Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Eco-hiking in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

Hiking trail in the Bekaa Valley
The Bekaa has seen occasional gun battles between rival clans

Hiking in Lebanon's beautiful Bekaa Valley, the BBC's Bob Trevelyan finds few traces of the country's fraught political, economic and environmental situation.

This is how bad I am with early morning starts. Our bus is winding into the hills above Beirut, sun streaming through the windows as we head for a day's hiking in the Bekaa Valley, and I realise that I have forgotten my sun-cream, water and picnic lunch.

Looking in my rucksack, I see I have with me a woolly hat, a novel and a waterproof jacket.

The only shreds of consolation are the words of a Lebanese friend, who tells me her compatriots may have the latest gear but are not so tough when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other.

Mercifully this appears to be confirmed when we stop for breakfast before we have even reached the departure point for our hike.

I fill up on tea and manaeesh bi-zatar - a kind of Lebanese pizza covered with thyme and sesame seeds - and am feeling much better when we set off again, descending now into the valley.

I have arranged my trip through one of Lebanon's small but apparently thriving ecotourism companies. The industry has emerged in the past 10 years and trades mainly on interesting Lebanese in discovering their country and preserving the environment.

Wine and Islamists

Tourists who travel to Lebanon generally do not get far beyond Beirut.

Others would not consider visiting a country that has suffered a wave of political assassinations, a devastating military incursion by Israel and sporadic sectarian clashes over the past four years.

A herd of goats in the valley

We will compete with the goats for water
Rafik, tour guide

In the Bekaa Valley, there have been occasional gun battles between rival clans, and relations remain tense between supporters and opponents of the Western- and Saudi-backed government.

Lebanon's social and cultural diversity is also visible here - the valley is both a stronghold of the Islamist Hezbollah movement and the centre of the country's wine industry.

Travelling south along the valley floor, we pass fields of rich brown earth planted with vegetables, and dried-up marshes, usually an important stopping point for migratory birds, but now drought-struck and deserted.

After this come rows of grapevines.

"All of this land," says our guide Rafik, with a sweep of his arm and hint of a raised eyebrow, "belongs to our present minister of agriculture."

Shortly, we reach our departure point, the village of Saghbine in the south-west of the valley.

Map showing Bekaa Valley

My hiking companions are mostly Lebanese men and women in their twenties, some kitted out with ski poles and designer sunglasses, others in shorts and trainers. There are also a few diplomats, but no tourists.

Joumana, who works in advertising, tells me she is a first-timer and was dragged along by a friend, but it is a good way to avoid the big family Sunday lunch.

Mohammed, who runs a taxi company, says he enjoys meeting different people than those in the clubs and bars.

Barbed-wire fence

We are heading up the valley side, but Rafik does not think we will need water for what looks like a hot climb.

"There are plenty of springs where we are going," he says cheerfully. "We will compete with the goats for water."

Not 200 metres down the track, Rafik has darted off to the side, emerging with bunches of small grapes pulled from straggly wild vines.

Lake Qaraoun
Lake Qaraoun is depleted after two years of low rainfall

A little further on, he has us cracking open walnuts with rocks, and then pulling white crab apple-like fruit from bushes.

We reach the first spring, but the presence of frogs deters most people from drinking. The second spring has dried up entirely.

Just as Rafik says the next one is ahead, a huge herd of black goats appears in front of us.

By this point, we are in no mood to be denied and with a flanking manoeuvre, we beat the goats to the water.

We are now well up the valley side, looking down on the river Litani and Lake Qaraoun, an important source of drinking water for Lebanon, but depleted after two years of low rainfall.

A final push and we are over the top and walking through a rolling landscape of rocky outcrops, grassy clearings and gnarled, stubby oak trees.

Twice recently Rafik has had to cancel hikes because the army would not give him permission to go to Mount Hermon, across the valley, where Lebanon meets Syria and land occupied by Israel. But apart from this there have been no problems.

"A lot is exaggerated," he says. "We go everywhere really, but sometimes we need the army's permission."

As if to prove this, the following week he leads a group to Shebaa, a mountainous area in south-east Lebanon adjoining another piece of Israeli-occupied land.

"You can go right up to the barbed-wire fence at the blue line," he says. "It should be fine, as long as no-one tries to jump over."

And with that he is off down the mountainside, leaving a succession of ski poles click-clacking in his wake.

Bob's hike was organised by Liban Trek and paid for with his own money. Other organisations offering similar excursions include Esprit Nomade and Lebanese Adventure.

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