1996 - Gan Again.
The idea came gradually. I could not take leave for more than ten days, that really ruled out UK or the Philippines, where my wife Bhel, comes from. I had been under a lot of pressure at work and I really needed to get away. I was looking at the map of the Middle East and centred on Abu Dhabi - where we live it was difficult to see where we could go that was , cheap, a real change from life in the Emirates and most important, somewhere where we actually wanted to visit.
A couple we know were going on leave to Sri Lanka and so we thought we would visit them, they were leaving for UK, only a few days after the date that my leave was to start. Then I noticed the Maldives. Good Grief ! We might even be able to get a day trip or something to Gan. I got the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism fax number from our local Travel Agent and asked what was possible.
In a few days we received a reply and details of a Resort Club actually on Gan Itself ! I couldn't believe it. We could also go to the Maldives via Colombo and it wasn't too expensive. They gave me the fax number of the Club and I sent off asking for details of what was there still from the old Air Force days.
When they came back and told us that the Resort Club was actually using the old Sergeants Mess and there were lots of RAF remains, that clinched it. We were going.
Our leave date arrived and we were upgraded to first class on the flight to Colombo as it was the time when all the illegal immigrants were being deported from the Emirates and the rear of the plane was absolutely full of desperate housemaids. Our friend was waiting (and waiting) outside Colombo Airport for us and whisked us away to his delightful bungalow in the jungle where we passed a very pleasant few days with him, his Sri Lankan wife and their baby girl.
We flew next from Colombo to Male and the first sight of all the beautiful Atolls was all that I remembered. I had never been to Male ( pronounced Marlay) and I was not all that impressed. It is completely built up. There are a few quite magnificent buildings, especially the huge gold-domed Mosque, but we wandered about all one afternoon and did not see much, other than a load of small shops sitting on interconnecting streets covering the whole place. The Hotel in which we had to spend one night had brackish water in the taps, no alcohol in the bar and a tiny room, in which we had difficulty opening our case. Next day however we left early in the morning and as we were waiting in the departure lounge we saw a lot of evidence of alcohol and cigarette smuggling. There were people unpacking drink and cartons and putting them in carrier bags with a load of spices on top to hide the contents. We were fascinated as it was so blatant and obvious. I couldn't see how anyone could hope to get away with it. We should have done the same, however, with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.
The flight was pretty uneventful. it was a small "island hopper" of some 12 seats and as I had not seen Gan for 35 years, I really wanted to get a photo of the place from the air. When we came in to land the island was on the starboard side which was the side my wife was on, so she had to try and get some.
I could not believe how grown up the place was. It was really only possible to see the runway and on both sides of it hardly anything but Coconut palms. If one looked carefully there were buildings in the trees and the old Aircraft Parking Area stuck out like a sore thumb. Immigration and Customs were a formality only and it was then that I realised that we would not have had any problems bringing in a few bottles of Duty Free. However we had been told it was not allowed, and I am a law abiding type.
A minibus took us to the East end of the Island and all the way I was craning my neck to see all the things I still recognised. Apart from the general dilapidation and prolific vegetation not much had changed at all. I was very pleased.
The Ocean Reef Resort was a very open and airy place and the little chalets were perfectly acceptable, not being lavish, but having a shower, etc., a big double bed , a quite adequate air conditioner and a ceiling fan and a small patio outside every room with a table and two chairs, from which we could watch the sea and the sun go down. It still had the air of a NAAFI about it, although no one but me would have noticed it. This was fairly low season and there were only about a dozen guests. It did not suit one young Spanish couple who took one look around and decided they wanted to be moved to another resort. They were on their honeymoon, but I don't really see what they had against it.
I cannot say that it was a very friendly place, Each person or couple or family had a table allocated and this seemed to be where we were expected to go for every meal. The food was adequate, but I had been expecting and looking forward to lots of fresh fish and fruit. It seems that all the fish that the local fishermen were catching were being sold to a Japanese refrigerated fishing boat - a huge thing moored in the Lagoon. There were so many fish about that I would have thought that the Resort could have had their own boat to supply their needs. The bar was not very well stocked and a can of beer was nearly three US $. A bottle of wine was $20. I always have a drink before I go to bed so we went to the bar every evening, but often were on our own, but we are a very self contained couple and the main point was to see the Island.
As my wife could not ride a bicycle I saw this as an ideal opportunity to teach her and to get around the place. We reported to the bicycle shop where we viewed their collection of bikes. It took about half an hour to find two which fitted us, as I am 6'4" and my wife 5'2", then the problem was to find two which could actually be ridden. I am a practical person and I was itching to fix a few of them, but neither I nor the attendant had any tools at all and they were all suffering from a distinct lack of maintenance. In the end my chain came off every 5 or 10 minutes as it was far too slack and my wife's saddle was the most uncomfortable known to man, or woman, for that matter. However in about half an hour my wife had learned to ride which was quite an accomplishment under the circumstances, so we took a lot of photos to prove it and set off round the Island.
