It was early 1960 and I was a 20year old junior technician and had been stationed for the last 6 months at Changi Commcen in Singapore.
Out of the blue I was detailed to go to Gan to fit a control desk in a transmitter station. This task was estimated to take 3 weeks.
A couple of days later I flew to Gan in a Shackleton aircraft carrying the minimum of kit in a holdall.
Wow, what a culture shock!
Where are the swimming pools with waiter service? Where’s the Malcolm Club and Britannia Club? Where’s the cricket, volleyball and football grounds? Wot, no bars with the pretty bar-girls.
And where are the cinemas?
I then realised I had pulled the shortest straw, and was determined to fit this control desk in record time and get back to civilisation.
I was introduced to a national service signals officer called Goodenough (where are you now?). He explained that I would be living in the newly built airmen’s huts and would be commuting daily by launch to a place called Hittadu, where I would be fitting the control desk.
I was up bright and early the next morning and went to breakfast. I put some cornflakes on my plate and poured milk on them. As I put my spoon into the cornflakes I noticed little brown worms wriggling to the surface of the milk. Then I noticed that the guy opposite me was spooning up the worms and putting them on the side of his plate. He noticed my shocked face and said “Don’t worry, they’re only mealworms, they’re in the bread, and cereals: you can eat them”.
So I did.
I walked down to the main jetty to catch my boat. A Pinnace.
We sailed across the lagoon to Hittadu and I was totally overwhelmed with the crystal blue sea surrounded by islands with white beaches lined with palm trees. Then, as we slowly approached the long jetty at Hittadu, the breathtaking coral of bright reds, yellows and blues was just out of this world.
The pace of life in general became a long dream. I would travel to Hittadu in the morning by boat, work until 1 o’clock, have lunch, then fish with a hand line off the long jetty or explore the island, then at 4.30 catch the boat back to Gan.
Lunch on Hittadu was a delight compared to Gan.
There was a cook called Yorkie. He was your classical cook. Short, rotund and complete with a wicked temper.
He was reputably banned from from the Gan main food store as he would steal extra food for the 6-10 people he cooked for on Hittadu. I know he always overstated the numbers eating on Hittadu to acquire extra rations. He would grumble about all the supplies especially the quality of the meat which he would carefully cut it up and throw half away as not suitable. He exchanged tins of food for local foodstuffs and fish. His pies and stews were mouth watering and his presentation was five star.
Where are you now Yorkie, Claridges or the Savoy?
I got to know
the coxswain on the Pinnace, who taught me how to steer the boat. As
soon as we cleared Gan or Hittadu he would give me the wheel. I become
quite professional after a while and produced a perfectly straight wake.
I was very keen on fishing in Singapore and I had taken one of my rods with me to Gan.
On an evening visit to the Gan main jetty which extended to the edge of the reef, I met an Irishman (called surprisingly, Paddy) who was also a keen fisherman.
He gave me a quick low-down on all the problems.
hooked, slowly went deep down over the reef face and cut your line on
the sharp coral.
I made up for loss of sleep by kipping afternoons and early evenings.
One evening a Flt Sgt came down on the jetty to see us.
He had arrived the day before and was a keen fly fisherman and worked in station workshops.
He asked all the right questions, but laughed when we told him that 350 yards of 25 pound breaking strain line was a must. He remarked that he had brought his rods with him, and his reels were loaded with 100yards of 5 pound line, and any fish that could run 100 yards deserved to get away.
The following night he joined us with his very elegant equipment. Within half an hour he had hooked a tuna.
It was still accelerating when he finally ran out of line.
He grunted, packed up, and left in disgust.
A week later he was back with some very serious equipment. (remember that he worked in station workshops!). This comprised of stainless steel hooks about six inches long with welded barbs and steel cable trace attached. His fishing line was 1000 pound breaking strain parachute cord which he wrapped twice around the cast iron bollards on the jetty.
He had noticed that shark cruise the shallows of the beach at night, so he would throw his baited hook into the shallows and try to stop them by using the friction of the parachute cord around the steel bollards before they could get down over the reef.
He became very skilful at “Sharking” and used a range of baits from chickens to dead fish, and slowly the size of his catch got bigger and bigger. Unfortunately, Paddy and I were the mugs who would have to gaff them and get them onto the jetty. I would dread his shout of “Hittadu Pete, give me hand with this one”.One night he caught a big one - 5ft 7 inches from nose to tail.
I think this was his coup de grace, as he suddenly lost interest and left us in peace.
One particularly windy night Paddy and I decided to go to the station cinema.
This was a big tin shed (or was it a hanger?). The film was Marie Antoinette starring Tyrone Power circa. 1937. (Where did they get them from?)
The film broke down a couple of times and each breakdown was always followed by boos, cheers, and stamping of feet. On reel changes there was total pandemonium until the film resumed. .
Then it started to rain heavily. The noise on the tin roof caused the film to become totally inaudible, so we left for a couple of beers and I never went back again.
