Malta: Criminals, caves, and cart ruts

I’m not a great fan of caves. I may well have overdosed on them when we were in Georgia a few years back, but I tend to lose the plot when in Malta on a blue-sky, blue-sea day with the sun bouncing off the limestone cliffs. There’s something very Enid Blyton-y about it all. Following the lead of the inimitable MA (the Julian of our famous four), we did as we were told. He’d gotten wind of a bat cave on the southern tip of the island, had gone looking for it, and never found it. Instead, he found the one he brought us to.

**At one point on our drive, we passed what looked like wasteland but with a curious pattern of stone plinths. We stopped for a look, as you do. It might have been an illegal bird-catching zone, but it was just as likely to be a legal one.

According to BirdLife Malta,

Despite trapping being non-conformant to the Birds Directive, as it is considered an unsustainable method of killing wild birds, Malta still allows a trapping season each and every autumn, by means of a derogation. The last trapping season was permitted from the 20th of October 2019 until the 10th of January 2020, on two species – Song Thrush and Golden Plover.

Some 1,587 applicants were granted a licence to trap wild birds, operating no less than a total of 1,895 trapping sites across Malta and Gozo. Wow. Heady stuff. The EU has weighed in:

June 2018’s landmark European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgement found Malta guilty of infringing the European Birds Directive when it allowed finch trapping to reopen between 2014 and 2017.

To me, it’s criminal. Be it legal or illegal.

Further down the road, we found our spot and parked. We made like mountain goats jumping from rock to rock before finding the entrance to the cave. We climbed in and began to weave our way through the tunnels, blindly following our leader. It was quite something. Not at all damp or musty but dry and pleasant or as pleasant as the near-dark can be.

When we reached the end, someone had laid out a rug. This place must get regular visitors. It didn’t have a story though – and I like my stories. So we drove a little farther on the off chance that Hasan’s Cave might be open. It’s a far more sophisticated affair with a lovely cliff-side walkway and it has a choice of stories.

Two legends surround the cave perched 61 metres above the shore, the Malta Tourism Authority’s website says. One has it that it was used by a Moor called Hassan to avoid expulsion in 1120 and the other claims that it used to be occupied by a Saracen, who was driven from his home in North Africa, in the 12th century, and who lived there with his harem.

Shooting Malta has a more detailed version of the Hasan story:

As it goes with such places, Għar Ħasan has a legend to tell – the cave is named after Ħasan, a Saracen who abducted a farm-girl and hid her in this cave, where he desperately forced her to promise him her eternal love so she could be freed. One of the version goes that the girl got desperate and jumped off the cliffs, by which then Ħasan followed. Another version recounts that the local farmers attacked the cave to free the girl, whereby Ħasan in an act of panic, threw the girl off the cliffs and then threw himself off afterwards. Milder versions of the story is that there was a man called Ħasan who simply fell off these cliffs. In all cases, poor Ħasan always dies.

There was something quite compelling about walking towards the window of light. And then getting there and seeing the view out over the water.

Driving along the coast, we stopped to check out a set of cart ruts that go into the sea, about 30 metres off St George’s Beach towards Birżebbuġa just opposite St George’s Chapel and Borġ in-Nadur (an archaeological site located in open fields overlooking St George’s Bay, near Birżebbuġa). The island is littered with them, the most famous being the network at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir known locally as Clapham Junction.

Dubbed cart ruts due to their resemblance to tracks left by carts, it’s not known for certain how or why they were made. These clearly man-made ruts are dual channels, parallel grooves etched into the limestone bedrock of the islands. The channels measure about eight to 15 centimetres deep, but can be as deep as 60 centimetres. Width between the tracks extends about 140 centimetres, but not in all instances.

Close by, cut into the rock, was an old tie-up for ships and the foundations of an old bathing hut.

Limestone is about the only natural resource Malta has. It’s not a massive surprise then that it’s used in pretty much everything. It’s what gives the island its Labradorian hue. And on a clear sunny day, it’s stunning.

It was a good day, in good company. Later on, I met a former colleague who told me I looked like a girl. I’m calling it the Enid Blyton Effect.

** Text edited with updates on trapping licences in Malta.


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