overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
Pic of the week: (previous - fav video clip)
Pic of the week
Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Much needed R n R

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 29 March 2006.

India, Country 15, Diary entry 27th Jan–12th Feb 2006, Total distance in India: 7064 KM

Leaving Varanasi we appeared to miss the express route out (if indeed one actually exists) and fought with the normal medley of trucks, cows and people to inch our way out of the city and into the sprawling suburbs. I’d heard before leaving UK that the most important accessory for Tinfish would be a horn, so that seemed enough of an excuse to fit the biggest air horn ebay could provide! Unfortunately such horns only appear to have been tested in Europe and despite the fact that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to a mere 120 db, they just haven’t the staying power against such avid competition and upsettingly our first horn died a death. Fortunately we still had the factory fitted horn, so we were down but not out!

Maz did the lion share of the driving as we headed to the airport at Gaya whilst I attempted to catch up on diary admin. This was far harder than it seems as the new ‘super highway’ intended to connect Delhi to Kolkata is still a long way off completion as regularly we had to dive offroad as I attempted to cling onto the laptop and type whilst holding on for dear life. The 250km took something like 6hrs, an exhausting drive. The airport at Gaya serves two communities; Gaya an important Hindu town; and Bodhgaya an extremely important Buddhist site of pilgrimage, as it is where Buddha sat under the tree and gained enlightenment.

Home for Tinfish for the next 10 days

We decided to make a bee line for Bodhgaya as it somehow seemed a safer place to leave Tinfish with a mob of Buddhist Monks, whilst we headed off in search of sun, sea & scuba. On arrival first priority was to find safe parking which we stumbled on remarkably easily at the first hotel we stopped at. We explained what we were doing to the manager and after careful consideration for some while he was totally fine with the proposal, he even said we could camp in Tinfish that night – excellent. We spent the evening finding food and strolling around amongst the sea of purple monks. It was immediately apparent, especially after Varanasi, how much cleaner the streets were and we even saw someone with a brush sweeping…!!!!!

Up early the next morning for our 3pm flight… well we had to pack and after 6 months of living in a car, squeezing all the necessary kit for a weeks diving into two rucksacks is quite an undertaking. BIG respect for the backpackers! After dive kit, spares, cameras (underwater & land) and laptop were packed we had just about enough space for a few t-shirts and a pair of swimmers each. Unheard of for a ‘Towns’ we were at the airport 2hrs before the flight to check in. Unfortunately no one had told the duty officers and apart from the check-in staff no one else was there, so we had to wait for customs then security bods to arrive. I’ve never been the first for a flight before!

Our watchmen who'll look after Tinfish

Passing through security and bag check we were ushered into the departure room. The flight appeared late, but then someone spotted the plane coming in only to pull up again at the last possible moment. What was wrong… rumours spread around the room – practice, problem, missed..?? It actually transpired that some dignitary was on his way in a private jet and god forbid they make him circle for 5 mins… no, much easier to divert an international flight just before it touched down! With the oh so important chap safely on the ground our airbus was permitted to land. We then had to go through the same security and bag check to leave the departure room and get on the plane, whilst the airline staff were telling us to hurry up – bog off!

The flight was empty, so we had double portions of nibbles on the hour or so flight to Kolkata. Organising the flights had been difficult. Internal flights in India are expensive with dual pricing for locals and tourists in place. It wasn’t until we learnt of an ‘airline pass’ that it made such a trip to the Andaman’s feasible. Unfortunately not many of the Indian Airline offices had heard of the pass either, which basically gives you a big discount when you buy 4 or 8 coupons and are exchanged one per flight. However some routes require 2 coupons and everyone we asked had a different opinion, once we’d convinced them the scheme actually did exist, as to how many coupons you needed to fly to the Andaman’s. It transpires you only need 1 each way, but as the minimum scheme was 4 coupons (still a big discount on a return flight) we decided to save the 300km drive (and a day each way) to Kolkata and fly… Gaya-Kolkata-Port Blair (Andaman’s) return.

