Today, I’m reminded that however fit I think I am becoming, walking Lebanon’s mountains can still be exhausting.
Our trail, which leads us from Horsh Ehden to Bqaa Safrine is what my Granny, had she been the kind of woman prone to expletives, might have described as ‘fucking knackering’.
The 25 kilometre walk, which rises a total of 1000m and loses a total of 1450m, winds across the uplands along treacherously rocky, ankle-turning trails and to add to our woes, not only is the trail fairly dry in terms of freshwater springs, it’s also fairly exposed and the day is blazingly hot.
What we get in exchange, however, is a sense of complete isolation, and god-like views across the whole of northern Lebanon and a significant sweep of the Syrian coast all the way to Tartus.
Up here, we’re in juniper country and these slow-growing beauties, the few that have survived being turned into houses or firewood, anyway, are gnarled, ancient and, in Lebanese terms, quite massive. As we crunch across the dried berries that carpet the ground beneath them, the air fills with an intoxicating, if mildly medicinal smell that immediately reminds me of gin.
After the lush, flower-filled meadows and shady cedar and oak groves of the Ehden Reserve, the stark landscapes of the jurd, seem rather lifeless; rolling hills, rocky outcrops and scattered (and thorny) bushes. To survive up here, an area used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, as grazing land for vast fleets of goats, nature’s little omnivore, locusts in horned form, you have to be tough.
In the mountains of Btellaya, just after we’ve passed out of the boundaries of the reserve, we come across our first spring and the rather curious Mgharet el-Hawa, the Cave of the Winds, named for the ice-cold draft of air that blows out of it all year long. For the most part, Mount Lebanon is a massive slab of limestone and as most limestone often is, it is riddled with caves, crevices and cracks. This one, a rather small affair that barely deserves to be called a cave, is linked to a similar opening on the far side of Mount Lebanon, which funnels wind blowing across the Beka’a Valley through the mountain and to the coastal side, cooling it in the process. The draft is surprisingly powerful, even though the air is quite still - well, it is on this side of the mountains – but it is very cold. It’s as though we’ve stepped in front of a natural air-conditioner, which in a way, I suppose we have. It feels so good, that I stand in front of it until my teeth start to chatter.
Not far away, we come across what I take at first to be the ruins of some ancient dwelling. It turns out to be a goat farm, at least during season, but at the moment, it’s still deserted. The farm is known for its yoghurty ambarees, which is curdled in large ceramic pots. It’s one of the few places in Lebanon that still makes the cheese, for despite being one of the oldest kinds of cheese in the world, ambarees is endangered, which is pity given how delicious it is, but tastes have apparently changed and so, like so many other living artefacts (glass-blowing in Sarafand, pottery-making in Rashaya al-Fawkhar), it runs the risk of dying out, and bringing to an end in our lifetimes a chain of production that stretches back thousands of years.
The farm is a curious affair. With few windows and no visible door, it’s more wall than home, and it sits atop an outcrop, roof and walls covered defensively in thorny branches. It doesn’t look like anywhere I’ve seen before, in fact, it reminds me more of the archaic antler and horn-clad buildings of Nepal’s Upper Mustang Valley than it does of Lebanon. Like the cheese its owners come here each summer to make, it looks unspeakably, unimaginably ancient and possibly haunted. The kind of place that superstitious travellers might utter a protective prayer while passing.
It isn’t the only structure up here, though. Robin points to a suspiciously flat hilltop in the distance and tells us that what we can see is the site of a Roman outpost, somewhat inexplicably known as the Aisha Fortress, though who Aisha might be and why a Roman outpost would be named after her, no one seems to know. The part of the jurd affords strategic views and has plenty of water, which explains the outpost and why today, the high-altitude meadows are home to itinerant farmworkers, gypsy rather than Bedouin, who also roam across the Levant, moving with the seasons. It also explains why later we encounter a section of Roman road and find evidence of Roman waterworks, a massive stone-cut reservoir and the remains of an old village near a grove of absolutely gigantic oak trees and slender cypress above the village of Douraiya.
