Walking Malta

I circumnavigated Malta’s three islands — an ancestral pilgrimage over 12 sweaty days, covering 210 kilometres by foot. This is the diary I shared along the way.
Valletta Comino Gozo

Friday, 1 July 2022

Clefts and cleaves

I was in Sweden at two o’clock this morning. I packed my bags before I turned in to sleep, leaving the windows wide open for the breeze. There was already an eerie predawn light, a phenomenon I was not used to, having not been so far north before this trip. I donned an eyemask to hide the lustre of the walls and ceiling.

I woke to rain, said goodbye to sleepy friends. I walked to the bus in drizzle, thinking about how this was the last such moisture I would feel until I returned home. The next week in the Mediterranean was forecast to be clear and hot. Malta’s need for rain during summer is the stuff of children’s rhymes:

Agħmel, xita, agħmel,
Ħalli jinbet il-ħaxix;
Il-ħaxix intuh lill-mogħża
U l-mogħża ttina l-ħalib;
Għandi nagħġa mmur nirgħaha
Bis-suf tagħha nagħmel qmis.

Rain, rain, rain,
That the grass may grow;
We shall give the grass to the goat
And the goat will give us milk;
I’ll take out my sheep to graze
And I’ll make me a shirt of her wool.

After another, longer bus trip, I arrived at the secondary airport, way out of Stockholm. A German engineer called Michelle recruited me to help carry her bike box to the terminal. The box was draped in a shower curtain to fend off the rain. Coincidentally, Michelle had also spectated at the athletics meet last night. She was going to see family in Poland after finishing a master’s degree here. It was funny to chat about bikes and academia as we waited to board, since those were the preoccupations of my last visit to Europe in 2016, and the last time I shared a diary.

At two in the arvo, we touched down in Katowice, a city in southern Poland, where I ate cabbage-and-mushroom pierogi.

Six hours later I was descending through a haze of cloud, sun burning low. Malta came into view, “her clefts and cleaves / cupping villages and hamlets” (a line from Stone Mother Tongue, a poetry collection by Annamaria Weldon that’s sure to inflect the way I see the islands this time around).

As the plane swung wide to approach the airport from the south, we received almost end-to-end views of the main island. It felt ridiculous that I would take over a week to walk its perimeter. What was the point? I’d just seen it all in less than a minute!

The cabin buzzed as we taxied across the tarmac; Polish tourists excited for their summer break. My first lungful of outside air was a heady mix of cut grass and diesel fumes. The voices around me swam in the humid dusk.

Suddenly, after having come to almost dread the prospect of “having to do” this walk as it drew nearer — an entirely self-imposed “burden” — I shared the happiness of these strangers. I felt alert, alive. I was grateful that life had allowed me back to this tiny corner of the world, familiar and yet foreign.

I scoffed a plant-based Whopper and hopped on the bus to the hostel I’m staying for a single much-too-short sleep. The darkness out the bus window — sweet actual darkness! — offered urban glimpses: a limestone-block tunnel, uplit palms, yellow windows in squat buildings, a skate park between roads, the glow of a vending machine.

It’s midnight now. I am zapped. It will be 26 degrees at sunrise (a sensible 5:49 am). I will begin walking as early as I can. Ciao for now.

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Saturday, 2 July 2022

Fortress city

Distance: 20.7 km
Start: 5:46 AM
Finish: 10:41 AM
Elevation gain: 261 m
Average temperature: 31°C

A wan sky and soupy air greeted me. I was prepared for a slog. Five minutes later I met the water’s edge, which felt like the “official” start of the walk. Gentle waves lapped; so inviting, I wanted to dive in right then and there. As I skirted the marina, voices drifted over the promenade wall. Below street level I saw several people neck-deep in the shallows. They had the right idea!

Two kilometres in: already mopping my brow.

I passed a row of embassies in stately old buildings, then spotted a familiar 10-metre pole extending over the sea from the jetty: the site of Il-Ġostra, a traditional game you should really watch. It involves a lot of grease, flags, and a high probability of pain.

Four kilometres in. My entire shirt is damp. Damper than it became while hiking a mountain in Madrid five days ago. I have to accept that my back will be wet, embrace it, become one with the sweat.

Further on, I come to the peninsula occupied by Valletta, the capital, which is encircled by intense fortifications built in the 16th to 19th centuries. Appropriately enough, I immediately hit a dead end, with my route blocked by a military gate. I instead climbed a hill over the outer wall, passed a warren of government buildings and a pastizzi shop with policemen smoking outside, and found myself on Great Siege Road, a name that commemorates the repulsion of Ottoman forces in 1565. The ramparts rising above did seem truly impregnable.

Some of the most intense fighting of the Great Siege took place at Fort Saint Elmo, the star-shaped fort at the tip of the peninsula. I detoured along a rough path cut into the salt-encrusted shelf at the base of its walls, passing only fishermen and lizards. Between the fort and the ocean, I tried to visualise the medieval fracas and cannon fire that had been experienced on this peaceful, hidden headland.

A breeze cooled my skin, offsetting the fast-warming air.

One thing about having an arbitrary rule for my walk — hewing as close to the coastline as practical — is that it takes me into places I wouldn’t otherwise go: the commercial and industrial areas that are the backbones and underbellies of working cities.

With such places, though, often come dead ends, several of which I met in the docklands. At least I was rewarded by spotting a series of old wooden signs that labelled doors along a disused building with “CUSTOMS / MIFSUD VERANDAH № 5”, “№ 6” and so on. I wondered what the eponymous Mifsud did.

At 8:30 am there came sounds of muffled explosions. Six, seven, eight thumps in quick succession. I rounded the corner and saw smoke in the distance and realised it had been fireworks; the first sign of the festa season I missed during my only other visit to Malta (which was in winter).

Over the next 15 minutes there were several more rounds of fireworks, a couple of hundred in total. I took this as a reason to sit down for the first time in three hours. I ate an energy gel and watched puffs of smoke appear on the horizon. Each white flash was followed moments later by loud booms that echoed in the grungy alleys.

An hour later, the sun was intense and my energy had begun to flag. I hadn’t yet had breakfast. Like a mirage, a vending machine materialised. I sipped from an ice-cold Kinnie, a sugary hit to tide me over, while I cautiously went up a narrow path beside a short stretch of highway.

I looped around Senglea (another fortified city), passing families floating in the water or gabbing on boats, men sitting at quayside cafes, leaning on their chairs, striped polo shirts pulled up to the nipples to let their bodies breathe. I finally stopped at a cafe for a tofu shakshuka and iced latte. By the time I finished eating, it was nearly noon, 37 degrees, and more fireworks were being ignited.