Paradise here we come…

Our connecting flight to Port Blair was the first flight out of Kolkata at 5am, so by the time we arrived and as the airport is a fair way out of the city, we decided to just hang about the airport for the night. Indian Airlines is probably one of the only airlines I don’t hold a ‘Gold’ card for and even my charm couldn’t gain us access to the lounge. We did however find one lounge unlocked and unattended and spent all of 10mins getting comfortable before we were rudely interrupted and thrown out. Fortunately they had a 24hr internet café so we settled in for the long haul and caught up with loads of stuff.

An airport bench with all our luggage tied to me was bed for the night. Maz had visions of some Indian nicking our trolley and me being yanked off the seat and dragged after it in hot pursuit. After a comfortable few hours lying half on the round bench and half on the trolley it was finally time to check in for the next leg. Again the flight was near empty as we waved goodbye to mainland India and excitedly looked forward to our tropical paradise. On arrival you have to apply for a permit as certain islands are off-limits to foreigners in an attempt to protect the indigenous people, some of whom still throw spears at any ‘visitors’ to their island! Talk of the airport was when was Johnny Depp arriving as a big film producer had just been at Havelock Island researching set locations – how exciting.

The view from our beach hut

Ashish from Barefoot Scuba was waiting for us and with bags packed into the jeep we set off for the office to meet Samit. During breakfast we found out our luck was in. There had been an outside chance of a helicopter ride across to Havelock Island and our penance the night before had paid off and we were to arrive on Havelock in the same manner as the movie director before us… maybe they’d heard about our Bollywood debut? Samit also gave us the number of the local CARE project manager and after promising not to be late at the heli pad we set off to meet Simanta to find out how CARE are active in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands post Tsunami.

It was really interesting to learn from Simanta the challenges facing the NGO’s on arrival to the Islands as previously the Indian Government had prevented any outside NGO’s operating in this region. Needless to say there was and still is a lot to be done with just over a year passing since the devastating waves hit. One area CARE is busily involved in is working with the fishing communities. Thousands of fishing boats were lost which basically were the livelihoods of these communities. CARE have so far funded 14 new boats, but more importantly as there won’t be enough to go around for some time, they have taught the communities to work as a collective. 10 families share the resources of one boat and they are being educated in ways of selling their catches and building the business with the intent to self fund new boats. They have a long way to go, but the foundations are there and they are learning all the time how to overcome obstacles that stand in the way.

Views from the beach

Another area obviously requiring attention is housing, many of which were destroyed. This is a multiphase process with the immediate response requiring emergency shelter through to longer term planning for permanent accommodation. Anywhere else on the mainland, building a block of houses once the funds are available is fairly straight forward. Transpose this requirement to a collection of 36 inhabited islands some 3 days boat ride from mainland India, then once you’ve managed to get the raw materials there you then have the problem of a skilled workforce. Difficult logistics to get your head around until you see the remoteness of this region, least to say CARE will be helping this area for some time to come.

Home for us for the next 10 days

A quick glance at the watch and we needed to make tracks for the helicopter and somehow managed to squeeze all our luggage along with us into an auto rickshaw. At the helipad a lot of nothing was busy going on and we were introduced to the guys that had chartered the chopper (Suren & Michelle along with their child & minder and their friend Jorg) and let us stow along for the ride. There was some concern that there was too much luggage as Jorg was diving too, but they said they’d see what could be done. Eventually the helicopter was rolled out of the hanger and suddenly in true mainland style after sitting around doing nothing there was suddenly a mad panic. True enough there wasn’t enough space for our rucksacks (they’d follow on the boat in the morning) and we just had enough time to grab a few things like toothbrush before we were strapped in and off – yeeha.

