Friday, October 2, 1998

LebEnv # 58


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

Sunday, June 28, 1998. We started our hike at 10 from a parking area in the uppermost reaches of Bqua'a Sifrine, in North Lebanon east of Tripoli. In front of us was an impossibly steep mountain slope of layered limestone, called Jabal el-Njaas (Pear Mountain). It seemed almost impossible to climb, but there was a rocky trail that zig-zagged up. As we gained elevation, we had a bird's eye view of the Sir area. It consisted of a complex of valleys covered with terraced fruit orchards and numerous villages. Unfortunately, some of the villages, especially the ones closer to Tripoli, have been spoiled in recent years by a profusion of ugly, multi-story apartment buildings. After a climb of roughly 300 meters, the mountain abruptly flattened out to a shallow drainage planted with wheat and sprinkled with occasional trees. The trail met a dirt road at a pass that offered a view to the southeast: a succession of shallow valleys and higher mountains, some still covered with patches of snow, reaching towards Qornet el-Sawda, the highest point in Lebanon, which itself was not visible. In the middle of the barren panorama was a little-known grove of Cedars of Lebanon. According to one of the hikers familiar with the area, the grove had suffered from vandalism in the past. Nearby was an old stone house.

Following the dirt road, we doubled back to the north above the valley planted with wheat until we were back at the edge of the steep mountain. The road became a trail as we hiked on a narrow ledge following one of the limestone layers; below us was a drop off of a few hundred meters, and above us was the rest of the cliff. We arrived at a spring flowing out of the side of the mountain; a shepherd was tending his goats. Unfortunately, there was also a man with a machine gun and three kids talking about their illegal exploits in bird hunting. The place was littered with the remains of food. The gunman and another person carried a barbecue with them. We continued on the ledge until it ended suddenly and we were back in hilly country. A Range Rover was parked at a road end; it belonged to the gun-toting man.

I looked back around the other side of the mountain and saw the old stone house. We could have come that shorter way, but the cliff was much more interesting. From here on was a gradual uphill climb through shallow drainages planted with wheat; we passed a couple of shallow sinkholes. Fog moved in, cooling the weather and creating a surreal scene. We were never too far from the edge, and at one point we took a break on top of the cliff where the fog rode the chilly breeze coming from below. We descended a small valley heading south and, after a break in the shade of old oak trees, arrived at a miniature flat plain planted with various crops. On the rocky slopes overlooking it were a few houses belonging to the farmers and even what looked like a little abandoned hamlet, its stone houses barely visible against the barren, rocky background. We walked on a dirt road, which zig-zagged up and took us through an area that was being converted to agriculture. Knowing that we were perched on top of a steep mountain, the whole area had the feel of an isolated Shangri-La.

Abruptly, it was over as we dropped off the edge of the settled area down a very steep trail similar to the one we had climbed up from Bqua'a Sifrine. Looking west, we had a view of the fog-shrouded near-vertical ridges of Jabal el-Njaas. The steep decent ended in the upper reaches of the fruit orchards filling the valleys below. We followed a small concrete irrigation canal east to a new dirt road, on which we continued. In front of us was a panorama like nowhere else in Lebanon. The barren mountains rising vertically above scree slopes (slopes of rock accumulated in drainages from above) and the large waterfall in the distance seemed like they belonged more in the Alps or Rocky Mountains. The very dusty dirt road took us towards the waterfalls of Naba'a el-Sukkar (Sugar Spring), which we then descended to. We dipped our feet (briefly) in the ice-cold stream below the falls and ate lunch.

The water made its way through a fluted gorge before falling over the cliff; to the side were several smaller waterfalls coming out of the soil on top of the cliff. Something did not seem natural here. The hiker familiar with the area from touring it with locals told me that in the past, the water used to come out of the top of the huge mountains above us, creating a spectacular waterfall hundreds of meters tall. A few years ago, vandals had blown up the base of the mountain with a huge amount of dynamite. This had changed the underlying geology, and the water now went through the mountain before emerging above the waterfalls we were looking at. A huge amount of rock and soil had washed down; below the present waterfall, the valley was choked with a barren, deep layer of rock and soil. (This was similar to a much-publicized mining disaster in Arizona where mine tailings had burst from too much rain, damaging a stream below that the mining company had to clean up.) The area between the base of the cliffs and the waterfall was so badly eroded it almost looked like a mining area. The other hiker and I climbed around to the top of the waterfall; the soil was unstable and had deep fissures resulting from the recent erosion.

This act of sabotage took place AFTER the end of the war and can only be referred to as environmental terrorism, part of what seems to be an ongoing conspiracy to destroy Lebanon. Residents of the area had been extremely upset after the disaster. In addition, the road we had hiked on to get here, along with others, seemed to serve no purpose other than to scar the base of the mountain and only facilitated access for the za'aran (thugs).

We backtracked on the dirt road and continued west on a strange, deep, verdant trail formed by a pipe-building project. It merged with a covered canal running east-to-west on the steep side of Jabal el-Njaas. It was an easy hike, allowing us to enjoy the aerial view of the green orchard-saturated valleys below. Several mosques echoed back and forth in the late, hazy afternoon. Our mountain was covered with a sparse forest of cypress, relatively uncommon in Lebanon, especially in the areas most of us are familiar with nearer to Beirut.

We were back at the cars at 5. The trip back to Beirut was interrupted by a mandatory stop at the famous Abdul-Rahman Hallab sweet shop in Tripoli.

I later got to see an aerial photo of North Lebanon. Mount Lebanon consists of a long ridge that runs south-to-north, with relatively gradual changes in elevation. At Jabal el-Njaas, it ends abruptly and dramatically, as if it had been chopped off, and drops into lower elevations and continues as lower hills to Syria.

The "Club de Vieux Sentiers" hikes are announced in L'Orient-Le Jour paper (usually on Wednesday or Thursday). The group always meets in Antelias on Sundays at 7:30 a.m. for most hikes, 7:00 a.m. for long or distant ones. For more info, call Joyce Tombi at (01) 443753. (You don't need to dial the area code from within Beirut.)

Fareed Abou-Haidar

Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at



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