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Cycle from Malta airport to Rabat

17 November 2012

I climb out of bed at 4:30 and meet Gareth at the bust stop in front of my house at 5:00. We catch the bus to Clapham Junction and then the train to Gatwick, arriving at the airport at 6:20. So far, so good.

I have bundled my bicycle panniers and helmet in to a large bag to check in to the hold of the aircraft. We therefore head to the EasyJet "bag drop" counter, where we're dismayed to see a long, snaking, queue of passengers and luggage. Still, we have until 6:55 to check the bag in and, in any case, a lady at the front is calling people forward by flight to make sure no one misses their deadline.

The queue slows down as we get nearer to the desks. Eventually, as 6:55 approaches, Gareth leaves me to drop the bag and heads over to Security. He'll go through to Departures and buy us some breakfast while I wait here in line.

Then I realise that our deadline has passed and still the lady in charge has not asked Malta passengers to come forward. As I get within earshot of her, I enquire about Malta.

"Malta?", she exclaims, "There are no flights to Malta from here!" Upon checking my boarding pass, she tells me that the flight departs from Gatwick's other terminal, which is "a train ride away".

Before she's finished speaking, I'm half way across the terminal, frantically trying to find the aforementioned train while also attempting to get hold of Gareth by phone. As I reach the shuttle to Gatwick North, a countdown shows three minutes until the next train.

Finally I manage to get through to Gareth, who is himself sprinting across Gatwick South, having been informed of our mistake at Security. Two minutes to go, then one, and he comes in to sight at the end of a long hallway, arriving just in time to leap on to the shuttle.

Now we can only sit and wait, as the driverless train carries us over to the other terminal. We're well past the bag drop deadline as the shuttle pulls in to the North terminal and we pursue our sprint to the second set of "bag drop" counters. Disconcertingly, there are only two people in the queue here. Nonetheless, we apologise and jump ahead of them, heading straight for the nearest counter.

The agent tells us that the flight has closed and telephones the handlers to check whether the bags have in fact been taken to the plane yet. We're out of luck, they have. And, with that, he directs us to the Sales Counter where we'll have to reschedule our flight. As we begrudgingly queue up at Sales and contemplate whether the trip will even go ahead, the agent suddenly calls us back to his counter.

He explains that, if we take the bag as hand luggage and run (I've already explained to him how fit we are), we "may be able to make it". Through some minor miracle, I manage to slide my enormous bag in to the cabin baggage gauge and off we sprint. Reprieve at the last moment!

Luckily, passengers queuing at Security agree to let us jump past the queue. I wonder whether my fluorescent cycling jacket (the only warm item I'm taking) gives people the impression that I have some degree of responsibility. Or maybe they're just being nice.

Either way, we go straight to the X-ray machines where I remember, a little too late, all the liquids that I have packed. My bag is of course pulled aside and I am left to explain the situation to one of the guards, who is surprisingly sympathetic. After surrendering my energy drinks and my deodorant, he releases me without rescanning the bag (my razor blades and repair kit have not been noticed).

By the time we've cleared Security, we're ten minutes beyond our boarding time. There's no respite as we sprint through Departures and towards the gate, possibly the furthest gate in the airport. We arrive as the last passengers make their way up the tunnel. And, after squeezing my bag in to another luggage gauge to satisfy the gate attendant, we join them. Just getting this far feels like a spectacular achievement.

Three hours later, after an uneventful flight, we're greeted by warmth and sunshine as we step out on to the Maltese tarmac. We change in to our cycling gear in the Arrivals hall and then meet our man from Malta By Bike, who has delivered mountain bikes to the airport forecourt for us. Great service.

It's 12:55 by the time we're ready to go, heading in the direction of a distant McDonalds for a quick lunch. However, we massively overshoot the restaurant as the "M" we had seen was in fact far smaller, and therefore far closer, that we had imagined. A shaky start as we are forced in to an immediate U-turn.

After lunch, we join the highway adjacent to the airport and head east. This is Malta's single biggest road, which goes all the way from the southeast of the island to the northwest corner. The road takes us parallel to the runway for a little while and then veers south.

At the corner, we deviate on to a small country track, a shortcut to the seaside town of Birzebbuga, according to my map. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the map cannot be fully relied upon, as the track forks several times and gradually disintegrates in to little more than tyre marks in the grass.

We follow our instincts through the fields and are soon rewarded with a magnificent view over Birzebbuga, and the Mediterranean sea beyond. We descend in to the town and head straight for the waterfront, the most easterly point on our route.

From here, we start our clockwise tour properly, heading past Pretty Bay, which is now dwarfed by the cranes of Malta Freeport, and then back on to the main road for a short while, where I narrowly avoid a 2-metre deep pothole in the concrete of the cycle track!

The highway takes us past the disused RAF Hal Far airfield, which was closed in 1978 and now serves as a refugee camp. Then we turn off on to minor roads to stay as close to the southern coast as possible on our way over to Rabat.

Shortly after the town of Zurrieq, we're rewarded with breath-taking views of the sea as we arrive at a cliff top view point high above the Blue Grotto. It's already 15:30 though and we have under 1:30 of daylight left. There's no time to lose as we realise how little distance we've covered so far.

We don't have time to falter, so we decide to switch to the more major roads, which are better signposted, and head for Siggiewi, then Rabat. We struggle past a herd of goats and also pass several harness racers as we make a bee-line for our destination. At 16:30, after a long, steep climb in to town, we finally arrive in Rabat. Though we don't know it at first, until I ask a local lady where we actually are.

My relief is immense as she tells us "Rabat". I've printed off a detailed plan of the city, which allows to quickly find our way to Maple Farm B&B, a little to the south of town. We arrive there at 16:50, just as daylight begins to fade. And, as night falls, we cannot resist a quick swim in the open air pool, followed by hot showers and beers from the mini-bar.

We head in to the town centre for dinner (I opt for Maltese sausage at a restaurant which is, bizarrely, showing live football, Norwich v Manchester United). We enquire about the Rabat nightlife and our waitress suggests a couple of nearby wine bars. And so our pub crawl begins, first to a quiet bar serving tapas, then to one of the wine bars, where our waiter is only about 8 years old.

We struggle to continue our crawl, though. Apart from a couple of discotheques, which are open but empty, there are not too many more options. Our earlier tapas bar has livened up though by the time we pass it again, with lasers on the inside and customers spilling out on to the street. The most popular place in town seems to be a petrol station with a beer counter. Tempting, but we decide to call it a night.

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Malta by bike

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Paul with luggage (panniers inside large bag)


On the plane, despite everything


EasyJet breakfast


Setting off from the airport


Malta Freeport dominates Pretty Bay


Gareth and Paul at Blue Grotto


Rabat in the distance


Pool at Maple Farm