After lunch, I visited a war museum atop an underground air raid shelter that could be explored, hard hat-clad. I’m staying for the next few nights in a narrow four-story apartment that was bombed to rubble during WWII and rebuilt, like much of Senglea and its sister cities. (They’re called cities, but though densely populated, even Valletta is smaller than many Australian suburbs.)

My host Marisa works for the asylum & migration agency, and has a cute six-year-old dog that recently learned to swim. She was dismayed to see that I drink from the tap and insisted on giving me a large bottle of mineral water. True, the chlorinated, desalinated seawater that comes from the tap doesn’t taste great — okay, it’s fairly awful — but it’s safe to drink, and when you drink about six litres in a day, as I did today, it had to do.

On that note, I’m off to refill my hydration bladder and empty my own bladder. It’s ten to midnight, but there are still fireworks being let off nearby.

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Sunday, 3 July 2022

Saints and salt pans

Distance: 12.4 km
Start: 7:10 AM
Finish: 10:14 AM
Elevation gain: 379 m
Average temperature: 31°C

I don’t believe in spirits, but supposing I did, the Roman Catholic Church considers mine to have been indelibly marked by baptism (at birth) and confirmation (a rite completed soon after the “age of reason”, which Catholic canon holds to be 7 years old).

I was reminded of this in the morning when I passed a 17th-century church dedicated to Saint Lawrence. In the weeks leading up to confirmation, you receive lessons about its significance, and choose a name for yourself to mark the occasion. We received a booklet that told the stories of various saints. The idea is to adopt the name of a saint who inspires you in some way; in doing so, they will accompany you through life and guide you to virtue.

Of all the saints, Lawrence stood out. He died in the year 258 at the tender age of 32. The Roman emperor had just beheaded the pope, and priests and deacons were next in line. In a final act of defiance, Lawrence distributed the Church’s riches to the poor rather than cede anything to the city. This led to his especially heinous fate: roasting to death on a gridiron. What endeared his tale to me as a child is that partway through his torture, Laurence remarked: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”

Not long after passing the church, it felt like I was being held over coals myself. The sun was so high already. At least my pack was lighter than yesterday: I planned to catch the bus back to my starting point, so I didn’t need to bring my laptop and other items.

I did a loop of Birgu, gawked at the ginormous Maltese Falcon moored below Fort St. Angelo, walked past an exceedingly narrow strip of sand crammed with locals and then up a slight rise to Fort Ricasoli. So many forts.

Everywhere along the way, sidewalks and promenades laid half-finished, good only for young men on quad bikes to spin up dust. Malta seems to be in a perpetual state of (re)construction. I walked through a big project called SmartCity, slated as a technology park. It broke ground in 2007, but 15 years on was still just temporary fencing around empty parcels of land, faded signage, a couple of half-vacant office blocks, the concrete bones of a residential tower, and a musical fountain.

From there, I entered the sleepy village of Xgħajra, and saw some examples of the numerous evaporative salt pans carved into the limestone edges of the islands. In centuries past, salt farming was a minor industry, but it has largely disappeared with the advent of cheap table salt and refrigeration replacing salt preservation of food.

The road ended and a rocky track continued between the ever-present blue horizon and rubble-walled terraces. For the first time so far, I was the only person in sight. All I could hear was an intermittent wind, the churn of waves, and dirt crunching beneath my shoes.

Every couple of hundred metres, there was a squat 20th-century pillbox (a building with cut-outs for defenders to fire weapons through). Now boarded up and inaccessible, their only use is for shade, as this area has no trees at all.

The highlight of the walk was Triq il-Wiesgħa Tower, one of thirteen watchtowers built by the Order of Saint John in 1659. It is a nice example of the eight which still stand, as it was restored in 2008 and is placed beside a dramatic crescent of hollowed cliff where seabirds roost.

The urban area abruptly resumed. I clambered over the salt pans on the easternmost (just about) corner of the main island, where another medieval watchtower once stood but was replaced in 1915 to make way for pillboxes.

I ambled into Marsaskala, a pleasant but overdeveloped village. I decided to end my walk at the bus terminus because of some tendon pain in my foot that has dogged me for the past couple of weeks.

Indeed, writing this up hours after the walk, the top of my foot continues to be in pain, and I worry that it will jeopardise my circumnavigation. I may resort to a bike if it gets any worse, though a route confined to the road would be significantly less interesting. We’ll see what happens. My first stop tomorrow will be a pharmacy for some ibuprofen.

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Monday, 4 July 2022

A dip in the sea

Distance: 14.3 km
Start: 8:17 AM
Finish: 12:07 PM
Elevation gain: 246 m
Average temperature: 34°C

At the bus stop, a tanned young man nodded at me, lit a cigarette and turned to look up the road. He had a large dark-brown spot on the back of his neck the size of his watch. Alarmingly large. Was the spot cancerous? But it was hairy. Do cancerous tumours grow hair? Suddenly sun-aware, I popped my collar for some extra coverage.

On the way to Marsaskala, we went through Fgura, whose streets were decorated with dark blue festoons, ornate columns and statues on plinths, centred on an unusual pyramidical church — preparations for their festa day this Sunday. (Did I mention that practically every town has its own festa? Hence the endless fireworks during summer.)

I bought ibuprofen and some biscuits. Then, at the bus stop where I had left off walking yesterday, I slathered on sunscreen.

After rounding the peninsula, a derelict hotel complex dominated the streetscape. The site closed in 2007 and has been in development limbo ever since. Facing the abandoned hotel was Saint Thomas Tower, the largest watchtower on the island. It was a strangely fitting contrast of history against modern excesses and woes.

I went down to the coastal shelf and walked across the salt pans, and this close to the Mediterranean, I finally put my hand in the water that had been within my view for most of the past three days, but I had held off from touching. The water was warm. I resolved to go for a dip later in the day.

The next picturesque bay had chalky white limestone cliffs. The homes here were much more humble; little more than stone shacks, with farming terraces close to the water. There weren’t any shops here, no buses, nor even a well-made road. The potted surface became a dirt stretch that led onto the edge of a further line of cliffs.

I could hear the voices of beachgoers carried across the water, some hundred metres away. Up here I was alone but for a farmer on his tractor. I’m not sure what he was doing; the ground looked dead. Perhaps keeping the soil loose in preparation for planting season.

The path became sandwiched by plots fenced with rubble walls and prickly pear. All this time the sun beat down. I saw on my map that there was a sea cave near the end of a headland I’d planned to cut from my route. Thinking it absurd I hadn’t yet gone for a swim, I went down the hill.

Descending some stairs, I found that I somehow had the place to myself. I stripped and entered the water, which was surprisingly deep. Floating on my back, I drifted out of the shade of the cliff. The sky was so blue and bright that I could see the floaties in my vitreous humor. When I submerged my ears, I heard a loud crackling. It sounded as if it came from within my head. Was my body having some sort of reaction to this moment of leisure? Was it the sound of accumulated tension draining at great speed from my nervous system?