The new four-man airman’s huts were very cool and pleasant compared to the kadjans, and were complete with ceiling fans and mosquito nets on doors and windows.
One of the occupants had brought a record player from the UK.
Unfortunately he only had two L.P. records with him. One was the Mikado and the other I cannot remember.
The Mikado was his favourite and he played it almost continuously.
Even now, the very second I hear a few bars of that recording played on the radio or TV, I am instantly back in Gan, lying on my bed by the door watching the fan turning.
Nobody seemed to mind this two record DJ - but what else was there?
I notice from this website that Radio Gan was started a few years later.
I only hope in the name of sanity that they had more than two records
One afternoon on Hitaddu I noticed a very large dead turtle drifting in the sea. I waded out to bring it to shore. It had a very large shell about eighteen inches across and I thought it would make a very fine ashtray if only I could clean the flesh out of it.
I covered it lightly over with sand to hide it, and the following day brought back a knife from Gan intending to do some amateur surgery.
When I uncovered it I was surprised to see that the crabs, ants and sand bugs were doing a more professional job than I could possibly ever achieve, so I covered it over with sand again.
About a week later I went back to look at the finished job.
All my dreams of a highly lacquered shell on a turned mahogany base were shattered.
All that was left was the skeleton, and my fine shell was now reduced to a filigree of bones.
Motto- Never fall asleep while sunbathing on a Hittadu beach!
One day I felt distinctly unwell. The following morning I was shivering and shaking, so I reported sick. I was promptly put into quarantine and slowly drifted into a semi unconscious state which lasted for several days. I can remember through the haze the medic who would pull me upright every hour to try to pour some orange squash down my throat.
I can remember the M.O. telling me over and over again that he had sent blood tests to Changi, and that I didn’t have Malaria - not that I cared either way as I was just too far gone.
Goodenough would visit me every evening for a chat and would ask me various questions, and I would try to mumble answers which I knew did not make any sense.
I can remember thinking, and probably saying “Why don’t you leave me alone so I can drift off”. (So, 46 years later I will (very) publicly apologise).
One night I was aware of a number of Officers grouped around my bed. They were M.O.s transiting to or from Singapore and of high rank. They were discussing my condition with the Gan M.O. and presumed that I could not hear them.
I quite distinctly heard their final decision.
“Casevac him home to the UK on the next aircraft, and arrange it quickly”.
I remember thinking “That’s not fair; all my belongings are still at Changi”. Then logic prevailed and I thought “But what the hell. They only send you home to die anyway”.
A couple of days later I came around and I was very much awake.
The light was hurting my eyes, everything was vivid and bright and the slightest noise deafened my ears.
I was fed and watered like royalty and discharged to light duties the following day.
A few years later when I had my first aircrew medical, I asked the doctor what was wrong with me when I was at Gan .
He consulted my medical records and said. “Oh here it is - Heavy Cold”.
I soon got back into the swing of daily life.
At this green stage the copra inside is not white and hard, but more like a clear jelly and the milk is very thick and tasty.
I had stolen from the Gan mess one of those large bronzed tins of sherbet powder with vitamin something or other added.
Four large teaspoons of sherbet in a coconut and a quick stir resulted in a drink that resembled a very thin milkshake - very tasty, and the Maldivians also loved it.
On hindsight, if I had tried adding a couple of shots of Vodka I might have started the first Hittaduan industry.
The control desk was finally installed, but minus a few parts. Initial tests proved that there were still inherent design faults and the manufacturing company would now take over the installation and I would be finally returning to Changi and civilisation.
I packed up my few belongings and gave my shirts to my room boy. He then asked me for a pair of my Y fronts as a present for his wife, which I gave him.
This was strictly against Station Standing Orders, so of course I said yes.
I left in a dhoni in the early afternoon, lying in the bottom of the boat until we had cleared Gan.
I’m not sure which island we went to, but we seemed to be sailing for hours.
When we arrived I met his wife and his extended family, and then I was introduced to all the immediate neighbours and lots of children.
He lived in a large kadjan house and his wife served us a meal on the outside porch, which we ate under the gaze of a small crowd of Maldivian's.
We returned on the dhoni. I remember it was dark when we arrived back at Gan.
The following day I was in big trouble.
I had been rumbled.
Someone had seen me either leaving Gan on the dhoni or returning.
Now I was visiting Goodenough, complete with escort.
He didn’t know what to do with me as I was flying out the next day on an incoming Britannia.
Finally it was decided that the whole episode would be glossed over, and I left Gan the following evening.
Memories that I still remember well.
The total desolation of Gan Island compared to the lush and beautiful Hittadu.
The smiles and charm of the Maldivian's.
The fact that nobody was ever broke. There was just nowhere to spend money.
The daily uniform and evening dress code that was obviously modelled on a third world rag picker.
But mainly that beautiful lagoon with those amazing beaches, and wonderful fishing.
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