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