(I later learned it was the sound of hundreds of snapping shrimp, who are more active in warmer water and around healthy coral reefs.)

The day was getting on. Retracing my steps up the hill, I continued, but immediately hit a dead end trying to take a route through the farm tracks. Detouring to the paved road, I had views into the countryside. I saw a distant plane flying low, could imagine its passengers surveying this yellow-brown quilt of an island.

A minute later, I glimpsed the power station and freeport, but I zagged back to the coastline and put them behind me. I soon encountered a stunning little cove with a horseshoe-shaped rock formation. Equally delightful was the ramshackle bar perched above it, a dubiously legal affair with spray-painted signs plastered everywhere. I bought a Kinnie from a barechested, pot-bellied man and stood under their shadecloth, sipping my drink, looking down at the cove with its sunbathers. It was idyllic, but I couldn’t dawdle. The mercury was soaring.

I walked down to the water and around some more cliffs, through private scrubland with ferocious dogs kept in concrete dens that I imagined were barking to me rather than at me, poor things. I hope they had lots of water. I circled back to where I had first sighted the freeport with its container cranes and the massive offshore LNG carrier that fed the power station.

Down into the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, down to the water level. I arrived just as church bells chimed a noon melody. For lunch, I had a vegetable risotto, a large bottle of sparkling water and another of mineral water, then caught the bus back to the city. My foot pain seems to have been effectively handled by medication, though I now have a niggle in my other ankle. We’ll see, we’ll see.

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Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Fine white dust

Distance: 19.0 km
Start: 7:36 AM
Finish: 12:38 PM
Elevation gain: 312 m
Average temperature: 32°C

Five minutes in, I spotted a chameleon! I had seen plenty of wall lizards but this pale creature had a different profile as it darted across the white dust of the coastal track. Once it entered the scrub, its colour darkened to a matching brown. When you find it in the photograph, notice its pupil looking directly back at the camera — chameleon vision is incredible for many reasons, one of which is how the eyes protrude and can look backwards.

Around the bend Birżebbuġa came into view, a village that encompasses the port. Its citizens lolled on a sandy beach called Pretty Bay, a name some would consider ironic given that containers are being unloaded directly in front. However, for anyone interested in container spotting, it must be one of the best beaches in the world.

There were also rings in the water: bluefin tuna pens, in which tuna are fattened (using unsustainable amounts of wild fish) for months before slaughter. Not pretty at all.

As I walked into the village, I paid attention to how my feet and legs felt, but nothing seemed awry. Maybe I was beating them into shape. I paused in the shadow of a monument marking the end of the Cold War (did you know it ended in Malta?), applied sunscreen, and gave thanks to my tights and toe socks for their valiant fight against chafing and blisters.

Taking a country lane, I bypassed the port, going directly to the coast. I was hoping to visit a sea cave entered via a precarious cliffside path. Alas, when I found the stairs — the site was totally unmarked — I learned that access had been very recently blocked off.

What followed was a bleak stretch past metalworks and chemical plants and landfill. Less like the backbone of a city, more like the backside.

There was a moment of excitement due to a shortcut I took through a lane used by quarry trucks coming and going. A truck rumbled towards me, and I had to flatten myself to the side and hold my breath. The fennel plants along the lane were bone-white rather than yellow-flowered, coated with countless layers of limestone dust.

My surroundings turned from industry to farmland. I was walking on the road — the concept of a shoulder being almost non-existent in Malta — but few cars passed. I became an expert in rubble wall varieties, and counted more flags of the Virgin Mary than of the national flag.

After some quiet minutes, I saw a wide gravel path ahead that turned left towards the water, which had been out-of-reach for the last few kilometres due to intervening private properties. The path had a guardrail, suggesting that it was an official route. I checked my map, but it wasn’t there. My pulse quickened. This seemed too good to be true. I scrambled onto the path and rounded the bend and the view was beautiful: cliffs falling away and a deep blue horizon.

One hundred metres in, I encountered Michael, a middle-aged Maltese man. He’d visited this path when it opened one year ago and revisited it today on a whim. We spoke of European heatwaves and, when he heard I was from Australia, the floods in Sydney. He called it all “nature’s payback”. When I told him about my walk he was, to my surprise, unperturbed. “Malta is a small place,” he said. “It would only take two or three days.” Two or three days! I said it would take me 12 — I mean, someone could do it in two, but only if they ran nonstop. “Sure, sure,” he said. On outlining my morning’s route, he mentioned that not long ago a large chunk of rock near the sea cave had fallen in one piece, so it was about time it was closed.

We walked back to the entrance together, where there was a map of the development. It was far smaller than I’d hoped: just two mounds of reclaimed tip. Michael drove an electric vehicle, one of the few I’d seen in Malta. He said fumes spewing out the back of his old car had made him feel guilty. He offered me a lift, but knew I would turn him down. I said goodbye and started to retrace my steps. He called me back. “You probably won’t need me,” he said, handing me a business card which showed he was a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and tai chi instructor.

It took only ten minutes to loop around the rest of the site, then I was back on the road, cut off from the sea. I walked to the hum of diurnal crickets, a rooster crowing, the faint sound of the waves. The hills were steep now, stacking the terrace walls on each other in the distance.

I was keen to get off my feet by now. A full backpack (as I was changing accommodation) was noticeably tougher, and I was getting hungry. At least I earned a fabulous view from an area known as “Mount” Carmel, where you can see the water on both sides of the island at once.

I descended from there to the edge of Wied Babu, a lush valley, and ended at the Blue Grotto, a tourist magnet. I ate strawberry sorbet while waiting interminably for the bus, looking at Filfla, a barren islet that had come into view earlier in the day and would stay with me tomorrow.

I caught the bus to Mdina, a fortified hilltop city that was the highly defensible capital during Malta’s Byzantine and Arab occupations, until the Knights Hospitaller took over in 1530. These days it primarily serves as a tourist attraction, having been extensively restored. It’s very quiet, with clean, car-free stone-paved lanes, romantic lamps, and polychromatic lines of gallariji on the walls.

There are only a few hundred residents. One of them is my host Antonio, a man with a sharp white beard. His house, painstakingly restored, is part of a subdivided palace. He has a story for each artwork, artefact and piece of furniture, and deep knowledge of Maltese and Sicilian culture and history, with a library to match. His Wi‑Fi password invokes the 1693 earthquake. We went grocery shopping together, had a long chat over dinner, and then I fell to sleep.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2022

A surfeit of cliffs

Distance: 20.9 km
Start: 7:34 AM
Finish: 2:38 PM
Elevation gain: 653 m
Average temperature: 33°C

Today was superb, even though it was gruelling. In fact, so far I’m having Type I fun, more commonly known as “fun”. This is a bonus, because I was prepared for this circumnavigation to be miserable and only recalled as fun in the rosy afterglow of achievement (Type II fun).

