04/02/2013, Rutland Island
As we raced along at 7.5 knots with one reef in the mainsail we suddenly realised how little proper sailing we had done recently. A lot of the sailing around Thailand and Malaysia is motorsailing, or at best sailing in light winds. Here there is a steady trade wind and with the right wind angle and sails away we go. The air temperature and sea temperature here is ideal, no overheated nights.
The islands are mostly uninhabited and there are hardly any other boats around, apart from the occasional small fishing boat. Last night we were joined in our anchorage bay by a massive very snooty British super yacht called Twizzle. They had passed us on the way to the Andamans without a word. They continued that policy. No g and t s on the fore deck with them. The fishing here is very good, although it has to be said our catch rate has not matched that of Storyteller who produced for us a delightful Rick Stein tuna carpaccio.
We finally did some snorkelling and found lots of fish but sadly the coral was mostly bleached. Hopefully we will find some better reefs. The islands themselves are just glorious with long white sand beaches backed by virgin rain forest, many of which are leatherback turtle laying sites. Presumably there are indigenous tribes in the forests, but we have seen not a sign of anyone along the shorelines.
01/02/2013, Andaman Sea
We left Port Blair first thing in the morning and sailed South to our first anchorage at Chiryatapu. This is a pretty anchorage on the end of the main Andaman Island and is a good stop-over on the way to the uninhabited islands to the south. We are now a sailing boat again as we have the consistent trade winds up here, unlike Thailand. Michael had a few strikes on the way but the fish got away, but then we caught a massive, beautiful sailfish the size of a dolphin. We managed to get it to the boat and tried to remove the hook, but in the end it got away with our lure. We were both rather physically and emotionally drained after this experience and didn't put the lines out again. The first anchorage was very pretty with crystal clear water, but I didn't go swimming as crocodiles are supposed to be a problem here.
The following day we left for the Cinque Islands which are a group of uninhabited islands surrounded by pristine reefs and home to turtles and wild deer. We had a wonderful sail down as the wind had increased, and Michael caught a reasonable sized tuna on the way. We are allowed to anchor in the Cinque islands, but we are not allowed to go ashore. Apart from our three boats, the only people around are a small group of fisherman that work out of rowing boats and have a sightly larger boat with an engine that they sleep in. Our first anchorage was rather too rolly so we moved to another, more sheltered site. The scenery is awesome and the snorkelling, which we are about to undertake is supposed to be magnificent. Let's hope so.
30/01/2013, Port Blair
We are in Port Blair harbour for the third day, planning to leave tomorrow morning.
The checking in took almost two whole days. The first day we were boarded in succession by three groups of between 3 and 8 people, customs, immigration and harbour police. Each group and each member of each group required one or more copies of all the paperwork, and these all had to be stamped by us on the front and back (in addition to the stamp already there) and then stamped by them with several different stamps, front and back. All stamps then had to be signed. We expected to have to provide around four copies of each form, but in the end we must have provided at least 15. As you can imagine, this took some considerable time! They asked us nothing about wine, but Storyteller were given an allowance of two bottles a day and the rest was taped up and bonded!
When this first day was over we heaved a sigh of relief, expecting the visit ashore to the Harbourmaster for the cruising permit to be a bit of a doddle as previous blogs suggested - NOT the case! However, we did manage to finish before lunch and were just thinking about the taste of cold beer and a curry when immigration called our wonderful taxi driver to say we had to all visit their office. Off we went wondering what on earth they wanted now and were all seated, facing different directions in the middle of a rather shabby office. They asked Storyteller for one document which they then copied yet again and then off we went again. We had just got into the taxi when they called Lady Kay back and demanded yet another copy of our itinerary. Not sure what point they were trying to make.
AFter changing some money we finally made it to the recommended Indian restaurant, but after sitting down found they did not serve beer! We eventually did have a good meal though, but as we left we found that there was a bar downstairs that did serve beer - shame! The next port of call was to get SIM cards. This actually took over 2 hours and they have yet to be activated!
On a lighter note, Port Blair is delightful in a very Indian sort of way. We are already planning our next year's trip! Our taxi driver, Ravi, and his friend drive 1960s English cars that have been glued together and painted white. They even have flag poles on the front of the bonnet. The driving is much worse than Phuket, (can you believe it?) and the only thing that anyone slows down or gives way for is the wandering sacred cow that steps straight out right in front of you. The population is a mixture of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh and the women dress in beautifully colourful saris. All the signs are in English, and just about everyone speaks English which is good. The market is similar to the ones we are used to except that live chickens and goats are slaughtered on site as they are bought. I avoided this area!
We all plan to leave tomorrow morning, having fixed our various boat problems and are looking forward to a swim.
26/01/2013, Andaman Sea
We made it to Indian Territorial Waters! We're safely anchored in Port Blair, the main town in the Andamans. We arrived in convoy as Storyteller and Kalypso caught up with us by first light. A perfect entrance. We were surprised to find how much commercial shipping is based here. There are tugs, passenger ships, ferries, bulk carriers and general freight ships. A lot of the freight ships and ferries look a little dilapidated. The harbour is a deep inlet, rather like Falmouth with lots of watery fingers cloaked in trees and vegetation. With the exception of the dockside and town to the East of us there is relatively little inhabitation, although one peninsula has a lot of prefabricated housing. The temperature is less extreme than Phuket, mellowed with a pleasant see breeze. We now have to wait for customs, immigration, the navy etc to clear us in, a process that can take two days. A good opportunity to rest while we wait for them since it was a surprisingly tiring passage.
Our theory is that a short passage - three nights and two days is worse than a long one because after three days you get into the routine of 3 hour watches. Our last day saw us attempting to even up the fishing stakes unsuccessfully. Three strikes from large fish and one catch of a tiddler which was swiftly returned to the sea. We did though see lots of dolphins and hopefully will manage better fishing around the islands.
