I’m back from an internet vacation, and filing the next rash of posts under “Summer Break.” First, I was in Lebanon. I know it doesn’t look like work, but trust me, I’m writing a book! Later, we went to Greece and Turkey, where I wrote for a bit, and traipsed for a bit. More on that later.
Near the end of my six-week stint in Lebanon, Peter and I planned to hike a few legs of the Lebanon Mountain Trail, a 260-mile north-south route through about two-thirds of the country.
The LMT organization publishes a trail guide, with descriptions of the route (I picked this up in a Beirut bookshop) as well as a series of topo maps for every leg (these I had to buy direct from the LMT). They provide a list of guesthouses and campsites and guides along the route. It’s really very suavely packaged, and inspires confidence.
But then there’s a line in the trail guide, last on a list of bullet points, after the one telling you it’s a good idea to hire a guide: “We walk this trail every year, and there are no land mines. But off the trail…well…”
Actually, that’s paraphrasing, because I left my trail guide in Beirut. But you get the idea. I sure got the idea: If I were to wander off the trail, who knows what could happen? But I chose to squash down the fear of getting lost and losing my limbs and carry on. Squash, squash, squash.
Because Lebanon is crawling with hikers, all able-bodied, I figured the law of averages was on our side. But I figured it would be better to stick to better-traveled sections of trail, where the chance of getting lost was smaller. (Why didn’t we just hire a guide? you might ask. Well, Peter and I are skilled outdoorspeople who can read topo maps and a compass. But really: We’re introverts and really didn’t feel like chitchatting with a guide all day long.)
I also wanted the start and end points to be places that could be reached by public transport. But I wasn’t so self-sufficient that I wanted to carry camping gear.
The only section that satisfies all these needs–well-marked trail; guesthouses every night; accessible by bus–is legs 19, 20 and 21, between Barouk and Jezzine. A lot of it runs through the Chouf Cedar Reserve, for which there are additional, more current maps available (I picked these up at Antoine in Beirut). This gave me greater confidence in our decision not to hire a guide.
In fact, I got so cocky, I decided we should hike south to north, against the flow of the LMT guide, which describes the route north to south. This turned out to be the least of our worries.
If you’re considering this hike, here are some details to know:
- Hiking south to north is fine. The trail guide is not so detailed that it’s hard to follow the other way. And there were several points on the route (especially hiking down from the Prophet Ayoub shrine to Niha) where we were glad we were going the opposite direction.
- On leg 21, hiking northbound, once you pass the mountain fort, be sure to stock up on water at the spring. Springs marked on the map farther along the trail were not actually springs–or we couldn’t find them. While you’re filling up your water bottles, consult your two maps–the LMT’s and the Chouf Reserve’s. See where they differ, and follow the Chouf Reserve’s. The LMT directs you through a canyon that is overgrown, and we couldn’t find the trail, and had to backtrack, cursing all the way.
- The guesthouse in Niha is great. The owner lost his hands to land mines. It’s unsettling, especially if you get lost on the way there, as we did (but you won’t, because you will have followed my advice above). He also works in the reserve cabin by the mountain fort, which you’ll pass on the way from Jezzine. This is convenient, if you’ve neglected to make reservations.
- From the Prophet Ayoub shrine down to Niha, there is indeed a trail, as the map suggests, though it’s not well marked at the top, and if you ask anyone, they’ll probably tell you it’s not there. It’s not super well maintained. But it is passable. Just head down through the picnic grounds and keep an eye out for trail blazes.
- Leaving Niha and heading north, the maps are contradictory, and the trail description isn’t clear. If you head back to where the shrine trail dumped you the day before, don’t cross the river, and at the first opportunity, scramble uphill a short distance to get to a trail running along the irrigation ditch you can see just up the hillside. Leave early in the day–once the trail heads uphill again, away from the irrigation ditch, it’s pretty grueling.
- We got lost in the last stretch before Maasser ech-Chouf, after Mristi. But we didn’t even realize it because we had convinced ourselves we were following trail blazes, but later realized they were no-trespassing or private-property symbols. The route we went wasn’t terrible, as it’s mostly through fields, and nothing overgrown. There’s another agricultural road a man in Mristi told us about, that goes from near the gas station on the far, far edge of town. Who knows where the real trail is. (Oh, yeah–a professional guide does.)
- The guesthouse in Maasser ech-Chouf is really lovely. The man who runs the shop and restaurant on the plaza is a smooth operator, and he’ll bring you more food than you order, and charge you for it all. But it’s good food, and it’s not expensive, and he’ll probably throw in invigorating herbal concoctions and coffee and sweets and funny hats to wear. Just think of it more as an all-you-can-eat-for-$15 place, rather than an a la carte restaurant.
- The trail north out of Maasser ech-Chouf (ie, south end of leg 19) is…I don’t know. Let’s just say not well marked. This is the one point where we definitely would’ve been happier with a guide. But we were so bent on leaving before the sun got hot that we didn’t want to wait for the guide to get into the office. We wound up scrabbling up a really steep mountainside and flopping out on the road, and having to hitch a ride to the Cedar Reserve entrance. It wasn’t pretty.
- There are no springs between Maasser ech-Chouf and Barouk. But the trail, after the uphill out of Maasser, isn’t strenous, and partially shaded. Plan accordingly.
- There are 800 vicious varieties of thistles in Lebanon. Plan accordingly, with thick socks or long pants.
- The guesthouse in Barouk needs to be booked at least two days in advance, said the owner on the phone, and it was so empty we were suspicious it’s ever open. Humph. But then we hopped a bus to Beiteddine, and walked to Deir al-Qamar, and finally found a hotel that wasn’t exorbitant. (But, it should be said, the owner was a bit appalled at our sweaty appearance–out of context of the hiking trail, we did look like filthy vagrants, by Lebanese uber-grooming standards. Keep this in mind if you plan extensive backpacking.)
Did I mention land mines too much and scare you? I’m sorry–that shouldn’t have happened. The trail is land-mine-free!
I loved hiking in Lebanon–we met nice people and saw millennia-old trees. I’d go back and do it again–I’d love to do some of the more northern legs especially. The Chouf is interesting terrain, and a nice mix of wild territory and farms.
And the efforts of the Lebanon Mountain Trail crew are admirable–it’s an excellent project, and I hope to take part in it again soon.