With Bqaa Safrine now not too far off, I get a second wind. When we finally limp in to our destination for the night, I cannot remember ever feeling quite so tired, but the delicious smells emanating from the kitchen and a brutally-powerful shower revive me sufficiently that I am able to acquit myself magnificently at dinner.
The following morning, for the first time in a long time, I am in pain.
And a little sunburnt, as I had sweated profusely and been lax about reapplying sunscreen.
As usual, our day begins with a climb. Our destination tonight is the former mountain resort town of Sir el-Denniyeh, which had its heyday in the middle of the last century. We won’t be walking the whole way, though, as it’s too far off the trail. Instead, we’ll stop at Kfarbnine and be bussed from the end of the trail to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and then back to the trailhead again the following day. Family accommodation is difficult to find in these parts, apparently, and so we’ll be staying at an old Deco resort, which was very popular in the 1920’s and 30’s.
Initially, the trail isn’t too bad, there’s a great deal more tree cover today and with high clouds, it isn’t as hot but the trail quickly becomes difficult and it isn’t long before I am sweating profusely again.
Given that the tallest mountain in Lebanon is now several days behind us and that the chain dissolves into foothills once it enters Syria, which is not that far away, I’d expected the scenery here to be pretty rather than spectacular, but it turns out that Akkar, the region where we are now walking, is one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
I get the first intimation that my expectations are about to be overturned as we sweat our way around the side of an otherwise unassuming mountain along a steep and very rocky trail, when we turn a corner and are treated to the kind of view I didn't think existed Lebanon.
A magnificently wild-looking mountain appears. At the top of a boulder-strewn scree slope down which tumbles, gushes and roars, the snowmelt swollen waters of the Naba Sukkar (Sugar Spring), Ijra al-Qa’alat as the craggy, weathered massif is called, is a far cry from the gently rolling heights of the rest of Mount Lebanon and reaches through the clouds, crenellations thrust into the heavens. Though not especially high by Lebanese standards, from where we are standing, it towers above us, a sheer, indomitable slab of stone.
There are massive natural rock formations on a rise about halfway up the mountains, and whether it was the mist wreathing the peaks, the roar of the river as it splashed down the slope or the triggering of some long-dormant racial memory hardwired into my genes, my heart caught in my throat. Wild and untamed, the mountain radiated a powerful pagan presence, an aura of holiness, that is so palpable, I’m surprised I haven’t yet fallen to my knees.
As we climb, the sound of water makes the air vibrate and the clouds begin to roll in, sweeping up the valley and completely obscuring the view. Slowly, we to disappear into the mist, until we are each walking in our own private world.
I feel the old gods watching. Their presence is tangible here, an area that perhaps is too high and too remote for the coruscating power of monotheism to reach, and through the shifting mists, some of the rocks begin to look like unworthy travellers turned to stone by vengeful gods.
I’m not the only one to have experienced that vibe, for I later learn that there's a Roman temple up there somewhere, probably built on much older Phoenician remains and as by and large, the Phoenicians tended to stick to the coast, they must have found something special about this place. This was some Levantine Olympus, perhaps and had the mists parted to reveal Ares dallying with Demeter or Hadad getting saucy with Shala, I wouldn't have been entirely surprised.
The spell is broken as I hear what can only be the swoosh of a passing car. There’s a brand new road up here, gods dammit, which connects the Beka’a with the Denniyeh region and Tripoli. It's infrequently used and already crumbling, probably some White Elephant project, or perhaps a way for the Shiite fundamentalists of Hezbollah, who are strong on the other side of the mountain, to keep an eye on the Sunni fundamentalists that Akkar now has a reputation for producing.
