A light in the black

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A light in the black

The place: Comino, the smallest of Malta’s inhabited Islands.  The time: 4:30am on a damp and dewy Sunday morning in August.

An early wake up for our yearly appointment with Mass in the tiny chapel at the mouth of Santa Marija Bay where Wied Imdied slopes gently into a smoothly shelving sandy beach.

My wife and I wake up at 4:30am  and we quietly make our way down the deserted hotel corridors and staircase to start the brisk half hour walk from San Niklaw Bay to the next inlet along the coast.  The air is still and heavy with dew.  The stars of the summer constellations twinkle brightly as a faint indication of the forthcoming dawn starts to appear on the eastern horizon.  Across the channel, the sleepy lights of Gozo seem so near and yet so far away.  In spite of the short distances, the feeling of insularity on this tiny island is very strong.

We walk along the dusty path, the limestone gravel crunching beneath our sandals and the noise of nocturnal insects and the occasional scurrying wild rabbit breaking the silence.  The path is dimly lit by evenly-spaced light bulbs but that is enough as our eyes adjust to night vision and the walk is easy and straightforward.  The smells of wild fennel and Mediterranean thyme permeate the air with their cloying aromatic sweetness whilst the occasional brush with a wet African tamarisk, saturated with dew and expelled brine is bound to give a refreshing feeling in contrast to the warm, sticky air of an August night.

Walking through the sleepy Club Nautico bungalows we reach the arms of Santa Marija Bay to the gentle sound of waves lapping the shallow sandy beach.  The bay harbours a handful of sailing boats protected from the currents of the Gozo Channel, huddling together under the watchful gaze of the ancient Police Station built in colonial times to discourage smuggling from neighbouring Sicily.

From here the road slopes gently upwards, from the sea level of the beach to the side of Wied Imdied where the small chapel which is our destination lies, protected by a group of stiff, old cypresses standing to attention like ancient sentinels protecting something precious.

Aside of the few dim lamps affixed to the structures along the road, it is still pitch dark.  The collared doves huddled on the chapel’s roof croon monotonously while a dog barks in the distance, perhaps from one of the tents in the small campsite behind the beach or on one of the anchored boats.  And in that monochrome darkness, a source of warm light stands out: emanating from the open door of the chapel where we, together with a handful of other early risers congregate for the short, rushed ceremony celebrated by the wizened old priest who crosses over from Gozo every weekend for the purpose.

The darkness, the warm, damp night, the sounds and smells of the walk and the thin layer of talc like dust sticking to our feet.  And the welcoming light in the black, coming out of a centuries-old rustic chapel on a one square mile island, suggesting an unchanged ritual spanning hundreds of years.  Simply wonderful.

Everlasting beauty in Dwejra Bay

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Everlasting beauty in Dwejra Bay

Dwejra Bay on the island of Gozo in the Central Mediterranean.  A bay born out of the ancient collapse of a sea cave whose roof disappeared beneath the waves and whose sides survive as cliffs and the solitary Fungus Rock guarding the entrance.

A place of solitude and beauty where the land and the sea combine to form the perfect scene.  Sheer tough coralline limestone cliffs on one side, softer, golden globigerina limestone gently sloping to the water on the other.  Sedimentary rock made of the compressed, fossilised remains of billions of marine creatures which drifted to the bottom of the sea in an age of higher sea levels.  Until the waters receded and the new rock rose and became dry land.  Only to start gradually eroding back into the sea through the action of wind and water.

Dwejra survives as one of the least disturbed areas in the densely populated Maltese Islands.  A protected area, it is considered to be a natural heritage site of international scientific importance owing to its unique geology and botany.  It also hosts a number of rare, endemic plant species, foremost amongst which, the Maltese everlasting, examples of which are visible in the foreground of the picture.

