For hundreds of years, travelers have criss-crossed Lebanon’s mountains and valleys in search of ancient mysteries and hidden treasures, or just to marvel at their majestic splendor. From Alexander Kinglake and Lady Hester in the mid-19th century, to H. V. Morton and Colin Thubron a century later, the mountains of Lebanon have held an allure for many intrepid travelers.
It was Thubron’s book, The Hills of Adonis, that first led me to discover the Lebanese mountains. His four-month journey, which began just prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, is no typical travel journal. Rather, he weaves an intricate story which looks at the terrain, the people, the myths and legends that once dominated this land. His ultimate mission was to discover the cult of Adonis.
The first time I read Thubron’s book I wanted to retrace his exact footsteps and see for myself the country he describes. Unfortunately, I read Adonis 30 years too late and much of the landscape he depicted had already been altered beyond recognition, a casualty of 15 years of civil war and the Israeli occupation of the south. However, that did not stop me from pursuing my quest to explore the country. Fearful of walking over an unsuspecting mine field or stumbling onto a restricted military area, I joined Libantrek, a local hiking group founded by one of Lebanon’s ecotourism pioneers, Michel Moufarrij. Moufarrij showed me a side of Lebanon I thought did not exist anymore and he introduced me to the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), the first long distance trekking trail in the Arab world.
The LMT is more than just a long distance path; it is a journey through the heart and soul of Lebanon. Beginning in Al Qbaiyat in the north, the trail makes its way through the interior of the country until it reaches Marjaayoun in the south. The total length of Lebanon is only 225 kilometers, but the trail is almost twice as long, climbing its way over mountains and descending into deep valleys. The trail, conceived by a group of non-partisan Lebanese, provides a rare view of the heartland rarely visited by outsiders. This group, which includes Moufarrij, broke down sectarian barriers and called themselves environmentalists. Now, their sole purpose is to develop ecotourism in economically depressed rural areas of Lebanon. Lebanese and foreign tourists who walk the trail are encouraged to use local guides and stay in local rest houses and designated family homes, as well as buy and eat local products along the way. As the villagers view the LMT as a source of income, they are expected to look after the trail and protect the natural environment in their area.
In April, I was invited to be part of a six-person team which was to be the first to walk the entire 440 kilometer trail. On April 2, the group set out on what can best be described as a journey of a lifetime. For the entire month we traversed the length of Lebanon, eating and sleeping in local homes and guest houses. As a way to promote the trail the LMT Association, the organization behind the trail, encouraged others who wanted to enjoy part of the experience to join us during weekends and holidays. Overall, the journey was a magical experience for all those involved. We walked through parts of the country that we didn’t imagine existed in Lebanon.
There was also a downside to this experience. It was impossible for us to overlook the garbage dumps, illegal rock and sand quarries and ugly unfinished cement structures that dotted the breathtaking landscape, leaving irreversible scars. No matter how hard we tried to ignore these eyesores, it was difficult because of the extent of the damage.
Lebanon is a tiny country that has so much to offer for the outdoor enthusiast. The old cliché that Lebanon is a country where you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon still holds true today as it did a generation ago. However, Lebanon’s size may one day prove to be its demise. Since it is so small, the harm done to the environment has a far greater impact and thus a longer lasting effect. It is imperative now for the Lebanese government to take the lead and implement laws to protect the environment. In order to do so, authorities will need to establish and train special teams in charge of environmental protection. Of course, public awareness campaigns should be launched to educate the public. However, as long as no punitive action is taken, these campaigns will land on deaf ears.
Since independence in 1943, Lebanon, its people and the land have been through a great deal of turmoil and suffering. It is one thing to have stopped the fighting, but it is a whole other issue to repair the damage. On the human level, there are still raw scars that need healing, but there are some efforts to avoid provoking new ones. On the environmental front, however, it is as if the civil war has never stopped.
Norbert schiller is a Dubai-based photo-journalist and writer