The watchers

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The watchers

The date: sometime in mid January

The time: around 17:00

The place: Ghajn Tuffieha, Malta

A Maltese January evening, just ahead of sunset.  The bearing: due west, as the sun sets after a short sojourn across the winter sky, a mere three weeks after the December solstice marking the shortest day of the year.  Beyond the horizon, the distant Tunisian shoreline, on the African coast.

There is no wind and the open sea appears calm.  Broken clouds provide for an intermittent cover of the otherwise blue sky.  A myriad of all the colours of the spectrum emanates from the fading orb of the setting solar disc.

The unfolding scene has its watchers, both animate and inanimate.

A group of human watchers, most probably tourists from some inland city up north, enjoying the rare spectacle of a maritime sunset and absorbing the unfolding scene.  Free entertainment, which no expensive man-made wonder can ever replace.

To their right, another watcher, standing in stony silence.  A watchtower from the time of the Knights of Malta; one of a network built to watch the coast for marauding ships and to raise the alarm through the timeless method of smoke signals, as ancient as humanity itself.

The perfect silhouette, the beautiful colors of the sunset and the focus on the watchers: elements comprising a photo I count among my favourites, and which I feel compelled to share.

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The joy and sadness of finding a rare flower

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The joy and sadness of finding a rare flower

In the middle of last week a good friend alerted me to the fact that, in a particular coastal spot, sheltered under a copse of tamarisk trees, there were a number of specimens of a very rare plant, the Pheasant’s eye.

On the following day I rushed to the place, as with such delicate plants there is always the strong likelihood that a bout of adverse weather conditions can very quickly dry up all the specimens of what one is looking for, turning enthusiasm into sheer disappointment.

But this time round, luck was on my side.  As I traversed the spot, I started looking for the ubiquitous red flowers of the species.  This was not so difficult as the prevailing floral colour at this time of the year is yellow with huge swathes of cape sorrel and crown daisies carpeting the thin soil cover beneath the tamarisks.

And there they were!  A number of individual specimens of the very rare Pheasant’s eye, Adonis microcarpa.  The flower the Maltese call Ghajn is-serduq or the Cockerell’s eye, there being no pheasants in Malta.  A member of the buttercup family and an indigenous Maltese plant, meaning that it is one of Malta’s original floral species and was not introduced to the island by man.

The Pheasant’s eye is an annual species which flowers during the period January to May.  It grows in soil-rich pockets of land, mostly near fields although it is sometimes also found on garigue.  In Malta, it is classified as rare and is a protected species which cannot be either picked or harmed.  Notwithstanding this, this rare but beautiful plant continues to become even scarcer with observed numbers continuing to decline, particularly in the past few decades.  So much so, that whenever a few are observed, locations are kept as closely guarded secrets lest they be damaged or destroyed.

There is always a joy when one is privileged to observe something which is rare and precious.  But there is also the accompanying sadness that the rarity being “enjoyed” is the result of habitat destruction and loss of bio-diversity.  Compounded by the even-sadder fact that for most of our decision makers and planners, such richness is rudely and ignorantly clustered into the pejorative label of “weeds”: the Maltese “haxix hazin” or “bad grass”.

To the insensitive, what I had the privilege to observe last week may be weeds.  But to me, this simple flower represents natural beauty as an art form: the perfect dimensions, the delicate beauty, the rich hues and the perfect fit with its surroundings.  For, in the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Flowers are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out-values all the utilities of the world.”

I am pleased to share with you this particular ray of beauty that I managed to freeze in a photo last week and hope that your enthusiasm and appreciation of such beauty is at least as strong as mine.

Filfla: a rocky outcrop with a story to tell

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Filfla: a rocky outcrop with a story to tell

Placed anywhere else, tiny Filfla would go mostly unregarded: a tiny outcrop of limestone, standing some 5 kilometres out in the open sea; defiant and resolute against all that the elements throw at it.

But not in Malta, where a small surface area and a high population density means that every single hectare of land has its use, its role and its history. Even a small place like Filfla.

The islet is a small, rocky platform which was originally attached to the south-west coast of Malta. An ancient cataclysmic event, resulting in the Maghlaq Fault on the main island tore Filfla away from its parent, like some boulder thrown out to sea, thereby converting it from a nondescript section of coast into the separate entity that we know today.

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It must have once been bigger, of course. But millennia of pounding by the deep blue Mediterranean which surrounds it, accelerated with its more recent misfortune to have served as a sitting-duck target for British warships engaging in gunnery target practice have led to the islet losing a lot of its original mass with today’s surviving chunk looking like the battered hulk of a fortress which has been subjected to a massive and merciless bombardment.

The name Filfla has its roots in the Arabic word for chili pepper, filfel. The name probably originated either due to the islet’s miniscule size or its original shape which may have reminded observers from the Maltese mainland of a small chili. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that chili was ever cultivated on the island given its small size and its remoteness so the name is most probably descriptive of shape or size rather than associated with produce. Maps from five hundred years ago refer to the island as Piper, which is the Latinised form of filfel. This indicates that Filfla’s name is at least of Semitic origin from the time of the Arab period around one thousand years ago. I am not aware of any older references to the island and its name in classical times.