An endemic plant is one which grows in a single place or area only.  Some endemics are common while others are very rare.  The Maltese everlasting – Helichrysum melitense – pertains to this latter category.  It is so rare that it is only to be found on the western cliffs of Gozo and nowhere else in the world.  Formerly present around the Zurrieq coast on mainland Malta it is now thought to be extinct there, surviving only on the Gozo cliffs and the tiny Fungus Rock Nature Reserve at the mouth of Dwejra Bay.

In line with its specificity to Gozo, its Maltese name is sempreviva ta’ Ghawdex and it was only described by botanists for the first time in 1980.  It is recognised as one of the rarest Maltese endemic plant species giving it a very special status.  The plant grows in shrubs which range in height between 20 and 60 centimetres.  Its leaves are covered in white hairs to protect the plant from sea spray and help it retain moisture in the arid Maltese summer.  Between April and June it produces a profusion of beautiful yellow flowers.

So I trust that you will excuse the pun in the title of today’s post, for not only is the beauty of the image and the location everlasting in its value but it is made even more special by the presence of the everlasting plant.  I have to confess that I am always humbled when in the presence of rare and endangered species, in awe at the opportunity of witnessing the last remaining specimens of what might have once been a thriving species.  Add a magically beautiful location such as Gozo’s Dwejra Bay and the picture is complete.

Comino: the island of singular experiences

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Comino: the island of singular experiences

It all depends on how you look at it of course. Barren, empty, crying out for development according to some.  Precious, pristine, untouchable according to others.  I find myself leaning towards this latter viewpoint.

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Comino: three square kilometres of parched upper coralline limestone deprived of the perched aquifers providing liquid sustenance to its larger siblings.  High cliffs,  miniscule inlets and its own brood of smaller islets: a mini archipelago within an archipelago.  Together with its magnificent Blue Lagoon which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.

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Elsewhere such a small rock would have probably been ignored.  But not in Malta, where every square kilometre of territory has its own story to tell!  Roman and Punic burials, ancient shipwrecks, finds of pottery and coins and troglodyte structures all point to a millenary human presence on this tiny island.

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Comino was also an island of exile as evidenced by Cabbalist’s Abraham Abulafia’s thirteenth century solitary confinement there after managing to attract the combined wrath and fear of Christian and Jewish religious leaders with his teachings.  The island’s solitude was also exploited by Barbary pirates raiding shipping between Malta and Gozo and smugglers from Sicily seeking to evade the Maltese quarantine authorities during times of plague on the Italian island.  The reaction to this was the building of the imposing Santa Maria Tower to stem piracy and the small Police Station in Santa Maria Bay to deter smuggling.

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Its isolation also attracted the building of a Hospital by the British following a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century on the site of an older eighteenth century Knights’ period residential structure called il-Palazz and the more recent, twentieth century pig-farm to help Malta re-populate its swine population following a deadly outbreak of African Swine Fever.

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You will witness a chapel of medieval origin complete with an Eastern Christian-style wooden iconostasis screen separating the altar from the faithful and a small, enclosed cemetery complete with gnarled cypresses clinging for dear life on a windswept hill pointing to humanity’s religious needs during its short worldly presence and its need to rest in peace in expectation of an afterlife.  Faith, life and death aside, there is also an impressive gun battery to guard shipping movements in the channel facing the extreme northern tip of Malta.

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Look out for scattered evidence of a twentieth century attempt at sustaining a private agricultural colony: terraced fields in miniscule, meandering valleys with their low dry-stone walls struggling to prevent the sparse red soil from being washed away into the nearby sea.  Pines, carobs and olives planted as windbreakers and sources of sustenance and fuel.

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Also an abandoned bakery, complete with stone oven and vats for mixing the dough, for the once-a-week baking of the bread for the farming community.  There once also was a schoolhouse within the confines of the abandoned hospital to educate the colony’s children.  The colony is long gone but one determined permanent household remains, eking a living from agricultural produce.  And from the last half of the twentieth century, the more recent tourism development consisting of the hotel and its handful of bungalows a stone’s throw away.

