Return to Gan Island, Maldives February 2004

By John Gornall.
(See bottom of page for John`s travel arrangements)

My return to Gan in February 2004 after 37 years was inspired by the information on the website and the detailed account of a holiday taken there by Jock Morrison in December 2002. As a pilgrimage my visit was an unqualified success and, for the benefit of others who may be planning to make the journey, this is an account of how I found the island. Although many buildings have gone, at least 50% are still there partially obscured by trees and shrubs and mostly used for different purposes but some still showing the RAF building numbers.

Having left Male in brilliant sunshine in an Island Aviation Services Ltd, Dash 8 we arrived at Gan an hour and twenty minutes later under lowering skies. The first sight of the island from the port side as we landed from the east over Wiligilli was little changed. I quite expected to see the flags on the golf course still there. The runway and aircraft dispersal are in very good repair and the single storey terminal building across the road from where SAS Flight operated was air-conditioned.

I stayed at the Equator Village, as the Sgts' Mess is now known, and no sooner had we arrived there by minibus than I was provided with a nostalgic demonstration of a tropical storm. Very soon there were sheets of water everywhere and the frogs had woken up. No sunset photos that evening. But, true to form, it all blew over quickly and the sun was out next morning.

The Equator Village is based on the original Sgts' Mess accommodation. The main Mess building has been opened out. Internal walls have been knocked down and the larger areas of the foyer, restaurant and bar are open to the outside. I was told that the building has its original roof and, most remarkable of all is that the snooker table is still in use complete with framed rules of billiards and snooker hanging on the wall. The accommodation is in the original blocks, which now have air-conditioning and en-suite shower rooms. The whole area is made more attractive by the many shrubs and trees and a beautiful swimming pool. There is a short jetty with steps down to the sea for access for snorkelling. The variety of fish is just as extensive as anywhere in the Indian Ocean and it is marvellous to see the coral beginning to grow back after the worldwide ocean temperature change over the past few years, which had killed it off.

Bicycles are available to all guests and a ‘Gan around’ will reveal all the changes in building use. Starting at the west end of the island by the dual carriageway causeway to Fedu and travelling east the following buildings are recognisable. The Officers Mess is now used for visiting Maldivian dignitaries and is not accessible. The single storey building that was the church is now a mosque. The Blue Lagoon transit lounge is a store for the hotel and is almost obscured from the main road by shrubs and 60-foot trees. Most of the airmen's’ accommodation blocks have been taken over by one of the Sri Lankan textile firms to house their mainly female staff. They are fenced off but original RAF building numbers can be seen on many of them. The main jetty and the gymnasium and Marine Craft hangars remain and are in commercial use. The Station Headquarters building is in excellent condition and is the administrative HQ of the Island. It is fronted by a landscaped area with two mounted cannons, recovered from the reef/shore at some point during RAF occupation, a war memorial and a small monument to the RAF’s tenure 1956 – 1976. Opposite are a post office and the Maldivian Bank, which will change your traveller’s cheques charging US$ 1 commission. This compares favourably with the hotel’s rate - a ‘Rob taking’ US$ 5.

On the right you will see the Astra cinema still with the name on the front and still showing films to the Sri Lankan workers. However, there is a large satellite dish to the side of it, which probably guarantees a better selection of films than we had.

The Airfield Control Tower remains in use and I was welcomed into the control room to watch an Antonov 125 taking off with textile products on their way to Sri Lanka. The controller was interested in my photos from the 60’s and wanted to know if I had one of the Sick Quarters where he was born.

The next recognisable building on the left is the MT yard, which appears to be derelict and a little further on the road is straddled by a new development, which is to be a large airport terminal building at the west end of the dispersal. The construction work is being carried our by a Dublin firm which was in the process of assembling the steel girder skeleton of the building. I was told that work is planned to finish by the end of 2004. There are plans to extend the runway to take direct international flights and for a 150 bed hotel to be built on Wiligilli. However, it is not clear whether all the funding is in place yet for the whole development.

Having made the major detour round the new building, further along the dispersal, you come to the single storey Airport Terminal opposite where SAS Flight used to be. The SAS Flt building has been converted into a café for the Maldivian workers and look quite different from the RAF days. It is called Meduvathi, which means the garden. I don’t see the relevance. The man who runs it, one Mohammed Abdulla, is an ex-Officers Mess room boy and, later, a cookhouse worker. He has quite a collection of photographs from the RAF days right back to Sunderland flying boats anchored off Fedu in 1942. He now has some of my photos from 1966 as well. The ground equipment building behind SAS Flt is still there.

The last building on the north side of the island is the Power House. This is now a freight hangar for Island Aviation Services Ltd. Beyond the power house the ’fuel tank farm’ is almost obscured by trees and appears to be disused. Certainly the pipes from the fuel jetty further back along the coast have gone and the last tank is lying partially on its side, having been sold to an Indian company for scrap.

Crossing the end of the runway at the east (Wiligilli) end the island is free of trees and undergrowth and looks much as it has always done. There are the usual traffic lights and a red and white barrier. There are several of these barriers around the island with the only apparent use being to occupy a Maldivian - usually dozing in a chair. The road on this side of the island deteriorates to a track and there is little to see for undergrowth until you reach the old Pakistani Camp, which is now occupied by Sri Lankan textile workers.

And so back to the runway at the west end of the island and the site for many a sunset photograph. The final monument to the past is the remains of the seawater swimming pool constructed in 1967 by forming a rectangle of piles driven into the shore behind the 180 Club and facing Fedu. It was never a great success as the tidal flow did not circulate the water sufficiently and once a Stonefish had been seen in it no one would go near it. With the construction of the causeway to Fedu severely restricting the tidal flow it is an even less attractive sight now. The causeway itself is a magnificent structure and is the start of a two lane tarmac road and pavement all the way to Hittadu, about 5 miles along the lagoon side of the islands. Cafes and supermarkets are springing up along this road but a feel for the genuine Maldivian island can be seen from the old road, which runs through the centre of the islands. I did not find the time to go as far as Hittadu but it could be seen that work is in progress to build a large harbour there.

The only down side to the visit was that Equator Village is now the destination for German and Russian package holidays at the cheaper end of the market and you are likely to be outnumbered by the 80 plus tourists. Ex-CMCs would be appalled at the flouting of evening dress regulations in the Mess! Bearing this in mind and considering the development plans for the atoll, my advice is “If you are thinking of going, go now before the island becomes just another big holiday resort”.  

Finally, there is a visitors’ book behind the hotel reception reserved for ex-Gannites to record their visit. Also, the manager has a video of a programme about RAF Gan made by Anglia TV around 1970. It has a rather downbeat attitude towards the posting but the film sequences are worth seeing. 

John Gornall, Cpl/Sgt I Fitt Gen. Mar 1966 – Mar 1967

Click on Image for John's Gallery

Travel Details: Emirates flights for one person to Male via Dubai were £668.20. IAS flights Male to Gan £197. Accommodation at the Equator Village was £50 a night per person All Inclusive

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