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According to historical sources there used to be a small structure on the island, dating back to the fourteenth century, which doubled up as a place of worship and a store of food and water for fishermen stranded upon it in times of bad weather. The chapel was deconsecrated in 1575 and apparently the cave housing this chapel/food depot collapsed after an earthquake in 1856 that also sank part of the island. A late medieval painting showing strong renaissance influences which is found in the vestry of the parish church of the nearby mainland village of Zurrieq is popularly known as the “Madonna ta’ Filfla” triptych and is popularly assumed to have once adorned the Filfla chapel, although doubts exist whether a painting of such quality would have been commissioned to sit in such a rather deserted chapel.

Some sources also refer to a fresh water spring which provided a source of drinking water: something entirely feasible given that at sea level, Filfla sports a layer of impermeable blue clay implying that it could support a tiny, rainwater-fed, perched aquifer which recharged annually during the rainy season, eventually leaking out through a spring.

Filfla’s location most probably had a strong bearing on the location of the two imposing prehistoric complexes of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on the Qrendi coast with some historians speculating that the mysterious offshore rock, silhouetted against the midday sun on the southern horizon, may have possessed some symbolic or sacred significance of context to the two magnificent temples and stone calendars located within 500 metres of each other.

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In more recent times, it was the beauty of the setting, with the gently sloping cliffs on one side and the islet on the other that led the British Governor of Malta Sir Walter Norris Congreve to request burial at sea at a midway point between the two in 1927, thus immortalizing his name by lending it to the aptly named Congreve Channel to the body of water stretching out to Filfla.

Filfla’s major involvement in the international arena took place when the Maltese Government unsuccessfully tried to convince the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague to include it in their deliberations when calculating the median line between Maltese and Libyan waters as a result of a dispute which arose between the two countries for oil-exploration purposes in the early 1980s.

Filfla is a flat-topped plateau which from the distance makes it comparable to a ship. This unfortunate association led to the commencement of a tradition by the British Navy of using Filfla as a target for naval bombardment practice. This action, unthinkable today, but entirely feasible and virtually unopposed in those less sensitive times, created two problems for the isle and its environs. First of all it damaged the soft rocky structure of Filfla resulting in extreme fragmentation and huge amounts of rubble along its sides.

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Furthermore, it also resulted in a huge amount of unexploded ordnance lying idle in the relatively shallow waters surrounding Filfla, obviously originating from the hundreds of unexploded shells which missed their mark. While a land-based target-practice range can be regularly cleared of such unexploded ordnance, nothing of the sort was ever done beneath the surface of Filfla’s seas, allowing individuals to dive and retrieve the explosives for conversion into festive fireworks: an eccentric but also dangerously irresponsible past-time. To this day, fishing is prohibited within a one nautical mile radius of Filfla to reduce the risk of netting any unexploded shells.

However, every dark cloud has its silver lining. The isolation, the destruction and the dangers lurking beneath the waves have in a way also led to the protection of Filfla and its evolution into an off-limits nature reserve of international importance.  It plays host to an endemic species of lizard not found anywhere else on the planet. In fact the lizard species, which is described as large green with bluish spots is actually a subspecies of the one found on the Maltese islands but differs enough to qualify for a separate subspecies title, the Filfla lizard.  And contrary to popular legend and misconception, the Filfla lizard does not have two tails!  The legend stems from a reasonably common occurence worldwide when lizards who partially drop their tails instead of losing it in full, grow a new one next to the stump of the older one making it look as if they have two tails!

Amazingly, the islet also supports one of the largest known colonies in the world (five to eight thousand pairs) of the European Storm Petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus melitensis, the appropriately named Kangu ta’ Filfla: quite an achievement for an island the size of two football pitches. It also has extensive nesting populations of shearwaters and yellow legged gulls who prefer the undisturbed and unlit cliffs of Filfla to those of the nearby mainland to set up their breeding grounds.   The cracks in the rock and the spaces in the boulder scree created by the historical bombardment seem to play an important role in Filfla’s attractiveness as a bird colony.   The islet’s flat top is characterized by coastal garigue vegetation together with a species of giant leek which is very common. Dry during the summer months, the surface becomes a very lush green in winter.  An endemic species of snail has also been recorded.

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A small rocky shoal is also visible very near to Filfla, possibly the remnant of what the islet used to extend to. This tiny rock, barely above sea level is known by several names, amongst which Il-Gebla ta’ Xutu (Xutu’s rock), Santa Maria and Filflett (as a diminutive of Filfla).

For the past few decades, Filfla has enjoyed the status of ‘site of scientific importance’ and is strictly off limits to visitors: a fitting culmination following the depredations it has suffered at the hands of man. So, when in the South West of Malta, do stop and have a long look at Filfla. As in many others things in Malta, it is the ultimate proof that size does not matter, and that even the most negligible of rocky outcrops over here has a larger than life role both in terms of its natural and its historical attributes!

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