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There are a couple of water pumping stations that harvest fresh water from the sea-level aquifer whose existence was unknown until the nineteenth century and a few ugly, functional structures, standing like a cancerous blight on the ancient landscape, erected in more recent, insensitive times in connection with the transfer of electric power from Malta to Gozo.

Comino is an island with almost no vehicular traffic and with a few dusty paths for roads.  A place to walk, to sit, to smell and to fill the senses with the aura of nature.  A photographer’s paradise, a nature-lover’s dream, a birdwatcher’s haven.  An island of wild rabbits and scurrying lizards.

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Then there is the sea: that most deep azure of blue seas tempered with the mesmerizing turquoises, which only the unique combination of coralline limestone sand and crystal clear water can create.  The sea which dominates the entire landscape and changes its hue depending on depth, light and shadow. A paradise for divers with natural caves, impeccable water quality, wrecks to explore and diverse marine flora and fauna.

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Finally Comino is mostly about nature.  Vast swathes of virgin garigue, fragrant with Mediterranean thyme and other aromatic species dominate the landscape.   In some areas, the garigue gives way to more verdant steppe where patches of lentisk bushes, treasured for their mastic resin all over the Mediterranean but ignored and unknown over here, are to be found.  There is a small and endangered sand-dune habitat in the hinterland of the miniscule Santa Maria Bay together with isolated communities of cliff-side vegetation supporting shy populations of sea birds amongst the boulder screes.

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My Comino is for the connoisseur: the visitor who is capable of stopping to savour the beauty of an unsophisticated but beautiful landscape and seascape.   It is like an aged distillate to be savoured slowly, not in a rush.  It is the place to slow down your pace, narrow your field of vision, observe what you usually ignore.  A place which you can either dismiss as barren and empty or appreciate in terms of its rich diversity if you bother to adjust your scale.   Once you get to this stage there is really no going back and you will join the ranks of those who dream of its continued protection and isolation.  Dreamers like me.

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The sand dunes of Malta

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The sand dunes of Malta

For an island group which is not particularly known for the quantity and vastness of its sandy beaches, the title of this essay sounds bombastically off mark.  Yet, in spite of this geographical fact, the Maltese archipelago does contain a number of sandy beaches, some of which have also managed to continue to sustain a sand dune hinterland with a resultant unique natural habitat: a habitat made even more interesting by the fact that it contains some of the rarest and threatened flora on the islands.

Sandy beaches generally form at the mouth of valleys where the land slopes gently into the shallow sea.  Millennia of seasonal rains cause fine grained material to be carried by storm water action to be deposited on the sea bed until a thick layer of sand creates the beach.  The vagaries of weather including wave action pounding on the coast deposit quantities of sand on land leading to the familiar crescent shaped sandy beach sloping gently into the sea.

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The type and quality of material which is transported by water down the valley bears a strong relationship with the type and quality of beach, with some beaches being composed of stones and pebbles while others are composed of sand.  Here in the Maltese Islands one can distinguish between two main types of sandy beach: the ones with reddish sand, such as Ramla l-Hamra and San Blas on Gozo and Ghajn Tuffieha, Golden Bay and Gnejna on Malta and the ones with a lighter coloured sand such as the beaches in Mellieha, Armier, Paradise Bay and Balluta Bay on Malta, Xlendi Bay on Gozo and the Blue Lagoon, and Santa Marija Bay on Comino.

Maltese beaches with reddish sand are generally to be found in places where there are exposed clay slopes.  In Maltese geology, the clay layer is topped with a deposit of “green sand” which oxidizes to the more familiar red when exposed to the atmosphere.  On the other hand, the Maltese beaches with the lighter coloured sand are ones in which coralline or globigerina limestone layers are the predominant surface of their valley sources.

