Malta!

So sorry all – I’ve been very remiss again about keeping up to date here

In the summer I was able to navigate the reefs and currents of idiotic bureaucracy during COVID and get to Malta, to meet up with some Land Rover-owning friends there and do some exploring.

The rugged Fortress Island of Malta lies square in the middle of the Mediterranean, halfway between Sicily and the coast of North Africa. Perhaps because of the rugged, rocky landscape, Malta is also the country with arguably the largest number of Land Rovers per head of population anywhere in the world. With a population of 500,000 there are around 60,000 Defenders and Series Land Rovers on Malta – or more properly on the three islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino which form the country known as Malta, and that’s not counting the high numbers of Discoverys and various versions of Range Rovers. So that’s one Land Rover for around every 8 Maltese!

                             I’d always wanted to visit Malta, and explore an island which has been continually inhabited since 6000BC. In Britain, Malta is famous for her defiance of the German and Italian forces in the Second World War, but this is only one high point in the long and eventful history of the group of islands. In August I flew into Valletta, the capital, to meet up with Land Rover owning friends and spend a few weeks getting to know both the busy and the more remote areas of the island group.

                Malta is quite small, only 17 miles long, and wild areas which you can access with a Land Rover are jealously protected. Nevertheless I met up with artist Henry Falzon and his wonderful 1948 80” Series One, and we headed off to the west of Malta and to explore Selmoun, a largish wilderness of clay and limestone, scrubby vegetation and rocky cliffs, overlooked by Fort Campbell, one of many relics of British military fortification. Selmoun is both remote and stunningly beautiful, and accessed by a route (the word “track” isn’t really applicable) covered with many axle-twisters and washed out gullies. Not really suitable for anything but the hardiest vehicles. Henry proved his immaculate ’48 very much fits into that bracket as he gunned the 73 year old veteran truck up and down scrabbly, slick clays and rocky outcrops. We descended to the shoreline and travelled alongside ancient salt pans, some dating back to Roman times, until we overlooked the St Paul islands, regarded as the place where St Paul was shipwrecked in the Acts of Apostles in the Bible.

                Whenever I have been offroad in a Series One, especially an 80”, it’s always struck me that the Wilkes brothers got it exactly right with this design. The feisty engine, light weight and short wheelbase conspire to make the 80” pretty much unstoppable, and Henry sure knows how to get the best from his tough little beast. I mentioned Henry is an artist, and he produces a great range of lovely works in various media. Land Rover lovers will be especially interested in his beautiful lino cuts of his ’48, and they can be found at henryfalzon.com/4-4-lino . In fact he was using our exploration of Selmoun to do a little work – and during a pause in our exploration he launched his drone to get some material for his range of mesmerising coastal prints. The load bay in an 80” isn’t huge but it does have “enough” space for many things, including a drone landing pad, and 2020s drone technology worked together with 1940s 4×4 technology very well. As the day’s explorations drew to an end it became very clear why short wheelbase Land Rovers are by far the most popular here on Malta and her satellite islands. The lanes and tracks that thread their way between fields are narrow, and bounded with solid drystone walls. Turns can be sharp hairpins, and even in the towns the streets are narrow and awkward to turn if you are driving a large vehicle. More than once I was glad we were in Henry’s nimble 80” rather than my own hulking 130”.

                Time went on, and eventually we headed back to Henry’s workshop in the centre of Malta. He proudly gave me a tour of his Workshop and also of the gleaming little truck herself – a truck which he has stripped back to the chassis and rebuilt down to every nut and bolt. Henry’s Workshop is almost as fascinating as his Series One – extremely early pre-production Series One body panels share shelf space with a treasure trove of curios, like German 20mm aircraft cannon shells Henry found in buildings still ruined from the war.

 It was with sadness that my time with Henry and his jewel of an 80” drew to a close, and he dropped me back in Valletta, the capital of Malta, where I was based. Valletta is one of the smallest capital cities in the world and the streets, of course, are very narrow. Yet Valletta has her Land Rovers, and they are adapted to the narrow thoroughfares. Agile Discovery Sports are common, as are Freelanders – and the odd 90. There are only two 130s on the islands, and they seldom venture into town!

My next exploration was with Daniel Spiteri in his rebuilt green 90. This beast has languished in his garage for several months whilst he painstakingly worked hard on rebuilding and renovating her. The result is tremendous, and a Land Rover to cherish. Dan took me on a long trip around the north of Malta as we explored little-visited villages and some great local fish restaurants. Dan is still working on his Defender so he wasn’t ready to take her offroad, but he very kindly introduced me to many other members of the Land Rover family on Malta.