Maz catches up on business

What a way to arrive – talk of the island no less. After de-helicoptering we waved bye to the rest of the guys, Barefoot have two resorts on the island, a rather up market posh resort on the ‘Best Beach in Asia’ (according to TIME magazine) whilst we jumped into our rickshaw and headed off for the Barefoot dive resort on beach #3. For us it was as every much a tropical paradise, as we were shown to our beach view hut on stilts – superb. Somewhat more spacious than Tinfish with a rather ship like feel as it gently swayed as you walked from side to side. Immediately you could feel the stress of the trip so far (intensified by driving in India) simply wash away.

And this wasn't the best beach..!

We were introduced to the dive guys, the amazingly enthusiastic Jez (potbelly) & Miranda (sexy), the marine biologist Umeed (pornstar) and Gyatry (moviestar) - who actually did used to be a Bollywood actress, perhaps we could compare notes later! They were an excellent bunch and you could tell that they enjoyed working together as a team, which subsequently rubbed off on the dive operation as a whole. With our rucksacks en-route containing our dive kit we scheduled a leisurely day of lie in followed by some intense work. Contrary to popular belief we weren’t just here for a holiday…. We had work to do. Barefoot had kindly suggested they hold a charity dive day to help us on our way to achieving our target (which as you can see to the left is slowly getting there – so come on and put hands in pockets!) Our job was to design and print off some flyers then go walk abouts amongst the backpackers joints to drum up business for the ‘Dive for Change’ day.

Jaz & Miranda - the dive guides

It was evening by the time we’d distributed all the flyers and returned to beach #3 for some grub, yummy prawn noodles and beers at the resort restaurant ‘Café Del Mar!’ We met some of the other divers, Ali ‘the Ozzie’ who swears he comes from Cornwall, Isobelle from France and Chris from Canada, a great and mixed bunch of reprobates. Our boat had come in and with diving at Sea Fan City and The Junction organised for the morning it was time to sort out some kit – at the last possible moment when everyone else had turned in ready for the early morning off. Of course it’s then that the kit decides not to work and the regulators (bits you breath from) wouldn’t stop free flowing (air gushing out when it shouldn’t). It was Egypt when they were last used and had been sat rattling about in the car for the last 20,000 km, so couldn’t really blame them (B**@D% F**& $h!#%)

A likely trio - Chris, Isobele, Ali

Up early to our second day in paradise (India – where’s that?) and everyone was busy loading kit into the Dunghi’s (pronounced Dung-Heaps) the local boats being used whilst the purpose built ones were still in the yard being built. We’ve dived from many various boats of all sorts in our time and have often experienced a local boat, however these were definitely the icing on the cake. A single long hull devoid of any outriggers, so if the weight wasn’t perfectly balanced it felt like the whole lot was going over. They were powered by one or two crude single cylinder diesel engines, but most annoying for the occupants was the absence of any silencers on the exhaust. Subsequently your ears were ringing and everything vibrates – at one stage I think my contact lenses rattled around my eyeballs! Unfortunately ours also had a diesel leak when they tried repairing an engine at sea – not so nice.

Our 'dung-heap'

Now imagine being couped up onboard these boats for a 4 hour trip to the dive site with a 4 hour return trip to look forward to – not for the faint hearted! You can appreciate how keen we were to get into the water and escape! Sea Fan City is a deep dive (40m) and since there is no Nitrox (oxygen enriched gas which can be used for extending your dive time or as a safety gas to help prevent decompression sickness) or recompression facilities on the island (the nearest is either Thailand or mainland India) Maz opted to miss out the first dive. Obviously named after the large Sea Fans they sensibly do this as a no-stop dive (i.e. no planned decompression) given the remoteness of everything, although impressively they had emergency first aid oxygen onboard. Camera in hand I was hoping for some big pelagic fish, but none were there to oblige, so I contented myself with taking pics of the sea fans, however Miranda hadn’t realised I wanted her in the shot too to give some perspective, which took a bit of chasing and framing!

