RAF veterans remember their days on Gan: Part 1

A group of Royal Air Force (RAF) veterans remember their time on the beautiful Maldivian island of Gan in the Addu Atoll as the best days of their lives.

Living thousands of miles from home, the servicemen of Coral Command who lived and worked on the atoll of Addu in RAF Gan and nearby Hithadhoo, where the RAF were fitting radio transmitters in the seventies, made their own fun long before the resorts were created.

In true forces style the squadrons based here, mainly Brits and the Indian Air Force, with a couple of Americans, created a night life scene which was enjoyed by many, including some liberal locals. Sadly, all this ended when the forces pulled out.

The RAF needed to travel back and forth between the islands for work and entertainment. They built a causeway linking six islands to help them to get there easily but before that they had to travel by boat.

Nowadays there is little entertainment, save the bar at the Equator Village resort in Gan on the other side of the island, and the sleepy hamlet of Hithadhoo is a very different place now – but it didn’t used to be, as one former airman reveals.

Richard Houlston, now 63, remembers the recreational activities which were available in the seventies in Hithadhoo after hours. Long before the resorts, Hithadhoo can proudly boast the establishment of the first entertainment in the Maldives.

Weekends were filled with diving and crab fishing, dhoni racing, pranks and skinny dipping in the pristine lagoon. After work hours Coral Command would spend hours drinking at “Siggies bar”, known affectionately as ‘Fairly Blato’, for obvious reasons.

On special occasions, some of the lads would head to the legendary Bushy disco – the first outdoor rave on a jungle-cropped island close to Hithadhoo.

“There were around 25 of us on the site when I arrived, this gradually increased to about 50 over the next few months when Skynet came (Satellite Communications),” remembers Richard.

“We had a big 2000 litre water tank in case of fire but we filled it full of fish from the lagoon, including three 4ft sharks, six puffer fish and a large titan trigger who ruled the pool. This had to be emptied, cleaned out and re-filled every week on a Tuesday afternoon to keep it going.

It was very entertaining to watch the catching of a four foot long shark by the tail,” Richard recalls.

Many hours were enjoyed placing a pole across this tank for people to walk across (which gives a whole new meaning to Shark Infested Custard, for those with a service background).

“No one ever did manage to make it across. If they looked as if they were doing well the pole was rolled first one way then the other! With three 4ft sharks in there, no one stayed in long,” he laughed.

On weekends and evenings many pranks were played by the men on their fellow comrades. These practical jokes helped to keep camaraderie and spirits high and playful by nature Richard was one of the main pranksters.

“John Scott and I used to go and catch 20 sand crabs and a large land crab every evening after tea and sometimes at night when everyone was in the bar Scotty and I would catch frogs and put them in peoples beds. We’d put the land crabs in washing boxes or down the loo,” he said.

“It was quite startling when you are about to seat yourself down to have a number two and a huge pair of pincers suddenly appears – that would make your eyes water.”

Firm and long lasting friendships were made during the time on Addu, which is evident in the hundreds of messages posted on the Then and Now website.

These lasting friendships enabled the RAF Gan memorial visit a couple of years back, where more than 50 former airmen and officers stepped back onto the atoll and met again for the first time in almost 40 years.

Many shared tales of times gone by and made new friends too. At the time men were not allowed to socialise with local women so with little social interaction, apart from with each other, the men filled their days with activities such as snorkelling, and diving.

There were dhoni competitions where men would row for entertainment and many other games too.

“As you are probably well aware the main problem with Gan was the lack of women. For 12 months with no female companionship, it was very difficult for servicemen – almost unbearable,” Richard explained. “Of course, we were not allowed to meet the Maldivian women, probably just as well, as I think I might still have been out there… or washed up on some beach.”

He left the air force to get married and remains happily so, with two children and recently the addition of a new grandchild.

There were some characters on the base. Richard fondly recalls the madcap adventures and avoidance tactics of a particular infamous squadron leader called Buckle.

“At the time we had Squadron Leader Buckle based on Gan but in charge of us on Hithadhoo. He heard a rumour that some airmen on Hithadhoo were sunbathing in the nude. This would of course be upsetting to the Maldivians – well the men anyway – who used to pass through the camp from time to time.

“He made many surprise trips trying to catch the culprits but as they had to have permission to land the boat we always knew in advance,” he laughed.

