Masirah Island Part II
The Andover came in to land at the air base and I emerged into the same scorching heat I’d left in Muscat. It was a matter of simply waiting until the loadmaster lowered the ramp, and walking down it and onto the blistering tarmac.
The various RAF types wandered off and left me like a wallflower and then I noticed a local guy staring at me. They had sent a driver to get me. After my eventful journey this felt like a terrible let down. Oh well.
The driver took off in the short wheel base petrol Land Rover as if trying to get it airborne along the rutted oil-spray-sand road between the RAF base and the DWS compound. Somewhat taken aback I shouted ‘Hami! Hami!’ forgetting in my fear that ‘Hami! Hami!’ Means ‘quick! quick!’ and not ‘slow’.
As a result the driver floored the pedal and it seemed doubtful whether more than two wheels were actually in contact for most of the ride.
Bruised and battered I climbed out of the Land Rover.
"This one of mechanical engineer" the driver said, patting it. "good one."
My old friend Keith Ritchie, another ex-BBC contract engineer, greeted me. He wore a Tee-shirt and a pair of shorts and looked like mahogany after being out there three months or so. I’d be sharing his bungalow; each of these had two bedrooms, a lounge, a bathroom (or was it a bathroom each? possibly.)
After stowing my suitcase and carry-ons Keith said, ‘fancy a walk?’
We wandered down to the beach as the sun was setting. Keith pointed out the wreck of the SS Electric, outlined as it was against the oranges and violets of a spectacular sunset. I promptly took a picture with my Minolta 35mm rangefinder camera.
We walked along the beach, me not noticing how fast the sun set in those latitudes, until suddenly I became aware that it had become quite gloomy and it was difficult to see.
"Time to go back," Keith said.
We turned, and I yelled with horror. Dozens if not hundreds of horrible crab creatures surrounded us, waving their pincers. The nearest ones shot streams of liquid our way.
I jumped back but Keith only laughed. "They’re just land crabs," he explained. "We’d better be getting back to the bungalow. It’s the last Friday in the month: Mess Night."
This was my first inkling of the peculiar social order to be found on this remote outpost of Empire.
Mess Night consisted of, first and foremost, getting properly dressed in a conservative suit and tie. It wasn’t a DJ affair but you could sense that in former, colonial times it would have been.
Social life of the exclusively male establishment revolved around The UK Club, so called because, I imagine, it being Foreign Office and part of a Diplomatic Corps department, it almost had the same status as an embassy.
There were further complications.
Operational Managers such as the three of us contractors, plus equivalent and above level DWS full-time staff, were granted the status of flight officers at the RAF’s Officers Mess. Now, this was the early 70s and as such, The Summer Of Love was well advanced and I had even brought some tie-died T shirts along with the more formal wear, however I had abundant shoulder-length hair.
Mess Night at the UK Club
Charlie Harman is foreground, left: he was the chief after Ted Hull.
This hair style did not go down too well with the RAF chaps over there. They just about tolerated it because of one crucial fact: the UK Club was happily emplaced on its own compound, leased separately by the Foreign Office, and outside the purview of the RAF. And of course could thus serve alcohol 24 hours a day, at NAAFI ource cost plus 10%. (As you will see . . .) Natuarally, pilots and crew were always welcome.
Lower orders of the DWS staff were given honorary noncom status and ate at the sergeant’s mess. Unfortunately, Keith told me, the grub at the Officers Mess compared poorly to that served at the Sergeants Mess. And all week, we would be expected to have dinner with the RAF.
Except for Mess Night, when all the DWS staff would gather at the UK Club for a slap up meal.
Keith and I presented ourselves at the Club half an hour or so prior to the actual meal. He introduced me to quite a few of the staff whose names, as usual with me, I immediately forgot. I played a game of darts. Then the clock ticked round to eight and Ted Hull, the senior engineer and head of station, announced that dinner was served. The two staff responsible came from either Goa or Pakistan, I think Goa because otherwise they’d have had big problems dealing with the idea of cooking ‘haram’ stuff like pork or serving alcohol.
Mess Night involved a course of soup with bread, then a first course, main course, dessert, and coffee, all with a choice of some pretty decent wines. The food was excellent especially considering the shortages of perishable items, especially the lack of dairy products. After the meal the drinking would move to the bar lounge and here, an honour system was operated. Anyone wanting a drink simply served themselves and made a note in a notebook as to what they’d had and signed it.
Everyone was very honest about complying (at NAAFI cost plus 10%, hy not!) but the system did have one unfortunate problem, in that as the members became more and more pissed, the signatures became increasingly undecipherable.
The UK Club bar.
From left to right:
the author, someone I've forgotten, and Mick Abbott.
On Fridays other than Mess Nights, another ceremonial meal was served in the Club dining room: Fish ‘n Chip night. This had humble beginnings: the staff would have a collection and buy some fresh fish and crayfish from the local Bedu. Then the two Goan club staff would cook it and serve it.
During my stay, fish n’ chip night reached new heights, as you can see by the photos in the gallery.
Once we had built our own launch and acquired an engine for it, (right) we took to the sea and pulled in huge catches of every sort of fish: warm water cod, sea bream, golden and pink bream, barracuda, king mackerel, and more.
I decided to try fishing off the reef and took my handline out there. This was a 200 pound nylon line with a huge hook and ten ounces of weight.
Masirah has a considerable reef mainly of cabbage and brain coral.
I walked out onto the reef, trying not to step on the prehistoric trilobite-like creatures that moved around on it.
When I got to a suitable-looking spot I circled the line around my head like a slingshot, and cast. I promptly caught something that made me shudder as I dragged it from the waves: a huge moray eel. The damn thing wound itself into a spiral round the line and I dare not risk trying to free it; they are dangerous, once they fix their teeth in you, it’s like marrying the creature. And their longevity is notorious.
I decided to carry it back at arms length as it were, to the Club where I would obtain suitable instruments to disgorge the thing without risk to life and limb. Also, I was unsure as to whether or not it might be edible.
It was quite a walk back, some twenty minutes at least, but finally I arrived with this eel that had, by this time, dessicated in the fierce heat. Evidently it could do with freshening up, so I went out the back and dropped it in the swimming pool. I was very dehydrated so I went into the bar and made myself an iced lime.
After gulping a good amount of the lime juice, I wandered outside just in time to notice one of the staff emerge from the changing room in his swimsuit and dive into the pool. Remembering I had left the moray in there, but all dried up, I decided to retrieve the animal and take it into the kitchen.
Unfortunately it was no longer dangling in the shallow end but had miraculously recovered and now decided to investigate the swimmer.
I have never seen anyone move as fast as that before. . .