Rasha Elass checks into a budget eco-camp near Hermel and comes face-to-face with the country's beautiful but endangered wildlife.
Lebanese eco-resort showcases its community as much as nature
On the way there I begin to have second thoughts. The ride from Damascus through the Lebanese border and on to Baalbek seems to go on and on in the summer heat of the non air-conditioned minivan as it passes through a succession of shabby villages.
But then, as my taxi from Hermel reaches halfway up the northern part of the Lebanon Mountains en route to Al Jord campsite, perched 2,100 metres above sea level, I finally realise I must be in for a treat.
"That is the Valley of Hell," my driver says when he notices that I've perked up and let out a loud gasp.
"Valley of Heaven" is more appropriate, I think. The scene is so stunning that I twist around to keep my eyes on it long after the driver has negotiated a sharp mountainous turn.
Low clouds float above the valley, and the mountains that pierce these clouds dazzle the eye with a dense carpet of pine trees and moss green grass, topped with a delicate chapeau of snow. Al Jord overlooks this valley, and when I arrive at the campsite the fresh air assaulting my lungs is a reminder of the urban soot I had left behind.
The best way to describe Al Jord is as a well-kept secret, an eco retreat that saturates the spirit and the eye with some of nature's finest beauty. It is more about the nature than the campsite itself, which is simple and unobtrusive. But don't worry about roughing it as you normally would on a camping trip. This campsite is surprisingly comfortable, thanks to the little things, such as clean and private bathroom stalls with hot showers and comfortable sleeping quarters. Half camel-hair tent and half stone wall to shelter you from the wind, these blend into the natural beauty of the place while you doze off on a floor mattress, under thick blankets.
There are half a dozen tents, some of which sleep up to a dozen people. Bring your own sleeping bag if you want, but it is optional. And don't worry about sharing a tent with strangers: unless there is a large group, you will have a tent to yourself or to share with friends.
At night, small mushroom-shaped solar-powered lamps light the way from the communal food tent to the guest tents. When there are enough people staying, the young men in charge of the camp light a bonfire in the fire pit in the evenings, but you have to bring your own guitar and marshmallows.
The food is perhaps what makes the place feel more like a resort than a campsite. Women from nearby villages supply jams made from fruit in their gardens along with fresh home-made goat labneh and cheeses, and the locally hired staff whip up three meals a day on the premises from fresh, local ingredients.
The camp owner, Hassan Olluweh, says he tries to incorporate nearby communities into his project by serving only local produce prepared by staff hired from the surrounding area, who in turn appreciate having the campsite nearby.
"You have to get everyone involved, otherwise they resent your presence."
Olluweh inherited the land from his family and says he and the other heirs, with claims to about 1,000 dunums (100 hectares), have agreed that they will not sell any plots to developers, but rather keep it as a nature reserve. It overlaps with the Oulleh Forest, which means forest of scarcity in Arabic, even though it is one of the largest cedar forests in the region today, thanks mainly to over-logging in other areas.
"We also have 900 lazzab trees on this land that we're trying to protect," Olluweh tells me, referring to the local juniper tree known for its high production of oxygen and ability to hold soil in place, preventing landslides in a radius of up to 50 metres.
"Some of our cedar trees are two or three thousand years old, and we have planted more than 100,000 cedar trees over the years to replenish what has been lost."
Olluweh says he and his supporters are trying hard to preserve the delicate eco balance in Al Jord. Many birds and mammals rely on juniper fruit, for example, and some excrete the berry seeds to help propagate the tree over a wide area.
Among the local wildlife at increasing risk are mongoose, badgers, wolves, squirrels and foxes, and locals say they see hoopoes, bluebirds and other migratory birds in decreasing numbers.
"We used to have the black eagle, but haven't seen one in 20 years," Olluweh says.
"The bluebirds, which love the juniper berry and help spread the juniper seed, are also in big trouble here."
I did not know my stay at Al Jord would coincide with the first official visit by a Lebanese dignitary to the camp since its inception more than 10 years ago. As it turns out, the minister of tourism arrives with an entourage of three dozen. Olluweh says the visit is particularly significant because he feels he has not received the help he needs from the authorities to protect his trees from loggers. He is relieved to hear the minister talk about preserving the area rather than inviting developers to build.
"This is one of Lebanon's hidden treasures," the minister of tourism says, promising to promote Al Jord on the country's official tourism website.
"We need to preserve it as is, and promote it to Lebanese tourists too, not just foreigners, so that the Lebanese learn about the beautiful nature in their own country."
The minister then sits down with his entourage for a lunch that must have made their three-hour drive from Beirut more than worthwhile. We enjoy the usual dishes of grilled lamb and chicken alongside the regional mezze, which consists of tabouleh, hummus, baba ghanouj, chick pea and fava bean salads, and string beans in olive oil. There's green pepper and zucchini stuffed with rice and lamb, various salads with potatoes, veggies or yoghurt and, most notably, the bizarrely named "rasas Azrael", which translates to the bullets of the Angel of Death, made with corn kernels served in yoghurt.
When I return a couple of weeks later with a friend, we have a taste of the place without the trappings of an official visit by a dignitary. The food is still local and delicious, though it tastes best when the owner's wife, Rima, is the chief cook.
My friend and I sign up for a six-hour hike on our second day, one of the many activities available at Al Jord. You can also kayak, cycle, or go horseback riding, but you have to arrange it in advance.
Olluweh accompanies us as a guide on our trek, which is a good idea because there is hardly a trail to follow.
When we break for lunch, which includes labneh and black olive wrapped in pita with cucumbers on the side, we sit next to a magnificent cedar tree that Olluweh claims is 1,000 years old. Then he launches into a diatribe about corruption in local government combined with a lack of awareness among many locals that allows loggers to sneak in and cut down trees, and prevents him from prosecuting locals who claim they are merely gathering dry wood in the forest.
"What they do is this," Olluweh explains: "They cut trees when we're not looking, then flee and leave the trunk behind on the ground for it to dry. Then they return for it, and say they are merely gathering dry wood from the ground, which we cannot prevent them from doing."
Off in the distance we can hear the tell-tale sound of a chainsaw, and on our way back we see three men with their tractor gathered around a dried up fallen tree trunk, getting ready to take it away.
According to Olluweh this behaviour endangers the already fragile ecosystem in Al Jord, where flora is considered unique because of the high concentration of lazzab trees, and the age of some of the cedar trees.
At one point he shows us a "mystery plant", a strange flower-like cluster of crimson red seeds inside a pod that grows near rocks.
"I first noticed it five years ago, and I have shown it to all sorts of experts, but no one can identify it. No one knows what it is," he says.
This may not be the case for much longer, not if Olluweh gets what he wants from the ministry of tourism. So far he has been promised a better access road and a promotional page on the Lebanese ministry of tourism's website. Eventually, he hopes to accommodate more than 3,000 visitors every year, more than twice as many as in his most successful year to date, right before the Israeli-Hizbollah war in 2006.
So if you are inclined to see this place at its most pristine, you had better go soon, before the word gets out.
If you go
Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Beirut on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh1,375 (US$374), including taxes.
Al Jord (00 961 345 8702; http://hostelslebanon.com) has accommodation for up to 100 people in cotton or goat-hair tents that sleep up to 10, from US$10 (Dh37) per person per night. The lodge can also arrange trekking, mountain-biking and horse riding.