After one of the most magnificent dinners we’ve had on the trail to date - amongst the cornucopia of dishes is a salad made from an edible leaf that only grows in Qemmamine - I tumble contentedly into bed.
As we entered the village that afternoon, I’d noticed the village’s two large mosques with trepidation, fearing that the dawn adhan would echo so loudly off the surrounding mountains that I’d be jolted awake, whether I sought to make prayers or not. I needn’t have worried. I was either too tired, or else the good folk of Qemmamine haven’t succumbed the curse of the cities, where every mosque appears engaged in a competition to see which can be the loudest, for my sleep was deep and uninterrupted.
Thankfully. With a mammoth trek ahead of us today, it needed to be, as we’ll be covering two sections of the trail in one go. Consequently, we’re taking a slight detour from the standard route and rather than wind all the way around on a flatter but much longer trail, we’re going to follow an old shepherd’s path straight up Wadi al-Jahannam, the Valley of Hell.
But first of all, we needed to cross the Nahr el-Bared. Aptly named, the Cold River is best known these days for the Palestinian refugee camp down on the coast that is named after it. Or was named after it. In 2007, an ‘Islamist’ uprising led to a 5-month battle with the Lebanese Army during which the entire camp was flattened. Many of the fighters, who were widely believed to have been armed and encouraged by Syria, as part of its attempt to ‘prove’ that an unoccupied Lebanon would always be dangerously unstable, fled upstream into the mountains above Sir el-Denniyeh, compounding the area’s already unfortunate reputation.
Here though, the rushing, tumbling Bared River has yet to pick up such unfortunate connotations, and as we cross over a tributary, which cascades from above in a series of falls and rapids, I notice that some enterprising soul has placed an old chair on a rock in the middle of the stream, the perfect place come the summer, to sit and quite literally chill.
We reach the main body of the river a little further up and walk upstream until we find a rock shelf where the icy water is fast-flowing, but shallow enough to ford. Taking off our socks and boots and socks, we roll up our trouser legs and wade to the other side. Then, we prepare to enter the Valley of Hell.
Lebanon isn’t short on strangely named valleys. There’s Skull Valley, for example, which was the site of an ancient battle. There’s also Dog Valley, which the Greeks named the Lycus, or Wolf Valley, for the howling sound the wind made when it blew down it in the winter. But why should a valley be known as Hell when it’s as close to Paradise as it gets? When we were briefed on our route, I did ask how it ended up with such an ominous name, but no one seemed to know. It’s only when we begin to walk up it that I come to I understand. Steep, torturous and taxing, hiking here is going to be, well, Hell.
Perhaps because we are not following the proper trail, Joseph looses his way a couple of times. For a while, we balance along the edge of a small water channel, which he thinks will take us back to the goat track we had been following, but this only strands us in thick, thorny undergrowth, through which we are forced to hack our way forward. After much scratching and cursing, he spots the track, but it is now a hundred metres or so above us and the only way up means climbing along a visibly unstable rock-fall.
Somehow, we manage not to die and from here onwards, the path is clear, worn into the earth by thousands of tiny hoofs. It’s still tricky though and climbs steeply, crossing numerous streams, though these are narrow enough to balance our way across using submerged rocks.
Crumbling jal, the stone terracing used all over Lebanon, begin to appear. There’s no telling how old these particular terraces are. They look ancient, but untended, they decay quickly, so they could be a couple of decades old. The oldest found so far in the country, up in the hills above Byblos, date back almost 12,000 years.
Usually, jal are built near farms and sure enough, a little further along, we arrive at a dilapidated, windowless stone home that from the looks of it, is still used part of the year. There’s a small beaten earth terrace in front, under the shade of a massive pine tree, which protrudes into the sheer drop down to the river below. It’s a beautiful place to stop for a quick snack, and I sit on the edge of the terrace, dangling my legs over the edge, eyes closed as the light through the branches plays across my upturned face.
From here, the only way is up. We’re now high enough that we’re able to see the mountains we walked past yesterday, peeking over the valley walls. The climb is relentless, and taxing but just as it seems like it will go on forever, we reach the bottom of a pass, which is being used as farmland.
There’s a spring ahead, and with water running low, we walk in its direction. Arriving, we’re greeted by a truckload of sullen teenagers, armed with guns and a Kalashnikov. They grimace sourly when they see us. They’ve also come to the spring for water, and several massive 200-litre barrels sit in the back of the truck. After a brief discussion, they somewhat reluctantly agree to let us fill up our tiny canteens first. their attitude strikes me as odd. The Lebanese are not normally so ungracious, especially not in the countryside, but perhaps being teenagers, this is the best they can manage. Our paragons of adolescent grace must be out hunting for more than water, given their guns, unless filling up at a spring is a perilous pursuit in Hell Valley.