Maz emerges from the waves

Next dive was The Junction. Rolling into the water it was immediately apparent that there was a bit of a current flowing. Heaving ourselves down the anchor line, Maz & I were starting to wonder if it was actually worth it considering the deep dive I’d just done already and it was in a strong currently like this in Egypt that my lens flooded :o( The rest of the group continued down. Nearing the bottom we passed through a shoal of barracuda, then off to the side was a big Napoleon Wrasse and straight ahead was a white tip reef shark. Unfortunately we were clinging on to the rocks with our finger nails whilst I was trying to shelter the camera.

The end of another perfect day

Miraculously the group from the other boat left the safety of the line and swam off toward the reef, bubbles streaming horizontally behind them! We had other ideas and decided up was better than being battered by the current. The guys we were with decided to cling onto the anchor line doing flag impressions, whereas we pulled out our deco buoy and reel, waved goodbye then let go of the line. Immediate relief, now bobbing about with the current instead of fighting it and we were able to send up our buoy for the boat to see and follow us.

Divers getting ready in the morning

The ride back was as much fun as before only we were now pushing into the sea so it took much longer and all were in need of a beer back at Café Del Mar. That evening we were treated to one of Gyatry’s movies, not in English but the singing and dance moves were outstanding. I could hardly tear myself away to gorge on a rather luvely fish cooked with coconut and wrapped in a banana leaf, prawns were now unfortunately off the menu. We soon settled into a routine of evenings eating, drinking and socialising - a definite respite from the intensity of the mainland.

Maz lets the stress of the mainland dissolve around her

The next day we headed off to South Button for some more diving. A tiny wee island with contrasting scenery depending on whether you dive the sheltered or seaward side. The first dive was pretty enough, but the second had more dramatic underwater scenery with more rocks, crags and corals. The following day was the charity dive, so we were eager to see if there was going to be a good turn out. We weren’t disappointed with various boats going out. We went to the Wall which dropped from about 5m to 50m, but unfortunately the visibility was really poor so we could only see things at close quarters which made for some excitement when a huge Napoleon Wrasse (some 4ft) appeared from nowhere! The second dive was Pilot Reef a nice carpet reef of corals and the normal fish life, but Maz & I decided to just play about a bit and I stole her fin – teehee.

Maz takes a break from the laptop

Overall the day was a great success and furthermore Barefoot kindly offered a second day to make a real difference – what stars!

With only one day of diving left we had time for some serious relaxation – sat on our balcony feverishly writing up our diaries and updating the photo albums – but what beautiful surroundings to ‘work’ in! One night however I was rudely awaken by what I thought was someone clambering up our stairs and wobbling the hut. Just as I was expecting someone to burst in through the door all hell let loose as the hut violently shock from side to side. Waiting for the inevitable collapse and wondering if the bed might help soften the blow, it was suddenly all over. Another quake, our third of the trip so far with this one reaching 4.7 on the Richter scale. Quote of the night was one tourist asking the staff which was the highest tree to climb expecting a repeat of the Tsunami. They weren’t the only ones afraid, the locals were raising all manner of commotion with hollering and dogs barking, I guess they have every reason to be nervous given what they had to live through and endure last time. Fortunately apart from the waves lapping faster all was well. In true form Maz slept through it blissfully unaware..!

Our beach hut - very nice, if not a bit wobbly!

The last dive was one we were really looking forward to – Duncan wreck – metal, yippee! Not sure what to expect we weren’t put off by the low visibility and were surprised to find quite a large shipwreck of about 250ft lying in only 25m. We set about exploring and had a great dive looking in all the nooks n crannies and with the wreck being home to shoals of big fish there was a lot to see. Our excitement wasn’t shared and those less used to diving in low vis didn’t really seem to enjoy the experience – strange as this had been our best dive so far and we were under the water for over an hour!

The best beach in Asian according to TIME magazine

When given the option we were keen to do a second dive and spent a further hour in slightly better vis exploring the wreck once more whilst others opted to sunbath on deck. The stern was fairly intact and stood proud with prop and rudder in place, big enough to swim through. Around the stern were open portholes and the railings stood out eerily and always look photogenic. In one hold was the big spare prop and in front of the steam engine I counted 3 boilers after wriggling under some decking. We were also found by a huge sweetlips some 3ft in size who obviously knew I’d left the camera behind as he followed us around! At the bow which lay on the starboard side was a beautiful purple soft coral garden. No wreck dive is complete without evidence of rust somewhere on your kit and this was no exception – exploration done!

