Friday, October 3, 1997

LebEnv #38


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

After three installments of often-depressing material about rock quarries in Lebanon, it's time for a break! Let's go on another hike. This hike took place during an educational camp organized by the environmental group The Friends of Nature in the remote village of Lassa, across the Nahr Ibrahim gorge from Qartaba.

Sunday, September 2, 1984 was the day I was looking forward to the most on this camping trip. The Friends of Nature, led by Ricardus Haber, regularly went on day hikes, but I had been unable to participate because of transportation problems across the Green Line; thus this was a unique chance to hike with them and discover a remote area of Lebanon. I started the day by taking pictures of Qartaba and the mountains bathed in early-morning golden sunshine.

After breakfast, we headed west across small cultivated fields and into evergreen oak forests. We walked across a rather level pasture of golden grasses up to a gray cliff overlooking the deep, narrow Nahr Ibrahim (Adonis) gorge. We took a long break where my camera feasted on the virtually unspoiled landscape (in Lebanon!) while Ricardo lectured on the area. After the break, we continued west for a short distance before beginning a descent through a forest of pine and oak trees down into the gorge. We paused at a small pass offering another view of the gorge. It was there that "disaster" struck; the metal loop of the canteen, dangling from the pack, snapped. I would have to carry it by hand the rest of the hike. The rest of the descent took us on an extremely steep trail straight down to the river near the village of Janneh (Paradise). We followed the river upstream (east) past a big group of people partying in a clump of trees. A few minutes later, there was a burst of very loud machine gun fire from their direction. Once more, as I had done countless times before, all I could do was hope the bullets would find somewhere else to land. So much for Paradise! (This was lawless war-time Lebanon. Incredibly, the same thing happens in peacetime America where people go out on public lands and shoot all kinds of dangerous weapons for the fun of it. And it's legal!)

The river, isolated from roads, offered an almost unspoiled experience. Large sycamore trees lined most of the banks of the flowing river, although a few in some parts had been cut and hauled out (presumably on donkey-back). We had a lunch break on the smooth, rounded rocks where we admired one old tree that clung to life by having its roots wrapped around rocks. We crossed a couple of small cultivated fields, but even here our feeling of isolation was maintained by the steep, smooth-faced cliffs.

The hike involved several river crossings. I took advantage of these to take pictures of cool, refreshing shaded spots. Someone else was not so lucky; he lost his footing and fell into the water. His camera, dangling from his neck (just like mine), was dunked. The electronics went dead and the film was ruined. (I later learned that he was able to save the camera).

The scenery continued to change as we continued our upriver hike. On one limestone cliff was what looked like a cave. Ahead of us, a narrow cliff towered from the middle of the floor of the gorge. At this point, we gained some elevation, and as we hiked along it, we realized that there was a natural window in it, mostly still blocked by a large rock that would someday fall out. At one place, a cliff rose like a wall straight out of the water, even leaning over it. A small canal about 30 cm wide carried irrigation water along its base.

At one point, the decision was finally made to hike out of the gorge, basically because we were running out of drinking water in this surprisingly hot weather. (As pure as it looked, we did not trust the river water.) We would get some from the small village of Hdaine above. The steep hike out involved some especially nasty bushwhacking through dense evergreen oak growth. We caught our breath at a rocky ledge, part of the same rim geology where we had gotten our initial view of the inner gorge in the morning. The spot gave us a view of the side gorge in which the river flowed from Afqua Spring in the famous huge cave; beyond was a steep, layered mountain. We went to the nearest house in the village. A woman sitting on a patio overflowing with plants invited us into her modest but clean house so we could fill up our canteens with cool, fresh water. After a short visit, we moved on.

We were now on the wrong side of the valley. To get back to "our" side, we crossed the northern tributary of Nahr Ibrahim flowing from Aqoura, and continued south. This took us through some cherry orchards. These were being expanded, as evidenced by large areas of barren ground. There, we had a long, unscheduled break as Ricardo hiked around to scout a route; for a moment, we thought he had lost his way. Eventually, we found our way through the obstacle presented by the cliffs and made our way upstream along the Afqua tributary flowing from the south. We stayed more or less level and let the river meet us upstream; that occurred at a point where the water cascaded down the rocks into a pool of clear water somewhere below the village of Ghabat. We took a long break that allowed me to fling off my hot shoes and treat my feet to the wonderful water.

We crossed the stream to "our" side and made our way up to the rim. We followed a dirt road for a while before taking another break at a junction. The other road lead down toward the rim. Despite our fatigue, a few of us, including me, took a side trip down the road to the cliffs. There, we were treated to a magnificent bird's-eye view of the confluence of the Aqoura and Afqua tributaries, and the dense trees growing below a vertical rock wall there. Over to the right, a huge reddish wall of rock dwarfed a small chapel perched at the top.

The rest of the hike back to Lassa took us on a road through the village of Sariita. We passed a ruined old Lebanese house. A steep road lead us by the church. We approached Lassa from the east and arrived at camp at around 7 p.m.

We were tired and dirty, and in dire need of a refreshing shower. We took turns at the two or three improvised shower stalls. Only it was too refreshing; the screams of anguish could be heard almost across the valley to Qartaba.

Friends of Nature is one of the older environmental organizations, established on Tree Day (Arbor Day) in 1972 and one that was able to remain active during much of the war. It seeks to educate the public about environmental problems and gives lectures with slide shows in schools. Hikes are often organized. In the past, it has stressed the problems of marine pollution and dirty beaches, garbage, bird hunting, deforestation, urban sprawl and the loss of the countryside, rock quarries... Through courageous sit-ins during the war, it succeeded in preventing the building of new rock quarries in Nahr Ibrahim gorge. Contact Ricardus M. Haber, P.O. Box 967, Jounieh, Lebanon. Tel. and Fax 00961-9-220665 and 00961-3-668864. They have a web site in the works.

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



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