x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Blazing a trail

Norbert Schiller hikes the recently opened Lebanon Mountain Trail, a 440km trek through cedar forests, lush valleys and hinterland villages.

To the east are the yellow and green fertile plains of the Beqaa Valley followed by Mount Hermon with its snow-capped peak piercing through the clouds. In the opposite direction are the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea stretching far off into the horizon. From up here, standing on one of the summits of Mount Lebanon, surrounded by beauty, it's easy to lose oneself in the splendour of the moment. Lebanon has been attracting travellers for centuries. From Alexander Kingslake and Lady Hester Stanhope in the 19th century to Harry H. Franck and Colin Thubron 100 years later, its mountains have lured an array of literary types, eccentrics, and explorers to its shores. Even many of the great 19th-century photographers and painters such as Francis Frith, Bonfils and David Roberts spent a good deal of their time documenting the magnificence of this land. For me it was Thubron's book The Hills of Adonis, published in1968, that first wetted my appetite to explore Lebanon's hinterland. The story of his four-month journey, just before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, weaves together an intricate story that looks at this country's history, terrain, and people, as well as its myths and legends. Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region that enjoys four well-defined seasons, and the best time to take off into the country's wilderness is the spring because of the explosion of colours and life that it brings. However, early spring can be unpredictable as storms can roll off the Mediterranean with little or no warning. A few days before I set out on the trail at the beginning of April, a massive storm had passed over Lebanon dumping torrents of rain and blanketing the mountains with a layer of fresh snow. Luckily, on the first day of our trek the sun is back, the air is fresh, flowers are beginning to bloom and there is a feeling that spring has finally arrived. There are six of us taking part in the inaugural trek of the 440-km Lebanon Mountain Trail, the first long-distance hiking trail in the Middle East. For the next 30 days, we will hike from Al Qbaiyat, in the very north of Lebanon, through the interior of the country to the town of Marjaayoun in the south. The Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) is the brainchild of Joseph Karam, a Lebanese American who was born in Senegal in 1958 but who grew up in Lebanon. His love of nature and hiking started in childhood when he used to take walks with his father around the family village of Baskinta. In the early 1980s, Karam moved to the US; it was then that he discovered the Appalachian Trail, a 3,500km journey from the southern state of Georgia to Maine in the Northeast. The idea of creating a similar long distance trail in Lebanon became an obsession. According to Karam, the most important contribution of the LMT is creating a trail that can be used as a mechanism to protect the environment and bring sustainable economic benefits from tourism to impoverished mountain villages. This can be accomplished by encouraging hikers to use local guides; stay in family-run guest houses, hotels, monasteries, and campsites; as well as eating local food, and buying locally-made handicrafts. The hope is that once villagers see the economic benefits from tourism, they will in turn take the initiative to maintain the trail and look after their natural surroundings and monuments. The northern section of the trail passes through the regions of Akkar and the Qammoua Plateau before continuing along the base of Qornet es Saouda, the highest mountain chain in Lebanon which soars to 3,087m. The "wild north," as I like to call it, is considered one of the most reclusive and traditionally conservative provinces in the country. This region is sparsely populated with a few poor villages and even fewer amenities. Only recently did many of these remote hamlets get paved roads and electricity. At the end of our first day we arrive, tired and sore, at a locally-run guesthouse. In this tiny impoverished village, the Sunni family we are staying with is able to provide plenty of hot water heated from rooftop solar panels, as well as soft mattresses and simple but tasty local dishes. Meat is not abundant here, so the local diet includes a variety of beans, rice, vegetable dishes cooked in olive oil, and dairy products that they produce themselves. They use herbs that they pick in the wilderness such as zaatar, or thyme, to season most of their food. A typical meal consists of a local yoghurt and meat soup known as kishk awarma; another favourite is fasoulia w'riz, white kidney beans cooked in tomato sauce and served with rice. Some smaller dishes, considered staples, usually accompany the main meal. These include labneh with a sprinkle of olive oil and zaatar, a soft homemade white cheese, and a couple of vegetable dishes. For the next four days we continue to encounter