After an early breakfast with Antonio, I eventually got to my start point. It was 28 degrees and disgustingly humid.

I walked uphill along the road to Ħaġar Qim, a megalithic temple complex that’s over 5,000 years old — built by a civilisation who left no written records — and continued on a trail for several hundred metres to a similar temple, Mnajdra, that overlooks the sea. From there the trail became indistinct, descending steeply down and across a rocky slope. An actual hike! Though I was careful, I was wearing shorts, and within minutes blood stained my calves courtesy of brushing against bone-dry garrigue.

Cliffs on both sides: I walked to the valley floor, skirting crumbled edges, then up, passing beneath bird-filled caves. I spotted Għar Lapsi, an attractive natural pool cradled by rock, and soon after, a reverse osmosis facility. Bizarrely, next to the outlet that spewed saline effluent into the ocean, a man in a sombrero sat with a rod and a beach umbrella. Were fish drawn to nutrients stirred up in the water there?

I started uphill again, a curving road past a quarry. My shirt was drenched. I begged for a breeze; took sip after sip of water. The air was stiller than seemed possible. A gravel side-road beckoned. Soon, I encountered private property signs. As I approached a field, a farmer drove his tractor in my direction. Terrible or perfect timing? We met at the gate. I asked for permission to enter, but he kept repeating “closed” and waving at the sign. After a minute, some combination of my babbling and profuse sweating led to him shrugging assent. I quickly walked past and didn’t look back until his tractor was out of earshot. Soon I had to bushwhack through abandoned plots up a nearly vertical gradient. By closed, he might have meant impassable and been pointing not to the sign but to where I now walked.

I eventually reached a narrow concrete lane parallel to the coastline, high above the water but still below the escarpment. It was surprisingly verdant, with trees and vineyards. I decided to take a breather in the precious shade. I removed my shirt, wrung it of sweat, then hung it on a branch. I sat on the road, ate a gel, sipped warm seawater. My shirt shifted in a fitful breeze, the blue sea behind shading imperceptibly into sky.

I got going again. The concrete road soon disintegrated to gravel. Birds chattered in the protected nooks of the overhang. Then came a winding ascent to reach the very top of Dingli Cliffs, the highest point on the island at 250 metres. The island tilts like a sinking ship: the southern coastline is mostly sheer cliffs, which provides a natural barrier against invasion — whereas the northern coast has many places to land a fleet, so it became heavily fortified.

From a roadside stand outside a chapel perched on the cliffs, I bought some nectarines, a sandwich, prickly pear sweets, salt-and-vinegar Pringles and several litres of water. I thought this feast was doing them a service. The cliffs were popular at sunset, sure, but how many people came this way at noon?

While resting in the shade cast by the chapel, I met a cyclist called Adrian, who was the only Maltese person doing exercise today. While we spoke, two busloads of tourists arrived, took a photo of the view, bought some trinkets and ice creams and then departed again. That explained how the stand did business. In the time it took me to eat all my food and reapply sunscreen, three further buses arrived.

Over the next hill, I caught my first glimpse of Gozo, a faint blue outline on the horizon.

Down a side street, down a disused farmer’s track thick with fennel, and then a gravel road with views into the most rural corner of Malta. After looking closely at my map I realised there was a dead end ahead due to private property, but the detour would be big and, once I arrived at the firmly locked gate, the winding path below was so alluring that after hanging about there for five minutes, surveying the fields for obvious movement and calling hello at the nearby sheds, I climbed over the wall next to the gate and set off alert but determined. In my head I was already putting together what I would say if caught: The gate is to prevent vehicles, not hikers, no? and Attend closely to the sweat dripping from this exhausted body, my friend, and have mercy.

The further down I went the less it seemed like anyone was watching, even though I was visible for hundreds of metres in all directions at that high point. No sensible farmer was working at this time of day. The first fields I passed were very much in use, but lower down, closer to the cliffs, the fields were overgrown and merged into the scrub, and the topography of the slope mostly hid me from view. The road then narrowed to singletrack that hewed uncomfortably close to the edge of gobsmacking cliffs. That precarity, the ocean churning below: though Malta is small, the land still dwarfed me. I was humbled.

But it was difficult to fully appreciate the majesty of the cliffs when the sun beat down and sweat stung my eyes. I took refuge in the nearest farmer’s hut, itself just a few metres from the edge. I wrung my shirt again and let my body cool as I looked around the shimmering landscape.

There was another few kilometres of wildness to come, and another big hill to regain the elevation I’d lost since passing the locked gate. I had to negotiate more private property: countless fields and huts and what I realised were bird-hunting hides based on the spent cartridges I found littering the ground.

I walked inland to a town called Baħrija only to find the every-two-hours bus had just been and gone, so I used Uber, which launched in Malta only last month. In a futile attempt to appear presentable I brushed my legs of debris and blood and wrung my shirt for the third time right there on the empty turnaround in this backwater place, all shops shuttered like the set of a cowboy movie.

My driver was a young military officer who had spent the morning doing lifesaving exercises near Birżebbuġa (the town with the beach facing the freeport); Uber was his part-time job. He noted my scruffy beard and complained that soldiers had to be clean-shaven. As a new recruit, his commanding officer had swiped a cotton ball down his chin and if it clung anywhere he had to shave again. The police were better off. He told me that last year they had protested and won the right to sport beards. I explained why I was sweaty and he exclaimed: “You’re crazy, in this heat.” Mulling on this as I walked back through the cosy streets of Mdina, totally spent, I was gratified but couldn’t entirely disagree.

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Thursday, 7 July 2022

Lessons in geology

Distance: 15.5 km
Start: 7:33 AM
Finish: 12:47 PM
Elevation gain: 390 m
Average temperature: 31°C

I was the only passenger on the bus by the time it reached Baħrija. (Granted, there were only three to begin with.) I returned the way I’d come yesterday, but turned right at the first fork in the road, which descended to the most remote corner of Malta — if anywhere on this densely packed island can be considered remote — with sweeping views of terraced plateaus and very heavily eroded cliffs.

I saw more farmers in the first 20 minutes than I saw all of yesterday, probably because they do their work early — most of my previous farm-crossing had happened in the heat of the day. The first one, a man on his tractor, engine working hard to climb the slope, didn’t return my wave. The next, a woman planting, smiled and waved at me. I asked a third farmer for permission to continue past a No Entry sign as part of an out-and-back detour to circle a headland with large stones purported to be the remains of a temple of Hercules.

Across the water, the stratification of the cliffs was clearly visible, with soft (younger) and hard (older) limestone layers between 14 and 28 million years old. The harder limestone was used in some fortifications, but most of Malta’s built environment makes use of the soft yellow variety, which can be prone to honeycomb weathering.

