Friday, January 15, 1999

LebEnv #65


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

When I went to Lebanon last June, I hoped that I would be able to visit the cedar forest known as Horsh Ehden. I had not even known of its existence during my life in Lebanon; it was revealed to me when it was officially declared a nature preserve soon after the end of the war. Thanks to the vigil of area residents, the forest escaped the war largely intact.

As it turned out, I was in luck! The Club de Vieux Sentiers organized a hike there on Sunday, June 14, 1998. From the large town of Ehden, we drove on a road that took us around to the north side of the mountain on which Ehden sits. To the east was a dense forest of pine and oak trees covering a rounded mountainside, Qornet es-Snauber. We parked next to a large cliff and a proliferation of wildflowers and, at around 10:15, continued east on the road on foot. From a small restaurant, we hiked up a trail in a drainage full of trees. The rich variety of trees was immediately apparent. Just as startling was the lush undergrowth and the rich organic matter covering the ground, no doubt a result of freedom from grazing by goats. Here and there were a few relatively young cedars of Lebanon.

We topped out on a flat area and beheld an amazing view of cedar-covered mountains. We headed in that direction, descending down the narrow foot trail to an old dirt road. (No cars are allowed.) We stopped at a spring next to an old sycamore tree for some clean water (nobody lives above it) and a long break. Here was a sign informing visitors of banned activities. The whole preserve, I would find out, was immaculate. The only litter I found was one old shotgun shell that I picked up. The view from here was of hundreds of cedar trees descending into the valley and covering nearby hilltops. The distinctive horizontal layering of branches, multiplied hundreds of times, produced a unique visual effect.

We left the road and took another trail higher into the forest. The trail rounded a drainage, leveled out and followed the contour of the mountain, passing by some huge cedars. I was amazed to find feces on the ground. In other countries, this would be taken for granted. Here, it meant that there was wildlife, unseen by us, roaming the area. Here, in Lebanon! Here, where wildlife of all kinds had long been decimated by gun-toting ignoramuses. We took another break in a small clearing in the deep shade of cedars of all sizes. Unlike the more famous Cedars of the Lord grove above Bsharri, this forest had a healthy population of cedars of all sizes, from tiny trees a few centimeters tall to huge specimens with outspread limbs. A few trees here and there were dead, something to be expected just as well and to be left alone to go through the natural process of decay. Some trees had missing limbs, a relic from the bad old days when trinkets made of cedar wood were sold to tourists at the other forest above Bsharri. Many other tree species added to the diversity.

Beyond, we passed through an open meadow of lush, tall grasses and annual plants surrounded by more cedars. We rose to a rocky area offering distant views. Here were several maple trees, a species that became more common as we hiked east through the forest. I had never seen maples in the wild in Lebanon before, and was expecting them only because of the Horsh Ehden booklet I had acquired in 1995. These bright-green, broad-leaved trees, common in more humid areas such as Europe, the northern US and mountainous areas of the desert US Southwest, produce brilliant autumn foliage in various shades of pink, orange and red. Just as startling were the occasional Cicilian fir trees growing among the cedars. Again, firs are more associated with northern climates than semi-arid Middle-Eastern countries. The secret is that the forest lies at a high elevation (about 1500 meters); is in northern Lebanon; lies on a massive 3000-meter-high mountain that results in high precipitation; and is on a cool, north-facing slope.

We rounded the ridge and entered Wadi el-Qiami. The forest gradually diminished. A huge, solitary cedar on the far side of the drainage acted as an exclamation mark as we exited the forest. We headed up the valley, with the edge of the forest hugging the slope to our right (west). Although treeless, the valley was by no means barren. An incredible variety of low-lying Alpine vegetation created a mosaic of forms and colors. These plants have to endure being buried under snow for months, followed by more months of sunshine and no rain. Some were in the form of huge domes, much like rocks but very prickly; flowers covered the impenetrable surface. Succulent plants and flowers created miniature rock gardens, growing both on and among boulders. The lushness was greatest at the bottom, tapering off on the sides. There was no evidence of domestic grazing animals.

The ascent was tiring and the valley was bigger than it looked. We finally arrived at a dirt road at about 2000 meters. This road defined the upper boundary of the preserve. The preserve not only includes the actual forest, but encompasses other areas as well and reaches all the way to Ehden, thus providing a buffer around it and protecting a large part of its watershed.

Here just outside the preserve, the difference was immediately apparent. Just above the road was a Bedouin camp (meaning grazing). Trash spilled down from the road, and hundreds of shotgun shells littered the road and its shoulders. The road followed the contour of the mountain as we hiked it north and east for about one kilometer, providing a bird's eye view of most of the cedar forest, which contrasted sharply with the barren mountains receding to the north. At around 12:30, We arrived at an old snowbank behind which was a spring coming out of a tunnel; nearby was another spring. At the tunnel was a vehicle where some men were having a picnic. They had guns with them, potentially violating the ban on hunting. We chose to eat our lunch away from them.

We ended our prolonged lunch break at around 2:15 and headed back on the road. Minutes later, we heard shooting. The lawbreakers had a red Range Rover, Lebanese license plate 1559657. This Lebanese version of "rednecks" later drove past us on their way out. We hiked back to where we had exited Wadi el- Qiami and continued west on the road, high above the cedar forest. I had started picking up empty shotgun cartridges off the road while hiking, and soon I and hiker Paul Saleh were systematically picking every one within reach; we soon had a grocery bagful worth of the things, to be later thrown in the trash where they belonged. Some were old, but others were new enough that surely they had been discharged during the hunting ban. I had been impressed by the apparent effectiveness of the ban in other parts of the country, but here (outside of the preserve), things seemed to be out of hand. ("Day'ah el- tasseh" - The hubcap is lost, to use an Arabic expression.)

The road headed in a general westerly direction, entering and exiting drainages. We took a shortcut across one grassy drainage. Someone had driven across the grassy meadow, leaving tracks. I found the access from the other side, an extremely eroded and steep dirt road not regularly used for years. Paul and I blocked it off with rocks. It felt good to be visiting from thousands of miles away and leaving behind good deeds (such as picking up trash) in Lebanon.

We arrived at a huge concrete cross on a flat ridge overlooking Ehden. Here, the cartridges were so many that we gave up. We descended down a steep, treeless slope on a primitive trail to a broad pass. From there, we followed a trail at the top of the steep, cypress-covered slope above Naba'a Mar Sarkis. Far below, sounds of music, singing and clapping wafted from an outdoor restaurant. The mountain narrowed to a ridge, facing west. We followed the step-like ridge down towards Tallet el-Saydeh. We ended up at a dirt road fenced off from the paved road and planted with trees. When I inquired why this was so, I was pleasantly shocked to be told that this was the western entrance of the preserve. I had not realized that the 350-hectare (3.5-square- kilometer) preserve covered such a large area, including this scenic ridge. It was now 4:45 p.m. We waited as the drivers went back in a car that had been left here in the morning to get the other cars.

It was heartening to know that a piece of the original Nature of Lebanon had survived the millennia intact and was now in such good hands. --------- Before you go to this crown jewel of Lebanon, inquire about any restrictions over access. I was with an organized group, so I don't know what rules apply to people going on their own.

The "Club de Vieux Sentiers" hikes are announced in L'Orient-Le Jour paper (on no specific day of the week), but they always meet in Antelias on Sundays, usually at 7:30 a.m. but sometimes earlier for long trips. For more info, call Joyce Tombi at (01) 443753 in Beirut; she is a frequent hike leader and can probably tell you the latest. Fareed Abou-Haidar

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


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