Whatever the reason, the road has also permitted local youths to access areas they could not easily reach before and as we draw up to them, I see that those massive, ghostly stone pillars are covered in ugly graffiti. My heart breaks slightly, although on such a day, even this mindless intrusion of modernity – if mindless declarations of love and sad political sloganeering counts as such – cannot detract from the incredible power of this place.
The clouds have now truly closed in. I can barely see more than a metre or two ahead. I’m almost on top of Robin before I see him standing by the side of the trail, pointing down the scree slope towards the river, which we’ll need to cross to carry on.
In the summer, this would be a simple proposition but fattened by melting snow, the river, though not wide, is a raging torrent. Falling in would not only get you wet, it might also lead to being swept over one of the dozens of small waterfalls, some of which are not that small, along its course.
We stop at a point where the water is more shallow and hunt around for suitable rocks to throw into the river, to form a makeshift bridge. With all of us engaged, we soon manage to get enough in place to hop carefully across, and Joseph strings a rope across, so that no one slips and falls. It's a moment of slight drama but eventually, we get across safely. As we wait for everyone to cross, we squat beside a concrete water channel that is so steep and so fast flowing, it looks more like a slide at an aquapark than an irrigation channel.
From there, we thread our way carefully through the boulders, across the scree, slipping and occasionally sliding, sending showers of pebbles tumbling down the mountainside. Just when it feels like we may never be warm again, we finally break through the clouds, and in an instant, warmth returns to the world.
Unfortunately, we exit right beside a massive new highway, still under construction, which is apparently also going over the mountains to the Beka’a. Quite how many fucking roads an area this sparsely populated needs is anyone's guess but official disdain for nature means that roads like this are being carved unceremoniously through the mountains all over the country, utterly destroying the places they pass through.
We eat lunch there, perched on top of a large outcrop that has somehow managed to survive being razed. Curiously untouched, it is covered in trees and flowers and birds flit between the branches. It was a lovely, if cruel reminder of what had so recently been lost and while life on the outcrop continued much as it had since the beginning of time, it is obvious that once the highway opens, any lingering magic will quickly wither in clouds of fumes, birdsong replaced by impatient honking, so that no one passing this place in the future will ever suspect the beauty that once had been.
Beside the outcrop, which commands sweeping views of the uplands of Denniyeh far below us, the track drops steeply through lush fields and follows beside the concrete watercourse we saw earlier, which here snakes along the side of a cliff. We walk beside it and on it in places where there is no room to walk beside, and it isn’t always easy to keep from falling in. Winding around the cliffs, the channel flows past terraced orchards in full bloom and soon civilisation, in the form of the fragrant village of Kfarbnine, comes into view.
It’s by far the poorest place we have walked through so far, a reminder of just how overlooked, underdeveloped and underserved the Denniyeh region has always been and the reason why when the fundamentalists washed up here in the 80s, they found such fertile ground for their divisive ideology.
Though Kfarbnine is desperately in need of development, its inhabitants are warm and welcoming. Those that remain, anyway, for there are a noticeable number of empty and abandoned houses. This is where we are due to stop for the day and as we wait in what passes for the village square for the bus to arrive, a carload of bearded, robed fundamentalists (all with the shaved upper lip and prominent prayer marks on their foreheads that the Egyptians call ‘zabib’ or ‘raisins’) drives past, then stops for a closer look, possibly because all of us, including the women, are wearing t-shirts and most of us are in shorts.
With a glare, they drive off in a car that looks far too expensive for these parts, towards the gleaming (but sadly unattractive) new mosque on the edge of town, which apart from the municipality, is probably, the nicest building in town. It’s certainly the largest and while it may have been funded by local emigrants, from the looks of it, it’s probably a gift from one of the Gulf Countries, possibly even the same country that funded the nice car the dour gentlemen were driving earlier. Looking around, I can’t help thinking that of all the things Kfarbnine needs, a big new mosque probably isn’t at the top of the list, but then who needs jobs, running water, 24-hour electricity or even a comfortable home when you have somewhere shiny to go and submit your complaints to God?