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A personal adventure travel blog

An unexpected glimpse of the Jarawa tribe on the Great Andaman Trunk Road

Christian Anderson

Most days the journey is just the journey, but get lucky and the journey becomes the destination. The Great Andaman Trunk Road, a skinny singletrack line of tarmac bisecting much of the archipelago, fits neatly into box number 2, even taking into account a 3.30am alarm call for 12 hours riding a vehicular trampoline. My motives were simple enough - I'll probably never return to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, so to simply push over to Havelock from Port Blair and sit on a beach for 10 days seemed a touch myopic. Instead, I set the compass North towards the last significant town on the map - Diglipur.

Pre-dawn departures from smalltown Asian bus terminals can be an unexpected pleasure - it's too early for the touts/taxi mafias and the lack of daytime bustle allows drivers and terminal staff a window of patience to deal with the helpless, incompetent foreigner who doesn't know the system. Crucially, a hissing stove and harsh fluorescents draws everyone mothlike around a single street cart for pre-journey masala chai and kerosene-scented doughnuts - the best 20p breakfast money can buy.

Light by 5am, dawn reveals a misty Andaman landscape of smallholdings interspersed with the occasional police post, school or primary health centre. Ours is an extremely bumpy ride, doubly so at the back - every few bends I was lifted bodily out of my seat, returning to earth with enough force to trigger 'Shake to Shuffle' on my iPod. Throw continuous lateral motion into the mix and this journey would be hell for those who get motion sickness - although the alternatives are either a ferry or a seaplane - pick your poison people. Leaving Port Blair, pretty pastel concrete houses quickly give way to palm thatch huts with tin roofs, then on to all-palm huts on concrete bases, and finally the concrete bases turn to compacted mud. The further North we get, the more I can't help feeling that, when the Earth was flat, the Andamans were pretty much the edge of the page.

By 5.30am we reached the police post at Jirkatang to find queues of white jeeps, buses, trucks and petrol tankers. This is where convoys form to pass through the main part of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. Spotted by an impressively moustached police inspector, I was escorted over to have my Restricted Area Permit details taken down and, reading the lines above my entry, it looks like just a couple of western tourists go this way every week or so - Dorothy we are clearly no longer in Kansas. By 6am we are away, the road no longer flanked by fields and houses, but instead just a black knife slicing through the mature primary tropical forest of the reserve.

Pulling up at Middle Strait Jetty an hour or so later a sizeable queue of buses, jeeps and tankers stood waiting and my bus didn't make it onto the first ferry - something which didn't stop the other passengers piling on regardless. Not I - putting a bridgeless strait between my backpack and me is a no no, so I stayed on the almost deserted West bank - which is when the unexpected happened.

Having arrived at the jetty into genuinely blinding sunlight, the day flipped within minutes to an intense squally shower, but as this began to clear an open motorboat came into view, barrelling towards the jetty, with about 20 people on board, all from the Jarawa Tribe, sheltering from the rain under either umbrellas or, perhaps more appropriately, splayed palm fans. The boat docked, and as it did an open truck appeared from the reserve behind us, driven by an Indian government worker, but with 5 more Jarawa men in the back. An exchange of people and provisions to and from the boat ensued, including one unlucky dog hauled one-handed out of the truck by its haunches before being dropped unceremoniously off the edge of the high dock into the boat, landing with an impassioned yelp.

From where I stood (about 30m away) the Jarawa men wore a combination of traditional dress and western shorts, whilst the women were all in traditional dress, and naked from the waist up. The exception was a young woman who wore a garland of forest greens around her neck to cover her breasts. Interestingly, the second the boat pulled away from the jetty, she dropped this overboard - Jarawan women are clearly conscious of the differences in clothing norms between their community and the 'outside world'. Almost all wore some form of headband and all clearly have a totally different ethnicity and features to their Indian neighbours - deep black skin as if from Southern Africa.

I didn't take any photos - the two Indian policemen next to me saw to that, but it wouldn't have been appropriate anyway. An hour or so later, we passed a Jarawan family on the road, who parted to either side as we approached, eyes up to the bus, then reformed onto the road afterwards, watching our bus recede into the distance. Something about how they watched us disappear made me sure they expected we would stop and give them food - very sad.

See full Flickr collection for this trip

Earlier, outside the Jirkatang police post I spoke to a honeymooning couple from Delhi. At the time I didn't quite understand why they were journeying through to Middle Andaman only to return to Port Blair that same evening. Now I get it - for me the Great Andaman Trunk Road was a means to an end - a way both to get to the far North and to get a "sense" of the islands. But, for many of those in the jeeps accompanying our bus, it is the chance of seeing the Jarawa Tribe which gets them on the road before sunrise - a not entirely laudable aim.

India's government is clearly in an impossible position regarding what to do with the Jarawa - the non-tribal communities of Middle and North Andaman would not survive the destruction of the Great Andaman Trunk Road, but any notion of real "isolation" for the tribe is clearly a fiction. So, it's hard to imagine any other outcome than a slow encroachment of modern life into the reserve, thus the challenge must now be "managed integration?". No doubt some will prosper, but many won't. There are the obvious and serious problems of issues such as measles, and avoiding the alcoholism which has scarred other aboriginal societies, but also the more subtle societal issues of how the Jarawa might "fit" into modern India.

My view is clear, if a little uninformed - I understand the arguments for trying to preserve the uniqueness of peoples such as the Jarawa, but I can't agree with the idea of hermetically sealed time capsule reserves which deny progress for ever. No - one planet, one people - for better or worse. Survival International is an NGO campaigning for the closure of the Great Andaman Trunk Road and I would encourage everyone to take a look at what they're doing to protect vulnerable tribespeople, though I would also hope that Survival International tempers its passion for the Jarawa with a little pragmatism - the Indian government has a unique duty of care to the Jarawa, but this is not to say that a struggling peasant farmer in Andhra Pradesh doesn't deserve equal attention.

As the bus pushed further north away from the tribal reserve, the farms and small communities re-appeared, linked by a couple of small but important towns - first Rangat, then a pleasant stretch of coast, lined with post-Tsunami replanted palms, before inland again up to dusty Mayabunder and the final couple of hours of bumpy road to journey's end. Just before 4pm, I'm in hot and dusty Diglipur, failing miserably at getting a 19km rickshaw ride down below 220 rupees. 12 hours on a bus, but an intriguing experience and much to think about - a unique travel day.

Port Blair to Diglipur bus information

The options in Port Blair for my ticket North to Diglipur were the ordinary state transport service buses or the two private companies - Geetanjali and Anand.

I got lucky - the nice people at Blue Planet, Long Island, sorted me out a ticket on the Anand bus (R310), the best of the three - fully reclining seats and plenty of legroom, plus helpful driver/assistant and good luggage space. Note that the government buses leave from INSIDE the bus terminal (just next to the Ghandi statue a few hundred metres West of the clocktower), but the private ones leave from OUTSIDE its wall to the South - just 20 metres or so, but you can't SEE the private buses if you are seated inside the terminal as I was, so worth noting. We left on the the dot at 4.15am and arrived in Diglipur at 3.50 pm, so plan on a 12 hour journey and you shouldn't be far out.