We had crossed from Malta to Gozo by sea. We returned by air.
Those that know something of Gozo might be surprised by this due to one key factor... there are no airfields on Gozo. I was not about to let a small detail like that deter me however. You see, one form of transport that I had always dreamed of utilising was seaplane. Seaplanes seem to belong to a bygone age, which was always sure to appeal to me. Plus, it’s what Indiana Jones always used to leave his dotted red lines across the sepia map of the world. In many ways seaplanes were the sinews holding together the creaking European empires of the interwar era, which makes Malta’s commercial service somewhat appropriate.
The company operating seaplanes commercially these days is Harbour Air (www.harbourairmalta.com). They are based in a terminal down on the rather horrid Valletta Waterfront development where the cruiseships disgorge their human cargo to ‘do’ Malta in a day. Past the cordon of touts and the string of carbon-copy waterfront bars in renovated warehouses showing Premier League football we found Harbour Air’s offices and landing stage. They offer aerial sight-seeing tours of the island as well as running two return flights a day between Grand Harbour and Mġarr. These cost €80 return. To save money we just paid for a single ticket each at €44 for the day upon which we knew we would be returning from Gozo.
Armed with our tickets in advance we arrived at the Mġarr terminal in plenty of time for our flight. I say ‘terminal’. The correct phrase should really be ‘Portakabin’. After a while a young man arrived to unlock and weigh our luggage (we were just under our allowance). And then we waited. The afternoon air hung heavy and silent above the harbour. We were the only two people there. Then a faint buzzing could be discerned in the distance. We scanned the sky ahead of us above Malta and Comino. Then we spotted the plane sweeping in from the west. It looked tiny. We watched as it tipped into a steep banking curve and dropped down towards the congested harbour mouth. With a series of skips it hit the water, bouncing clear each time, before finally halting its progress. It would be accurate to say that at this point our hearts were in our mouths!
As it putt-putted over towards the pontoon below us we could make out faces at the windows. As it halted the pilot disembarked… but no one else. The other eight passengers had simply booked a return flight to Gozo and back. This meant that when we climbed up into the cabin we had no choice of seats. As it was, I ended up sat on the right hand side of the craft. If you get the chance to choose a seat I would recommend you try to sit on this side too as it turned out to afford the best views of Malta. No sooner had we stowed our bags in the back and seated ourselves then the pilot was back on board and the engine started up, worryingly quickly. He had manoeuvred the craft away from the jetty before he even shut the door. The pilot spun the plane to face the harbour mouth. He gunned the engine. With a start we began charging forwards towards the narrow opening between the breakwaters, bouncing as we hit waves. Then we were aloft!
The rate of ascent was not very steep. Through the domed windows we were able to watch Gozo disappearing behind us. Over Comino we flew, getting a bird’s eye view down into the sparkling turquoise of the so-called ‘Blue Lagoon’. Before long we were over the eastern flank of Malta, looking down at its bays and resort complexes. Inland I could see that the hills were contoured and terraced, evidence of hundreds – or thousands – of years of cultivation of the island. From the ground the network of dry-stone walls had appeared a confusing jumble; from above I could make out an ordered unity about the way the land was worked.
We had barely been up any time at all before Valetta could be seen ahead of us. Once again, the order and planning of the city could be appreciated from on high. Marsamxett Harbour shone bronze in the late afternoon sun. Ahead was the north-western scarp of the city and the dome of the Anglican Cathedral. Then we were over the sandy stone of Fort St Elmo, seemingly deserted, and swinging around to approach Grand Harbour head on for landing. As we dipped lower I had a great view of the Siege Bell Memorial and the Lower Barrakka Gardens.
We landed sluggishly, one thick plough into the waters of the harbour bringing us to a smooth and easy halt. In total the flight could not have taken more than ten minutes.
So what did we get for that €44? Well for starters we cut down the journey time considerably, from two hours to little more than thirty minutes (counting the checking in formalities). But more than that we were treated to some excellent views over Comino, Malta and Valletta through our windows – windows that were designed to provide a good field of view. The terrain and towns made more sense from up here than they had from the ground. And lastly I was thrilled to be able to fly on a seaplane, which had been a goal of mine for quite a few years. Accustomed to taking off from dry land there was a rather surreal edge to launching ourselves up from the sea itself and once more in coming in to land without a runway below us. Additionally it was not as nerve-wracking as I had thought it might be. It really was a great experience to save up for our last afternoon in the country and one that I thoroughly recommend.