Travels With Zoe
31 January 2020

Ghajn Tuffieha/Gnejna

Hobbled by a bum knee and a six week moratorium on running, and increasingly unfulfilled by the paltry rehabilitative one minute walk/30 second run drills I’ve been prescribed – which for one used to chewing up at least 10km’s a day is the cardiovascular equivalent of a dry hump – I must instead live vicariously through my parent’s dog Zoe and today take her for a hike over the precipitous ridge that divides two bays on Malta’s northwest coast.

It is beneath the bluest of skies that I unclip Zoe’s lead and she’s off like shot. In her enthusiasm she nearly knocks over three French cyclists who are teetering their way up the steep, furrowed path I’m about to descend. It is quite a thing to see a dog run free in any environment and it’s particularly gratifying here for the undulating nature of the track and craggy features of this landscape. I am making my way down one side of a ridge and up to the narrow spine that separates two of Malta’s more famous beaches, nestled between two flat-topped promontories that stick out into the Mediterranean. Yellow limestone mesas which have for millennia been battered by wind and sea, occasionally surrendering hefty chunks of their cliffed faces to the elements, these giant boulders tumble down the sharp sides where they’ll rest near the waters edge for another eternity or until the sea reclaims them. The flora round here is all thistle and bristle. Proliferations of prickly pears explode out of crevices and over large rocks and patches of robustly bladed, tall green grass smears liberally across the rough terrain and Zoe gobbles it up like a goat. Approaching the centre spine the ground turns to clay. Though grey and crumbly now, after a good rain the way turns slick and treacherous and this walk would not be possible in such conditions. At the apex the path then descends steeply to a deserted stretch of beach, too steep for one on two legs or four to maneuver safely so we instead take the higher route which snakes up on a 1 in 3 gradient to the peak of the central ridge. The way is narrow, and Zoe lacks any kind of etiquette in these tight quarters as she bombs up and down kicking up clouds of dust as she goes like the road runner in the Looney Tunes cartoons. Each time she passes she sideswipes me and were I not as fleet of foot I could easily take a 300foot fall down to the beach below, it’s not a vertical drop and therefore unlikely to kill me, but it would certainly cost a lot of skin, a few bones and extend my running ban by a considerable margin.

I have been told by a doctor here, a specialist in running related injuries, that my form in both walking and running is all wrong and I am tasked in the coming weeks with trying to correct my technique. This is thankless work but at least the sun is hot and today’s hike is invigorating enough for me to build up an adequate steam of sweat and burn off some of the self-loathing and anxiety that accumulates when I don’t run. In the distance Zoe pauses and looks out over the blue bay and the small rollers coming in. It puts me to mind of a passage from the book I’m reading, The Whale by Phillip Hoare in which he says,

‘It is a mistake to anthropomorphize animals merely because they are big or small or cute or clever, it is only human to do so, because we are human, and they are not.’

I agree but find myself consistently doing just that. Not long ago, I was on the stern of the ship I work on. We were treading water in the Detroit River, waiting to tie up at the fuel dock. In this brief fallow period, alone on the aft deck, I watched as a cormorant circled and made to land on the top rail near me. Though I’m not an expert in avian matters it was my strong suspicion that for a creature with webbed feet this was likely to be a very bad idea. I was right. No sooner had it alit then it slipped, chinned its beak hard on the rail and corkscrewed the 25feet down to the water. It collected itself for a moment, and then I swear to God it looked around to see if anyone had spotted its mishap, and casually swam off.

At Gnejna Zoe and I hang out on the beach for a while. Watching her, she seems a vessel made purely for joy. The ecstasy with which she runs in the world, the environmental and human horrors that unfold daily before our eyes do not concern her. She is only concerned with being a dog. Ah, what freedom! To not have to worry, to not aspire or envy. She gives the gelatinous remains of a jellyfish in the sand a sniff and then is distracted by a stick nearby which she growls at and pounces on. When excited she doesn’t walk, she leaps all four legs at a time, pronking like a gazelle on the Serengeti. My father has often said of dogs,

‘If only they could read, their lives would be perfect.’ And I am inclined to agree.

It is easy to forget the beauty of these islands when one spends so much time in the built-up areas and so little green space is left. I am crouched in the sand near the water’s edge writing in my notebook. To my left boat houses are Lego-ed along the shore. Behind, stepped green fields rise up to the next ridge over which lies the impressive bay of Fomm Ir-Rih. To my right, in the distance the high white cliffs of Gozo and in between those limestone promontories reach into the sea, like fingers pointing westward. Soon money, the kryptonite of so many Maltese people, will talk and these beautiful places will probably be depredated, gone like the birds so routinely blasted out of the sky despite the laws protecting them, for it’s becoming increasingly clear that the rule of law means nothing here, and until that changes nothing will remain safe or sacred and trees will continue to disappear, protected land will be sold off and beautiful old buildings knocked down to make way for tasteless, hastily built, blocks of flats. The retreating water rustles the small pebbles beneath my feet and makes a pleasing sound, like that of the great, cleansing rain these islands so desperately need.

Zoe, scared of the sea, is now making tentative steps towards it, flirting with the breaking surf as it rolls in and out, but refusing to dip a paw in it. To salvage some integrity, she digs a big hole in the sand and vomits up some grass.

No one said she was a genius, but the great boon of her life is that she doesn’t need to be.