Wonders of nature

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Limestone formations in a cave in Baratang Island. -

Limestone formations in a cave in Baratang Island. -

A limestone cave and a mud volcano in Baratang Island are sights to behold.

Limestone formations in

WE were unprepared for the enchanting world that awaited us at the end of a 105-kilometre drive down the Andaman Trunk Road from Port Blair, followed by a short ferry ride from Middle Strait to Baratang Island and another half-an-hour ride on a speedboat. As the speedboat knifed its way through the waters of the Baratang Creek, tiny islands and endless stretches of massive, primordial tropical forests bordered by mangrove swamps bobbed into view on either side.

When the boat operator belonging to the Baratang Forest Division eased the boat into a tiny jetty at Nayadera Creek and we climbed the few steps to the landing, a board greeted us Mangrove Canopy Walk, it announced.

The Mangrove Canopy Walk itself is a tribute to the ingenuity of the staff of the Baratang Forest Division, of the Andaman and Nicobar islands administration. The division is led by Divisional Forest Officer Saurabh Kumar, who belongs to the Indian Forest Service. The walk begins on a narrow bamboo bridge 240 metres long, winding its way through thick mangroves.

The information on a board was instructive: Mangrove canopy walkway is designed in such a way that neither any mangrove branch was pruned nor any tree felled during the construction of the path. One can get well acquainted with various aspects of mangroves, its morphology, salt water adaptations and its services while walking on this path. According to another hoarding, the free services rendered by mangrove swamps were flood control, trapping of silt, storm breakers and coastal protection barriers.

The Mangrove Canopy

The mangrove canopy walk, the information boards in Hindi and English, eco huts, sit-outs and chairs formed part of an open interpretation centre to provide information on mangroves, their morphology, their uses and so on, said Saurabh Kumar. Overall, we have made an attempt to inform tourists about the contribution of mangroves in the protection of coastal areas, he said.

We got off the bridge and trudged over a kilometre through dense tropical forests. At a couple of clearings were paddy fields with idyllic huts located strategically. On either side of the path there were eco-huts to take shelter when it rains, eco sit-outs, benches and chairs, all made of bamboo plats.

This is the last point where we get sunlight, said Shahid Ali, liaison officer, Raj Niwas, Port Blair, pointing to the faint ray of light filtering through the dense foliage. Then the cave came into view. T. George Kutty, deputy ranger, Baratang Forest Division, had thoughtfully brought with him a powerful torchlight.

The cave was a sight to behold massive limestone formations dangled from the ceiling like chandeliers, glowed from the sides and sprouted from the ground like short pilasters. One hung like a thick pillar from the ceiling of the cave. The serrated edges of the limestone blocks shone in the dark. It was a challenge, however, to photograph them from the narrow walkway of the cave especially with the constant dripping of water from the ceiling. George Kutty tapped a few limestone formations and sweet notes rang out just as they do in musical pillars in some temples in south India.

According to Saurabh Kumar, there were huge deposits of limestone, particularly at Nayadera creek on Baratang Island. While some were in the form of caves, others were layered one upon the other. The origin of limestone caves is complex and scientists are not in complete agreement as to the sequence of their formation, Saurabh Kumar said. Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed at the bottom of the sea. It is formed by the compression of deposits of marine life, shells, skeletons and coral over millions of years. The formations are pushed above sea level in many parts of the world. They have different hues, textures and degrees of purity.

The limestone caves at Baratang were opened to visitors to promote eco-tourism. We returned to the Nayadera jetty and sped on the boat again to see another marvel on Baratang Island: its mini volcano that spews mud. It looked like a small hill with mud oozing out of its crater. The mud coursed out in two or three directions. Every now and then, a thick bubble formed where the mud oozed out. Sometimes, there was a sulphurous smell. This mud volcano last erupted on February 18, 2003. Before that, its major eruption was in March 1983. According to the local people, the heat generated then singed the vegetation around.

A mud volcano is created by natural gases emitted by decaying organic matter underground. As the mud is pushed upwards by the gas, it deposits and hardens above the ground. As more mud oozes out and spills over the edge, it grows in size and forms a miniature volcano with a rich, creamy mud crater at the top. The mud is cold. It is not called lava but mud flow. Many mud volcanoes exist on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Iran, China and Pakistan.

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