Returning to where I had deviated from my route, I found a surveyor setting up a drone. He had been contracted to help delineate private and public property. Even the “bad plots” (he pointed at those nearest to us) were €10 per square metre. The “good ones” (he pointed at two further away) could run to €200,000. He spoke about how the actual owners were far away, not usually the farmers you see on the land. I had been wilfully ignorant when I asked permission earlier, assuming an okay from one person gave license to explore anywhere I liked within eyesight.

“The farmers, they don’t want you here,” the surveyor said, shrugging. Who can blame them when outsiders to these areas do things like throw stones blindly over cliff edges, sparing no thought to whether someone might be working below?

The road terminated near the bluff with a large red sign saying PERIKLU – DANGER – YOU ARE IN A COASTAL EROSION AREA. I followed the trail forks that led away from the sketchy edges. Having scrambled to the top of the escarpment through a hedge of prickly pear and onto a farm lane, I leaned over a wire barrier, looking at the rocky shore far below, a glorious rush of air streaming constantly past me. Not for nothing is this bay known as Fomm ir-Riħ (Mouth of the Wind).

After following the lane for a kilometre, I walked around another gate to prevent a detour. I was getting quite good at trespass, emboldened by yesterday’s rewards, and July is perhaps the best time to do it unmolested, as the fields are mostly unplanted and no hunters roam as they do each spring and autumn for their disgraceful killing of the birds who try to migrate between Europe and Africa.

The dirt road took me between dried-out fields with nary a person in sight, but soon the busy beach of Ġnejna Bay appeared far below, breaking the spell of a morning spent in solitude. I gingerly descended via a gully between cultivated land, thinking how strange it would be to toil in the fields while the wave-lap and chatter of the beach floated and mingled with the chirp of birds.

I was sweating a bomb today but I had remembered to pack a towel, so I stopped for a dip in the water, followed by ftira and Powerade.

Afterward, approaching the odd, flat-topped il-Qarraba promontory, a sort of moonscape revealed itself, caused by clay slopes slipping over the yellow limestone.

Past those slopes was Għajn Tuffieħa Bay, then Golden Bay, each beach more popular than the last. Behind a hotel led a track into Majjistral Nature & History Park, the largest protected nature reserve on the island. It was a barren landscape, hot and windy, with no plants higher than waist height.

I clambered up metal rungs to enter the second level of a restored observation post, a simple two-level structure of identical six-foot cube rooms with viewing holes on all sides. Perfect for sheltering from the sun. It also seemed like a perfect writing room, a monastic retreat, and I fantasised about staying in the nearby hotel and coming here with a camping table and chair to do work each day.

The park’s westernmost point had another reprieve from the sun and its heat: a man-made cave carved from the cliff, which allows you to survey the boulder scree and take in a comparatively lush habitat filled with birdsong.

I paused yet again in the shade of a fortified farmhouse that had been used in WWII to spot planes approaching from Sicily. From here, the island was narrow enough — just over a kilometre wide — that I could also see clear across to Mellieħa. As my eyes roved the countryside, a chirpy theme-park loudspeaker voice drifted in and out of hearing from two bays over: Popeye Village, whose bus stop is where I ended my walk for the day.

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Friday, 8 July 2022

Tail of the fish

Distance: 17.5 km
Start: 6:33 AM
Finish: 11:16 AM
Elevation gain: 440 m
Average temperature: 30°C

There was a merciful wind today.

The headland that lies north of Popeye Village was rocky and desolate. I walked to the edge of the cliffs, down into a valley and past a wastewater treatment facility. The strange smell distracted me such that I walked straight into a spiderweb. A spiderweb! I didn’t even think Malta had spiders.

A near-vertical staircase led to the top of an escarpment, and at its westernmost point there was an abandoned radar station with stunning panoramic views. Behind me, the line of cliffs I’d spent the last few days walking were in shadow. Meanwhile, Gozo’s southern flank, oriented perpendicular to the sun, was lit in dramatic stripes — an inviting scene.

Perhaps too enticing, because minutes later, descending the ridgeline along an old military road, looking at Gozo ahead, I tripped and fell. I cut my knee and landed on the wrist I’d had x-rayed in Sweden last week due to some foolishness on a caster board. Fortunately, the new pain soon faded.

Back to bony rocks — exposed coral, I think — with a plot somehow cut from the reef here or there. I had to find my own path along the cliffs. There is sometimes a “path” in the sense of a line of rocks with a pinkish hue showing people have walked that way and pressed dirt into the honeycombed rock. But no path is easier than another.

At Ċirkewwa, the ferry port, I turned east into the sun for a stretch of flat pavement, which my feet and ankles were thankful for. I put my sunnies on and dipped my head.

I passed a couple of resorts, a couple of tiny beaches, then a shanty town of caravans and squat holiday cubes. The vibe was post-apocalyptic: eerily quiet; more rubbish than I’d seen anywhere else; only dessiccated, shambling men on the streets.

I was glad when that petered out and a rocky dirt trail took me around a watchtower. Then I ate some leftover pasta beside a collapsed sea cave. The next hour was a sweaty blur of garrigue and acacia trees, cliffs, rocky bays, and minor historical attractions such as a Knights’ bastion wall.

Just before reaching Għadira Bay, which features Malta’s longest beach, my route was blocked by a hotel that was halfway through being demolished. Rather than detour to the road, I improvised a path through dense prickly scrub that stung me in a thousand places, and rewarded myself with a slushie.

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Saturday, 9 July 2022

A place of bells

Distance: 12.5 km
Start: 9:48 AM
Finish: 1:01 PM
Elevation gain: 296 m
Average temperature: 31°C

There’s been a surprising degree of day-to-day novelty so far. Each day has presented a unique set of trails and roads, a different sort of town, a notable encounter. But today I didn’t feel any such spark. Perhaps this had less to do with the route and more to do with a nadir in energy.

I slept in. Helped Antonio with printer woes. I learned that one way he kept busy in retirement was marriage celebrancy. For some such engagements, he dressed in medieval costume. Among the medieval and religious iconography on his walls, he pointed to a traditional portrait of a noble man in resplendent garb. On second glance, it was a studio photograph of Antonio. Amazing.

On my return to Għadira Bay, I walked past a long line of garages used as one-room summer homes, many of them with people sitting out front, saying hello. Soon enough I was on another nice coastal trail all to myself. People just really don’t like walking when it’s hot! I passed a WWII lookout camouflaged by rubble, a rocky beach, and then a secluded bay where I nearly stepped on a pair of topless sunbathers who had tucked themselves behind a boulder.

