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Maldives on a budget: former British military base of Gan

Reminders of its days as a British military base are not difficult to find on one of the less glitzy islands in the Maldives. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

I'm on holiday in the Maldives with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Well, strictly speaking, the British royal couple are staying at a luxury resort in the north of the archipelago while I'm in the south, playing poker with a trio of Bangladeshi truck drivers.

Maldives means "garland of islands" in Sanskrit and it's easy to see why during a flight from the capital, Male, to Gan. Sprinkled 15,000 feet below are dozens of azure coral specks with names that sound like something one might say while tickling a baby: Dhiddhoo, Kudadhoo, Kudafushi and Koochikoo (OK, I made the last one up).

As the plane nears Gan - the southernmost island in Addu Atoll - an announcement informs us that we're crossing the equator. Necks crane in vain for a line in the briny and the man next to me goes to investigate which direction water flushes down the aircraft lavatory.

Soon we're in the arrivals hall, being sorted and separated. Mainland Chinese passengers are whisked off by speedboat to somewhere rather exclusive while a party of Czechs boards a minibus bound for Equator Village, a popular mid-range hotel.

Only one traveller suffers the indignity of having no one to meet and greet him. After assuring sympathetic ground staff that I haven't become detached from my tour group in the world's smallest airport, I head out of the terminal and into a tropical time warp.

It's a leisurely stroll to my guest house, although a quick march would be more appropriate. From 1941 to 1976, Gan served as a strategic outpost for the British Navy and later the Royal Air Force. Much of the military infrastructure remains intact, including the runway.

I stride past the parade ground and rows of low-rise garrison buildings. There's a mildewing art deco cinema, the "Naafi" armed forces store and a British war memorial featuring two large guns.

Gan Island Retreat was once the RAF officers' quarters and my room is in a renovated barracks block complete with a corrugated iron roof. It's clean, comfortable and reflects the local "make do and mend" recycling philosophy. The inexpensive accommodation has none of the luxury that the Maldives is famous for but there's a whiff of history in the frangipani-scented air. The lobby is dominated by a series of life-size photographs commemorating another royal visit.

Abdullah remembers when Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh stayed the night. The septuagenarian security guard used to be a barman in what was the mess hall. He reckons the bedrooms are plusher now than in 1972, when Her Majesty stopped by, and although his wages weren't great, the resident of neighbouring Feydhoo Island retains fond memories of the British era.

"I earned six shillings a day when I started in the 1960s, which increased to £1 in 1973. There was always plenty of work; we got to learn another language and our families could use the military hospital. It was the best-equipped in the country back then."

Just as the British were pulling out, tourism was taking off in the Maldives and educated staff were needed. With their superior English skills, Adduans were in demand. Despite receiving offers, Abdullah was never tempted to spend months away from his family.

Today, about 80 per cent of the Maldives' indigenous workforce relies on tourism. For many, salaries are low and resentment high. Homesickness and claustrophobia are a problem on lengthy postings to distant atolls.

Unlike those at the all-inclusive resorts, guests at the Gan Island Retreat have the freedom to leave the property. There's a good choice of restaurants a short cycle ride away, with menus for local palates and pockets.

After a breakfast of fish curry and fruit (there's a first for everything), I pedal from Gan to Hithadhoo. The 17-kilometre road is a swooningly scenic route that links four islands via a series of causeways.

My first stop is Equator Village, formerly the RAF sergeants' accommodation, now favoured by Eastern European divers. Until recently, sweltering scuba enthusiasts were still being served British culinary favourites such as roast beef and mashed potato followed by sponge pudding and custard.

Across the causeway, on sleepy Feydhoo Island, I meet Edin, who arrived from Bosnia in 1994, when the city of Sarajevo was under siege. He found work as a tour-boat skipper and fell in love with both the languid lifestyle and a local girl. Over tea and cake we discuss the huge influx of mainland Chinese visitors to the Maldives.

"It's a win-win situation," Edin says. "They come and spend lots of money, which the government then uses to buy goods from China."

It's an oversimplified assessment but leakage, the process by which tourist revenue flows out of the host country to pay for imported products and services, is alarmingly high in this part of the world.

The government is starting to realise that encouraging independent travellers to sleep, eat and shop at locally run businesses means money stays in the community. As a result, new guest houses are attracting holidaymakers keen to see more of the Maldives for less.

The midday sun is merciless on Maradhoo Island. While it's tempting to join the old men snoozing in the shade of breadfruit trees, I'm here to snorkel. The coral is dazzling and the water so clear it's like swimming in an aquarium full of glittering fish.

Too tired to pedal any further, I return to the barracks as the sky turns tangerine. There is little nightlife on Addu Atoll but I've been invited to play cards with a group of Bangladeshi migrant workers.

It's a pity the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge can't pop over. Apparently, their luxury villa has a 24/7 butler service, private infinity pool and a Michelin-starred chef. I wonder if he does sponge pudding and custard?

 

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies direct from Hong Kong to Male four days a week while Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) flies, more regularly, via Kuala Lumpur. From there, Maldivian (www.maldivian.aero) flies to Gan, as does Mega Maldives Airlines (www.megamaldivesair.com).

 

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