Dom Joly

Ev­ery guest house had a Le­banese ma­tri­arch ready to kill us with kind­ness

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - Dom Joly con­tact @domjoly

It would be fair to say that my dog­walk­ing over the Cotswolds was not suf­fi­cient train­ing for my three-week walk across The Le­banon. I’m now back and, in the words of my old school mates, Ra­dio­head: “fit­ter, hap­pier, more pro­duc­tive.” Ac­tu­ally, I’m not sure about more pro­duc­tive. All I’ve re­ally done since I got back is to think of ways I can head off walk­ing again for an­other three weeks. Walk­ing is weird. Most of the time that you’re ac­tu­ally do­ing it (es­pe­cially when it’s up steep moun­tains) you are long­ing for it to be over. Then, when you’ve fin­ished you feel in­cred­i­ble and want to get crack­ing again.

When we set off on the first day from a town called Jezzine, spir­its were high. We marched out of our guest house and headed off down Charles de Gaulle street to­wards the azure spring at the edge of town. We were jok­ing and chat­ting away as we walked in the shade of um­brella pines. We were ad­ven­tur­ers off to con­quer the coun­try. We took a photo at the spring, the last mo­ments of in­no­cence. Then Na­bil, our tac­i­turn guide, took a turn to the right to­wards some crazily steep look­ing steps. He started to climb them. So did we. I can’t re­mem­ber much more ex­cept that by the time we fi­nally got to the top we were so out of breath and ex­hausted that Na­bil ac­tu­ally spoke.

“How much hik­ing have you done be­fore this?” he asked look­ing over our brand-new ruck­sacks, camel­backs, staydry shirts and mid­dle-aged ram­bler hats.

“Ummm… none… apart from dog walk­ing.” We mum­bled.

“NONE!” He said look­ing wor­ried. And you come to Le­banon to walk the moun­tains? You Bri­tish are crazy!”

We took this both ways. We were now very wor­ried about whether we were up to this chal­lenge, but we were also rather chuffed at be­ing lumped into the rather glo­ri­ous tra­di­tion of crazy Bri­tish ex­plor­ers. We de­cided to try and bluff our way through by laugh­ing in what we took to be a ca­su­ally brave man­ner and say­ing some­thing like, “Don’t you worry about us, we’ll man­age.”

Six hours later and a thou­sand me­tres higher, I was near death and long­ing for a kind loose rock to smash down on my head and end this tor­ture.

We got bet­ter as the days un­folded. Slowly, we learned some tricks of the trade. We got the hang of us­ing our walk­ing poles prop­erly. We worked out the trick to walk­ing up­hill – it’s to walk very slowly, al­most as if in slow mo­tion while con­trol­ling your breath­ing. The nat­u­ral in­stinct is to try and hurry a hill so that you can get to the top as quickly as pos­si­ble. The slow walk is far more ef­fec­tive if not a lit­tle frus­trat­ing at first. It would be made even worse when, mid-slope, a young goat-herd in train­ers and t-shirt would skip past us and dis­ap­pear over the crest of the hill in sec­onds.

The scenery, how­ever, was worth it. I have trav­elled to over 90 coun­tries, and there is no coun­try more to­po­graph­i­cally var­ied and stun­ningly beau­ti­ful within such a rel­a­tively small area. We trudged through cedar forests, marvelled at monas­ter­ies hewn into cliffs, clam­bered over se­cluded Ro­man tem­ples and posed on rock ledges gaz­ing down at the old sea ports of Phoeni­cia.

And the food… oh, God, the food. Part of the plan was that we three mid­dle-aged men might lose some weight. Fat chance. Ev­ery guest house had a Le­banese ma­tri­arch ready to kill us with kind­ness. The ta­bles groaned with home-cooked dishes and tempt­ing bot­tles of won­der­ful Le­banese wine.

The civil war fin­ished in Le­banon in 1990 and no­body seems to have no­ticed. We saw al­most no tourists and zero hik­ers dur­ing our en­tire three-week trip. This is won­der­ful for the self­ish trav­eller. To have places like Baal­bek, the largest Ro­man tem­ple in the world, en­tirely to your­self is fab­u­lous. But Le­banon needs visi­tors, it needs tourism and you won’t be dis­ap­pointed.

I’m writ­ing a book about our ex­pe­ri­ences and hope­fully I’ll be at the Chel­tenham Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val next year to talk about it. I live over the hill from the town, so I’ll prob­a­bly walk to the event. For I am a moun­tain man, a man of the moun­tain.

Harry Din­g­ley and Christo­pher Bell with Dom in The Le­banon

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