On 31st of March, 1976 RAF was
closing down its base on Gan in the Maldives, and I, who lived
in this island for three years, was watching this sad scene on
TV in Reading, United Kingdom while on a British Council
educational course. I was wondering why such a beautiful island
that was once a center of attraction for RAF personnel,
civilians who worked for RAF, and the natives – Maldivians – was
About 600 miles
south of Sri Lanka, 450 miles north of Diego Garcia, and only
about 40 miles from the Equator, in the southern hemisphere,
there lies a paradise in the Indian Ocean: Gan – a tiny spot on
the Globe, a small island, once known as “Bachelor’s Paradise,”
a “Tropical Summer Place,” a “Sunny Island,” etc. These were
names given by “Gannites” – as people of Gan were called – who
lived from 1957 to 1976.
paradise are rarely heavenly, but the Maldive Islands come
close,” (TIME, May 18, 1981). Gan is one of the 200 inhabited
islands of the Maldives. Maldives is consists of a chain of
about 2,000 coral islands, grouped in a number of atolls. Malé
is the capital of the Maldives and it is about 300 miles away to
the north. Gan was once covered in tropical growth like other
islands of Addu Atoll.
When Gan was
loaned to Britain in 1956, RAF cleaned the island and made a
staging post between Britain and the Far East, with a wartime
airfield, about 4 kilometers long re-established, and a
well-built jetty, well-paved roads, very nicely built billet,
hangars, and fuel storage tanks. Although all the islands of the
Maldives are beautiful, Gan is unique in its attraction, with
its beautiful palm trees, clean beaches, soccer and golf fields,
and many other amenities that it offered.
were about one thousand men stationed at Gan. More than
two-thirds were RAF personnel; and one-third comprised of a few
British civilians working for the Department of Environment
(DOE), and for the
section; about 30 Ceylonese (Sri Lankans) and 150 Pakistanis.
Being almost on
the equator, Gan has two seasons. There is no winter. It rains
almost throughout the year, and the temperature varies between
70°F to 90°F all through the year. Nights are more pleasant
than days, especially when there is a downpour towards the
evening, or if it rains the whole day.
Maldivians were working for DOE and RAF on Gan. They all came
to Gan from their nearby home islands, viz., Faidu, Maradu,
Hittadu, and Hurmidu, and returned in the evening after the
work. These islands were situated from two to eight miles from
Gan – Faidu being the nearest and Hurmidu being the farthest.
It was most eye-catching scene of Maldivians leaving Gan for
their native islands every evening around 4:30 p.m. when they
live on fishing and renting Dhoni – a kind of sailing boat.
They use dhonis and also motorboats as means of conveyance
between the islands. The larger Dhonis are of 10 oars and can
hold 30 to 40 persons; others with 6 oars can accommodate about
20 persons. Most Maldivians live on fishing and renting Dhonis
They live a
simple life. They wear “sarongs” and shirts, mostly
half-sleeves. Some women and children wear necklace and other
jewelry like bangles made of silver or gold coins. Most women
wear long dress, which resembles to what we call a ‘Maxi’.
Maldives is a
Muslim Republic and the whole of the population is Muslim. They
are very religious and they follow Arab customs. Punishments
for theft and treason are very severe. Other offences are
seldom committed. Among the five surround islands of Gan,
Hittadu is the largest in size and population, and is the seat
of Atoll Chief. The Atoll chief acts Commissioner, who is
elected by free election and is paid for his services by the
were not allowed to visit any of the nearby islands, except for
reasons of work, and without prior permission from the Atoll
However, on some
occasions, like religious festivals of Eid, special permission
to ‘Gannites’ to visit the islands were granted, and the RAF
provided boats for transportation to these islands. No visitors
were allowed to stay on these islands overnight.
all kinds of fish and are fond of crayfish and prawns. Whether
employed or not, most of the time the Maldivians like to do
fishing. Early in the morning, but normally late at night, they
would go out far into the sea on boats or ‘dhonis’ in different
groups fully equipped with fishing nets, gas-light and
raincoats. It rains all through the year with short intervals.
The rain is sometimes followed by lightning and thunder.
Instances were found when during fishing in such bad weather,
boats including the occupants were reported missing or boats
found floating in the high seas and the occupants drowned. Many
a times, RAF’s Search & Rescue planes spent whole night hunting
for missing boats, and rescued occupants.
hunted by means of spear like weapon near the shore in knee-deep
water. There are sharks in the sea and sometimes baby sharks
get trapped and caught with other fish. Within the reef in
almost knee-deep water, one can come across stonefish. They are
poisonous and attack with their spines only when trodden upon.
