Learning to switch off on Havelock Island
In this day of pings, alerts, whatsapps, phone calls and eternal messages on a dizzying array of devices, it is utterly delightful to switch off. As I gazed vacantly out at the Andaman Sea I deduced that it was definitely this sea – rather than the endless sea of emails – that I was suited to.
Havelock Island is one of the 325 little known and little explored Andaman Islands in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. Reached only via mainland India, the archipelago is a unique sanctuary where Indian culture meets island culture; think red snapper curry accompanied by fresh coconut water drunk straight out of the fruit. What more could you wish for?
India already has an enviably laid-back pace of life, but as you leave Port Blair, the arrival point from the outside world, and chug across the waves toward Havelock, things slow down even more. Little trawlers bob across the water, sinking their nets deep into the crystal clear sea for a good catch. The sun casts a magical sparkle across the waves. The white sand that encircles the verdant green is carpeted in driftwood and the trunks of trees jut out over the ocean, dancing about in a gravity-defying fight to see the sun. There is certainly no one cleaning seaweed off the beach here. Havelock is rugged, unkempt, wild, in a very intoxicating way; all of the fury of Lord of the Flies with all of the enchantment of The Tempest.
As part of Indian Territory but also being so far east, on Havelock the sun sets at 5pm sharp. You better be ready for it because it really does get dark, and the blackness is absolute; there is not a whisper of light pollution to disturb the perfect panorama of vibrant stars. By day two I got into a pattern: early to bed and early to rise. Every morning, as the sun snuck up over the palm fronds, I commandeered a deserted beach for dawn yoga followed by sweet milky chai.
One afternoon, as I wandered aimlessly up the coast, I befriended a dreadlock-clad backpacker with a wide smile.
‘So, have you seen Rajan yet?’ He asked me.
‘The swimming elephant, the one on Radha Nagar Beach.’
He was referring to the one glimmer of international renown that Havelock has had; Rajan the 66 year old ocean swimming elephant who has attracted documentary film makers and travel photographers from across the globe, not to mention anyone keen on the incredible idea of an elephant who will dive deep underwater. We agreed to go in search of the elusive creature.
It transpired that Rajan had recently retired from swimming but he still came down to the seashore every morning at sunrise for a paddle. The mission to see Rajan continued, and not without disappointment. On my last morning I found the sublime spot that the wise old elephant had chosen for his dip: a turquoise lagoon that would dwarf an Olympic pool, only a metre deep the whole way across. The glorious sun shone through the canopy, throwing dappled light on the water’s edge and little shoals of bright pink fish darted madly across the pool.
I pitched my hammock between two trees (Havelock is all about having your hammock with you at all times in case the desire for a nap should strike) and watched as Rajan splashed about in the shallows with the agility of an ellie a quarter of his age. He squirted great jets of water into the air, showering his patient mahout and inspiring fervent whoops of delight from two young boys on the seashore. As Rajan lolloped off into the distance, I fell asleep to the lull of the breeze in the trees and the gently cresting waves.
I woke to the sound of crabs scuttling and burrowing beneath me and the slightly panicky feeling that I needed to get my act together – the time had come to pack my bag and leave paradise. That evening, rattling along in my tuk-tuk towards the port, I spied an internet café complete with clunky ancient-looking PCs. It reminded me that for a whole week I’d been blissfully unaware of what was happening off the shores of this tiny emerald islet and it had been truly heavenly.
Havelock Island is so much more than just beach. You can wander through the bazaars in the village, hike past rice paddies and through the jungle to hilltop temples, try out some of the best scuba diving in the world with the chance to see the endangered Leatherback turtle, tread carefully through the mangroves where saltwater crocs lurk.
I stayed at Emerald Gecko, a diddy hotel made up of a collection of rustic bamboo huts clustered around a sandy courtyard. It was unpretentious and disarmingly friendly, in fact, I have never been so looked after by such thoughtful staff. (Brownie points for the abundance of puppies on the property!)