Lebanon Mountain Trail by Bike, Part 2
by Steve Holyoak

Earlier in the summer, together with a Lebanese friend Max Chaya, I cycled the northern part of the Lebanese Mountain Trail (LMT). As you may be aware, this is a fledgling long-distance track through the mountains and villages of Lebanon, covering pretty much the entire length of the country, from Kobeyate in the North, to Marjeyoun in the South. After various misadventures we got as far as the Beirut Damascus highway, about halfway, and then ran out of time. There was certainly unfinished business to be done, i.e. to cover the remaining part of the trail. As always with both our busy schedules it was a challenge finding the required 3 – 4 days to complete the trip, but the Eid holiday provided the perfect opportunity. From the Holyoak side we decided to combine it with a family trip to Bcharre, Byblos and the Chouf.

Elizabeth holding Max’s water bottle, into which Steve is trying to empty his bladder…

Thus on Fri Oct 3rd after a couple of great days at the coast we met up with Max at the Hazmieh MacDonald’s, and headed up the Beirut Damascus Highway to our starting point at Dahr el Baidar.

Steve & Max at Dahr-el-Baidar, ready to head south for the Lebanon Mountain Trail by Bike, Part II

The weather was perfect after all the recent rain – cool, with clear blue skies. After heading south towards a quarry on decent tarmac we headed due south, off road. True to form, carrying on where we left off, we headed up the wrong hill, and were slightly perturbed by the minefield signs.

Danger! Mines, unexploded ordinates, etc. etc. Needless to say, we turned our bikes around, and tiptoed back to safer ground….

Better not do much x-country here then… We slipped back down into the valley and were then back on the right course again. The cycling was excellent, through slightly rocky forest tracks, heading towards the Chouf Cedar reserve.

Cycling under a majestic Cedar tree. “Que du bonheur!”

Entering the beautiful Ain Zhalta – Bmohray Cedar forest.

We were reassured by passing a campsite, although again with a nearby minefield signed it wouldn’t have been my first choice for a scout camp.

All the trails in the Cedar reserves are very well maintained, and are ideal for walking and/or biking.

As the afternoon wore on we got inside the Chouf Reserve, with extensive areas of Cedar trees forming an impressive backdrop against the clear blue sky.

Cycling the Chouf Cedar reserve at sunset

Slowly we climbed up onto the ridgeline, while heading south. To the right we could see the Mediterranean, and to the left the Bekaa Valley.

At the top, overlooking the Bekaa valley.

Impressive. In the early evening we negotiated a narrow, rocky track closed in by the Cedar trees, and emerged on the reserve’s road up from the town of Barouk, where hopefully Elisabeth and the kids would be waiting for us with a nice cup of tea.

Amid strengthening wind, a quick call to Lara D. (Green Lebanon – the Book) after cycling through the beautiful Cedar trees.

As we were heading down the hill we are pretty sure that a couple of hyenas crossed the road ahead of us. We hadn’t been eating strange mushrooms, honest. Indeed, later checks revealed it was Hyaena hyaena, better known as the Striped Hyaena, on account of its stripes. Genius.

Sunset from high up in the Cedar Chouf reserve. We better hurry to get to Barouk before dark! 30 minutes later, I saw a Hyaena couple…

Joy of joys, Elisabeth and kids (Amanda and SAM) were there, and there was TEA on the balcony.

Elizabeth, preparing a hot cup’a tea on the balcony, in true British style.

Ahhh! A well deserved brew. Thank you Elizabeth!

Jolly civilised! Then we headed into a town approximately 17 light years away. Luckily our spirits were lifted after the long drive by the menu, which included amongst its delightful offerings “steamed crap”.  We all hope they meant crab, but they told us they were out of it anyway. Phew.

Cedar trees, planted in the Barouk, in memory of the Lebanese soldiers that lost their lives during the 2006 war, and at Nahr-el-Bared

Next morning after breakfast at the hotel we cycled back into the reserve, and Elisabeth and the kids went off to do some walking. Cycling through the cedars reserve was a real joy, with stone lined tracks winding through the trees.

All too soon we emerged and came to a military checkpoint on the road across to Kefraya. We were just scrounging some water when who should turn up in a monstrous big Kia, but Elisabeth, Amanda and Sam. It’s a small world. Continuing on towards Maaser el Chouf we then picked up a just-a-little-bit-too-gnarly bit of singletrack, which quickly developed into a barely perceptible footpath through field full of rocks and that well-known high value export crop, thistles.

Cycling past the Barouk antenna

Steve! You’re holding the map upside-down!
Naw worries mate! it’s wrong anyway…

Wild flora along the way

Checking the map to make sure we are lost…

Steve, carrying-out the unenviable task of plucking-out the thorns from Max’s backside

Just when we thought we were lost, we came across a trail marking…

We did pass a nice Roman spring though, complete with an ancient plum tree. Most of this section had to be walked unfortunately.

Steve’s Nth puncture repair… Hallo! Can you hear me?

Some steep bits had to be walked.
Wild plums, ripe, and calling to be picked

On towards the tiny village of Mristi, where we stocked up on junk food, and Max mended his four thousandth puncture of the trip, standing on a ladder to reach inside the shop’s water tank.

Max trying to find the tiny thorn holes in his tube… inside a water tank.

