I’m not sure when I first had the bright idea of walking from one end of Lebanon to the other.
I vaguely recall it surfacing during a rowdy, arak-fuelled conversation in late 2006, when getting up into the mountains, away from the daily ache of shattered dreams and lives seemed the best of all possible escapes. Like most other dreams that year, it was quickly forgotten, washed away by the gritty reality of daily life in a country picking up the pieces.
Around the same time, I began hearing of plans to create a national walking trail. The Lebanon Mountain Trail, as it was going to be called, would run the length of the country and was being funded by an American aid agency.
More than Lebanon’s first properly blazed long-distance walking trail, the LMT’s goal was to encourage people to explore the more remote parts of their country, to bring much-needed income to the long-neglected villages along the route and to show the world that Lebanon was more than a series of heart-rending headlines.
When the Trail finally opened a few years later, security issues (for which read Hezbollah positions along the southern border and Israeli position on the other side) meant that it couldn’t quite run border-to-border. It ran from Marjayoun, a sleepy town in formerly Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, which looks down over a vertiginous escarpment into the Galilee, to Aandqet, an even sleepier village in formerly Syrian-occupied northern Lebanon, these days just a hop and a skip from the war in Syria. Some 470 kilometres long, the Trail took 26 days to walk, non-stop.
With the exception of the first two sections, which snaked east up into the arid Anti-Lebanon and the foothills of Mount Hermon before turning west and crossing the southern Beka’a Valley, it ran for most of the way along the more lushly forested length of Mount Lebanon. Generally oscillating between 1200 and 1500 metres, it reached a maximum height of 2200 metres and a low of just over 500 metres and the 26 sections averaged between 16 and 20 kilometres in length.
The sections were conceived as a single day’s walk, starting and ending in a village, where overnight accommodation, breakfast and an evening meal could be arranged in local homes. This provided cash-strapped villages along the trail with extra revenue and the interaction between walkers, most of whom were urbanites, and villagers, many of whom felt abandoned by Brave New Lebanon’s focus on its cities, created a positive dialogue that gave villagers renewed pride in their fading culinary and cultural traditions and gave walkers an opportunity to see a side of the country’s cultural richness that many urbanites had no idea existed.
Because it was cobbled together from ancient and often overgrown walking paths, including Roman roads, watercourses and goat tracks, the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. In couple of places, it led through mine fields, and while these were clearly signposted and a corridor of land on either side of the trail had been demined by the Lebanese army, the Association still recommended that first-time walkers hire local guides, just in case.
I had signed up to join its annual spring walkthrough. In addition to inaugurating the hiking season, the walkthrough permitted the Association to make sure trail blazing was still visible and that paths hadn’t been swept away by landslides, avalanches, tarmacked or even built over, a constant threat in a country where land records were still somewhat chaotic.
So on the first Friday in April – ironically, April Fool’s Day in 2016 - I joined a small group of weekend walkers and hopped on a bus down to our starting point in Marjayoun.
I’d first visited this pretty southern village, with its cluster of traditional, red-roofed Lebanese houses, during the Israeli occupation when our accommodation for the night, the Dana Hotel in neighbouring Ibl es-Saki, had been a popular journalist hangout. That had been 17 years earlier. When Israel finally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 (apart from a brief reinvasion in 2006, of course), the South had found peace and the journalists, for the most part, had departed.
What it hadn’t really found was prosperity.
Though many expatriate Lebanese visited during the summer, here at the tail end of winter, we were the only guests. After a slap-up dinner in the cavernous dining room, graciously provided by a local housewife, eager to introduce us to her village’s most famous dishes, including an especially toothsome take on Kibbet Batata, a mashed potato and bulgur wheat concoction sandwiched around a layer of preserved meat that she served baked in a large round dish saniyye-style, we all bundled into bed, to get as much sleep as possible before our 5:30am start.
Although I’d been dreading it, rising at the crack of dawn turned out to be much less painful than feared and I practically bounced out of bed at 5am. Throwing open the curtains, I could see the sun was beginning to rising and the sky looked perfect and cloudless. After a quick shower, I threw on my clothes, laced up my boots for the first time and grabbed my bag.
