The mistral hit us when we cleared the headland at Ras Il-Wardija. Tufted waves, riding on larger swells, came constantly and energetically, yanking us
sideways, and tossing us towards the cliff where the choppy water hissed and frothed. We had been going for two hours since we left our campsite in a
creek at Xlendi, and now, bracing our legs for a firm grip and clenching our torso muscles, we paddled more furiously and resolutely. The water splashing
on our faces was distracting. The perfect buoyancy of our kayak, so easily flung by the waves, threw our rhythm into disarray. With Bernard barking
instructions, it took us a frantic fifteen minutes before we developed a knack for riding the waves. Now the waves were manageable, and we moved in
a seesaw gallop, but there was no margin for slacking here - at every pause of uncertainty or composure, we felt the receding waves and whirlpools
sucking us towards the cliff.
The cliff to our right reared its rugged and unforgiving mass of limestone 150 metres into the air. There was nowhere to go but forwards, and on the
brief moments on the crests of the waves, we could see the tantalising nibbles in the coastline that marked the inlets at Dwejra, where we would stop
for lunch. There was about three kilometers of water between the headland and Dwejra, yet we were crawling ahead at a frustratingly slow pace.
This is the moment we had been dreading, and I was feeling momentary bouts of panic. The mistral is the dominant wind pattern fearfully respected by
Mediterranean fishermen. In Gozo, Malta's sister island in the center of the Mediterranean, it blows on seven out of ten days, battering the island
so incessantly that trees and reeds stoop permanently toward the southeast. According to the weather forecast, the mistral that day was blowing at
a feeble 25km/hour, but even at this strength, the wind threw up quite an insidiously choppy sea on Gozo's exposed northwestern coast. The confusion
created by cross-currents and swell receding from the cliff made our predicament more grim.
We were on the second day of our five-day kayak tour round the coasts of Gozo and Comino, the two smallest islands in the Maltese Islands. The idea for
the trip had come to me when I stumbled on a story written in the 1950s in the Times of Malta about a group of British adventurers who used to canoe
round the Gozo in an annual event. I had grown up in Gozo and knew the place intimately, and paddling round the island would give me the opportunity
to see the coast from the sea. I put the proposition to Bernard Bonnici, an outdoor fiend who has extensive experience in the outdoors -
scuba diving, rock climbing, trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking - and who hadn't kayaked round Gozo. It was an invitation he couldn't refuse:
there is something complete about doing a whole loop. Using a buoyant, two-person open water kayak, our supplies packed in waterproof plastic tanks,
we planned to complete the trip in five days, moving counter-clockwise, starting and finishing at Mgarr Harbor. That's an average of fifteen kilometers
daily, which allows plenty of time to go ashore and explore along the way.
The first day, skirting the protected south coast, had been untroubled. We had left Mgarr Harbor early, slipping past clay bluffs and gently sloping
land of wheat fields and pausing for an early lunch at Mgarr Ix-Xini, a mini-fjord winding half a kilometer to its inner mouth. This was once an
ancient river; ahead of us, the ribbon of water gave way to the dry valley bottom, where the fifty-meter-deep meandering gorge disappeared into
the interior. The water in the fjord was so clear that we could see the sharp shadow of our kayak on the pebbly bottom eight meters down. The plants
growing on the limestone sides of the fjord, tree spurges and Mediterranean heaths, hardly stirred; the splashes of our paddles were the only
disturbance. It was a serene spot, the crumbling fort at the mouth of the fjord the only testimony to the medieval corsairs (the state-sanctioned
and regulated pirates of the Medieval Ages) who regularly sneaked towards land here in surprise raids. Mgarr Ix-Xini translates into The Harbour
of the Galleys, the inlet where the marauders found unhindered, surreptitious anchorage - until the fort was built to repel them in the 1650s.
"The water in the fjord was so clear that we could see the sharp shadow of our kayak on the pebbly bottom eight meters down..."
After Mgarr Ix-Xini, it was a straight run to Xlendi, past the limestone cliff that girdles much of the south coast. The cliff's sheer drop, like
the cross-section of a glass that has been cracked clean, was possibly formed by an earthquake triggered by land-crunching at the active Pantelleria
Rift south of here, a major fault-line along the collision course of the European and African land masses. At Ta Cenc, the highest point in the south
coast at around 150 meters, the beige rock face is studded with stunted Maltese salt-trees rooting in cracks, and gulls wheel silently on the uplift
of the air current. I had admired this drop from the top, which is reached via a farmer's road, countless times - a scene immortalized by Edward Lear,
the eccentric and romantic British artist who roamed the world documenting nature in his paintings and poems, and who had chosen the painting of Ta
Cenc (out of a lifetime collection of 10,000 paintings) in a short list of his 200 favorite places on Earth. (Lear, who liked to make up words to
express precise feelings, wrote in 1866: "The coast of Gozo is pomskizillious and gromphiberrous, there being no other words to describe its
magnificence.") But floating at the base of the cliff as if helplessly suspended in mid-air, the towering wall seemed forbidden and claustrophobic,
and for a moment, listening to the gentle swell lapping into the eroded caves along the water's surface with long and loud sighs, I felt utterly
insignificant and fragile in the grand scheme of nature.
Now, on the morning of the second day, it took us forty minutes to cross the three kilometers of open water between the headland and Dwejra. But our
problems weren't over yet. Where was the tunnel that led to shore? There are large, black caves at the water lever, and the tunnel is one of them,
but which one? We couldn't take the risk of finding ourselves trapped in the raging water inside a cave. I was tetchy by anxiety by the time we finally
spotted the small patch of light that alerted us to the tunnel that pierces 50 meters of limestone cliff and opens into a netherworld: a small lake of
calm, greenish water, its pebbly shore fringed by boathouses where fishermen were painting their boats and mending their nets before the main summer
We checked our gear, relieved to see that water hadn't leaked into the two waterproof plastic tanks (this had been a factor that dissuaded us from taking
cameras). After a quick lunch, we went for a short walk to see the Azure Window, a natural arch whose opening is twenty-two meters tall, and the horse-shoe
shaped bay beyond whose water is creepy black from the dead seaweed that the mistral constantly washes into the bay. These and other features are the
result of the criss-cross of geologic faults in the region, producing the land subsidence and upheavals that have created a bleak and alien landscape
of gorges, bowls, and bluffs. Dwejra has been the setting for countless fantasy films, including an epic Italian film about Homer's Odyssey. But I
could see that the area is in an advanced state of degradation; bird-trapping sites and 4WD tracks were causing soil erosion, and a couple of stone
quarries were shredding the hillsides in the hinterland.