“It sort of backfired on him when he had a little rhyme composed about him: ‘Bare Bum Buckle was his name’ and ‘Bare Bum Spotting was his game’. I can’t remember the rest, perhaps it just as well). I know we had a flag pole over the bar in the Hermitage with a belt buckle hanging from it – a hangman’s noose.”

The Hithadhoo Diary’ was a cartoon feature for each period and the last six months-worth can be read on the Gan Remembered web site.

While he wouldn’t admit it some of Richard and his colleagues’ pranks even made the gossip sheet, which covered part of the time he was there, he laughs.

Richard and his comrades from Coral Command re-visit Gan as much as they can still have a close connection to Gan and Hithadhoo through Facebook, some say their hearts actually never left the curiously heart-shaped atoll.

Visit the RAF Gan Memorial Website.


Addu International Airport set to unveil developer later this month

Addu International Airport Company Limited (AIACL) has said it expects to announce the party chosen to oversee developments to the country’s second international airport before the end of the month.

AIACL Managing Director Shahid Ali said that it was presently looking at bids from a short-list of three international bidders and expected to choose a finalist for the development in the next ten days.

Shahid told local newspaper Haveeru that all three companies to have submitted bids for the project were all very “capable”. However, he said that securing finance for the project may pose some difficulties for the party chosen to proceed with the airport project.

“There are options through which they can obtain finance. It will progress on fine,” Shahid was quoted as saying by Haveeru.


Addu grows roots with SAARC preparations

“This is the foundation of Addu’s development,” said Addu’s mayor Abdullah Sodiq, referring to the city’s SAARC preparations during a press conference held in Hithadhoo yesterday. He said the projects had been supported by “99 percent” of Addu residents.

Maldivian media was flown to Addu yesterday to observe preparations for the upcoming 17th annual SAARC Summit, scheduled for November 10-12. Festivities will be held in the area starting on the first of the month, in conjunction with the Muslim holiday of Eid.

“We are expecting a lot of traffic through here, and are confident that everything will be ready in time,” Sodiq said. “But this is only the beginning, and we have many more plans for development.”

Addu’s SAARC projects have been underway for six months, officials report. As the deadline approaches, construction teams are working round the clock to finish two harbors, a VVIP lounge, roads and the country’s largest convention center.

Sodiq said the harbors will renovate Addu’s commercial prospects, while the convention center provides new opportunities for locals, officials and foreigners alike.

Construction of Feydhoo harbor continues as the first deadline passes and another approaches.

“The harbor is a central place for Addu, there is demand for it even after SAARC and we have plans to generate more industry and shipping using these new resources,” said Sodiq.

New roads constructed around the convention center have made future road development less expensive for the council’s budget, he added.

Addu’s council also plans to use the Rf115 million convention center, a two-story building of glass, wood and marble with a capacity of 3000, to transform the atoll from a quiet place to a hub of business and tourism.

“We have some representatives talking to businesses in Singapore and Malaysia about hosting events here,” Sodiq told Minivan News. “We will be soliciting bids to find the right event manager to look after the convention center as well. I think there are people interested in what Addu has to offer, and I’m sure we can get a market for it.”

Officials and locals interviewed also hinted at hopes for musical events, theatrical performances, art exhibitions and holiday celebrations.

Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Assistant Director Ahmed Abeer Ismail said the centre’s origins were a sign of Addu’s potential. “That area began as a swamp, now it’s the biggest convention center in the country.” The swamp was heavily landscaped by MNDF and police forces, and now features a few scenic islands.

One of the Maldives’ most strategic atolls, Addu has been largely left to seed since the British withdrew its forces and influence in 1975. City councilor Ahmed Mirzad called SAARC the beginning of a new Addu.

“For 30 years we had Gayoom, and nothing was done in Addu. Then there was a new president, and unlike Gayoom he didn’t just look after Male’, he looked after the entire Maldives. For 30 years we didn’t even have one harbor that was working for Addu, but in the past six months, we have gotten everything,” said Mirzad.

Addu’s councilors were elected for the first time six months ago. Mirzad said the next three years will be a difficult but critical time for the council to prove itself to Addu’s people. Still, the timing is ideal.

“I don’t think, I know that this summit is the right starting point. Now, we will only keep going with our plans to grow,” he said.

Workers cross a newly-constructed road to continue landscaping across from the convention center.

One particular operation illustrates the grassroots motives behind the SAARC preparations. Selected from Maldives National University (MNU) Addu first-year students in hospitality, 24 Media Liaison Officers greeted Male’s press pack yesterday.