steep terrain, juniper forests on high mountain ridges, and rivers that we have to wade through waist deep to reach the other side. There are not many hamlets in these parts and the only people we see wandering in the mountains are shepherds taking their livestock up to higher pastures. Fortunately, the kindness and warmth of our hosts more than compensates for our daunting efforts during the day. Our next stop is the Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve; home to one of Lebanon's protected cedar forests. It is located just outside the town of Ehden, a northern summer resort. Here, we enter the Maronite heartland. This part of the country is far better off than the more remote north, with more developed infrastructure, and towns and villages that have a history of catering to religious pilgrims and foreigners. The areas around Ehden, Bcharre and Laqlouq are also well known to sports and outdoors enthusiasts. It is not uncommon to see people on skis in winter or carrying backpacks the rest of the year. After Ehden, we descend into the Qadisha Valley, which for centuries was used as a sanctuary for Christians during times of persecution. Today, the valley is a Unesco world heritage site and there are still a few active monasteries and convents. However, the hamlets here are all but deserted save for a few elderly people including one monk, a Colombian, who still lives in a cave much like his predecessors did hundreds of years ago. After five strenuous days of hiking we have our first rest day at a restaurant that has a few guest rooms in the middle of the Qadisha Valley. However, instead of taking the day off we set out to explore the many ruined churches and deserted hamlets including the cave of the Colombian monk, Father Escobar. Even though there is a small light burning in his abode, he is nowhere to be found. Instead, we visit the convent of Saydet Qannoubine, which is believed to have been built by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius the Great in the fourth century. Nothing remains of the original structure but there are murals on the wall dating back to the 16th century. The few old people who still call this valley home are friendly and invite us in for coffee. Even though they seem content, you can feel the underlying melancholy stemming from the knowledge that when they die there will be nobody to replace them. The following day we resume our hike up to the resort town of Bcharre and the birthplace of the poet, philosopher, and painter Gibran Khalil Gibran. The trail passes right beside his tomb which is housed in a museum. For a small fee, you can enter the museum and view some of his work. From Bcharre, we proceed higher up above the snowline to the smallest but most ancient cedar forest in Lebanon. From here we continue along the ridge overlooking the Qadisha Valley, through picturesque red-roofed villages until we reach the Baatara sinkhole, an impressive natural phenomenon that has drawn rock climbers and speleologists from all over the world. After 11 days on the trail we have a second rest day at La Reserve, one of the first eco-lodges in Lebanon. Unlike our previous day off, this time we take it easy. La Reserve is situated near the Afqa cave, with its five kilometres of mapped tunnels, and the Phoenician temple of Afqa, famous for the legendary romance between Venus and Adonis. After leaving La Reserve, the weather takes a turn for the worse. For the next few days we are pounded by high winds, rain, hail and snow. At one point, we find ourselves trudging through so much snow that it seems like spring has- -reverted back to winter. By the time we reach the Roman ruins at Faqra, we find ourselves caught under a thundercloud lashing out one lightening strike after another. The ruins are barely visible through the mist and, instead of waiting for a break in the storm, we scurry on until we reach our next destination, a convent turned guesthouse in the village of Kfar Aqab. Near the town of Baskinta we divert from the path for the day and join a separately themed walk called the Baskinta Literary Trail, aimed at promoting literary and cultural landmarks in that region. There are 22 such landmarks in the area related to several acclaimed poets and novelists including Amin Maalouf, Mikhail Naimy, and Abdallah Ghanem. After crossing the Beirut-Damascus highway, we enter the Chouf Mountains which are dominated by the Druze, a sect that has roots in Islam. Since the 19th century, Christians and Druze have had a volatile relationship that has resulted in much bloodshed. Thankfully, these mountains are once again in harmony. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the population's relationship with the environment. The first view that we see after crossing the highway are the ugly scars of a rock quarry on top of the mountain. Lebanon is awash with illegal rock and sand quarries, rubbish dumps and the skeletons of unfinished cement buildings dotting otherwise pristine landscapes. In every region we pass through there are constant reminders of illicit activities tarnishing the wilderness.