Sun sets over the beach

Our time in Havelock flew past and it was the day before leaving that we eventually summonsed up the energy to visit beach #7 which everyone raves about. It is indeed a beautiful beach with 2km of pristine white sand fringed by tropical rainforest and lapped by turquoise waters. As in keeping with Havelock there are very few tourists so the scene is not spoilt by masses of people, touts and tacky gift shops. How long will it last I don’t know, but for now we enjoyed the sunset as ‘Moon Child’ a hippy we met on the bus who would probably stay at Havelock until the next full moon (and there was us thinking losing track of only the days in the week was laid back enough!), danced in the waves.

Back down to earth waiting for the ferry

Unfortunately our time at Havelock was at an end. We’d eaten well – although they never did catch any more prawns, drank plenty, dived, relaxed and met some lovely people. With our goodbyes and thanks said to all we boarded the more conventional transport method when not gallivanting about on helicopters and set off onboard the ferry back to Port Blair. A BIG thanks goes to all at Barefoot India for making us feel so welcome and of course for the sterling fund raising effort which raised 157ukp for CARE International.

Our ship arrives

We spent a night in Port Blair before catching the flight back to Kolkata and spent the evening at the sound and light show held at the Cellular Jail which portrays the morbid and brutal history of the island at the hands of the British. Built over a period of 18 years from 1890 the jail is preserved as a shrine to India’s freedom fighters. Originally seven wings radiated from a central tower but the three that remain and the original gallows still standing as a permanent reminder, give a vivid impression of the ’hell on earth’ that the prisoners endured.

After tracking down a restaurant serving prawns, we hit the sack, ready for the long haul ‘home’ to Tinfish. In the morning, getting an auto-rickshaw to take us and all our kit to the airport took some persuasion, but we were soon checked in and ready to board the flight back to Kolkata. This time we were over nighting in Kolkata with our flight to Gaya not for another 24hrs. We found a suitable room for the night in the Chowringhee area then set about exploring the city a little bit on foot…. In training for our Nepal trek which was fast approaching – we never did get around to using the bikes every evening in Havelock to get fit!

Queen Vic sits on her thrown

We ambled around the Victoria Memorial, an imposing building that wouldn’t be out of place in London and is an awesome reminder of the bygone time of the Raj in India. Built from white marble there are portraits, status and busts of almost all the main participants in British Indian history. We ended up catching 50 winks in the lavish gardens that surround the building which seemed to be the place to be if you were an Indian courting couple!

With the taxi booked for early am, we didn’t hit the nightlight available in the big smoke and before long we were back at the airport only to find our plane delayed by a couple of hours :o( Fortunately we knew a good internet café, so settled down to uploading diaries and photo’s that we’d organised whilst relaxing at Havelock. There seemed to be a lack of departure calls, but with our flight time fast approaching we made our way to the departure lounge and as it was now lunch time tucked into the only thing available – crisps. Now what to do with the empty packet… I almost fell off my seat, as there within an easy arms length to the right of me was a bin… our first in India..!!!

The grand Victoria Memorial

The plane was equally empty on the flight back and we were allowed to use the brand new international terminal at Gaya, they are expecting a massive influx of monks on pilgrimage, but for the dozen passengers arriving today it appeared somewhat overkill. Baggage reclaimed we left to find the taxi rank – ahh, what taxis? The rest of the passengers were in the same predicament, so a few local cars were coerced into running us over to Bodhgaya.

Our dusty car gets a clean by a crawling child

Back to the hotel and there was Tinfish, a little dusty but pleased to see us nevertheless. We then set about re-stowing all our kit into the allocated nooks and crannies, to an audience of monks and locals. What became quite apparent was the differences in the culture between the local Indians (who just stood and stared emotionlessly gawping) and the visiting monks, who although couldn’t speak English at least smiled, waved or gave us the thumbs up… we were really looking forward to Tibet and onwards into the Far East.

