Il-Ballut tal-Wardija: Natural History where Nature is History
Eight thousand years ago, before the first humans set foot on Malta, the island was very different from what is visible in today’s extensively man-made landscape. It would perhaps be very difficult to imagine a landscape shorn of buildings, roads, rubble walls and terraced fields. In fact, very little has remained of that original landscape given that our country’s small size coupled with its high population density spanning seven millennia of human activity has ensured that very little of what was around when the first humans arrived remains for us to see.
In spite of the almost complete eradication of Malta’s natural landscape, we can use our imagination and speculate about features and habitats which existed in greater quantity then. Amongst these one can list the original forest which would have covered an extensive part of the landscape and far more freshwater action through permanently flowing watercourses from a network of springs fed by an overflowing aquifer.
The virgin Maltese landscape would have consisted of patches of garigue on the topmost, exposed patches of coralline limestone and extensive tree cover in the soil-rich lower ground and valley sides. Tree cover would have varied from Mediterranean woodland to maquis. The valleys themselves would have had streams of flowing water most if not all year round and would have drained into much bigger beaches than today’s, supporting a rich sand-dune habitat with extensive marshlands in the low ground of their hinterland. Grassland steppes would have prevailed in rocky areas benefiting from some soil cover.
All of this has changed of course. The tree cover has long since been eradicated for various reasons including land-clearance for agriculture, firewood and even shipbuilding. The aquifer has been almost pumped dry and the hard work of people across the millennia has transformed the landscape into an extensive patchwork of fields and habitations almost covering the totality of the Maltese Islands’ surface area.
Some things remain however. Which in itself is amazing considering the extent of humanity’s interference with the Maltese landscape. There are still a few seasonal watercourses which continue to flow with fresh water during the wet season. Sand-dune habitats such as Ramla-Hamra, the clay slopes of Gnejna and Ghajn Tuffieha, the untouched extreme edges of certain cliffsides and patches of garigue all give testament to the original landscape. So do the saline marshlands at is-Simar and in Marsaxlokk
Other artificial efforts help replicate long lost habitats. The Buskett woodland near Rabat is a four hundred year old man-made wood, the lower parts of which have slowly acquired the powers of self-regeneration. Closer to our times, the forty year old Mizieb woodland is still not capable of such natural self sufficiency, whilst newer projects such as Foresta 2000 in Mellieha are still in their infancy. A man-made wetland was recreated in Ghadira in the 1980s while the nineteenth century Chadwick Lakes in Wied tal-Qlejgha utilize dams to retain rainwater runoff which would otherwise drain into the sea in a matter of hours.
Within all of this, there is one very small patch of Malta where something even more precious has survived unscathed across the millennia. A patch where the term natural history takes on an entire new meaning, because nature itself is history. This place is the Ballut tal-Wardija, a magical place where a small group of one thousand year old trees provides an unbroken line to the original forest which once cloaked this thimbleful of limestone outcrops in the Central Mediterranean.
Il-Wardija sits on one of the parallel ridges which feature in the northern half of the island of Malta. The name itself is a corruption of La Guardia or the Lookout Place given that its altitude of 175 metres above sea level made it a good vantage point for watching out for enemy shipping movements. Ballut is the Maltese word for the Holm Oak, so il-Ballut tal-Wardija means the Holm Oak Wood of Wardija.
The place is a Grade 1 protected area and is a registered Natura 2000 site of ecological importance. It is off the beaten track and relatively inaccessible. So inaccessible that to reach it one has to negotiate a path which is ominously and repetitively marked with “Keep Out: Private Property” signs.
But the effort to get there is well worth it. The copse is very well defined. It hugs the slope of the Wardija Ridge overlooking the Pwales valley and is situated in a hollow depression, surrounded by more recently planted, though mature, Aleppo Pine, Olive and Carob trees. It starts and ends very suddenly, but once within it, one is immersed in another world: a world long gone, when nature ruled this land and real trees reached out to the sky in high defiance. Trees with gnarled boughs and thick, twisted trunks. Trees so abundant that the sunlight is blocked, leaving only a murky twilight at ground level. A place that makes Buskett’s Wied il-Luq look like something created last week.
The place has the tangible feeling of antiquity in a way that is almost magical. Reminiscent of fantasy worlds such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth and its magical Fangorn Forest and Mirkwood, the trees are like sentinels from an earlier age. Fascinating in their having managed to survive all the threats thrown at them over the ages: a last outpost of a forgotten age which has all but been wiped out by an insensitive human species which is not interested or simply does not care. Stepping in and out of il-Ballut was like a short sojourn in a spiritual time machine.
It is believed that the trees at il-Ballut are about 1,000 years old which dates them to the time when the Arab period of our history was giving way to the Norman occupation and the reintroduction of Malta to the Western world. This makes these trees as old as the Maltese language itself: trees which were already more than half a millennium old when the Great Siege of Malta was taking place.
The approaching darkness forced me to leave the place after a mere one hour’s visit. I wish I could have stayed longer, spending the night perhaps, listening to the ancient branches squeaking against the stormy winter winds and smelling the ancient environment in the pitch darkness which surely prevails under the dense tree cover.
A few minutes’ walk uphill and it was back to 21st century Malta with its roads, cars and expanding urban sprawl. The street lights were already on in the fading dusk and by the time I was out of the narrow Wardija road onto the heavy traffic on the main road to St. Paul’s Bay, my re-insertion into the current age was complete.
In spite of this, however, I will always remember that this one tiny patch of this fair land continues to hold out against the ravages of time to provide an all-important unbroken link with our past. I plan to repeat my pilgrimage to this sacred spot when the time is right.