Chapter 21: Adventures in Breathlessness

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Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe the stars are out of alignment. Whatever the reason, I begin today’s walk, a 17.5 km slog from Mtain to Baskinta, which Joseph informs us in our morning pre-walk briefing, will be ‘a little difficult’ – in a foul mood.

Twelve days into the walk, I have already learned to take our estimable head guide’s economical but informative briefings with a pinch of salt. Distance is more suggestion than definition, with personal tallies at the end of the day regularly registering at a several kilometres more than supposed, and so we now hear quotation marks whenever a figure is announced - especially when its related to how much further we have to go before lunch, or our beds.

As for Joseph’s estimation of difficulty, that too has become a fond running joke as both our guides appear to be part mountain goat, bounding up and down all but vertical, rubble-strewn hillsides with the energy, enthusiasm and abandon of a golden retriever on the beach. I’ve yet to see either of them out of breath, even after running some distance uphill. Robin, at least, has the decency to be twenty years younger, but Joseph is a grizzled veteran and he smokes, too. My ego would have been crushed, had my toes not beaten it to it. 

The initial 500 metre climb out of Mtain, fuelled by fruit and a fresh knefebreakfast, leads across rocky terrain, strewn with large, heavily-eroded outcroppings of limestone, some of which look like they are the remains of ancient walls or towers.

There are few views, although the panorama over Mtain and down to the coast in the distance could be considered pretty in a low-key way, but then we’ve been so spoiled by magnificence along the trail, that it takes a little more to get hearts pounding than it did that first day in Marjayoun.

As we reach to top of the hill, the walk gets ugly, as we briefly enter the outskirts of Zaarour, a summer destination and private ski resort that has expanded exponentially in the almost 20 years I’ve been in Lebanon. It’s clear that a lot of recent construction has taken place, as last year’s trail has disappeared beneath tarmac and plots have been prepared for the multi-million dollar ‘chalets’ that will soon be built. We pause briefly for a desultory tea at a random roadside shack, as Joseph and Robin figure a new path through what has become a construction site, ahead. 

Because land ownership is still a matter of dispute in most parts of the country, thanks in no small part to the confusion caused by poor record-keeping during the Ottoman occupation of the Levant and exacerbated by the continuous state of instability afterwards, keeping track of the trail and finding detours when it suddenly disappears beneath a road or a house, or is arbitrarily fenced off by landowners, whether legally or not, is one reason the yearly walkthrough takes place. I notice that both guides are busy taking notes and consulting maps.

Eventually a path is found that gets us off the new roads. We drop down towards a large reservoir and emerge at the foot of a narrow trail. It leads uphill through a cleft in the cliff wall and out, onto a limestone plateau.  

Once again, Lebanon does one of its spectacular quick changes. As we leave the fresh bitumen smell and construction clamour of Zaarour behind, we emerge into a landscape of peculiar rock formations, whispering wind and swaying trees. Then, as we turn a corner, we enter a narrow river valley, carpeted in a profusion of wild flowers, where a thin plume of water falls seemingly out of the clouds, to tumble down the wall of rock at the far end. 

It’s pure magic and I half expect to see fairies flitting between the flowers. Walking towards the fall, we clamber across the rocks to the opposite side of the valley and wading shin-deep through daisies, make our way up to the small bowl-like plateau of Al Jawzeh - the Walnuts - that lies above.

There, strewn amongst the flowers, lie the ruins of an old settlement, which appears to have been fortified during the Byzantine period. Massive, carefully hewn blocks are scattered casually all around us, and the remains of walls and outlines of rooms and houses are visible all the way up the low walls of the bowl.

Despite its name, Al Jawzeh is home to only a few trees today. We stretch out on the grass beneath one massive survivor, trunk split open but still growing, grateful for the shade.

The area would once have been thickly forested, as a nearby inscription era attests. It’s one of the Emperor Hadrian’s famous reminders, strewn all over Mount Lebanon, that trees are protected and may under no circumstances be chopped down without permission. However well that injunction may have functioned during his reign, it’s been paid scant attention since. Still, its presence here, as well as the unearthing of artefacts from all over the Mediterranean world and the quality of the stonework suggests not only that the settlement was important but that an old road ran nearby, possibly linking it to the coast and the Beka’a Valley.

Subsequent excavations have revealed that the settlement had its own bathhouse – a relative rarity in such remote areas – as well as two impressive presses, large enough to have produced wine on an industrial scale, so it must have been a fairly important place. 

Quite how long people lived up here isn’t known. Al Jawzeh lies at an altitude of 1400 metres and would have been covered in snow every winter, so it would have been one of the higher altitude settlements of the time. Even today, with modern amenities, Lebanon’s highest village, at least one that is occupied year-round, is only a couple of hundred metres higher. 

It’s possible Al-Jawzeh began life as a sacred site, as the remains of a Phoenician high place have been found nearby, and the far end of the plateau is dominated by a cluster of absolutely gargantuan sarcophagi, large enough to have held a god.