Up clay slopes, through terraces, around a headland. The islet of Selmunett lay just offshore. It featured a statue of St Paul, as some say it’s where Paul was shipwrecked in 60 AD, after which (as I mentioned in my zine) legend holds him as having rendered Malta’s snakes harmless, nullifying one of the key concerns I would normally have tramping offtrack in the midst of summer. Cheers, Paul.

I rested in an artillery outpost, a palimpsest of messages scratched into its sandstone walls; the oldest I-woz-here tag I found was from 1964.

At noontime, walking through a township, I happened to pass a church. After hearing bells all week — in Mdina, where I was staying, they rang on the quarter-hour, even in the early hours — I finally saw a pair in action. Two boys in boardies and t-shirts stood on opposite ends of the church roof, ready to strike their bells. The smaller boy played his bell with quick successive strikes, and the bigger boy rang a deeper bell with slow strokes. For ten minutes their melody floated after me down the sloping road and around the corner.

I ended my walk on the promenade at Qawra, bringing a moment of nostalgia. I visualised the last time I was here, standing with C on the rocks by the water. It was winter then; the waves were choppy and the sky was darker and our faces glowed.

That evening I had dinner with Antonio and two friends of his. I made koshari; Antonio had prepared salads and fruit; our guests brought wine and vegan gelato (pistachio and hazelnut, very tasty). One of them had summitted Everest but demurred at any suggestion that he was a mountaineer. The other was coming to Melbourne later in the year. I said I would take them on a walk along the Yarra. I realised that I missed the river and the red gums and the fruit bats.

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Sunday, 10 July 2022

Closing the loop

Distance: 20.0 km
Start: 7:17 AM
Finish: 12:45 PM
Elevation gain: 203 m
Average temperature: 30°C

A wetland past Buġibba: former salt pans, field-sized, a vestige of Roman times. The pans were now flooded with water to form bird habitat. A man with a lens the size of his head took a photo of a distant sandpiper. I framed the same bird with my point-and-shoot and laughed at the dark speck through the viewfinder, unable to zoom any closer. Then, hands sweaty, I fumbled my expensive gadget on the concrete. My heart dropped with it. The body copped a huge dent, but thankfully, the fragile parts were intact.

As I turned to leave, a security guard appeared. His name was Noel. During the migratory season, he said, stupid people inevitably try to hunt here. The police are called straight away. He asked where I was from. Guessed. He loved the Aussie accent, watched Love Island Australia. Used to be a seaman — that explained his naval tattoos — so he could hear and reciprocate all sorts of accents. As we spoke, I noticed that my speech had adopted a new cadence, a more pronounced rise and fall. I even slipped in a “mela”. (Mela is a versatile Maltese word I can’t explain, but it usually makes sense in context. Half a phone conversation I overheard yesterday: “Alright, alright. Mela! Alright. Alright. Mela. Mela mela mela.”)

I asked Noel where he grew up. Gżira, he said. I told him that was my destination today. It was Sunday, so I was hoping to see something of the festa. He’d attended it yesterday. (Many festas have a program that goes for a week or two.) He lamented how small it’d become over the years; how youth had become less involved. He also lamented the ongoing construction. He gestured at the bay around us, bland rectangles crowding the hill above the salt pans. “It’s fucked.” Corruption, cheap labour, demolishing old homes. Eventually he couldn’t even find a parking spot in Gżira anymore. That’s why he moved.

There was more to our conversation; it could have gone all morning. But heat was setting in, so I kept going along a brand-new four-lane highway around the headland, dirt still upturned on its edges. A group of ten cyclists rolled past, doubling the total number I had seen over the week. They were trailed by a large van with its warning lights on. This was a sensible precaution, as dozens of motorcyclists and fancy cars roared around the bends, swerving around slower traffic. Sunday morning on this stretch is probably the only chance they have to get their fix. I didn’t bemoan them. I paused and watched a while.

I passed a hillside of caravans, then a gasp of coastal trail that doubled as a military firing range. Another reverse osmosis plant. Hotels, a beach, a casino. Gangly boys on electric scooters. A promenade. I was trying to cross these areas — Pembroke, St Julian’s — as quickly as possible; they had nothing to offer me, and I was nearing the end of the first loop.

I eventually reached Tigné Point, an outcropping that looks onto Valletta. From there one can appreciate how the walled city has retained its medieval character. No billboards or garish developments besmirch its skyline.

At the corner of the park where I started walking nine days ago, opposite the bridge to Fort Manoel, a band was playing in a lane. The festa! What a fluke; I didn’t think there would be anything happening at noon. I joined the spectators who lined the street and looked on from their balconies. The band was two dozen members of varying ages in matching white t-shirts. Two huge umbrellas on wheels to shade the musicians were opened with great difficulty using — I counted in amusement — seven pairs of hands apiece.

The band’s singer finished and suddenly petards filled the air above me. Sharp cracks sounded, smoke curled, black detritus floated to the ground. When the sounds died away the church bell started tolling, and then the band started again and this time moved up the lane. As the musicians played, we spectators walked beside them and in front and another round of fireworks was let off.

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to celebrate the end of the main loop. Sabiħ tispiċċa bil-banda. All good things finish off with a bang!

We stopped outside the football club for a long time. The band played anthems; people sung along and pumped their fists. The police watched too, being there for road closures, one of them with a fade and big beard and belly in a tight blue t-shirt with PULIZIJA written on the back in large white capitals. He looked identical to many of the football fans jumping up and down and throwing beer in the air, who had fades and beards and bellies and wore tight maroon t-shirts with FESTA GŻIRA 2022 written on the back in large white capitals.

When the band took a break, I walked back to the main street and covered the final half-block for the sake of a perfect loop. All told, I had walked 152 kilometres to circle the main island. Tomorrow, Comino.

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Monday, 11 July 2022

Isle of lizards

Distance: 8.6 km
Start: 9:19 AM
Finish: 11:35 AM
Elevation gain: 213 m
Average temperature: 31°C

I drained and taped a blister that had formed on my heel, then caught the bus to Ċirkewwa, the ferry port that I’d passed a few days earlier. The earliest ferry departure to Comino was 8:40 am. The route wasn’t just a straight line across: the boat hugged some of Comino’s coast, pausing so we could gape at the eroded formations and holes in the rock that showed a circle of sky or water behind. We went partially into one cave. As we entered its shadow, the temperature suddenly dropped. There was a sense of otherness in the shift, like a gust from the netherworld.

Everyone on the ferry (except me) was there to swim at the Blue Lagoon, a turquoise strip of calm water between Comino and a couple of its tiny islets. There was about ten metres of sand and another thirty metres of rock that you could lie on, and even though we’d caught the first ferry across, a couple of dozen people had already arrived on private boats.

As soon as we docked at the jetty by the sand, passengers rushed off to claim a bathing spot, stripping down and planting umbrellas. No one ventured further than 100 metres from the lagoon, so in a remarkably short time I was alone on the hill high above them. Well, not quite alone: many grasshoppers and lizards kept me company.

