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Hell valley – excruciatingly beautiful

May 20, 2010

The butterflies were still with me the next morning.  Yes I had completed the first day’s trek but it had been a real test of my fitness.  Chamoun had warned us that the second day was the toughest of all.  Yikes!

Chammoun with his village behind

Chammoun with his village in the background

A bit more about Chamoun Mouannes, our guide.  He grew up in a small village called Chebanyeh outside Beirut. He was always drawn to the countryside and has an intense love of nature.  He told me he was always considered a bit of a nutter by his village as, from early teens, he headed up in the hills to run.  He started to go further afield exploring and clearing paths throughout the rural areas of Lebanon which linked remote villages and has now covered thousands of kilometres (including one 8000 km trip) building up a seemingly photographic memory of the trails.  He’s a marathon runner, keeping fit by doing 15-20 km most days before breakfast, and ran from Damascus to Beirut (among other things).  You can read a post here from a guy who met him straight after we left Lebanon – he refers to a second group of Gulf for Good trekkers.   Charmoun has a ridiculously long stride and looks like he is strolling up the mountains when in fact he travels at great speed, often breaking off an offending twig to clear the path on the way.  He did most of our trails twice as he ran on ahead to check that the path was clear.  On our way out of Beirut he quizzed us on how, as women, we felt about the proliferation of provocative lingerie ads on billboards (he advocated modesty and respect).  In Byblos he found out the whole story of a small boy who approached him to beg and sent him away with some money and a lesson on what to do with his life.  A lot of the trails were littered with spent cartridges from hunters who shoot anything that moves especially small birds.  Chamoun’s outspokenness against this practise has led to threats and a near miss with a bullet. He’s a bit of a loner, verging on eccentric but genuinely kind.  He was very concerned about our safety and comfort and later revealed that he let some hikers from the UK who were stranded by the ash cloud stay in his house until they could get a flight.

Climbing ulmost vertically

A killer climb

Chamoun’s warning about the day was correct – the trail, starting in Al Qemmamine (or Hell Valley as it is known) went up almost vertically through the forest-clad sides of a deep gorge, and up and up and up – lung, heart and calf-straining agony. It was hot again too and the trees gave little respite with dappled shade rather than cool protection.  We climbed, stopped, caught our breath again and again and at last made the summit and all posed for a photo on a cliff overhanging the dramatic gorge which had little but wooded slopes and rivers as far as the eye could see.

After this the trail was relatively easier but no picnic, the scenery changing at every turn from Tuscan-like terraces of olive groves to flower strewn meadows and stony hillsides – all supremely beautiful.  Charmoun kept up a swift pace but many of the group were tired from the heat and the killer climb.  Some sections were lush and green and we waded through grass, others were very rocky and I realised how invaluable the poles were as I negotiated a really steep and shingley downward section seeing two of our group suddenly descend on their bottoms.  We were well into mid-afternoon and many were tired and hungry but there was no shade. The group was really spread out and Richard was suddenly overcome with the heat.   I know it was a scary moment for him and his trekking companions reacted swiftly to get him back on his feet, but I couldn’t help smiling afterwards when told he was revived with some Kendal Mint Cake!

At the top of the cliff

A rest and a spectacular view

A cool spring leading to a stream with shady trees in a pretty, green valley was the perfect place for our late lunch.  Sore feet were bathed in the ice-cold water and we refilled our hydration packs.  The other thing that took a quick dip was my camera – I fished it out immediately and Jo gave great advice to take out the battery and memory card straight away – so no more pics from this point onwards today.  Charmoun amended the route so I’m not sure if the village we ended in was actually Kfar Bnine but we hiked swiftly along and, at times through (and for poor Gemma in) the stream. We passed neat conical mounds of wood – ready for making charcoal – and a couple of boys trying to encourage a reluctant cow into a field.  Karen, Susie and I were close behind Charmoun who raced on down a path to great someone while we admired some lovely fat hens in a deserted yard.

Filling the hydration packs

Refilling our hydration packs from the spring

Suddenly people appeared from nowhere and within minutes we were all sitting on plastic chairs surrounded by several men all sporting the traditional heavy mustache, and the head of the household’s family including his 14 children. We all scoured our backpacks for things to give to the children and Lamisse actually had lollipops (for travel sickness!) which were well received. I think they all had a sweet tooth if the tea we were served was any indication plus the empty smile of a couple of the women.  It was a fantastic end to a magnificent and challenging day’s trekking.

The drive to our hotel was around hair-pin bends through more jaw-dropping scenery.  The remoteness of the villages mean that lots of the children do not go to school.  We played our new game of spot the Mercedes (or should it have been spot the car that wasn’t a Merc) none less than 20 years old and were glad to reach the Sir Palace Hotel in Sir Al Dineyeh. It’s heyday must have been the 1930s – which is probably the last time the piano was tuned (even Gemma’s expert playing couldn’t coax more than a plinky plonky sound out of it).  Despite serious decay – especially in the electrics and plumbing – it worked its charm on us all but we couldn’t toast its past with an elegant cocktail as this was a Muslim area and alcohol-free zone.  We women had to adopt conservative dress for our meal out that evening – hummous, mutabal, flatbreads and grilled meats – deja vu.

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