One young woman said the event was as much for the liaisons as for Male’ press.

“It’ll be challenging to handle foreigners and media personnel,” a group of students concurred. “But we are so happy to have this opportunity.”

“I was shocked to be asked to take part in SAARC, I never thought that I would get to work at something I’d heard so much about,” said another student. “And the certificate of reference that I’ll get afterwards will be really helpful for me when I’m looking for a job after graduation,” she added.

Liaisons have just completed a six-month management course and are attending seminars and briefings for SAARC. They will be divided into 11 teams of two to three officers and assigned to press pooles from different countries.

“The ministry was going to get people from Male’, but I suggested we use the local energy. They are good, they can do the job, and this is a key event, so why shouldn’t these students take part?” said Abeer.

Addu’s development isn’t only tailored to foreigners; Sodiq said part of the development plan is to bring Addu residents home.

“Unlike other islands, we have historical places to visit and our islands are connected, so tourists can actually see more than the sun, sand and sea. We will be constructing more lodgings as well, and our hospital and airport are going to be expanded. More business means more jobs, and part of the purpose of all this is to bring Addu citizens back after their migrations to Male’,” he said.

In Addu, infrastructure is a priority for community growth. Noting that education was key to development, Sodiq said that a Kangaroo school is scheduled to open next year, and a Billabong school is being considered.

For the moment, however, Addu’s mind is on SAARC.

With teams working around the clock to complete harbors in Gan and Feydhoo, and MNDF motorcades practicing their moves late into the night, Addu is a bustle of construction and security.

Both harbors were originally due for completion on October 25, yet concrete foundations have not yet been laid. However officials assure that they are 90 percent complete. When asked about setbacks, National Security Advisor Ameen Faisal said, “The weather. Due to heavy rains, many projects were delayed. It was unexpected and beyond our control, but we managed and we are on target.”

Inquiries of Addu’s appearance for SAARC yielded few details. “It’s a secret, we want it to be a surprise,” Faisal and Sodiq concurred.

Security, however, is highly detailed.

MNDF has delegated security teams to specific event components including media, medical, resort transport, and the airport. “Right now we are very confident in our security personnel and do not anticipate any problems during the SAARC summit,” said International Media Coordinator Ahmed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim added that “it will be helpful to have the extra security forces that other countries are providing because Addu is very big.” In addition to ground security, MNDF will be supported by the coast guard, which will establish multiple security layers around Addu’s marine perimeter, special task forces from Sri Lanka, and surveillance equipment from China, among others.

Summit guests include three of the world’s most controversial heads of state from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their reputations do not appear to cause anxiety to SAARC officials.

“They will not receive any special treatment, unless requested of course,” said MNDF Commander of SAARC Airport Security, Ahmed Shafeeq.

“There is no risk at all,” said Faisal. “We aren’t even bothered about it.”


Special Forces arrive for Operation Dolphin SAARC Summit

Maldives’ Special Forces team flew to Gan of Addu City in an Indian Air Force aircraft today to begin operations for the upcoming SAARC summit.

The elite branch of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) will be participating in Operation Dolphin SAARC Summit in the region’s south, reports Haveeru.

The team, which has trained with Special Forces personnel in the US Army, will be specifically responsible for VVIP security and counter-terrorism operations.

Special Forces will be instructed by the SAARC Summit Taskforce and the Southern Area Command.


Gan hosts international storm research team

The Maldives will host the first in-depth study of equatorial tropical storms between the Maldives and Papua New Guinea, conducted by two dozen research organisations from 16 countries and based on Gan in Addu Atoll.

The team will use airplanes, ships, radars, and approximately 1,500 weather balloons to study the birth, life and death of tropical storms along the equator, particularly the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO). These storms affect weather world wide.

Maldives Meteorology Services (MMS) are local sponsors of the project, which was designed by the US Energy Department’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) climate research facility. MMS is providing local weather knowledge, meeting and operations space, and facilities; researchers in turn will offer training on radar and other instrumentation to local meteorologists.

According to the ARM facility, MJO dominates “tropical intraseasonal variability” but few climate models are able to predicts its effects. “AMIE-Gan will measure the area where the MJO begins its eastward propagation, observing the atmosphere, ocean, and air-sea interface,” the facility states.

The MJO affects regional weather patterns such as the Asian and Australian monsoons. Initiating every 30 to 90 days, it can also contribute to hurricane activity in the northeast Pacific and Gulf of Mexico, as well as trigger torrential rainfall along North America’s west coast.