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Beaches are traditionally self replenishing through the annual draining and depositing of material, and the biggest beaches that are still in existence in Malta are the ones whose watercourses are still undisturbed, such as Ghajn Tuffieha, Gnejna and Ramla l-Hamra.  Unfortunately, the construction of roads just a few metres behind a number of beaches, generally followed by intensive construction activities have choked the supply of sediment to a vast number of Maltese beaches with the result that previously bigger sandy beaches have slowly wasted to sorry remnants of what they once were.

Examples of such declining beaches include relatively big beaches such as Mellieha, Armier and Xemxija and a range of smaller ones which have almost faded into obscurity such as Salina, Qalet Marku, Balluta, Xlendi, Rinella, Marsascala and St George’s Bay in St. Julians.  All of these locations are characterized by a road and construction which has cut their link with the valleys behind them, with the latter having been recently replenished with crushed granite imported from a terrestrial source in Jordan to avoid contamination with invasive marine organisms.

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Sand dunes are the natural hinterland of undisturbed beaches.  They form the buffer zone between the beach and the valley floor behind it.  They consist of sand which accumulates at the back of the beach as a result of wind and wave action. They are a sort of middle ground: an area where the predominant material is sand but where vegetation still grows.  The sand dune is an area where the underground water flowing downwards from the valley is predominantly fresh to brackish (depending on the season) as opposed to saline beneath the exposed sand of the beach.

This means that sand dunes can support a variety of plant life which is specially adapted to their unique environmental conditions.  It needs to be life which can survive extreme aridity and heat.  It also needs to adapt to the reality of literally living in a shifting environment where the action of wind and water can affect rapid changes to the profile of the landscape.  This calls for strong root systems which are capable of penetrating deep to seek water and sustenance.  For it is from down in the depths of the sand dune that these plants draw the essentials to remain alive and thrive.

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As already indicated, this is one of the rarest habitats in Malta.  Already scarce to start with given the small number of sandy beaches in the Maltese archipelago, this habitat has suffered huge losses due to urbanization, extension of coastal road networks and mass tourism activity.  In a way, it is a miracle that some remnants of it still survive!

The best examples of reasonably intact sand dune habitats to be found on these islands are few.  The best by far is the one in Ramla l-Hamra Bay on Gozo.  This glorious beach has managed to survive the ravages of time and development primarily through the almost total lack of development in its pristine valley.  However it has also found additional assistance from a sub-sea wall, built during the reign of the Knights of St. John which was designed to ground enemy shipping attempting to beach there.  This wall has over the centuries assisted in retaining vast quantities of sand from being lost in deeper waters with the result that Ramla is by far the largest sandy beach in the country.  The sand dune in Ramla is reasonably intact, generally well protected and well marked as a cordoned-off zone which is off limits to beachgoers.  This is in sharp contrast to the situation prevailing until a few years ago when campers had a free rein to pitch their tents among the dunes, making campfires and wreaking havoc and damage to this habitat in the process.

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On the main island of Malta, the best sand dune habitats are to be found in Ramla tal-Mixquqa (Golden Bay), Ghajn Tuffieha Bay and Gnejna Bay.  A reasonably extensive, though seriously threatened and degraded dune also exists in the hinterland of Ramla tat-Torri beach, surrounded by the illegally constructed beach houses prevalent in this part of the north of Malta.

A huge sand dune also used to exist until the mid 1970s in the area of Mellieha Bay now housing the bird reserve.  Remnants of this sand dune remain incorporated within the grounds of the reserve.  Other small examples of sand dune habitats can be found in Santa Marija Bay on Comino and near the minute Slugs Bay in l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha.

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Being as rare as they are, sand dunes offer a special fascination, although they often go unnoticed by the absolute majority of people who bypass them on the way to the beach.  They contain plants which are amazing when considering their capability to sprout almost effortlessly from barren sand. Witnessing the tough delicateness of plants emerging almost effortlessly from dry, hot sand on a hot summer’s day is a miracle of nature that is worth pondering upon, even if for a few seconds, if you happen to be walking by a sand dune.