From the village of Ain Zhalta we climb up through the cedar forest until we reach the 2000m summit from where we have an unobstructed view of the Beqaa Valley on one side of the mountain and the Mediterranean Sea on the other. There are two Lebanese cedar forests in the Chouf Mountains that represent the highest concentration of cedar trees anywhere in the world. Since the 1950s, there has been an ongoing campaign to preserve and increase this national treasure. In 2005, Unesco designated the Al Chouf Nature Reserve as a biosphere reserve, where communities live in a protected area. People who visit the reserve are encouraged to purchase locally-made products such as cedar honey, rosewater, wild thyme, and grape molasses. After two days of hiking through the cedars, we walk through the village of Niha and the Nabi Ayoub shrine, one of the few Druze holy sites, before continuing on to the Christian town of Jezzine. The original trail was designed to continue from Jezzine to south Lebanon, a predominantly Shiite Muslim region controlled by Hezbollah. However, because of landmines and unexploded ordnance left over from the Israeli occupation of the south, and Hezbollah's unwillingness to allow the trail to pass through their territory, ECODIT, the organization that founded the Lebanon Mountain Trail, decided to redirect the walk over the Mount Lebanon range. This proved to be a wise decision considering the war between Hezbollah and Israel in July 2006. From Jezzine, the trail heads east and descends from the Chouf mountains into the fertile Beqaa Valley until it reaches the Druze and Christian town of Rachaiya at the base of Mount Hermon. From the early days of the Lebanese civil war, the Beqaa Valley developed a negative image as a place of hashish, hostage-taking and as a Hezbollah stronghold. In the mid 1990s, the Beqaa regained some of its old stature with the resumption of the Baalbek summer music festival and the resurgence of the wine industry, including a crop of new micro wineries. Today it's not uncommon to see a bus carrying tourists on a wine tour passing through a town controlled by Hezbollah. Walking across the Beqaa Valley, we find ourselves engulfed in a lush palette of vibrant wildflowers. There are red and pink poppies, white and yellow daisies, pale violet cyclamens and many more. Rachaiya is the end of the road for non-Lebanese who do not have a special military pass authorizing entry into the south. It's not difficult to get this authorization, but it's a must for any foreigner who wants to reach the end of the trail at Marjaayoun. Since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, there have been numerous restrictions on travel in this part of the country. With the needed permissions, we set out for our final two days, which carry on as normal until we cross the Hasbani River. Once across we are questioned by a Lebanese army patrol and then we run into a French contingent of the UN. The commander is not interested to know where we are heading but is curious about the LMT and how he can participate. After our two encounters with the security forces we finally arrive to the Christian town of -Marjaayoun. Marjaayoun, which means "the field of springs" in Arabic, is a small Christian village tucked away between the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The town, perched on a hilltop in a region of rolling hills and olive trees, has preserved its natural beauty because it fell inside Israel's security zone in south Lebanon from 1978-2000. Marjayoun, like the rest of the buffer strip, was protected from the unruly development that wrought havoc in the rest of Lebanon during the war years. However, the town and its people have witnessed a different kind of tragedy. The Israeli occupation brought some economic benefits to Marjayoun, the largest town inside the security zone, but left behind a reputation for collaboration that's proved difficult to undo. Marjayoun is now a small Christian ghost town in the midst of Hezbollah territory. Most of its residents have left fleeing persecution or seeking opportunities in Beirut and further afield. It's a perfect place to end this trail that could bring back some life and lustre to this once vibrant southern town and give its remaining residents hope for the future.