I’m clinging to a ledge over the 100m deep Wied il-Għasel valley, on Malta’s only via ferrata – a high-up, cliff-traversing cable route. Getting to this ledge has been exhilarating. My tour group and I have wobbled, blasphemed and used every ounce of muscle to see these vertigo-inducing panoramas.
On the other side of the canyon – dubbed the Valley of Honey – are small caves, ancient dwellings and the isolated Chapel of St Paul the Hermit. Perched under an overhanging ledge arch, it looks like it’s been craned in for a movie, but was actually built at this lofty height during the 17th century. No doubt the explorers back then had no safety ropes or harnesses like us.
Malta’s USP has traditionally been its 7,000 years of human inhabitation. Its deep ports and strategic location made it a target for pirates and colonisers, and it’s been invaded an astonishing 14 times – with conquerors (most recently the British) leaving ornate cathedrals, baroque streets and red telephone boxes in their wake. Some 350km south of Scilly and marooned on the cusp of Europe and Africa, Malta is the smallest country in Europe (the main island is a paltry 27km by 14km). History is inescapable for any travellers headed there. But it can also pack an adventurous punch – if you know where to look.
Before hanging off a cliff, we’d let out our pent-up pandemic screams while jumping into a valley (attached to a zip line), speeding suspended in the air on a 250m, under the two-centuries-old Mosta Bridge.
“The world has shifted towards adventure sports and travelling – social media accelerated it,” our guide Andrew Warrington, owner of MC Adventure, explains. “Experiences are so much richer when you are out in the environment, there are sights and sounds that you don’t experience when you are in an artificial environment.” It’s no coincidence that intrepid travellers are seeking outdoor thrills right now, after over 18 months stuck inside, during the various lockdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Warrington is one of the most knowledgable adventurers in Malta and could be considered the Godfather of Maltese climbing, having been scaling formations here since 1985. For the past 20 years he has been responsible for constructing the climbing routes all around the towering cliffs of the limestone archipelago, which consists of three inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino. Thanks to its almost year-round sunshine, good-quality routes and unparalleled accessibility, Malta has become known as a climbing beacon in the Mediterranean.
There are now 1300 climbs, for beginners through to experts. “Malta was never known for adventure,” says Warrington, “but now you can do dozens of adventure sports here.” When he’s not climbing, he’s taking people biking, kayaking, trail running, stand-up paddle boarding and on ziplines.
Earlier in the weekend, fuelled by the previous night’s spectacular eight-course wine dinner at the Maldonado Bistro, we hike Gozo’s rugged fossil-scattered coastline along the northern section of the Gozo Coastal Walk – a three-day hike that wraps around the whole of the island, past inviting wild swimming holes, traditional farmlands and dizzying cliff-diving spots.
“I used to jump off here,” says Stevie Haston, our walking guide from Gozo Adventures, as we peer down in disbelief over a ledge 30m above the gin-clear water. “It’s still a daredevil thing to do, just make sure you hit the water straight.”
This is a historic spot in the adventure world. Endurance swimmer Nicky Farrugia landed here after breaking the world record for crossing 165km between Sicily to Gozo in just 30 hours and 17 minutes. Swimmer Neil Agius beat this long-standing record mid-pandemic, in June 2020, with a time of 28 hours and seven minutes.
We take a boat from the Inland Sea through a cave and along the Dwejra coastline against a hazy, purple-tinted sunset. This area was once famed for its Azure Window, which featured on screen in Clash of the Titans, The Count of Monte Cristo and most recently Game of Thrones. However, after a storm in 2017, it collapsed. But this area is no less spectacular without its famous arch, and we study the caves and geomorphological features on the coastline, where multi-coloured sedimentary layers date back millions of years. The area has been renamed the Azure Reef, and can now be explored underwater on a diving excursion.
Nearby is the legendary Blue Hole, a 10m wide, 15m deep sinkhole clasped by limestone rock, which was carved out over thousands of years by pounding waves. Divers can descend into a cave, swim through an underwater arch and see colourful coral tubeworms, sponges and other marine life in its depths. There are more than 80 ship and aircraft wrecks in Maltese waters for divers to explore, in high-visibility, warm seas.
Although tiny in size, the islands are best explored by vehicle – but even that can be an adventure. On the island of Gozo we book an electric tuk-tuk with local company Yippee, which has shipped these distinctive Thai vehicles across the world and modernised them with eco-consciousness in mind. Meanwhile, on the main island of Malta, we take a talking electric buggy with a company named Rolling Geeks. Drivers are guided around an 18km route, through the history of Malta’s main island, while magically being informed about the sights in the area as they approach (spoiler: the buggies use GPS to track your location).
There’s no doubt that there has been an adventure tourism boom in Malta in recent years, and ABTA-affiliated companies Intrepid Travel, Abercrombie & Kent, Malta Direct and TUI all offer adventurous tours here. But Malta’s adventure tourism industry has been crushed by the coronavirus pandemic. “In 2020, our business was down to 15 per cent of what it was in 2019,” said Warrington. But Malta is a “defensive nation”, local guide Clive Cortis assures me. During the Second World War, it suffered 3,300 air raids, and was hit by 15,000 tonnes of bombs – more than the number dropped on London during the Blitz. “It’s just that now, we can’t see our enemy,” says Cortis. “But Malta knows how to fight.”
Malta became the first country in the EU to achieve so-called ‘herd immunity’, with 70 per cent of its population being given a Covid shot by May 2021. Now, around 95 per cent of the country has had at least one dose of the vaccine – the highest percentage in Europe. As of mid-November, Malta had administered 174 doses per 100 people, according to Statista.
“The government did a very good job of managing the pandemic. They were harsh when it was time to be harsh and they opened up when it was time to open up,” said Warrington. All that is left to do is tempt the tourists back.
As we cling to the crags of Wied il-Għasel, the coronavirus couldn’t be further from our thoughts. Malta’s intrepid offerings might be just the antidote to our monotonous pandemic routines.