Needless to say, given their rare and threatened status within the Maltese biosphere, all the plants in the Maltese sand dune habitat are in some way or another threatened.  What differs is the level of threat which they face: with some being almost certainly extinct and others not having been observed for years.

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Even those plants which are still fairly common in the surviving dunes: plants such as the Sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), the Sea Medick (Medicago maritima) and the Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum) are still rare and threatened, while others such as the Prickly parsnip (Echinophora spinosa) and the Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella) are classified as very rare.  The versatile spurge family is also present in the sand dunes, particularly through the aptly named Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias), with another coastal species the Sea Rocket (Cakile maritima) also making a presence.  A number of thistle species have also successfully colonized the sand dune habitat with one of the most common being the Common golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus).

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This list mentions but the most common of a range of rare and threatened species, struggling for survival in one of Malta’s harshest habitats, and that’s against some stiff competition!  Within this list my personal favourite is the Sea daffodil, a plant which is beautiful at all times of the year, but which peaks during the impossibly hot and dry summer months.

For it is during this most arid of periods that this surprising plant decides to produce an abundance of huge, delicate, white flowers.  Flowers are usually associated with the mild spring period when sunshine and rainfall are both to be found in copious amounts in average temperatures.  Witnessing these flowers on stalks emerging from sand so hot that you can’t walk on it in August when it has not rained for around ten weeks is an experience which is stupefying if only you just stop and wonder for just a few minutes.

Whilst this rare habitat, known in Maltese as gharam tar-ramel, continues to be threatened, it is positive to see that it is enjoying increasing protection and recognition.  The management of beaches such as Ramla l-Hamra and Ghajn Tuffieha by NGOs such as the Gaia Foundation has not only controlled the wildest of excesses such as camping, four-wheel drive off-roading and other indiscriminately destructive activities, but has also led to the introduction of practical steps, such as cordoned-off zones, limiting human activity on the dunes.  Elsewhere, beaches vying for the Blue Flag Status also need to introduce visible elements of nature protection and appreciation to their users.

In a densely populated country such as Malta, facing all the pressures that it does from an active population coupled with the needs of international tourism, the preservation of the natural environment will always be an uphill struggle.  The sand dunes represent one of the most threatened habitats we possess and may well be one of the first to disappear if complacency and insensitivity win over care and awareness.  Losing them will be a great loss which I sincerely hope will never come to pass.

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Next time you’re in Ramla Bay do spend five minutes observing this small world and I’m sure that you will be overawed by its simple beauty and its tenacity.  I am sure that becoming aware of its delicate ruggedness will convince you of the need to preserve it for posterity.

Musings on Comino

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Musings on Comino

Since my childhood, the island of Kemmuna or Comino has always held a special fascination to me.  Snugly nestled between its larger siblings Malta and Gozo whilst in turn watching over its own brood of tiny islets including the appropriately named Kemmunett or Cominotto, this small one square mile of Maltese territory possesses a uniqueness which makes it special.

Comino is near, but also far away. Contrary to what one would expect for one of the smallest islands in an archipelago, Comino is not in some far-flung corner like distant Filfla, but just off the geographical centre of the Maltese Islands.  In the days before ferries to the island became widely available, for people like me it was a terra incognita, an island one got tantalisingly close to when crossing the Malta-Gozo channel, but never to step on.

From the Gozo ferry one could glimpse the almost bare rock of the island, the few stunted trees, the imposing Santa Marija Tower and a handful of other man-made structures.  One could also see the imposing cliffs, punctured by the occasional cave or grotto, and, between the thimbleful of rocky outcrops that separate Comino from Cominotto, a glimpse of that most unbelievably turquoise stretch of shimmering water, the exotic and almost out-of-place Blue Lagoon, bearing the modern and touristy name of a body of water otherwise matter-of-factly and aptly named “Bejn il-Kmiemen”, literally “Between the Cominos” by our practical, down-to-earth ancestors.