One of the monks approached us and spoke a bit of English. Supposedly an important Lama was staying at the hotel and he thought we should receive a blessing to help us on our long voyage. There seemed no harm in getting all the help available, so after a bit of arranging we met with His Eminence Kathok Gyartse Rinpoche from Tibet. We had an envelope each stuffed with a few rupees and a hada (a white scarf), which we offered as a gift and in turn we had the hada blessed and returned to us. He also gave us a few small seed type things which we had to swallow. Job done, all three of us blessed (inc Tinfish) for the onwards journey.

His Eminence Kathok Gyartse Rinpoche

We met up with an American chap Jack, who we shared a taxi with from the airport, for dinner and went to the restaurant next door where we’d eaten before. We tucked into a curry feast, palak paneer, butter chicken, biriyani and chapatti, whilst we talked about our epic journey. Jack wondered if we’d had many health problems and apart from a bit of an upset stomach here and there we’d pretty much been fine – touch wood.

Maz gets a blessing

We again went to bed quite early, camped up in the roof tent still in the hotel driveway, as we had a long drive to the Nepal border ahead of us (in time – not distance!) Just before midnight it hit me… get me out of the tent… fighting with the tent zip, fly sheet then cover.... too late to get down the ladders… up came dinner, unfortunately all over Tinfish’s bonnet :o( Arrgh, I felt pretty crap and collapsed back into bed groaning. Half an hour later I woke to Maz scrambling with the tent flap and up came her dinner, but she carefully aimed for the same side of the bonnet…. MOVE and a second later we lay side by side heads out of the tent covering the entire bonnet and much of the hotel driveway.

The performance was repeated through out the night and when we weren’t adding to the new decoration outside we lay in the tent groaning wondering if we’d be able to get a refund after our blessing – I thought His Eminence was paying more attention to the TV then us! That was until a rather upset hotel attendant forced us from our erratic slumber, he wasn’t so impressed with our modern art on his driveway right outside the hotel! Fortunately Maz could crawl down the ladder as I wasn’t going anywhere and they managed to hose down the worst of it… shame really as it would have made a great pic of the week, the green of Tinfish really complemented the saffron coloured spillage..!

Tinfish gets his blessing

We both died in bed the rest of the day, slowly recovering enough to venture out by the evening and hunt down some dry bread and water. We called in on the restaurant manager who surprisingly refunded us half our money, for the food that didn’t stay down I suppose! The drive to the border would have to wait another day. After a better nights sleep, I felt at least good enough to head off, although Maz was still suffering. We arranged to meet up with Martin outside Patna before crossing the Ganges and plodded the 132km from Bodhgaya in only 3hrs!

With both cars back together again it was off to Nepal, as long as we could get over these damn roads which were getting worse and worse. Battered and still not 100% we spotted a welcome sight… a Reliance service station, one of the new ones with showers. It was a quick decision, we’d camp there for the night. Maz crawled back up into the tent whilst I showered (it had only been 3 days!) and Martin ordered some food. I didn’t feel up to eating, but had spotted a ‘movie room’, so tonight would be DVD night. Maz had now emerged from the tent and was feeling well enough to sit with a bottle of pop and join us for a movie.

An Oasis.. With hot showers..!

With a whole 90km left before the border we decided to get up reasonably early to shower and be on the road. 3 hours later we finally arrived, exhausted after being shaken about on the ‘highway’ which had to be the worst yet we’d driven on in India and that is some accolade! We were halfway over the bridge between the two countries before we realised as there was no obvious customs or immigration apparent. We were redireced to a ramshackle shack and started the well practiced procedure for leaving a country, after declining the offer of tea and explaining we were in somewhat of a hurry. Carnet stamped, passports stamped and an hour later we were leaving India and onwards to country 16…..

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