Most of the final day and night we were able to sail without engine assistance as a pleasant 15 knot trade wind powered us towards the islands. The slight hitch was that our engines would not start. Eventually we got one going. A nifty device called a pathmaker had seized so that power only went to our house batteries, not the engine start batteries, so the engine batteries were dead. Hopefully we have a solution, but overnight it meant that we kept one engine running so as to be sure that we had at least one engine to anchor with in the morning.
Our friends on Storyteller had problems with their VHF radio. Someone modified their aerial to add a fancy identifying device called AIS. The effect was that their radio had a distance of 1 mile not 20 which the Harbourmaster here did not appreciate.
Anyway all three boats are anchored together next to a couple of super yachts and a small cruising boat waiting for permission to explore the glories of the Andamans
26/01/2013, Andaman Sea
Well we finally got enough wind to sail and are doing a reasonably pleasant if somewhat bumpy 6 knots towards our destination. Yesterday afternoon a massive schooner called Twizzle shot past us at 11 knots also heading for Port Blair. Despite huge masts etc it had no sails up. We put up our sails in defiance and have been sailing ever since.
Our two problems seem to be the perennial issue of our engine starting batteries which seem not to be picking up a charge. Our second "problem" is we have caught no fish but Storyteller has caught 2 Mahi Mahi. They have though got fishermen as guests.
It's quite tiring - three nights and we will probably have got used to it. However, tonight our third night should be our last.
We hope to arrive in Port Blair tomorrow morning.
Leaving Yangon for the Golden Globe you pass through busy wide streets laid out by the British. We pass through the university area, often quite dilapidated buildings in poorly managed parkland. Our guide tells us that the military closed down the university for a period and built out of town universities. However no one wanted to use them. Later we saw a massive "IT university" an enormous edifice totally empty, stranded in a remote village. A monument to military stupidity and grandiloquence. Past the large lake where Aung San Su Chi lives we reach the city boundary where motor bikes, tuck tucks and bicycles re-appear. Remarkably they are banned within Rangoon, making it almost a car only zone.
On the outskirts we stop at a war cemetery.
It's a poignant,beautiful spot. The graves of thousands of young men lie here, still tended and often visited. To our eyes surprising are the long lists of colonial soldiers killed. Not just Indian troops and Ghurkas but soldiers from all over Africa killed in the 1944 -45 final phase of the war against Japan in Burma.
As the road reaches the countryside the inner lanes of the road are frequently covered with rice being dried.
Whole sections of road are brown with layers of drying rice. We stop by a river where fish is being dried.
Numerous stalls sell the dried fish.
By the riverside families stuff containers with rotting fish to make fish paste. Apparently the more rotten the better.
We arrive at the base camp for the Golden Boulder, a dusty bus station where 20 or more large trucks are parked. By the side of the trucks are rickety steps, a bit like getting on an airplane. The rows are packed close together, six people to a row, even Air Asia would be impressed. The drivers do not move until the truck is absolutely full, a source of much argument and debate. Should one large American pay the same as a skinny Asian child?
The truck roars off up the narrow mountain road. As it hurtles round the tight switchbacks the advantage of being packed like sardines becomes obvious. There is no where to go. You could only fall out if everyone fell out. The truck stops a few times on the way up to wait for trucks coming down the hill. The waiting seems inordinate in the stifling heat. Eventually we arrive at the final station from where we walk. The pagoda still seems to be a long way up, and it is. Unless you hire a team of porters! Four strong teams of young Burmese men carry tourists to the top on bamboo litters made of bamboo wit canvas stretched across, a kind of sedan chair.
"We like thai people best - they pay to be carried up and down. Americans heavy! Only pay for one way - so we charge them double." Europeans, German, French and English tend to walk gamefully.
The walk wouldn't be too bad except for the heat. We circle up the steep paved track. Followed by a group of porters. "You vey tired". "Still long way". "Maybe your wife tired". At last after an hour or so the top. Our hotel for the night is right on the ridge we sink into a chair in the cool interior to rehydrate.
The short final walk to the golden rock takes you up paved stairways past the ubiquitous sellers of trinkets to a remarkable rock.
Monks, children and adults all head for the famous rock.
The giant golden boulder balances on a lower rock pivoted on a hair of Buddha, allegedly. Over the golden boulder itself a stupa has been constructed. A small group of men busy themselves on the boulder sticking on gold leaf and picking up fallen gold. The views are stupendous from the top, along the narrow ridge. Twinkling in the distance you can see numerous small monasteries some nestling on the slopes, others on the adjacent peaks. THe really energetic pilgrim can do a four day circuit of the mountain pagodas.
As at all Burmese holy areas you walk bare foot. This can prove quite hazardous. Apart from the dog muck risk, when wet the tiles prove very slippery, making for dangerous steps. We saw couples young and old slipping On the tiles made wet by the mountain mists.
Back at the hotel we made an important discovery: hidden inside Myanmar beer caps is a message "thank you" or "free beer" or even money refunds. So far we have gained two free beers and about 20p in winnings. Maybe it's a reward for the merit we earned by climbing the mountain .
Needless to say the descent was a lot easier, apart from the aching muscles. Numerous Thai and Koreans whizzed past carried aloft by their porters. We stopped and admired the numerous trinket stalls, including the sellers of native medicines. Along with herbs, ground bark are monkeys feet, snake skins and animal skulls. One stall holder had just caught a long cobra. The flesh was being smoked and the unfortunate snakes skin was being stretched out to dry. "No photos,no photos" he cried. It's illegal.
Finally the return drive which seemed a lot easier despite the seating arguments, and we were off to Hpa En.