Dwejra is a fascinating little spot in the north west of Gozo, just north of the little village of San Lawrenz. It is a mostly uninhabited area but it has and had a fascination of attractions well beyond its minute size with its prehistoric natural sites – the results of earthquakes, upheavals and exposure to summer and winter elements.
Its main attraction for scores and scores of years was the remarkable and natural Azure Window, a magnet that annually attracted hundreds of thousands of Maltese and foreign tourists alike. For many years it was classed as being in peril because of its weak foundations of mud and soft rock gradually being eroded by the elements and battering seas.
The erosion was continued by human tourists, venturing out onto the bridge to be photographed. This was eventually prohibited and the bridge roped off.
Alas, three years three months ago a vicious storm hit that part of Gozo and the battering seas finally demolished the Window and left Maltese and Gozitans aghast with anguish at the sense of loss.
However, Dwejra has other attractions and one of these is Fungus Rock (known in Maltese as ‘Il-Ġebla tal-Ġeneral’ i.e. ‘The General’s Rock). This is a tiny island that is just 60-metres high, a massive lump of limestone that is slightly offshore.
Its most remarkable feature is the reverence that was paid to it by the Knights of St John between the 14th and 16th Centuries when they discovered a flowering plant that only grew on this rock and because of its repulsive smell was classed as being a fungus – which it is not.
The Knights believed it had magical curative powers for healing war wounds and for curing bouts of dysentery. In 1764 it was placed ‘out of bounds’ by Grandmaster Pinto because of extensive pilfering of this prized plant which the Knights deemed so precious they even presented it as a gift to distinguished visitors.
Pinto decreed that anybody caught pilfering would be given a three year sentence as a slave oarsman on the Order’s galleys – stiff enough to deter anybody because this was a virtual death sentence. Pinto’s servants continued to pick the plant for him thanks to a rustic cable car contraption which he had rigged to make a heavily-guarded passageway between the island and the mainland.
The whole area is a magnet for divers and snorkelers because of its deep blue, clear water and an underground maze of caves and fissures that teem with fish. Unfortunately deaths of divers occur frequently despite all precautions. The nearby exposed rocks are encrusted with marine fossils that have also sadly suffered over the years with people chipping away to take home souvenirs.
To complete Dwejra’s fascinations, a natural rock tunnel has created a small inland sea, much visited and much prized with boatmen running regular trips from the inland sea, through the tunnel and out into the open blue sea.
On the southern side of Malta, the small island of Filfla (just slightly larger than Fungus Rock and flatter) is suffering the same underwater erosion, sadly accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s when Filfla was used for bombing practice by the British RAF.
Looking directly towards Filfla is the Zurrieq Blue Grotto, a natural rock archway, a fascination of crystal clear blue sea and coloured sandy bottom, another magnet for tourists and a roaring trade for boatmen. Again, the authorities have had to intervene to prevent curious tourists and locals alike from clambering over the archway because of the damages they cause.
Near the sea but further inland at Birżebbuġa is the wondrous cave of Għar Dalam (“Cave of Darkness”), another natural heritage site with a history and extinct but living proof that Malta and Gozo were a part of Africa but also a part of southern Europe before tremendous earthquakes caused them to become islands in the centre of the Mediterranean.
At some stage this was a river bed with a probability that parts of it ran underground. When discovered in the mid-19th Century it was found to be teeming with bones of African dwarf elephants, dwarf hippopotami, deer and bears with the elephants and hippos having become extinct about 10,000 years ago. Equally interesting, the first signs of human settlement in Malta were found there and deemed to stretch back to 7,500 BC.
Another natural phenomenon near Zurrieq is the sizeable ‘sink hole’ at Qrendi, known as ‘Il-Maqluba’ (‘The Upside Down One’), a crater-like circular depression that is thought to have collapsed because underwater flood rivers eroded the base and caused the collapse. Myth had it there was a small habitation there but the inhabitants were so evil that God’s wrath somersaulted the surface and buried them all alive.
Whether underwater, on land or underground, Malta and Gozo are a vast treasure trove of a past turbulent geophysical history.
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“A cat in a hurry produces blind kittens”
Hurried decisions lead to negative consequences.