The main island of Malta was off to my right. It was cool to know that I had walked every headland in sight — I could picture the view just a few days ago as I’d stood on the western escarpment and looked over at the flanks of Gozo and Comino and the ferries running between them.

Comino’s role as sentry and go-between for its siblings was evident: I passed a watchtower and a battery with cannons. After that, the trail cut inland, so I went offtrack to the easternmost cliff, stepping carefully over a yellow moonscape, a field of skulls. Lizards scampered. Sweat dripped. Despite a mass of beachgoers being only two kilometres away, there was a deep solitude in the rocks, the harshness of the sun, and the unfathomable ocean.

Walking was easy but slow-going. In other seasons there would be cause to explore this edge of the island, looking for certain flora or a migrating bird, but in summer, a desire to skirt the perimeter is surely the only reason someone would bother picking their way along these rocks. I had to admit that the day-trip bathers were more rational than incurious.

Still, in no time I was circling back west, with Gozo now to my right. There was a quiet bay occupied by boats and families and a few residential buildings, though Comino today has just two permanent residents. (The population peaked at 150 sometime between 1798 and 1800 when the island was used for imprisonment and quarantine.)

I had to skip the next peninsula because it was blocked off for a controversial hotel redevelopment. This soon returned me to the Blue Lagoon, its presence announced by loud music from boats, and then by the trail becoming strewn with pineapple cocktails and pizza boxes.

Two hours after I’d left, the lagoon heaved with bodies. A half-dozen kiosks lined the rim of the beach, and deck chairs took up nearly every inch of flat surface (many take issue with this situation). With my hiking backpack, long-sleeved top and broad-brimmed hat I looked as foreign as a lizard among these people. I bought a Kinnie from one of the kiosks and got on the next ferry to Gozo.

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Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Hello blisters

Distance: 27.0 km
Start: 6:04 AM
Finish: 2:01 PM
Elevation gain: 857 m
Average temperature: 30°C

I left at sunrise, having stayed the night in an apartment right on the port. On the pier out front, a man held the rein of a horse that stood in the shallows. Calm seawater lapped at its legs. It reminded me of my greyhound Plum who, after running a lap of the velodrome, would wade into Merri Creek, stock-still but for her billowing chest, concentric ripples expanding around her body, one circle per outward breath.

I walked harbourside for a kilometre, then turned onto a trail that went through a breached rubble wall and along a cliff — a short cliff, relative to those I had become used to. I ought to specify a nomenclature of cliffs. We can use the hierarchy of yacht length. Yachts begin at 24 metres in length. Superyachts are 37–60 metres, a length that used to satisfy the average billionaire. Now you need at least a 60–90-metre megayacht. Preferably a 90-metre-plus gigayacht. Your boat has to cost more than the art on its walls, silly!

So, the western fringes of Malta? Them’s gigacliffs. The landform past Mġarr Harbour I was on now? Just cliffs, no prefix. Still, they provided an excellent view. I could see Comino and the corners of Malta half-lit by the morning rays, and Fort Chambray glowed behind me.

There were now impressive blisters on my left heel and my left big toe, but I would walk them into submission. Two days to go. But the slight pain, together with my heavy pack and a long hill as I headed inland… for a few minutes, I wondered how fun this day would really be.

All was well again when I made the top. I was walking along a plateau now, farms to either side, no sounds but for the now-familiar combination of crowing and the faint crash of waves. I had already turned a corner of the island and the sea was on my right, bright blue, the sun blazing a white streak down the middle. The water was criss-crossed with lines of varying thickness, paler and darker sections, but no boats were there to attribute the marks; it was a message authored by currents and depths for unknown eyes.

I passed a man who drove off without his two dogs (by accident or design I can’t say). They chased his car down a hill before he stopped to let them in.

A valley opened up, its wet floor populated by tall reeds that are harvested for use as windbreaks and window blinds. I turned into a narrow lane that descended to the coast. I directly faced the sun now, no other option, and walked towards that lit-up streak of sea like passing into the afterlife. At the bottom there was some boulder scree. Going left now, a peaceful sandy track presented a vista of terraces and a sharp-edged plateau that I admired but also hated because I’d have to regain all the elevation I’d just relinquished.

The next bay — Daħlet Qorrot — was a superb place to take a dip, perhaps the best place yet. The water was clear and the cove was beautifully lit, bordered by fishing sheds with coloured wooden doors cut into the cliffs. I greeted the three locals; old folks. But it was still early in the day and I had a lot of ground to cover, so I reluctantly started heading back uphill.

Not far up the main road was some rocky singletrack that skirted the bottom of a cliff. After passing a few clusters of carob trees, the view opened into a valley thick with reeds. Down I went, then up to a village, only to find yet another dip in the land. Gozo was very hilly. I had walked for ten days without even thinking about music, but now was the time. A quick dose of The Roots kept me moving.

Panoramic views were the reward. The town of Xagħra capped a hill in the distance. I ambled the sidewalk of a main road that led to the iron-rich red sands of Ramla Beach. I paused to apply Vaseline where the straps were rubbing my hips and shoulders, and would have gladly had a meal at the restaurant had it been open. Onwards it would have to be.

From the beach I could now hug the coastline, no longer having to cut out headlands due to private property and dead-end roads. The narrow trail cut across clay slopes covered in prickly dry scrub. It goes without saying now that I was the only person on the trail.

This was an isolated stretch, and the sun was making its power known. The ground was fissured, slippery, slow to navigate. Rosalía played from my pocket. I saw a snake flee from me, a long black one. I pushed through a thick section of reeds, stalks above my head, then scrambled over boulders. A detached part of myself recognised that hunger and sweat aside, this was a tidy section of hiking.

I eventually reached Marsalforn, a popular resort town, where I ate a vegan hot dog and fries and an iced coconut mocha. You know, traditional Maltese food.

Afterwards, I took a minor coastal road for a kilometre, an easy flat walk. There were salt pans along the entire shelf, with some in use by a boutique salt shop. A sign next to the road explained that salt used to be so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid in it (the English word salary being derived from sal, Latin for salt). I had seen this claim a few times on this trip. When I looked it up hoping to learn more, it turns out that classicists consider such an arrangement “pure fantasy” — despite the etymological smoke, for which no one has found the spark. What’s more, though salt had important uses, it was not actually that expensive, even for a foot-soldier.

As I passed the salt pans, two Italian guys drew alongside me and asked where to find Wied il-Għasri. I checked my phone. It was only a minute ahead. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was surprised by a picturesque ravine with a pebble beach that only came into view as we descended the stairs. It was relentlessly hot now. The water looked mighty refreshing. They encouraged me to join them for a swim. But I had a walk to complete. After admiring the scene for a few moments, I returned to the top.