MJO can also affect the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean known as El Nino, which disturbs rain patterns.

MMS Deputy Director General Ali Sharif said the Maldives was strategically chosen.

“The Maldives was selected because the team is looking for the weather phenomenon Madden-Julian Oscillation. The team chose Addu because it is the closest location to the equator in the Maldives.”

The project’s main observation sites will be based in the Maldives, Diego Garcia, the maritime continent, and Manu Island. The Maldives’ Super Site with a majority of radar equipment will be at Gan, and research ships and aircraft will operate in the Indian Ocean as well.

Radar and other equipment have been set up along an 8 kilometre path in the atoll. A meteorological array will use seven different frequencies to scan clouds and precipitation from the Super Site at Gan.

Results gathered at Gan under the AMIE-Gan project will complement results gathered at Manus under the AMIE-Manus project to “allow studies of the initiation, propagation, and evolution of convective clouds within the framework of the MJO,” ARM states.

Sharif said the project could add valuable knowledge to regional climate change.

“It is becoming more important  to understand how oceans regulate the earth’s temperature.” Sharif added that the Maldives temperatures have seen a minor “rising trend.”

The AMIE project is operating under the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a facility of the U. S. Department of Energy. AMIE team leader Chuck Long said conditions in the Indian Ocean remain relatively mysterious.

“The MJO fires up primarily in the Indian Ocean during winter in the northern hemisphere, covering an area several thousand kilometers across. It moves eastward and when it hits the maritime continent — all those islands in Southeast Asia, it weakens. Why?” asked Long. “And why does it initiate in the Indian, not in the equatorial Atlantic or Pacific? What is so special about the conditions in the Indian Ocean? These are some of the questions we must answer to understand the MJO and represent it in forecast and climate models.”

AMIE will be working with two other research collaborations during this Indian Ocean campaign, Dynamics of the Madden-Julian Oscillation (DYNAMO) and Cooperative Indian Ocean Experiment on Intraseasonal Variability in the Year 2011 (CINDY). DYNAMO’s team is being led by the University of Miami. CINDY is an overarching international effort and is being led by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

Research staff and/or facilities have been contributed by Australia, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, Maldives, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. US scientists, students, engineers, and staff from 16 universities and 11 national laboratories and centers are participating in the field campaign.

The investigation experiment (AMIE) is scheduled to start in October and run through March 2012. Opening ceremonies on October 8 will celebrate the international cooperation behind the project, which PNNL said will lead to a better understanding of Earth’s climate.


Gan RAF reunion prompts scholarship fund

A group of former British Royal Air Force (RAF) servicemen who were based at Gan in the 70s have set up a fund to improve medical care in Addu Atoll, the country’s southern group of islands.

In March this year, 28 ex-personnel who had worked in the atoll returned to Gan for a reunion, where they were saddened by the decline in medical standards since their departure.

Richard Houlston, 62, who spent a year in the early 1970s working in ground communications on the island of Hithadhoo said: “All of us servicemen enjoyed our time in the Maldives, and the feeling among us was that we wanted to give something back to the community. I feel a close affinity to Addu, it was as if I had never left.”

Richard worked on the HF Transmitters on the isle of Hithadhoo, at the far end of the horse-shoe shaped atoll of Addu from November 1969 until 1970. He and his comrades would visit nearby Gan for scuba diving lessons and shopping trips.

“My memories of Hithadhoo were all good,” said Houlston. “I loved the climate, I loved messing about in the boats we had there, I loved fishing and swimming, I spent many hours snorkeling on the reef, I learnt to scuba dive. When I arrived back on Addu my first impressions were that it seems to be more built up now than when I was there, and obviously has some quite well-off inhabitants, but many people seem to be quite poor. Many of the inhabitants still have to rely on rain water for drinking, stored in large tanks and in those sorts of temperatures that can’t be good for health,” he said.

“When we arrived back on Addu, it became obvious to us very quickly that what they needed help with most was medical care. To go to a decent hospital, many locals have to travel all the way to India, which is a 1000 mile-plus journey. There is a hospital on the island of Hithadhoo, but standards there are very poor: even if they have the equipment, no-one has the expertise to use it.”

When the RAF was in Gan, islanders used to enjoy first class medical facilities for free. Now they have third world services and people must pay for their treatment. The 30 year dictatorship and focus on development of Male’ did not help matters.

