to their cultural sensitivity
  • Coconut water and fishes are the only local produce. However, vegetarians don’t face any problem as  the government infrastructure takes care of all the tourists
  • Thinnakara and Bangaram have only beach facing tented accommodation (no air-conditioning) and are uninhabited islands.
  • In December, the weather in all the islands gets cool in the night and early morning. There is no requirement of ACs
  • However, in Kadmat opt for AC cottages as they are right in front of the sea. While the non-AC cottages are away from the sea as well as from the dining hall (approximately 3 kms)
  • There are lots of mosquitoes in Kadmat. So do carry a mosquito repellent
  • Carrying corals, shells, etc is illegal and prohibited
  • Alcohol is only permitted in Bangaram