The route took me inland and back in a V-shape to get around the ravine, then broadened into a wide gravel road along flat-topped cliffs whose sides were dissolving into the sea. The ravine had been beautiful, but this was stunning and a little bit scary. I walked towards the edge for a look at the karstic features below, only to shy away.

A truck passed me on its way to a quarry. Once the dust settled, I was alone again. Ten minutes later, I paused. In the absence of my feet crunching on the ground, it was remarkably quiet; I barely even heard any waves because the ocean was so calm.

Gaping caves in the cliffs. Ocean so wide and so blue and far. It was hard to believe people sailed off into that thing in ages past. How strange to be a farmer on these islands, to sight foreign ships on the horizon, appearing as if from nothing, speaking distant tongues.

There was a second ravine with a curious arch, and then the road turned inland. I stayed with the coast by way of a trail that faded to nothing as the surface soil disappeared, leaving me on exposed limestone — the soft golden kind, made up of countless trillions of foraminifera (single-celled organisms with hard shells), shaped into concave waves by the wind and embedded with fossils; mostly flat sea urchins and bivalves.

I hit what seemed like a dead end. That is, to continue required scrambling around slippery limestone, metres from a sheer drop, in a rarely trafficked place. Oh, and with dwindling water supply in the hottest part of the day. Fatigue and caution won. I backtracked to the nearest track I could find heading away from the cliffs.

Getting back to a road required creating my own route through a maze of fields. Certainly trespassing, but there was nobody around. It would be a different story in hunting season. If you’re somewhere that feels wild in Malta, you don’t have to go far to find the ground littered with shotgun cartridges.

Soon enough I had rejoined civilisation. I passed many renovated farmhouses with vibrant climbing plants and ceramic markers, most of which appeared to be B&Bs, much like the one I was aiming for in the neighbouring town of San Lawrenz (St Lawrence!). Unexpectedly, a vending machine stood in the street — the first one I’d seen since Valletta. No Kinnie, though. Coke would do.

At San Lawrenz, the church loomed silent. My feet hurt all over. Not in an injured way, mind you. Just telling me that I’d done an honest day’s walking.

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Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Goodbye Gozo

Distance: 21.2 km
Start: 5:54 AM
Finish: 12:18 PM
Elevation gain: 554 m
Average temperature: 30°C

Yesterday’s heat had left me addled, but upon setting out from San Lawrenz I was restored immediately by the sublime pink-blue sunrise over the ocean as I descended to the coast.

I ambled down a long slope, admiring the fast-changing light on the striking rock formations of Dwejra, especially a solitary mass called Fungus Rock (pictured below). I was particularly drawn to it, imagining the arch that once connected it to the mainland, because I mistakenly took it for the remains of the Azure Window, which had been Gozo’s most famous attraction until it collapsed in 2017.

In fact, the Azure Window’s pillar also collapsed, and the photo above shows the slope that would have led across a precarious arch only a few years ago. It had vanished so completely that as a newcomer to the site, I couldn’t even detect the ghost of its grandeur.

As I climbed up and around the terraced valley that falls to the coastline — the whole scene lit by a Photoshop-like sun flare, so beatific that it was ridiculous — I spoke with C on the phone, huffing amazement at this final morning of my walk.

What followed was another narrow walk beside cliffs — megacliffs, gigacliffs! — on par with the best sections of the main island, crossing empty farmland, no buildings or boats in sight. As usual, there was a visceral quality to being near the edge, a sense of precarity that no photo could capture. My elation faded, though, with each bird hide that I passed. I could imagine the gunshots, see the bodies falling. Hunting regulations are poorly enforced on Gozo, and even protected species face “indiscriminate massacre”. Such a blemish tempered any sense that these places were sacred.

This was reinforced by Xlendi, once a fishing village and now an ugly cluster of overdevelopment wedged between high cliffs. To get there, and avoid an inland detour along the road, I improvised a path through overgrown plots, and then cautiously descended the slope overlooking the bay. I paused often, looking for safe ways forward, and eventually made it to street level, legs shaking. I ordered a well-earned second breakfast.

I’m not usually one for selfies, but after the meal I spied a perfect opportunity to use my neglected tripod. There was a restored watchtower on the tip of a headland, with the cliffs I had just negotiated in the background at the right direction and angle, and the sun would be facing me, not behind. As I walked towards it, I started mentally composing the shot, but then I realised a shirtless man was doing an intense bodyweight workout at the foot of the tower, his skin gleaming. I nodded hello, wandered about a bit, then waited with my back turned, gazing at the cliffs and the water and the serenity of it all, and after a few minutes I turned back, but he was still in the same place doing single-leg squats. I sighed and kept walking.

Honestly, I entered a bit of a funk after that. Not because of the missed selfie, but because it had been a long 12 days, and there was rising melancholy knowing that my pilgrimage was almost over. I trudged rock-hewn paths through more fields. The scenery was still gorgeous, but my mind was retreating to home. I imagined Plum beside me, sniffing unfamiliar grasses, and having to keep a tight hold of the leash so she didn’t plunge off the side.

I sat under a tree for a little while, just feeling the heat of my feet and toes.

After having clung to the coastline all morning, my route took me away from the cliffs, into an urban settlement and across a ridgeline with views into the inner parts of the island, the 75-metre dome of the Rotunda of Xewkija presiding over all.

The last few kilometres were a blur: stumbling in fields that had recently burned, sitting in the shadow of a shed to consume a hydration tablet, eating ftira in the bay of Mġarr ix-Xini, bashing through the prickly slopes under Fort Chambray, then rounding the bend to stop my watch at the exact point I had set off from only 30 hours before.

Five minutes later, I boarded the ferry back to Ċirkewwa.

At the other end, I bussed it to Ta’ Xbiex. My flight home would be tomorrow. This last night I was staying with a family in a maisonette by the marina where my walk had begun on the first day. My room looked onto Fort Manoel. Wind gushed through the windows. Naked kids screamed and ran about the house. Their nannu shared his model railway enthusiasm with me for a solid hour. Sitting on the stoop, his gregarious wife and sister-in-law lamented the nonstop development happening throughout the country and reminisced about the Camino de Santiago.

I took a short walk to get dinner. The evening was balmy humid, not gross humid. I was wearing sandals. Valletta glowed rose-red in the last light of the day. Scooters and motorbikes and quad bikes and cars zoomed around, and despite the ache of my muscles and growing desire for the city I knew, my spirit rose in appreciation of the vibe.

After eating in the air-conditioned restaurant, I stepped back into the warmth outside. Night had fallen. Lights streaked the water, and just above the skyline hovered an enormous orange moon. Drawbridges creaked as people ate and laughed on the piers. A loud explosion sounded, singular, muffled, and several heartbeats later there was a second bang, and another, trembling through the streets.

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