Some of the local lads recognised Max after his Everest exploits etc. and there were photos all round. Before getting to our stop that evening we had a couple of challenges to face. First was some very steep rocky track down a hillside.

Washing the bike tires. Needless to say, we emptied the tank and filled it up again with clean water for the goats to drink water, not mud…

Max, pumping-up his tire on the trail after mending the Nth puncture of the trip.

This was then followed later by a major detour just as we were approaching the beautiful village of Jezzine. Ho hum. It’s a remarkable – at the edge of the town is a huge cliff face, with several restaurants perched on the edge. After finding that the local hotel was closed we stayed at a friend of Max’s who offered his house up there for just us two. Thank you Bob!

After a couple of beers at Bob’s house in Jezzine, Steve mends his tube in the kitchen sink.

Getting ready to leave Bob’s house in Jezzine.

True British style: Bike & beer in hand, Steve heads out from Bob’s house in Jezzine.

In the evening we wandered down to one of the restaurants and ate our weight in food. And still took a doggy bag home for our imaginary friend whom we said had sprained his knee. In actual fact, the leftovers were neatly wrapped in small plastic bags, and served for a picnic lunch the next day, in the middle of nowhere.Day 3 was definitely the most challenging. It started encouragingly enough, being awoken by the sound of crows and church bells, then a hefty breakfast of fried egg on bread. It was like being back in Devon on a Sunday morning. Except that we were in South Lebanon, and Sunday. After a puncture repair session in the kitchen and balcony . we started the day’s cycling with the world’s steepest ascent up through the village of Jezzine, almost cycling up steps, and the walls of people’s houses, much to the amusement of the inhabitants. Seemed like it anyway. We got on the right track after a bit of ducking and weaving, heading east up a pretty valley. Again though, too much walking involved, and occasional climbing with bikes on shoulders. After a while this was getting a bit much so we cut up a valley. This proved to be extremely tough going, up to about 1700m, but eventually we made a nice little col where we had lunch, then pushed on to a clear track.

Pwet, pwet! Let me through!

Heading up, into inevitable thorn territory.

Rock climbing with a bike on the back…

A land mine?Naaah… just a tin can cover.But what’s that cloth near it?

Lunch, and a well deserved rest.

At this point we had a bit of a debate – north towards Aitanit? (by the Karaoun lake) or south towards our ultimate destination? Unfortunately we chose south and shortly after admiring the stunning view into the southern Bekaa, we were intercepted by some military bods on a couple of manly scramble bikes. They were not impressed with our mountain bikes, which, for heavens sake, didn’t even have engines! Actually they were not too happy with us either, but eventually an officer wearing a Man United t-shirt and some nice aftershave showed up, and he seemed a bit friendlier. Unfortunately though we were sent back to where we had started that morning, Jezzine. We had been labouring for a good 5 hours, only to return to square one.

Heading due East from Jezzine, towards the Bekaa on the other side of the mountain.

The Karaoun lake from the mountain top trail above.

On the mountain-top trail, just before being stopped by armed personnel.

Not much progress so far then. At this point we though the best thing was to make some speed on the road, so we headed south on tarmac, passing through some nice villages towards Marjeyoun – the official southern end of the trail. On the way we stopped at a small shop. They had beer, so I felt obliged to have one. We also chatted to a more-or-less toothless boy by the sweet counter who was a great advert for why you shouldn’t eat lots of mars bars, then clean your teeth with a bar of chocolate.

Max, rehydrating, and having a friendly chat with a local kid

Mars bar for toothpaste…

Things were going well, and off we headed, due south again. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it that way either. With only about 10km left, we were again stopped at a military checkpoint. Despite protracted negotiations, we were not making too much headway. Time was ticking on and I didn’t fancy getting through this one, only to be stopped by Hezbollah with no permit. So, in the end we turned around and headed back to, yes, you’ve guessed it, Jezzine. The inhabitants by now must have been wondering why these cyclists kept on riding through their town – perhaps we needed a new map ?

Posing on the remains of a tank

This is where it ended, less than 15km from our goal. Non-Lebanese aren’t allowed past this Army checkpoint in Kfarhouneh, and by the time I arranged for permission, it was too dark.

We still had enough time to get to the coast before dark, so we had some fun screaming down the tarmac to Sidon, where we booked into a rather strange hotel at the back end of an alley selling imitation Barbie Doll rucksacks. The walls had very little paint on them, but that was OK because most of the time the power was off, so we couldn’t see them. Needless to say we quickly escaped to a restaurant, where I really needed a beer after the stresses of the day. Sadly they didn’t have any.

Inside one of the two hotels in Saida. Not sure how many starts, but minutes after this photo, the power went out, and didn’t come back until… after midnight!

Steve cycling past a sleeping bag merchant on his way out from the Yacoub Hotel – Saida, at 5 a.m.

On the final day I cycled with Max towards Beirut, then cut back into the mountains towards Beit ed Dine. This is a great road, with plenty of fantastic views. Eventually after a lot of climbing  I intersected the Beirut Damascus highway then it was simply a case of heading across the Bekaa Valley over the border (remarkably easy on a bike!)
So that was the Lebanon end-to-end. Almost. The trip undoubtedly included some of the most stunning scenery in the Middle East area, and by doing it by bike, largely off-road or on small mountain village roads we had plenty of interaction with the locals, and many unforgettable experiences.

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