Writing about the day out on George’s boat on Corfu in 1984 reminded me of another memorable boat ride, this time on the island of Malta in 1997.
We were staying at the Mellieha Bay Hotel in the north-west of the island and the weather had been gloriously hot ever since our arrival so we had agreed that a boat ride to Comino would be a nice way of avoiding the heat for one day and we booked up for a sea journey with Captain Morgan’s cruises which operated out of Sliema on the opposite side of the bay to the capital Valletta.
On the day of the cruise we took one of the island’s iconic yellow, orange and white buses that once operated across the island and drove the twenty kilometres or so to the embarkation point and joined the other passengers on the red and white cruise boat and selected a chair on the open top deck and looked out at the boats going backwards and forwards into Valletta harbour while we waited for departure.
Eventually the boat cast off and sailed out of Sliema and began the two and half hour journey along the coast towards our destination. It has to be said that after only a short while this became a bit tedious because to be honest the coastline of Malta is not the most picturesque in the Mediterranean. There are no dramatic mountains, no green forests, not really very many beaches, just kilometre after kilometre of monotonous pepper grey sandstone shoreline, the occasional township and the odd fishing boat. After we had passed by the unremarkable resorts of St Julian’s and St Andrew’s and then St Paul’s Bay we began to realise that this was just about all there was to see and this was going to be a long trip. Jonathan was so bored that he feigned sea sickness just for something to do.
After about an hour and a half however there was a bit of activity when a white speedboat caught up with Captain Morgan and began to put on a show of slalom turns and nautical acrobatics all the while churning the sea into dramatic white foam and spray. The driver was a middle aged man with a deep suntan, inappropriately tight Speedo swimming trunks and a tousled mop of unruly curly hair, he had a microphone and was shouting and waving to the passengers on our boat. This it turned out was Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banus, a living legend in Malta who runs an independent and entertaining speed boat service for tourists.
After a while he sped off and we settled down again to the rhythmic chug of Captain Morgan’s more sedate engine, more boring coastline including a lump or rock where St Paul was supposed to have landed in 60 AD and then a quite unremarkable buffet lunch before we arrived and dropped anchor in the Blue Lagoon at Comino.
Comino is a chunk of barren rock half way between Malta and Gozo and with nothing to do especially except wander along the dusty paths we sat on the rocks and took an occasional dip in the clear waters of the lagoon and watched the Malta/Gozo ferry pass regularly by and fretted about the two and half hour return journey.
As the time to leave began to approach there was a sudden roar of an engine, the tranquillity of the bay was shattered and Crazy Tony returned in his speedboat. As we were queuing to get back on the boat he came alongside and reminded us just how boring the journey was and for a reasonable price offered us a faster return journey and a bit of fun. We didn’t have to think about this for very long and we handed over the money and clambered into the boat and were thankful that the Captain Morgan experience was over.
When he had filled the boat he uttered his catch phrase ‘Hoki Koki’ opened the throttle and we were away. We didn’t leave the Blue Lagoon straight away however as first he took us into some caves that surround the bay and played a well rehearsed trick of supposedly catching a bat and releasing it amongst the squealing passengers.
Once Captain Morgan was under way and making its sedate return journey he caught it up and over the microphone taunted the passengers who had rejected his exciting return alternative. Jonathan’s sea sickness had completely disappeared by now and he forgot all about it when Crazy invited him to the front of the boat and into the driver’s seat and he took us out to sea at full speed. Crazy was in his element and he cracked jokes and performed tricks and we were soaked with the spray and thoroughly entertained.
And then things began to go wrong! About half way back the sea became much rougher and the waves much higher and then the roar of the engine began to fade and there were alarming spluttering and coughing noises as it was clearly struggling to keep going. We knew there was trouble because Crazy went quiet for the first time and I think his suntan faded a couple of shades as well. Finally the engine stopped altogether and we were stranded about half a kilometre out to sea without power. Crazy made radio contact with someone on shore but was unable to restart the engine and eventually we had to row to the chunk of rock where St Paul had landed and wait to be rescued. We left the boat while Crazy continued to work on the uncooperative engine and clambered over the black rocks that were now being pounded by an increasingly rough sea. Things didn’t look good and we worried about how long we might be stranded.
After fifteen minutes or so and before assistance arrived Crazy was finally successful in coaxing the engine back into life and we were invited back on board. It still didn’t sound completely healthy however and when Crazy offered the option of being dropped off in St George’s rather than go all the way back to Sliema we didn’t need to be asked twice. The boat spluttered and limped back to the nearby town and were glad to reach dry land where we left the boat and wished good luck to those who had chosen to complete the ride.
It was a bit scary at the time but now that we were safe we had to agree that it had been a lot of fun and there was still no sight of Captain Morgan so we went for a drink and then caught the bus back to Mellieha Bay.
I have Googled ‘Crazy’ and I am pleased to report that he is still working and there is a Facebook fans site which describes him as:
‘If anyone in the past 35 years has been blessed with the Oki Koki experience then I am sure you will be humbled by this dedication to the charismatic legend known around the island as Mr Crazy the ultimate tour guide of the Blue Lagoon. After 35 years the founder of tours in the area has not lost his charm with the tourists and if anyone should be given an award for being the face of Malta it has to be HIM.’
Some more of my boat journeys recorded in the journal: