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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Sunset over the southern coast

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Sunset over the southern coast

A beautiful Maltese sunset seen from the limits of Qrendi in the south of the island. The broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretches in an uninterrupted direction all the way to the Tunisian coast about five hundred kilometres away.

The minuscule islet of Filfla, the remotest of the uninhabited smaller rocks of the Maltese archipelago lies silhouetted against the ruddy hues of the setting sun, its imposing 60 metre high cliffs like standing sentinel against the approaching darkness.

The exposed hard layer of coralline limestone karst is almost devoid of soil, its thin layer of organic cover washed into the sea ages ago once the trees which originally bound it to the land were cut. This landscape is far from dead however, supporting rich and aromatic Mediterranean garigue vegetation such as thyme, heather, asphodel and sea squill.

At the bottom of the picture, the small and picturesque inlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a tiny and narrow coastal indentation providing shelter to the small fleet of boats which ferry tourists to Zurrieq’s Blue Grotto further down along the coast.

Many call Wied iz-Zurrieq a fjord and superficially it does give the impression of being a mini version of one, but fjords are carved by glacial ice and glaciers have never featured in the Maltese landscape, not even during the ice ages. It is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon caused when a valley that was originally carved by fresh water on land ends up below sea level either due to a rise in sea level or due to land subsidence.

Within a few minutes total darkness will prevail. In the southern Mediterranean latitudes which are ten degrees closer to the Equator than they are to the North Pole, twilight is always brief. Like flicking off a light switch, someone once described it. But until that light switch is flicked off, the ephemeral beauty of the setting sun’s multi-hued light on this beautiful coastal stretch is captured by this picture for all to enjoy.

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.

Sunset at Migra Ferha

L1310340_tonemapped pixlr signedSunset at Migra Ferha

Most of the western coast of Malta is made up of high cliffs very often plunging sheer into the deep blue Mediterranean.  However this almost solid stretch of coast is occasionally punctured by a cleft, caused either through the action of water or through some past cataclysmic episode of geological faulting.

One such cleft is to be found at Migra Ferha which translates as Ferha’s watercourse near the hamlet of Mtahleb in the outskirts of Rabat.  It is a place of wild natural beauty where it is possible to detach oneself almost completely from the signs of busy human activity and immerse oneself in a timeless landscape which has changed little across the millennia.

It is here that I came to witness a brilliant February sunset last week, with the bracing breeze of a north-westerly wind blowing straight into my face from the sea.

The majority of sunsets in Malta tend to be cloudless affairs during which one can witness the fading orb of the solar disc descend slowly but surely into the sea until it disappears altogether.  Although I am never tired of such sunsets, I have to confess that I prefer sunsets which take place on a cloudy horizon: sunsets which create unique, unrepeatable patterns depending on the time of year, type of cloud and other atmospheric conditions prevailing at that point in time.

This particular sunset was beautiful because the setting sun not only created a brilliant borderline on the thick dark clouds into which it set, but also gave a brilliant reddish hue to the air and wisps of cloud just above the dark clouds, almost reminiscent of incandescent gas burning in an oil field stack.

A moment of last minute warmth before the cool dusk set in and I made my way back to civilisation.L1310336_tonemapped pixlr