It does seem to have been abandoned some time around the 7th Century, around the time Lebanon was occupied during the Islamic Conquest, but was briefly revived as a mining town in the 12th Century, before being definitively abandoned in the 15th. 

The only regular inhabitants these days are goatherds, who have constructed a makeshift shelter at the far end of the plateau and as we lie beneath the tree, the tinkle of goat bells fills the air as a massive herd joins us on the plateau and the goats begin to munch their way contentedly across the ruins. Little wonder Al Jawzeh’s trees haven’t regrown.

As we munch on snacks of our own, one of the hikers mentions in passing that the site was plundered during the war by one of Lebanon’s more egregious feudal chieftains, Michel el-Murr (Michael the Bitter in English), a surname that perfectly suits its bearer, who carted off statues and columns, which now adorn his garden and living room. 

Resuming our walk, we meander past the sarcophagi, several of which are full of winter rain. Apparently, eleven skeletons were found here, though most of the tombs had been emptied at some point in the distant past, and then as we walk down into the Wadi el-Delb, which sits beneath my favourite mountain, Sannine, the clouds close in and the temperature drops.

We can see Baskinta, our destination for the night, beneath us on the far side of the valley but as usual, we have to go down, then up, then down and then up again, before we get there.

The trail hugs the valley wall at the base of sheer cliffs and in places, we’re walking along rock shelves beneath large, dripping overhangs. As the clouds lower, erasing all traces of the mountains above us, we reach the start of the section of today’s walk that Joseph had referred to that morning as ‘a little difficult’.

Here, the valley becomes sheer and the way forward involves clambering along a water channel carved into the cliff face. Long stretches of the channel, which is reassuringly reinforced with concrete include massive concrete water pipes, and it seems that we must balance our way across them, too. And of course, the pipes have replaced the sections of the rock shelf that have either collapsed, or else bridge massive natural gaps. 

This being Lebanon, there are no handholds or rails on the pipes, though they are quite wide, and as we stop at the first section, which bridges a fairly small gap, Joseph explains exactly how to navigate them safely.

I catch a few nervous glances. Had anyone wanted, they could have turned around I suppose, though Zaarour had to be at least ten kilometres behind us. I suddenly understand why all participants in the throughwalk had been required to sign a waiver. 

And so, a few minutes later, on a cold, damp afternoon in mid-April, I find myself walking precariously in single-file along an old concrete water pipe made slippery by fallen leaves and rain, halfway up the cliff opposite Baskinta. The view, at least, is magnificent. If somewhat vertiginous.

The first section crossed, another looms ahead. From here until we reach the pumping station on the hilltop ahead, the trail is part ledge, part pipe. In places, the ledge is so narrow that even when we’re on it, we’re still walking along the pipe. The sections of pipe become longer until eventually, we come to the final, particularly daunting section that stretches across a huge gap in the cliff face, past a waterfall and then rises steeply up a narrow ravine to the pumping station.

I set off across it and have just passed the midway mark when the person in front of me wobbles rather worryingly. A misstep here would be fatal. Abruptly, the full import of what we are doing registers. I barely have time to wonder whether as decisions go, this one isn’t half-baked when I am overcome by an almost transcendental clarity. 

The world becomes perfectly still. Beneath my feet, I can feel the thunder of the waterfall we’ve just passed reverberate gently through the sturdy pipe. Above, the peaks are still hidden in cloud, tendrils of which swirl down through the forest to wrap around us, turning our side of the valley into a chiaroscuro of mist and mountain rather like a Chinese ink painting. 

Baskinta, though, is brightly illuminated, an island of sunlight in an otherwise grey day. From up here, it is a sprawl of red-tiled pyramid roofs darkened by the rain, punctuated by church spires and the occasional, and generally rather unfortunate, new construction. 

In the valley below, a delicate froth of fruit blossom cloud the terraces. Cherry, perhaps, or apple. Maybe both. I can hear the tinkle of goat bells from somewhere and the distant but unmistakable echo of a bus honking its horn on the other side of the valley. Wind rustles through the trees, making lazy swirls in the mist and setting the birds to song. 

In an instant, the universe crowds in. I become aware of everything and everyone, plugged so directly into Life, I swear I can feel the blood flowing through my veins and the snap and crackle of synapses firing. My pupils dilate, my skin tingles, and the air becomes electric. I am immersed in pure, exhilarating bliss. 

I’m not sure how long it lasted but it isn’t until I notice Joseph watching me intently from the other end of the pipeline that I realise I have stopped dead in my tracks, and that I am holding my breath. Exhaling, I flash what I hope is a reassuring smile and give him a thumbs up. Then, after taking a deep breath and a final look around, I resume my balancing act across the abyss.

Mtain to Baskinta   Section 15 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Mtain to Baskinta

Section 15 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association