Breakfast was a feast. Sumac-sprinkled fried eggs, fresh labneh, a tangy Lebanese yoghurt thick enough to spread, homemade jam, fuul, a hearty cumin-scented stew of fava beans and chickpeas lifted with a squeeze of lemon juice, and rounds of flat Lebanese bread, still warm from the oven.
Stuffed to bursting, we wasted another thirty minutes waiting for a couple of slug-a-beds who’d slept through their alarms, before piling into the bus for the ride back to the official starting point in Marjaayoun. As the collective energy overflowed, the 10-minute drive was all jokey camaraderie, shining eyes and raucous laughter. Our eagerness to get on the trail was tangible.
But just over two hours later, we were still in Marjayoun.
The last time I had spent this much time there had been in 2000, when I was covering the Israeli withdrawal. Then, the streets had been deserted and the shops shuttered. A pall of smoke drifted across the town from the smouldering ruins of the barracks, blown by the Israelis as they’d pulled out a few hours earlier. In this jittery interregnum between one order departing and the next one arriving, we stopped to interview the few inhabitants we could find, and their chest-thumping expressions of patriotism and relief at the end of the occupation had nevertheless been tinged with anxiety over who and what would follow. Then, we’d driven on towards Hasbaya, in pursuit of the last retreating Israeli troops and by the time we drove back later, night was falling and not one of the town’s lights had been on.
Today, the ancestral home of Michael DeBakey, the late American pioneer of open-heart surgery and Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer prize-winning late American journalist, was seething, knee-deep in reporters and television crews.
It turned out they were there for us, for although this was the seventh time the LMTA had organised a walkthrough, we were still news. The mayor, clearly a master when it came to recognising a shot at national coverage, had organised an official send-off, complete with piping hot tea and an endless supply of some of the best manoushe I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Often, and to my mind, misleadingly described as a Lebanese pizza, this baked, savoury flatbread, which most often comes covered in cheese and a dried thyme mix called za’atar, is traditional breakfast fare, and a personal weakness. Even full of fuul, I couldn’t resist and ended up stuffing a couple into my bag for lunch.
This second breakfast helped take the edge off the inevitable speeches and the pressing of flesh that followed, but as we posed for photos and answered shouted questions, I could sense the collective patience fray.
Just as it seemed like we might never leave, we were finally on our way.
We raced off the second the handshakes ended but the camera crews still needed the perfect shot of us setting off. Our two guides, Joseph and Robin, were lumped with the unenviable task of marshalling us towards the old market square, so that we could set off in a more suitably telegenic phalanx.
Getting a group of fidgety hikers to stand in one place for long is a bit like trying to herd cats. After fifteen minutes of frantic instructions to ‘stay’, ‘group together’ and ‘wave’, as passing cars honked their horns and beaming but bemused townspeople shouted hellos and welcomes, we were finally organised into a cohort tight enough to make a Centurion proud.
After an eternity, the cameras began to roll and the signal was given to walk, but slowly enough to let the cameramen get their shots. Naturally, this request was ignored. At a pace approximating a controlled trot, we burst out of Marjayoun’s confines, swept past the golden sandstone homes and out into the southern Beka’a.
The trail pulled us forwards. Open and rolling, our route that day would will take us across the plains and up into the foothills that broke like waves against the majestic flanks of Mount Hermon, passing through lush green valleys that purpled and faded into violet as they rose up, up towards the sky, to a mantle of thick snow sparkling brightly in the morning light.
It was a perfect day. The sun was warm, the sky as flawless as a Sri Lankan sapphire. As the bees buzzed, a gentle breeze stirred the trees and sent a flock of small birds twittering overhead. Adrift in a landscape of soft greens, gentle purples and bright, floral splashes of colour, I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun.
My shoulders softened and I exhaled in a long, steady stream. Just like that, an invisible weight I had been carrying unnoticed since at least January but also, I suspect, for years longer, melted away.
Footloose, I was fancy-free. Smiling, I hurried to catch up with the others as we turned off the road and began to walk across the fields in a hubbub of animated chatter.