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My first youthful forays to Comino actually consisted of the ubiquitous day trip to the Blue Lagoon. A visit to this enchanted spot is truly an experience not to be missed, irrespective of the fact that it is currently being abused beyond the limits of sustainability by a myriad of boat operators who dump boatload upon boatload of day trippers onto the spot with its minute jetty and its postage stamp sized stretch of beach.  In spite of the crowds and the lack of space, however, swimming in the crystal-clear, transparent waters of this spot is a unique experience which one does not expect to find so far away from the South Pacific.

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Comino is not only about the Blue Lagoon though.  Beyond this gem there is so much more on this island which is designated a Natura 2000 site in its entirety. Although its odd square mile is mostly fragrant, virgin garigue, it also features an amazing number of features, man-made or otherwise that increase its attraction and fascination.  It is one of those amazing places possessing one of a number of many things: one medieval chapel, one police station, one isolation hospital, one coastal watchtower, one permanent household, one hotel and one coastal defence battery.  It also contains one cemetery, one water pumping station, one abandoned pig farm, one lighthouse and one helipad. Quite a list for a small rock.

“Comino is crying out for development!”  Thus uttered a work colleague who was my boss a quarter of a century ago.  My angry response to this statement was the equally emphatic, “Comino is crying out to be left alone!”  I still stick to this opinion after all these years.  Comino does not need development.  Comino does not need any further interventions.  Comino needs a simple and practical management plan.  Nature will do the rest.

A couple of summers ago I started a tradition of spending a few nights on Comino with my wife, staying in the charming, although slightly dated, four-star Comino Hotel.  All my previous visits had concentrated on the Blue Lagoon apart from one particular day trip sometime in the early 1990s when I had spent a day with Birdlife Malta volunteers who were ringing birds during the spring migration.

Extending one’s stay by an overnight or two on an island like Comino makes a huge difference. Having a hotel room base means that one can extend his range, both in terms of time and in terms of distance, beyond the limitations imposed by a typical day-trip to the Blue Lagoon.  For although distances on Comino are invariably small, the summer heat, lack of shade and the rough dusty paths that constitute the island’s roads all contribute to making summer trekking a bit of a feat, ideally to be undertaken either in the early mornings or in the late afternoons and evenings.  The period between 09:00 and 17:30 is best left to swimming, sunbathing or relaxing in the shade of the hotel’s terraces or its tiny private beach!

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Over the course of a number of short evenings and mornings, I have so far managed to explore around one half of the island in detail.  In spite of its relative isolation Comino has a number of dusty roads which criss-cross the island and enable comfortable walking in all directions.  This is much more preferable to walking across the uneven garigue which is also to be avoided where possible to preserve the seemingly rough but delicate landscape.

One evening we walked uphill from San Niklaw Bay to the Santa Maria Tower on the high ground spanning the Malta-Gozo channel.  En route we took the short detour to the small enclosure housing the closed and abandoned Comino Cemetery.  The walled enclosure which is sealed by a padlocked gate contains a small cross monument in its centre, a set of unmarked graves on the left (some with their top slabs broken, presumably vandalized) and disturbed ground on the right. The walls protect a group of gnarled and windswept cypress trees clinging for dear life on this harshly exposed hill.

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Continuing uphill, one eventually starts walking on a pleasant dirt road which is lined by low pine and sumac trees on one side with excellent views of Gozo, Cominotto and the Blue Lagoon on the other side.  This road leads to the remains of the one hundred plus year old British Isolation Hospital built after a cholera epidemic and the splendid glory of the Santa Maria Tower.  Some of the less fortunate of the hospital’s patients are apparently buried in the small cemetery.  