We took the road West to the end of the Runway and continued on to the South and then East past the old Pakistani camp, which, if it remained at all, was hidden in the prolific vegetation that had grown up in the 40 years since the Island had been cleared by members of the Airfield Construction Squadron. The Perimeter road continued all the way round to the East end but before we got there, my Wife's posteria was in no condition to make it all the way round. We turned about two thirds of the way to the East end and struggled through dense jungle undergrowth to get to the beach. Way out across the shallow reef on the edge where the big Indian Ocean rolls in, was a wreck of something sticking up out of the surf. I looked through the telephoto lens of my video camera and it really looked like the remains of the old Bulldozer that I had seen abandoned out on the edge of the reef 35 years before and explored many times. Surely it could not have survived until now. I promised myself we would wade out to it in the following days. The ride back was beautiful. The trees arched over the road and shaded it. we only saw one or two locals walking and one pick up traveling at the Gan pace of about five MPH passed us ( or did we pass it ? )
After our experience on the bikes, the next day we decided to walk for a change. It had rained at night. The heavy tropical downpour that had ruined the sound at the ASTRA so many years before. It was windy but not cold and we had one umbrella between us, so we set out across the causeway that now connected Gan and Fedhu. I had never been off Gan before, so this was a new experience for me too.
Once across the causeway we found a matrix of straight sandy lanes running between small cottages constructed with the only building material that was plentiful. Lumps of coral - all cracked to approximately the same size and stuck together with cement. Surrounded by neat walls of the same material and topped by corrugated iron sheeting ( like most of the buildings remaining on Gan) these houses were surprisingly well kept and often boasted little gardens to with Mango trees and the inevitable Coconuts. People were very friendly and the cute local kids all wanted their photos taken. Grown ups were more reserved, especially the women who often were very shy and dressed in typical Muslim dress, but they obviously did not see many tourists walking through their village, and were very interested in us. Most of the other guests at the Ocean Reef resort were there for the diving, which was superb, and did not venture out on foot.
There were the odd shops dotted about too. General stores and clothes shops mostly and prices were not competitive. We had coffee in one of the tiny cafes and were inspected with great interest, then as we had made it to the end of Fedhu and time was getting on we returned by the same route, picking our way between the puddles of the previous night's rain.
In the afternoon we wandered round the village of Gan and discovered a few shops selling tourist type, picture postcard type of ware, all of other resorts or of Male. We found a very small and dingy restaurant selling curry and soft drinks and as we always frequent the local food shops, we had a fish curry lunch and a number of other dishes which must have been local, as it was hard to say what they were. All washed down with a can of coke. It was very cheap and catered for the workers from around the village.
There were some offices near the Indian Army Memorial and I asked around if there was anyone about who remembered the RAF days. as no one we had seen up to then knew anything about them. I was told that a chap called Zady who was the STO (State Trading Officer), had worked for the RAF and would be in the next morning. I also asked about Ahmed Said, who was the Coffee Boy at the Air Radio Servicing Flight. Although several people knew him they all said that he had gone to Male several years before.
Next day I went on my own to the STO's office and found him there. I showed him the Photos of Gan that I had taken in the 1962 visit and he was most interested. He told me that he had worked in the Guardroom during the RAF years and as the only Maldivian Security man had been involved in the only murder investigation when someone on a visiting boat had been robbed and killed. As it was a local affair the British had not wanted to get involved and had given the case to him to handle. He had a car and offered to run us up to the Island of Hittadhu, which was really a long walk and would have taken us all day.
He picked us up at the Resort Reception and we drove through Fedhu again and on all the way to the last island of Hittadhu, where a lot of development was going on. A deep water harbour was being dredged out and this was obviously where all the future action was going to be as a lot of commercial buildings were being put up. He took the opportunity to show us one of his warehouses, and a house that he was using and renovating in the village part of the island.
After driving us around to see all that there was to see including the Telecommunications Centre, (Gan has it's own telephone network and you can even access the Internet I was told) We went back to Gan and he dropped us off after showing us his house there and inviting us for a curry dinner that evening. After the rather dull food in the hotel we were pleased to see lobster and other fresh fish on his table, all prepared by his own cook.
As we were pretty near the Jetty and had often walked down to the end and looked back at the huge hangar like steel framed building that was once home to the wooden Target Towing Launches that were used for SAR (search and rescue) we had bought some line and hooks and scrounged some old fish tails in the cafe for bait. I found a couple of rusty nuts and bolts laying on the jetty, to use as weights. We were set up for fishing. At night often, we went down to the end of the main jetty and threw our baited hook into the depths. We got lots of interesting bites but only actually caught one. I thought it was a sea snake and was quite disturbed when it was squirming and sliding about on the jetty. My wife was petrified. It turned out to be a Moray Eel. About 20 inches long. we just could not get it off the hook without murdering it, so that was what we did and threw it back to feed the other fish that we had been feeding all the time with our bait.