There are no animals in the island except cats and dogs, and
look buried among the trees, with quite large courtyards; where
they cultivate and grow plantain, coconut, mango and papayas,
beatle leaves and beatle nuts, and vegetables. There are two
species of papayas grown in the islands, one of which s red
inside with very few seeds in it. Their meager exports are
dried fish, copra, corals and hermit shells, and they mostly
trade with Sri Lanka being the nearest country.
On Gan, the
Gannites lived in complete isolation, a year at a stretch – nine
moths for servicemen; no wives, no families. They had a small
world of their own. The famous ‘180 Club’ and ‘Imperial Club’
(known as Imps) were regularly visited and usually crowded every
Saturdays. Although 180 Club was a club for airmen, the Bingo
nights every week brought all Gannites close together. Bingo
was also played at Ceylonese and Pakistani camps. Bingo on Radio
was also quite popular.
180 Club were tennis courts and the Corporals Club, which had a
swimming pool where, on public holidays, swimming championship
was held. Most people went for swimming in the open sea near
the jetty. Sub Aqua Club provided opportunities to swimmers for
underwater swimming and scuba diving in crystalline water. The
Sailing Club provided facilities for all sorts of water sports,
like sailing, surfing, and water skiing. Dinghy sailing was one
of the most popular sports on Gan, and so was scuba diving.
Those interested in corals and reefs, Maldives is a heaven for
Over at the
Pakistani Camp, there was a beautiful mosque large enough to
accommodate all Pakistani community on Gan where ‘Azan’ – call
for prayers – was heard five times a day even on rainy and
storming nights. The mosque was build by the RAF and they also
appointed an Imam. Pakistani mutton curry and Chapatti (bread)
had been a very popular dish even among the British, Ceylonese
distinguished visitors like Queen Elizabeth and Lord Mount
Batten visited the Tandoor (where Chapatti is cooked), where
bread was cooked.
facilities for both indoor and outdoor games and sports. League
matches for cricket, hockey, soccer and volleyball were held
between various sections of the RAF; also Maldivians, Pakistanis
Hotel, also known as ‘Transit Hotel’ was the only hotel on Gan
where passengers of RAF flights, stopping over for fuel, stayed
either overnight or for a couple of hours sometimes.
The only cinema
house ‘Astra’ was small but beautiful where movies were shown
and occasionally stage shows or plays were held. There was an
open screen cinema at the Pakistani camp where English as well
as Indian films were shown free of charge every night, and was
largely attended by Pakistanis and Ceylonese
Island Golf Club had a good number of members who enjoyed sunny
afternoons golfing at the 18-hole golf course. The Station Gymnasium was
quite large and had four Badminton courts in it in addition to
facilities for other sports.
Dhoni racing was
one of the most spectacular sports on Gan, which was held on
special occasions. The participants were RAF personnel and
civilians from different sections.
Christmas, the annual sports were held and besides the Dhoni
race and fancy dress competition, bicycle race gathered a good
crowd. Prizes were awarded for Dhoni race, bicycle race and
fancy dress competition. It was generally believed that
Christmas was celebrated most exuberantly and magnificently on
Gas compared to other stations of RAF. The use of wines and
sprits was tremendous during Christmas. Special permissions
were given to airmen to open bars in the billet, and they were
given prizes for the best decorated bars.
Library, which was situated in the Education block, was
air-conditioned. It catered for all types of readers and was
extensively used. In the Education Section, films shows were
held for Posbis (On Gan misers were known as POSBs). It also
published the RAF’s official weekly ‘Gan Island Post (GIP), and
the Gannites, especially airmen, very eagerly waited on the
afternoon of Friday to get an issue in their hands.
Gan had a Radio
Station with modern equipment. Radio Gan broadcast news, music
etc. on FM in English. Music programmes were also broadcast in
Urdu for Pakistanis.
British left, many changes have since taken place but Gan still
stands alone in the Indian Ocean looking sad and gloomy,
wondering always why people come and go away after a very short
stay when it was a paradise. Yet people who have once been to
Gan would never forget the peaceful, carefree and happy life on
Gan. The RAF personnel are the least of those who could ever
“It was a sad
day for us. We had jobs and comfortable lifestyle. We learnt
many things from the British. All changed when they evacuated
their military base, recalled Hussein Zadi, one of the residents
who worked for the British,” (Gulf Times, Nov. 1993).
was an ideally strategic location. When it was being closed on
31st of March 1976, I was in Reading, England.
Honestly speaking, it was painful for me to watch the closing of
RAF base on Gan live on TV, because three years on Gan from 1970
to 1972 were the golden years of my life