A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

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A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

It is mid-July on Malta.  Summer is almost four weeks old and the last signs of spring have long since vanished.  It has not rained for weeks and the next rainstorm is about six weeks away.  The air is hot and humid and the land is parched.  Only a few brave patches of resistant greenery emerge from the bone-dry, dusty, rocky landscape.

I stand at Ras il-Qammieh at the western tip of the Marfa Ridge on the flat topped plateau descriptively called id-Dahar, the Back.  Truly it resembles the back of some gargantuan rock monster lying face down in the blue Mediterranean from which it was born and from whose depths it now emerges.

I walk towards the westernmost point on mainland Malta to watch the sun set.  A place where the wild fennel grows profusely on the garigue, competing with Mediterranean thyme, wolfbane and lentisk.   There are no clouds on this clear July evening, but the air near the horizon is pregnant with suspended dust: fine dust from the Sahara sand storms of a few weeks ago, still airborne due to the absence of rain.  As the sun sinks lower into this dusty atmospheric layer, the sky, the sea and the landscape take on a surreal golden hue.  No need for fancy filters or artistic rendering: a mere point and shoot on my camera’s automatic setting and the scene is captured for ever.

The photo only captures the visual aspect however.  In reality, the experience is augmented by some rich olfactory flavours and other sensations  which can only be experienced in situ to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.  The cloying humidity,  the smell of the baked earth rising in waves from the ground, the fine dust clinging to one’s sandal-clad feet, the soft breeze coming from the sea.  And the intoxicating smell of wild fennel like some heady liquor combining to turn a simple sunset into something transcending the mystical.

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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.

Low winter light at Land’s End

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Low winter light at Land’s End

Not in Cornwall but at Qammieh Point, Malta.  The north-westernmost extreme of the island with the cliffs of Gozo silhouetted in the fading light.  A place of peace and solitude where the landscape consists of exposed garigue and is always breezy, even on the calmest of days.   Malta’s Land’s End: the furthest point north away from the urbanised south.

The low winter sun lights the plants from below, as if by some artificial spotlight, making the scene surreal and almost magical. Typical early spring vegetation, foremost amongst which the clump of white mignonette flowering stalks on the left and the giant fennel with its yellow bouquet to the right.

The white mignonette (Reseda alba).  Its Maltese name is the highly descriptive denb il-haruf: the lamb’s tail owing to its similarity to its wooly namesake.  Mignonettes belong to the plant family reseda. Reseda is the Latin word which translates into “to assuage” or “to calm” because these plant species purportedly possess sedative properties.  I do not know how true this claim is, but they definitely have visually calming properties as evidenced by their prominent and beautiful stalks in the photo: standing assertively and proudly but not menacingly.

The relative cold of the Mediterranean winter is slowly phasing into early spring: longer daylight, warmer temperatures and carpets of flowering species.  A short time of transition and beautiful light effects enjoyable for only a few weeks during the year.