Trekking to unique vistas in Lebanon

Friday 09/10/2015
Superb karst in Jabal Moussa.

Beirut - Looking for a 5-billion-star accommodation? Andre Bishara knows the place. Leading a multinational group of trekkers through the Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve in Mount Lebanon, the ecotour­ism expert followed a trail that led to the top of the hills covered by Lebanon’s emblematic millennium cedar trees.
After walking for hours, the group reached the summit where they had a treat to the eye and the soul. A breathtaking panoramic view of the Bekaa valley to the east and the Mediterranean coastline to the west unfolded in front of their bewildered eyes.
“I have been trekking for the last 30 years. Love of nature has always called me,” said Bishara with a big smile. “I like to share with people the hidden natural beauties of the country and make them under­stand the importance of respecting and protecting such treasures.”
Varied terrain, scenic vistas and historic environs combine to create unique hiking and trekking oppor­tunities in Lebanon, an activity that has become increasingly popular among Lebanese and foreigners in need for a break from Beirut’s con­crete jungle.
The Al Shouf Cedar Reserve, which stretches over 550 sq. kilo­metres at an altitude of 1,200-1,950 metres above sea level, is among Lebanon’s most attractive trekking spots, with highly preserved flora and fauna. Located deep inside the Druze heartland of the Shouf, the area was preserved during the 1975- 90 civil war by the special efforts of Druze leader Walid Jumblat.
Declared a nature reserve in 1996, it is the country’s largest protected environment and only biosphere reserve, containing 500 plant spe­cies, of which 50 are endemic to Lebanon. It also has 2 million trees of 24 species and harbours 200 types of birds, 32 species of mam­mals and 27 species of reptiles.
“I enjoy spending the night out­doors in this 5-billion-star hotel listening to the wind and enjoying a glass of wine to warm me up,” Bishara said while looking at the stars above.
“We have to teach our children how to love, respect and enjoy real values and protect Mother Nature,” he said.
The sky turned orange and then purple as the sun went down be­hind thick clouds over the Medi­terranean. The dim lights of the remote villages in the Valley spar­kled from afar, as the full moon rose from behind the Anti-Lebanon chain of mountains.
Bishara served the trekkers Leba­nese cheese sandwiches and wine before starting the descent to the gate of the reserve. The light of the moon was strong enough to walk without headlamps.
“I am sure that anyone would en­joy this kind of trip. People need to come out of their daily habits and enjoy the simple joys of life,” said Bishara, who established his trek­king company, Great Escape, three years ago.
Jabal Moussa, Arabic for “Moses’ mountain”, is another paradise for nature lovers, located in the Kesr­ouan-Jbeil area north of Beirut. Sur­rounded by two small rivers — Nahr Ibrahim and Nahr Ed-Dahab — Jabal Moussa spans an area of 12 million sq. metres at altitudes of 300-1,600 metres above sea level.
“It is a green island amid the sea of concrete that Lebanon has un­fortunately become,” said Cesar Abi Khalil, co-founder of the reserve and member of the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa.
Trekkers have the choice of six trails with varying steepness, dif­ficulty and distance. “One trail is about a 1-hour walk, another is two hours, whereas the longest, which goes around the mountain, takes up to five or six hours,” Abi Khalil said.
The reserve, which hosts a num­ber of endemic plants and is home to many mammals, including hy­rax, wolves, wild boars and hyenas, is also a sanctuary for migrating birds. Its mascot, “Tabsoun”, is a particular type of castor that is only found there.
A particularly difficult trail starts from the valley and leads up the mountain, following goat tracks that snake through a splendid for­est of oak, pine, wild pear and wild apple trees.
On the way, trekkers can admire the remains of a Roman staircase and inscriptions dating to the sec­ond century AD.
The sanctuary came into being thanks to the personal initiative of Abi Khalil and a group of environ­ment activists led by Pierre Doumit, a wealthy naturalist.
“We won our first fight to pre­serve Jabal Moussa when we suc­ceeded to close down a quarry that had just opened there,” Abi Khalil said. “We then thought that some­thing should be done to prevent other quarries from opening up, so we started buying and renting the terrains from municipalities and the Maronite church, which owned large lots.”
In addition to preserving the ecology, the creation of the reserve attracted more visitors to the area, benefiting the local communities. Many residents turned their homes into guest houses and others into inns where visitors can taste tradi­tional cuisine.
The association also set up a common kitchen where traditional food is sold. “We thought that this would help protect the area. The people should love the jabal in or­der to preserve it,” Abi Khalil said.
The reserve has attracted more than 6,000 visitors in a couple of years. “People are now coming here especially to visit Jabal Moussa, in­jecting some life and economic ac­tivity in the region,” he added.
Entry fees range from $3 for children under 16 to $6 for adults, excluding the charge for having a guide, which is mandatory.
There are many trekking clubs and tour operators that run guided outings throughout Lebanon, rang­ing from leisurely day hikes to long­er multi-day treks.