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BARREN ISLAND AND THE ARCHIPELAGO
Shipboard Monotony-Edible Sharks—Calm Nights—Squalls—Barren Island
- Appearance-Anchorage – Landing - place - Hot Spring-Goats, The
WE were six days out from land before Barren Island hove in sight. Since New Year's Day,* when we got up anchor amongst the islands of the Mergui Archipelago, the schooner had been carried by the lightest of breezes towards the Andamans. The days slipped by, each one as monotonous as its predecessor; there was no change in the wind, save when it fell calm for a space, and the sun was so hot that we gladly sought shelter in the cabin, where occupation might be found with a book. Once we harpooned a porpoise, but he broke away from the iron, and now and again, on a line trailing astern, we caught a small shark, immediately claimed by the cook, to appear later on the table; for although the name seems instinctively to prejudice one against them, all sharks are edible, and the smaller species, which can scarcely include human material in their dietary scale, are by no means to be despised when fresh provisions are unobtainable, in spite of being often somewhat dry and flavourless.
But the nights were ample compensation for any possible discomfort by day. Around was the calm flat sea, and overhead a pale blue sky, across which swung the tropic moon, so bright that all but the larger stars were drowned in light. Then, when the heat of day was over, we would take our pillows on deck and—in a perfect silence but for the creaking booms and the water gurgling in the scupper-pipes — watch mast and stars swing slowly to and fro until sleep brought unconsciousness of the night and its beauty
But it is not always so even in the tropics, and the contrary, and not infrequent, experience, without going to extremes, is the squall of a moonless night.
As the dense clouds rapidly advance from the horizon and blot out the stars, one is left in inky darkness broken only by the glimmer of the lamps in the binnacle. Soon the wind comes tearing down and whistles loudly in the rigging, while with lowered sail, the vessel seems to fly through the waterjudging by the rolling wings of foam that stream from her shoulders and gleam weirdly in the green and red rays of the sidelights. Presently the rain falls in a stinging chilly torrent, killing the breeze and leaving the boat rolling uncomfort ably on the surface; and when the furious downpour is over, and the night is quiet once more, all that remains to show the past disturbance is sodden canvas, stiffened cordage, and the uneasy heave of the wind-whipped sea.
So the squall passes – generally leaving a calm behind it --having in a little space squandered enough unavailing breeze to have helped the vessel on her course for hours to come.
At last, one evening, we saw Narkondam from the masthead, about sixty miles away; and next morning Barren Island had risen above the horizon. These two little islands, eastern outliers of the Andamans, and connecting links between the eruptive regions of Burma and Sumatra, are both of volcanic origin, though the former is now extinct.
Barren Island, about two miles in diameter, is merely the crater of a volcano rising abruptly from the sea, which, a quarter of a mile from shore, is nearly everywhere 150 fathoms or more in depth.
Approaching from the east, we caught a glimpse, while still
some distance off, of the black tip of an eruptive cone, showing above the rim of the crater, which at a nearer view proved to be of igneous basalt, clothed on the outer slopes with a growth of creepers, bushes, and of trees 50 to 60 feet high, frequented by numbers of fruit pigeons.
On the north-west side of the island the wall of the old crater has been broken down, and a large gap about a hundred yards wide at the base affords an easy means of access to the interior. It is through this opening that the best view of the cone is obtained from seawards.
As we sailed past the gap that afternoon the scene was one of striking beauty. Against a background of bright blue sky the little island rose from a sea of lapis-lazuli, which ceaselessly dashed white breakers on the rocky shores. The steep brown slopes, part clothed in brilliant green, framed in the cone-a black and solid mass, round which a pair of eagles circled slowly.
Fortunately for those vessels which may visit the island, there is one place off-shore where soundings can be obtained with the handline, and there we came to anchor in 15 fathoms, a little beach and clump of coconut palms bearing N.N.E., a quarter of a mile away.
Sails were soon stowed and we rowed off to reconnoitre the gap, which is the only practicable landing-place; everywhere else the land slopes steeply to the sea. To the south a heavy swell was breaking on the shore, but in the little cove formed here the sea was perfectly calm, and so clear that as we passed into shallower water the coral bottom, 10 fathoms down, was plainly visible.
A rough wall of lava about a dozen feet high stretches across the opening, and to the left of this, among the stones and boulders of the shore, we found, below high-water mark, a little stream of fresh water trickling to the sea; it is the only water on the island, and at that time was at a temperature of 97.5° F.*
* Temperature in 1891 = 103.5. Hume visited the island in 1873 and noted 140°, while in 1866 the Andaman Committee found the temperature to be between 158o and 163°. In 1857 Dr Mouat landed, and writes of "a natural boiling spring, the waters so extremely hot that they rendered the sea in the immediate neighbourhood warm enough to roast crabs in their shells," and about