For the next few days I hopped into the ferocious 90 tdi of Marvic Mifsud, stalwart of the local Land Rover community. Marvic has taken a lot of care with his 90 and uses it both on Malta and on Sicily, a favourite offroad destination of many of the Land Rover owners on the Maltese islands. He and I explored the south and east of Malta, starting with the remote fishing villages and high rocky plateaus of the southwestern corner. Maltese placenames look strange to European eyes until you learn that it’s the only Semitic language written in the Roman alphabet, and because of this, some of my Arabic vocabulary was actually understood. Malta has been a crossroads and a melting pot for travellers, traders and warriors from so many civilisations (of course including the British) and this is reflected in the local language. If I mention that we passed through Għadira, L-Aħrax, Cirkewwa, Mgarr, Ħad-Dingli, Qrendi, Mqabba, Marsaxlokk and Xrobb l-Għaġin you can see what I mean!

Marvic’s 90 is a bit of a fire-breather. He has tuned and modified Land Rover’s tough old 300 tdi and it really makes the 90 shift. No terrain was too much for the tough beast and we explored knife-edge ridges with precipitous drops to the sea, steep climbs up and down and rocky escarpments as well as hill tracks. Offroading as such on Malta is illegal, but the network of “white lanes” – rough limestone farm tracks dating back over centuries of use – is extensive. Many cannot be driven, except by very able 4x4s, so the Land Rover community have plenty of places to lose themselves away from the beaten track.

One place that really took my imagination was the ancient temple complex of Ħaġar Qim. A huge temple, like a limestone Stonehenge, on a sweeping hillside overlooking a great swath of the Mediterranean. Built about 3600BC, they are some of the oldest structures on Earth (the oldest Egyptian pyramids are 1000 years “newer”) and are very impressive. It’s easy to imagine early man building this great structure overlooking the horizonful of sea, and feeling close to some sort of god.

Marvic and I spent several days “white laning”, exploring some of the lesser-known parts of Malta. The golden limestone is beautiful but the dust gets into brakes and moving parts and can cause chaos so at times we needed to clean it out! Mud Terrain tyres are the order of the day for the guys who take their offroading seriously on Malta, and Marvic puts Cooper Discoverer STT Pros on his rock-crawling all-conquering Defender.

Malta is full of hidden boltholes for the Land Rover fraternity and one evening we headed to one such place, Qalet Marku, a peninsula on the north coast where Mario Gauci, Rene Pizzuto and some of the other members of the Land Rover Club of Malta were holding an evening barbecue. Around 30 Land Rovers arrived, Defender 90s and 110s, Disco 1s and 2s and one of two Classic Range Rovers. Cisk, Malta’s famous beer, appeared, as did pastizzi, traditional Maltese pastries. Mario owns a fantastic 101 GS Forward Control (the only one on Malta) along with several others including his daily drive, a beautiful silver 110, and Rene (amongst 7 other Land Rovers…) owns “Paint It Black”, a very distinctive black Defender 90 with a Rolling Stones “Hot Lips” logo on each side alongside the “Pant It Black” name of the truck! The barbecue and club evening was a great success and many stories of adventure were told. Again and again the guys referred to Sicily, their preferred offroad destination from Malta, Ferries operate regularly and are sensibly priced. Yes, sure, Malta has beautiful wild places and jaw-dropping landscapes, but a few trips out exhausts potential destinations here, and club members look further afield to give their faithful steeds a good run out. At the time of writing a Malta-Morocco trip is in advanced planning stages!

Next day saw me hop on board an extensive “white laning” trip organised by Julia, the club treasurer, in her green 90 hardtop (hardtop Defenders are quite common on Malta, as they cost less to run in road tax). Malta has a lot of terraced agricultural land and this led to dramatic landscapes as the hillsides appeared to be “combed” by some giant hairbrush into regular terraces for growing crops. Rene’s distinctive black 90 came along as well and I asked him about the paint job – was he not worried about the Rolling Stones logo being scratched? He grinned and shrugged – “That’s Rock n Roll” he laughed. Our trip took us along Malta’s hilly spine, around the village of Mgarr, and the majority of the terrain was once again rocky, and quite tough going in places. Malta is beautiful – everywhere you go, the landscape seems to be hiding another great view, and these are often framed by great seascapes stretching to the horizon.

My final few days on Malta took me across some of that sea, by hydrofoil ferry to Gozo where I met up with Pat, a Disco 2 owner and a keen shooter. We mixed those days with exploring Gozo by Land Rover and also a few hours on Gozo’s shooting range. Malta has liberal gun laws and a very high rate of firearms ownership, the highest in Europe, and I’ve spent some time around firearms so it was a pleasure to put a few round downrange and spend a bit of time away from driving and navigating.

Sadly my time on Malta came to an end, and all too quickly. It’s a wonderful place, a real jewel of an island, and the people are hugely friendly and enthusiastic – and great lovers of Land Rovers. It’s easily reached by ferry from Europe – and well worth a visit!

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