At the very top of the pass, we reach a cluster of houses, most of which look like they were last lived in during the 1950s. There’s a man sat on one of the porches, and he gets up as Joseph walks over to greet him. It seems he’s to be our local guide for the day. Sensibly, he’s decided to meet us at the top of the valley, rather than endure the hike up from Qemmamine. Having just finished that Trail of Tears, I feel mildly short-changed. Should guides not suffer, too? Still, as he’s waiting patiently with with coffee and chocolate biscuits, I decide to cultivate charity towards him. Besides, it’s time for lunch, and I’ve always found it difficult to maintain resentment in the face of food.
Peeling off in search of shade and tree trunks and rocks to lean against, our lunch is accompanied by the delicate staccato of machine-gun fire and the pop, pop, popping of hunting rifles. The Lost Boys have found something to shoot after all. Tucking into a deliciously toasted Akkawi cheese and salad wrap, to which I added a handful of walnuts and pomegranate seeds that morning, I chew contentedly and hope that what they have found to shoot is each other.
Already feeling like I’ve walked the length of Lebanon, I ask Robin how much further we have to go and instantly feel like a child in the back of a car on a long ride. He pulls out a map and indicates where we were, are and where we’re going. Despite our strenuous hike through Hell, we’re barely a quarter of the way.
Fortunately, the trail from here onwards is much more even and after a final climb, which takes us up to an overhang above a field full of boulders, the trail begins to descend, as it will for the rest of the day. Even more fortunately, the trail is beautiful, which always makes walking a pleasure.
Towards mid-afternoon, we arrive on the edge of a wide, high-altitude plateau known as the Sahel al-Qammoua, an area of farmlands and grassy plains, surrounded by thickly forested hills covered in fir, cedar, juniper and Shouf trees, behind which the occasional snowy peak can be seen. It’s all so pastoral (and pastural), that were we to pass a herd of little blonde girls in pigtails and dirndls, snacking on Toblerones, I probably would not have blinked.
But it seems we are the only extraordinary sight to be had today. Just before the Sahel begins in earnest, we reach a wide and fairly busy road, and from the way the passers-by gawk at us, we must look like we’ve fallen from the stars. Perhaps they aren’t used to seeing hikers up here. Perhaps it's the women in tank tops. Perhaps it’s my ridiculously floppy hat or neon green technical shirt. What ever it is, we’re causing a scene. For the first time in Lebanon I am confronted by drivers slowing down to stare - or rather to stare at people, because Lebanese drivers slow down to stare at accidents all the time - but as a most of them sport the same bushy beards we saw down in Sir el-Denniyeh, we probably do look like aliens, and anyway, the gawking is mutual.
It takes about an hour to reach the far end of the Sahel, by which time I’m exhausted. I’m also loath to leave. Qammoua is transcendentally beautiful, lush and green, it really does look more Alpine than Levantine. It also marks the end of high country, for while the mountains do continue north and into Syria, they do so at a much lower altitude.
Just before we reach the end of the plateau, we spot a family camped out in the rocks to one side. From their set-up, they’ve been there for a while, living, rather than camping, which makes me wonder if they are Syrian refugees. Sahel el-Qammoua might not be convenient, but it is lovely. And quiet. Especially compared to a war zone, so I wouldn’t blame them, if they are.
We push through some trees and suddenly, Mount Lebanon stops as we reach a dramatic cliff. Two hundred metres below us, the soaring mountains we have been walking through for the last for the last 27 days reappear as a froth of foothills that ripple north and across the border into Syria.
We arrive at this Lebanese World’s End shortly before sunset. The land below is wrapped in mist and shadow and the hills roll off into the distance for as far as the eye can see. Once again, the entire Eastern Mediterranean lies at our feet. It seems like we ought be able to see the sea, but we are a bit too far inland, not quite high enough up, or there is too much mist, for the Mediterranean is not visible.
What we can see, though, is glorious. And so as the air turns to honey and the colours polarise, we stop to enjoy Golden Hour, even though we are still five kilometres from our beds for the night.
Tired feet and aching muscles are momentarily forgotten as we sit on boulders facing the sunset. A gentle breeze whispers through the trees. It is quiet, up here. The only sounds are birdsong and the faint peal of church bells mingled with the muezzin’s call.
Sitting cross-legged, I close my eyes. The end is literally in sight, and soon my trek will be over. I wonder what it will be like to return to Beirut, to everyday life, to not have my day laid out in front of me, to trade the simplicity of placing one foot in front of another for the necessities of rustling up commissions, going to the shops, cleaning the house, to give up the ever-changing panoramas of this last month for the flicker of a computer screen and the view out of my home office window.
The sun is in my face, shining warm and red through my eyelids. I breathe it in, letting the light flow into my veins and wash around my body. Pushing conscious thought away, I sway slightly as Nature crowds back around me. Beneath my hands, the rock softens and a connection is made, the earth and I become not quite one, but no longer entirely two, either.
The moment is perfect. Balanced, powerful, peaceful. Adrift in such splendour, such belonging, I find myself struggling to believe that somewhere down there in the shadows of the indigo-coloured foothills on the far side of the Syrian border, a nation is at a war.