Now Houlston and Larry Dodds have set up the Gan Scholarship Fund, which aims to raise enough money to help train more medical staff and improve the standard of medical equipment in the atoll.

“The thing that concerns us most is the fact that many inhabitants have to travel to India for decent medical facilities. Addu is so remote that they need their own medical facilities on hand. When the RAF was there they had those facilities, but when we pulled out in 1976 they were left with nothing,” Houlston said.

“I know there were political issues at the time that did not help their situation, but I feel we have a moral obligation to try to help them now if we can. I feel very passionate about this, and I know that many of the guys I was there with in March feel the same way.”

Their idea is to try and raise enough money to pay for the training of one medical student from Addu, so they can then work in the hospital on nearby Hithadhoo. Much of the hospital equipment is also outdated and needs to be replaced.

“The original plan was to appeal to the RAF personnel who had served on Gan over the years to donate money towards the scheme, now I do not now that this is going to be enough, so I am trying to come up with ideas to help supplement this. I am open to suggestions,” Houlston admitted.

Returning to the Addu Atoll a year ago was an emotional journey for the group, who share many fond memories of their time on the island. Houlston said that his time in the Maldives had left a lasting impression on him, and that he and his former colleagues had been touched by the people of Gan’s enthusiasm when they returned.

“We had such a wonderful welcome on the reunion trip to Addu in March of this year, that it rekindled my love for Addu and its people,” he said.

“The RAF had not visited the Maldives for over 30 years, but the reception was incredible. Children from primary schools danced for us, they arranged trips for us, and thousands of people greeted us wherever we went.”

“It was a very moving experience,” he added. Richard is now in daily contact with people from Addu and is working with both Hithadhoo Regional Hospital and the IDMC private hospital, soon to be Hawwa Trust, which will help provide the next generation of medical doctors along with the help of some former friends from the Royal Air Force.

For more information visit ‘Gan Then and Now’ on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_123539864379070


Government to develop mid-market tourism in Laamu Gan

The government has said it intends to develop mid-market tourism along the coastline of Gan in Laaamu Atoll, to try and promote the development of small and medium enterprises.

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture said it would provide details of the project “at a later date”, but the project is expected to come under the first phase of a tourism development plan for the South Central Province.

The government made this decision after considering a paper on the matter submitted by the Ministry of Tourism on Tuesday.


Expat accused of machete attack on Maldivian

An expat working on Gan in Laamu Atoll stands accused of attacking an islander with a machete.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said that the alleged incident occurred last Thursday.

”The Maldivian received serious injuries to his hand after the attack and is undergoing treatment,” said Shiyam.  ”The expat is now under arrest.”  Shiyam declined to provide further information.  “‘More information will be provided after investigation is concluded,” he added.

Island Chief of Gan’s ‘Thundi’ district, Mohamed Saeed, said that the alleged attacker was Bangladeshi in origin.

‘”He works for another islander on this island,” Saeed said. “The Maldivian was injured and was admitted in the hospital.”

He said that the case was not reported to the island office.

Last month, a Bangladeshi expat working in Male’ was stabbed to death after he refused to give his mobile phone upon being ambushed in the city whilst on his way to work after breakfast.


RAF man says Gan reunion the inspiration for Addu Atoll hospital fund

A recent return to Gan for one former member of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has reportedly been the inspiration for a fund aiming to strengthen medical facilities on the island.

Richard Houlston, from Devon in the UK, spent a year of his RAF service in Addu Atoll between 1969 and 1970, where he worked to maintain transmission equipment to support a nearby British airbase operated from Gan, reports the Express & Echo newspaper, published in Exeter in the UK.

Speaking to the newspaper, Houlston said that the Gan Scholarship Fund, which hopes to raise about £10,000 (Rf202,664) to provide training and equipment in order to try and boost medical facilities in the area, was formed after a visit to the island by 28 airmen the island earlier this year.

After being greeted and looked after by the people of Addu Atoll during a visit, which also included time for a spot of diving, Houlston said the airmen were concerned by the standards of healthcare available to local people.

“There is a hospital on the island of Hithadhoo, where I was working, but it struggles to give anything more than a basic service,” he told the paper. “The closest proper hospital is in India, over 1,000 miles away.”
At present, Houlston said £1,600 (Rf32,000) has been raised for the fund.

The RAF were based at Gan from the early 1950s to the mid 1970s.