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The Hospital building and some adjoining structures are used by the only permanent residents on the island as evidenced by the various positive and negative signs of human habitation ranging from some small carefully tended fields, clothes hanging out to dry, the odd free-range chicken, and also the amazing collection of abandoned vehicles, boats and other mechanical paraphernalia which look like a mini scrap yard.   The Tower, lovingly restored by Din L-Art Helwa is a joy to behold and climbing its steep staircase raises one to an altitude which gives an immense perspective overlooking the four main Maltese islands.  The same cannot unfortunately be said about the Hospital building which bears the signs of years of neglect and abandonment.

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On the way back we decided to go downhill all the way to Santa Marija Bay.  The entire road follows the natural course of Comino’s main valley which means that one side of the entire route is very well planted with a variety of trees and shrubs.  The lower part of the valley also contains a small batch of cultivated fields before opening up to the small beach and its tiny sand-dune habitat.  Two thirds of the way down one encounters the small and charming chapel, apparently of medieval origin, with its rough façade and three arched belfry: a very well maintained, impeccably whitewashed structure surrounded by a protective band of trees which is more reminiscent of what one expects on a Greek island rather than in Malta.

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Past the chapel the valley widens to the full width of the Santa Marija Bay with its small sandy beach backed by a patch of tamarisk trees, apparently popular with campers, evidence of whom can be seen through the numerous remains of bonfires and other detritus left behind when they depart. And here, another unexpected structure: Comino’s Police Station, another simple two-floor building complete with boathouse at the water’s edge.  A very photogenic building also reminiscent of decades back when Comino housed a community of around 50 to 60 rural folk engaged in making the most of the island’s scant agricultural resources!  The bay also houses the bungalows belonging to the Comino Hotel’s Club Nautico.

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Our morning tours always started at an early hour, generally around 05:30 by walking east from the hotel along the dimly lit coastal path towards the Club Nautico.  Reaching the top of the low slope at 06:00 we enjoyed clear unobstructed views of some glorious sunrises:  an experience which is unique every time you witness it.  After ten minutes or so of savouring the beauty and the solitude, it was time to take the twenty minute trek to the Blue Lagoon, walking along a path which is parallel to the Gozo coast a few hundred metres across the water.

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At this hour the Blue Lagoon was still devoid of people with the exception of a gang of cleaners who were busily and efficiently removing the copious remains left behind by the previous day’s visitors: remains comprising a boat-full of plastic bottles, cans and ice cream packaging.  Some estimates suggest that up to 4,000 people a day visit the Blue Lagoon during the peak summer months. Perhaps the time has come to consider establishing a capping for the number of such visitors, as the place definitely cannot sustain such a daily influx while continuing to ensure safety and a positive visitor experience.

Another time we trekked along the same route to hear mass in the small chapel, sharing the celebration with the wizened old priest, complete with walking stick, who had crossed-over purposely from neighbouring Gozo.  Mass in the simplistic surroundings of the chapel was a beautiful experience and was shared with a congregation comprising the island’s three permanent inhabitants and a family of four German tourists.  After the mass, the priest very nimbly jumped onto an ancient Land Rover and drove off for breakfast with his resident flock!

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On yet another walk we crossed the centre of the island and proceeded towards the abandoned pig farm: a 1970s construction that was built to take advantage of Comino’s isolation in order to restock Malta’s pig population which had been totally destroyed by a vicious outbreak of African Swine Fever.  Its mission accomplished the farm today lies in ruins.

En route we passed by the tiny but charming Wied l-Ahmar, Comino’s Red Valley, a small, meandering, water carved channel draining in Santa Maria Bay with low lying trees eking an existence from the thin soil and seasonal moisture and with a scattering of postage-stamp sized fields where the contours have allowed the thin soil cover to accumulate. 