I used to get up early and run round the island by myself. I use running as a way of keeping fit and to enable me to enjoy a lot of food and drink without getting uncontrollably fat. I am basically a jogger and it used to take me about 30 minutes from the Club entrance, round the whole island by the longest direct route and back. One morning I happened to be running through the village as about 50 young girls were waiting to go into their work, which was a small textile factory, I think. I, of course kept my usual British calm, but was subject to a barrage of remarks and calls that I was quite glad I did not understand at all, clad only in shorts, vest and running shoes.
We hired two sets of flippers etc. and swam out to the edge of the reef. For me, who had been diving often down to the 100 ft. or so, bottom, it was a pleasant experience to see how the coral had recovered after the destruction round the jetty caused during the Air Force days. The sight of the gloomy depths over the edge and the large fish that suddenly appeared only a few yards away out of the fairly clear water was enough to deter my wife who is not a terrific swimmer to start with. We decided not to take up the German Diving Instructors offer of a demonstration dive using Scuba equipment , after all.
Next day was quite sunny and hot, so we donned hats and suntan cream and decided to go and see the bulldozer, for I was sure that was what it was. it took a good half hour to walk round to the South East corner and then find a way to the seashore through the dense vegetation. It was low tide and the water was not more that a foot deep, so we started to wade across the shallow reef through patches of weed , careful not to stand on the odd sea cucumbers or sharp detritus. Then we saw our first Moray. we were half way there and I was determined not to go back, but these things were very aggressive. They seemed to be territorial and quite prepared to defend, what they saw as an intrusion. They had a lot of teeth too and I could imagine the effect of one bite to my tender ankles, as I only had on my running shoes. My wife, with an altogether more active imagination was streets ahead of me and demanded a Piggy-back.
With about quarter of a mile to go and some of it through quite deep pools and thick weed. This was something, by which I had not expected to be confronted . I closed my mind to the thought of Moray eels and sea urchins and the ever increasing weight of my albeit minuscule wife and pressed on.
It was finally worth it. It was THE Bulldozer. Over the years the bolts had rusted through and the various components had been washed apart. There was a trail of debris almost in to the shore, which must have happened during one of the many Typhoons that periodically hit the area. The main lump however was instantly recognisable. I took lots of photos and then we followed a slightly easier route back to the shoreline, coming in with the bits of massive cast iron, which it seemed impossible to shift. But shift they had. Some almost quarter of a mile. We found other things too. Lots of back axles and other heavy scrap. This was probably what the Dozer had been pushing over the reef, when it had broken down and was abandoned.
Instead of braving the coastal jungle we followed the shoreline round to the end of the runway facing Willingilly. On the way we found a NAAFI cigarette box perfectly preserved, although it must have laid there many years. We also saw a lovely big orange crab, which made the mistake of not immediately rushing into the undergrowth when it saw us. It was probably not used to visitors and I managed to bash it with a rock before it made up it's mind what to do. We took it back to the little restaurant that afternoon for them to cook for us. It was lovely.
We pressed on round the island and when we got to the Costain's camp area I searched in vain for some sign of the old RAFA Club, but I either had got it's location wrong in my mind, or it was hidden in the jungle that had invaded the area. The Oil pumping Station was there together with rusty pipes still going to the rather rickety Oil Jetty, from where we used to dive.. The Power Station too, still throbbing away as well. Unfortunately the guys on duty would not let me go in to film the duty generator. I'm not sure why, but they probably had their orders. Back past ASF and the old Aircraft Parking Area, or the Pan as we used to call it. The Radio Servicing Flight must have been there somewhere too, but I never found it. I wished that I had a map of the Island like I had one of Changi Camp in Singapore, when I returned there a few years earlier. It would have made life a lot easier.
One disappointment from the visit. Zady, the STO asked us to buy him some aftershave and perfume for his wife, on the way back, for which he agreed to pay me and which we did at a cost of over US$ 300. I sent it all to him, but in spite of numerous faxes and letters, reminding him that he had asked me to buy them, I never heard from him again. I was quite saddened by this. I could have bought a lot of beer for a start. He seemed such a nice chap. Perhaps there is some good reason.
The last night I got talking to the Manager of the Ocean Reef, Ajith. He too was very interested in the old photos and treated us to a few free drinks while we discussed the possibility of publicising the Ex RAF nature of Gan to attract a new class of clientele to holidays on the Island. I told him how much I personally had enjoyed re-exploring the place, but that there was a lot of urgent maintenance needed to a lot of the old structures if they were to survive much longer. The tall boat shed especially is really a historic building and the steel frame is falling apart, with rusty struts hanging in the breeze. Roofs are starting to curl up on other places and the next really strong wind will demolish many of them. The place is crying out for a bit of attention. Everywhere I looked I could see things that needed to be done. I really wish I had taken some tools.
I wonder if enough expertise still exists amongst the former residents to get to grips with the repairs that are urgently needed. I would imagine that local labour would be fairly cheaply available and what a wonderful project such a thing would be. All it needs is a bit of a grant from the Ministry of Tourism and someone to organise it.
We have always planned another visit, but the intervention of two new members of the family, - the first, a girl in January 1998 and the second, a son in Dec 1999, has prevented this as yet. When the kids are a bit older we will go again. It will be nice to show them what I was doing so many years ago.