It was Halloween weekend of 2015. I had just arrived on the European island of Malta for a semester abroad a month and a half prior. There was an event; a hike across Malta. From the southern-most tip to its northern-most tip along the west coast of the island. The scenic cliffs in the west intrigued me, but the chance to make new friends intrigued me even more.
Fifty-four kilometers (roughly thirty-four miles) over the course of two days; the plan was set.
We were slated to meet up with a rather large group (around fifty others) in the south of the island in a city named Birzebbuga around nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. Be it a late night of partying on Friday or the inconsistent Maltese transportation system, my Slovakian friend, Dominik, and I arrived late.
We got to the century-old parish church around 9:30 A.M. after a long and complicated series of buses and short hikes to get there. By that time, everyone was gone. The group had left without us, understandably. We sat around for fifteen minutes or so contemplating if it was worth it to start the hike on our own and search for them.
Ultimately, we decided to go for it. We didn’t even know which direction to start; north, west, was there a trail or was it a locally-known path with limited trails? All these questions were running through our minds, but in the end, we figured we wouldn’t be able to miss a group of fifty hikers who started only a mere half hour in front of us.
We were wrong.
Dominik and I hiked the entire morning and the entire afternoon alone. We wandered along Dingli Cliffs’ edges, daring each other who could get closer to the 100-foot drop-offs. We got lost on private property where we were chased off by vicious farm dogs. And we navigated our way through small village after small village wondering if we’d ever reach a trail. There was no doubt we were hiking a different path as the group before us.
Neither of us had phone reception, and we didn’t bring a map of Malta thinking we’d be with a large group and wouldn’t need one. All we had was our sense of direction and the ability to ask locals in the small villages if we were headed in the right direction.
Dominik and I kept telling ourselves that we were walking at a pace that the group of fifty couldn’t possibly keep up with. For half the afternoon, we had wondered if we had already passed the group and were ahead of them.
In our minds, not knowing how long the hike across Malta actually was, we thought we had reached the middle of the island by noon. In reality, we had not even reached the infamous Blue Grotto and Hagar Qim Temples yet – which were about a quarter of the way up the island. At least, when we reached those two landmarks we had a reference point of our progress.
We stopped for a lunch at a good vantage point of the Blue Grotto and the excellent climbing rock-face that locals refer to as “Panorama Rocks” – aptly named after the bus stop you must exit to reach them. Dominik and I seriously considered stopping there and heading home on the convenient bus back to the country’s capital. Was it worth it to hike the entirety of Malta alone? It was obvious we were already taking the long-route because there was no way a group of fifty was out-walking our pace.
Again, we decided to push on. We were committed to finding them.
Running into a bit of luck.
Around four o’clock in the afternoon – it was getting late, the sun was getting closer to the horizon – we knew we had to hurry. We didn’t want to get caught in the desolated part of Malta with nowhere to sleep and no food to eat. The last bus home would be leaving in around two hours, but we had no clue how close to a village we were in order to catch it.
We reached some sort of construction area around the center of the island close to the Il Fawwara area. Although the gate seemed closed for the evening like everyone had gone home, we decided to check if there was anybody we could ask for directions or that could give us a lift to a nearby village. I hopped the fence and started desperately searching for someone to talk to.
A hiking miracle
As I was inside the fence, I saw someone; but, they were on the outside of the fence. I silently pointed the person out to Dominik, who was about 100-feet away from me. He saw him, too. Then we saw another person. And another one. And three more people; all walking along some sort of trail through the light forest of Malta. There were a lot of people following behind. Could it be that we coincidentally found our group right when we were about to give up?
I hopped back over the fence and we made a silent mad dash to the people. We didn’t quite know how to approach them. “Hey, are you our group?” is such an awkward question to ask seven hours after they started the hike without you. So we just walked behind them from a distance for about a quarter of a mile or so until someone noticed us. “Hey, are you a part of our group?” someone asked us, awkwardly.
We explained to them that we showed up late and they knew exactly who we were because we were the only ones missing from the RSVP list. Dominik and I joined the group and found our friends, Jaro from Czech, Tabia from Germany, and Cami from Belgium, and continued the hike for a few more hours along Dingli Cliffs before heading inward for a night’s rest in one of the west’s largest cities, Rabat.
We arrived at our accommodation for the night; a karate gym with comfortable flooring and padded mats. It was around dusk so we showered, ate and called it a night.
Up and at it early in the morning, Dominik and I had some time after grabbing a bite to eat to explore the area. We were extra cautious to be aware that the group didn’t leave us again. We wandered into an unlocked basketball gym and I was able to play a game of H-O-R-S-E with him. It’s always entertaining seeing Europeans using their hands and arms during a sport because it is primarily soccer in all of Europe.
The second day was a lot of stalling, waiting for those falling behind, and starting up again. Often is the case when hiking with a group so large. However, the views were still second-to-none. Around mid-afternoon, we had hit Golden Bay and I knew we were getting closer to the end.
Pro Tip: There are a couple of wonderful hikes that can be accessed by taking a bus straight to Golden Bay from any of Valletta, St. Julian’s, or Sliema. Ask a local when you get there for the hiking trails and they should be able to point you in the right direction.
We continued north and passed Popeye’s Village – a famous movie scene from the movie “Popeye” in 1980, starring the late Robin Williams. It’s a colorful and quirky village built for Holywood along a clear blue bay in Malta. It is all still perfectly intact.
Further north, we neared the end of our hike and the end to an exhausting weekend. Tattered, blistered, and beaten by the sun, I was ready to call it a day and successful weekend hike. But Mother Nature had another surprise in store.
We were almost in Cirkawwa, which is the northern-most point in Malta when all of the sudden it got extremely cloudy. This isn’t totally uncommon in the Mediterranean, especially in the fall and winter seasons. It’s usually only like this for twenty minutes or so before the sun shows up again.
However, that wasn’t the case today. Some of us (literally, everyone besides me) started pulling out rain gear just in case. I wasn’t smart enough to bring rain gear on a weekend hike. I wasn’t even smart enough to check out the weekend forecast. It started down-pouring like cats and dogs. I was soaked. Everyone kept showing sympathy, asking if I wanted to share their gear. I declined and kept pushing on through the muddy trail.
Where did that come from?
Out of nowhere, a funnel started to form out of the sky. A FUNNEL! IN THE MEDITERRANEAN!
I’m from Kansas, otherwise known as a part of the United States referred to as “Tornado Alley”. I’ve lived through my fair share of tornado warnings and watches. However, in all my years in Kansas, I’ve never seen a tornado so close to touching down in person.
This funnel was spinning miles away from the coastline in the middle of the sea. Everyone in our group was amazed, stopping to take pictures and open-jawed in excitement at the sight of it so far away. I, however, knew how rapidly that funnel could make its way to us and I was worried. We were caught without shelter where we were. Not even a ravine to hide in. We were in the wide open. Matter of fact, we were close enough to the cliffs that a strong gust could sweep most people right off the edge. I urged my friends to step back from the ledge and they did.
Safely Finishing the Hike.
In the end, the funnel ended up disappearing after about fifteen scary minutes. No damage was done, but I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I’ve never heard of a tornado in the Mediterranean, but we were very close to witnessing one.
We were only about an hour away from our pick-up spot by that point and we ended up finishing the hike in the late evening. Just enough time to get home back home in Msida, cook a cozy meal, and enjoy a long, long night’s sleep; just what I needed after the furthest hike of my life.
I loved doing the hike, and I enjoyed being lost with Dominik on the first day even more. I urge anyone staying in Malta for an extended period of time to do a similar long distance hike along the west of Malta.
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