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I shall definitely be back.  In the summer to enjoy the crystal clear waters and explore the rest of the island or perhaps in October before the hotel shuts down for the winter, or in May/June before the crowds start to peak and when the landscape is still full of life and wild flowers.  There is still more than one half of the island to explore.  I would like to revisit the Tower and its environs, hopefully when it’s open for visitors, hear Mass again in the tiny Chapel and take a peek inside the Police Station.  I would like to revisit the Blue Lagoon at midday when almost no-one else is there and be able to hike across the island without having to avoid the unbearable sun.

In the meantime I continue to dream about this tiny piece of Malta.  I dream of its continued protection and preservation from the clutches of vicious development.  I dream of its real appreciation and protection from the depredations of a few who exploit it without leaving anything in return.  I dream of the removal of unnecessary structures and waste, of the proper maintenance and preservation of its historic buildings.  For to dream is to hope for better things, as so eloquently expressed by George Bernard Shaw: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?”

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Sunrise over the lake

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Sunrise over the lake

A lake in bone dry Malta?  The only European country with no permanent surface water?

Yes.  In the place appropriately called l-Ghadira, the Lake.

What and where is this lake?  A patch of low land lying in the small valley between Mellieha Ridge and Marfa Ridge in the hinterland of the big sandy beach of Mellieha Bay.  Land which actually lies below sea level, allowing brackish water to seep through the rock and mix with fresh water percolating from the rocky layers of the surrounding ridges.  A true saline marshland, the Maltese bur salmastru.

The lake has been there since antiquity: a salt lake which dried up during the summer leaving salt deposits only to refill again with the winter rains.  A smaller version of the salt lakes of Limassol and Larnaka in Cyprus.   In centuries gone by, the salt was harvested by man.  Old maps indicate the area as saline vecchie: Italian for “old salt pans”.  The salt production in the area dates at least to Arab times given that the name of the village within whose confines the lake stands is Mellieha: which derives from the Arabic melh for salt.  Mellieha actually translates as the “salt producing place”.

Over the years the place silted up and the lake disappeared.  As a child I remember the lake bed being used as a car park by people going to the beach: a huge expanse of sand which looked like the endless Sahara to my untrained eyes!  Then the Malta Ornithological Society (now Birdlife Malta) took up the challenge to restore the Lake to its natural state.  With a little mechanical help and the healing powers of nature, it morphed into the natural oasis it has become today.  A birdwatcher’s paradise.  A rare wetland environment which we could only dream of a few decades back.

I took this photo a few years ago on an early February morning from 150 metres above in Qammieh.  The sun rising over the heights of Selmun, the calm waters of Mellieha Bay, and the lake with its plethora of tiny islets shimmering like a pot of molten gold. A truly magical moment over our only lake, the Ghadira at Mellieha Bay.

Filmed in Glorious Technicolor

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Filmed in Glorious Technicolor

This is how the epic films of my childhood were advertised.  The promise of a feast of surreal, saturated colours, enhanced beyond reality, aimed at projecting a larger-than-life, make-believe world to the expectant audience.

So it was.  Skies and oceans of an unbelievable deep blue, green lawns and forests which made the Amazon look anaemic by comparison and yellow desert sands the colour of egg yolks.

A process made possible through the use of complex camera equipment and expensive laboratory processing.  Not reserved for real life but for Hollywood epics.

And that is how I thought it would be forever, until I chanced upon the perfect light for the picture above.  A picture showing the clay slopes of il-Karraba descend into the sea on the thin strip of land separating Gnejna Bay (https://leslievella.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/beautiful-gnejna-bay/) from Ghajn Tuffieha Bay (https://leslievella.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/maltas-most-beautiful-beach/).  Taken using the most unsophisticated of entry-level digital cameras with only the most basic of processing.

Filmed in Glorious Technicolor!  The contrasting shades of clay sloping to the sea.  The reddish sand at the foot of the slopes, diffusing into greens and blues as the shelving beach gently deepens.  The undulating shadows of posidonia seaweed deposits, shifting with the swell as they slowly drift towards the shore.

Natural art forms which change from day to day and hour to hour.  A picture I count as a favourite and feel obliged to share.