It Just Might Be
I was on my second trip to the land of Lebanon. To answer your question, as is also asked by every single Lebanese; my brother and sister-in-law live here. Not only is it a unique and rarely-talked-about place to see, but visiting family is always good. Especially when coming home isn’t feasible and years go by between seeing your sibling. But that is a different story.
However, because of the nature of these travels and visiting family, I tend to spend less time out exploring and more time living the way I might at home. I took the opportunity of them being gone for a weekend to do something I hadn’t done in the total five weeks of living in Beirut with them. I went camping on my own.
Originally I just wanted to go on some hikes for the weekend. I didn’t know exactly where to start, but serendipitously my sister-in-law had provided me with a great tool for finding other like-minded outdoors people in the area. Amidst all the group hikes, one page contained information on a campground’s first open weekend of the season. Set right next to the Bhmaray Entrance of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, there was hiking so close it hurt and I could use the camping gear I’d been carrying around for two months. I read through the info on their Facebook page, then called on Whatsapp to confirm two nights. I was told on the phone that Friday night would be rather chill with few people, and Saturday night was hugely booked and would be great for meeting people. The best of both worlds, this had adventure written all over it. I would not be disappointed.
Not knowing what the food/cooking situation would be upon arrival, I stocked up on some of the worst food possible just to survive. Think a loaf of not-great bread, wieners in a can, mustard, bananas, two types of packaged croissants, mixed nuts, biscuits, a pound of turkey, knock-off Doritos and sticky processed cheese. I would survive; none of it needed expert cooking so I could eat anywhere anytime. Then I flagged down a taxi full of people which here is called a ‘service’ (say, sur-veese), and chatted with a high school philosophy teacher who was also well versed on American playwrights. I had to agree with him, if the playwright doesn’t also write on some sort of philosophical level, the work will likely be fairly shallow.
They dropped me off and I found my bus simply by repeating the name ‘Barouk’, the town I was aiming for. We climbed through the hills and I sat with my luggage on my lap, full bus today. The turkey leaked a little on my leg, I didn’t think I smelled bad but I didn’t fault the guy for switching seats as soon as another became available. Person after person jumped off, until I was the last one on the bus. I wasn’t sure I was getting off at the right place but I went for it.
It was quiet here. A small, sleepy hillside town, where little sounds of construction and birds emanated up from the valley. Clouds rolled lazily from over the nearest hill and though I had to wait an hour for my ride to come, I didn’t care. I was at peace, content. Sun warm on my face mixed with chilly air is my favorite setting. Gone were the sounds of Beirut, and the smell of a smoggy city you forget about until you’re somewhere more pure. I snacked and waited, till Hady arrived.
Hady is the most hands-on of the three way partnership that runs Cedars Ground Campsite. When I had confirmed my booking he simply said, “Make it to Barouk and call me. I’ll come pick you up.” And that he did. He threw my bags into the back with his friend from Canada, and we drove to camp. I had a moment where I realized, this is a situation I can see scaring most people. Jumping into a car with two strange guys and driving into the wild. I’m still aware in these situations but have also become so accustomed to the generosity of strangers it doesn’t phase me. This is travel’s greatest quality, and I would experience it almost nonstop the entire weekend.
As soon as we arrived Ranti & Stella jumped in through the open car doors and into my lap. They are a couple of the most beautiful German Shepards I’ve ever met, and possibly a little too friendly as they are not afraid to play hard and take food out of your hand even if you’re eating it. Since it was a soft opening weekend for the camp, I immediately threw myself into the fray of getting things setup, and within minutes my pants were muddy from moving wet tarps, pounding tent stakes, and tying walls onto the kitchen area. As the sun set I had to excuse myself to make sure I got a couple images from this first day. Clouds were rolling in hard, but there were a couple slivers of sunlight that put a perfect cap onto a nice quiet day.
However, the day was not over! I was invited to hang out with Hady and friends, where I was given hot tea and educated by one of his friends about the energies of the world. I was told my energy was of the flying type, and that finding others who fly are the best because you can fly and land together. There was a group of three girls farther up the hill that I hadn’t met, and one of them was flying. It was suggested that I go up and meet them.
So I found myself, nervous, walking up to a fire surrounded by laughter, burgers and whiskey. After introductions I was told to sit down and handed a burger and a beer. We spent the evening talking about energy and it’s place in the world, pre-med horror stories, why Americans are the way they are. I certainly don’t fault them, but most of the time I sat and listened to long dialogues in Arabic, letting the sound of the language lull me into a relaxed state. With hopes of hiking the next day I left for my bivy and found it wet with a light covering of frost. I guess it’s not an adventure unless you suffer a little bit, but the damp hadn’t soaked all the way through my Enlightened Equipment quilt so I was able to survive the 5˚C temps.
That night I had dreams of taking a truck to the Syrian border and before arriving we came under fire. The truck turned around and bullets crashed through our vehicle as we sped away. I woke up at 8am and it was almost too warm, the sun peaking over the top of the mountain behind me. The place was quiet. Too quiet. The campsite of my new friends was empty save for one black purse and I thought perhaps they had left, it was too clean. Not knowing anything about the reserve I was about to head into, I packed my backpack with ‘lunch’ & water and headed out.
It only took me two hours to make it to the top of the mountain. I did stop once, to wipe the sweat off my brow and drink a bit of water. The entire trail was uphill, so I channeled the mantra of the climber (what I imagine at least) and went baby-step on it. The wind was cold and turned my sweaty shirt to an icy shirt quickly. The way up was a beautiful walk through the cedars on a small dirt path. Halfway it turned into more of a gravel road with shorter trees, then eventually they went away and it was just rocks and fog. At the top you were supposed to have a view of the BEQUAAAAA Valley. While I could see some of it, the fog was moving around enough that it was hard to really take it all in. Regardless, it was a beautiful spot and just the hike I needed. I hunkered down amidst the short rocks and took a chilly nap.
The walk down was uneventful and I took a different route, this time all road. When I arrived back at the campsite, the demeanor had changed. Every section for tents was full. There was sound coming from all sides of the hill, fires everywhere. One corner was singing ‘Happy Birthday’, and the calling of dogs was everywhere. I stepped back up to the teepees and was greeted with tea, a delicious treat called makdoos (you have to try it), and introduced to a new photographer friend.
And what do you do when you meet a new photographer friend? You spend the rest of the night photographing. He was enthralled with my D850, a fellow Nikon enthusiast. He inspired me to switch the screen over to show the image as B&W and we shot at ISO’s I’d never thought of using before. With the fog that had rolled in it may be some of the moodiest, scariest pictures I’ve ever taken. Halloween turned up to 11 kind of stuff. We ran from site to site, following people with lanterns, exposing for headlights, campfires, whatever we could find.
Eventually we stopped when we were offered a drink. Which turned into a sing-a-long. Which turned into six hours of singing, fire starting, eating, more photographing, and even more singing! Our new friends were to prepare their own dinner and they included us with plates of salad and grilled veggies. I felt terrible having nothing to contribute, as I had only brought food for me and it wasn’t very good stuff to begin with. By one o’clock my throat was tired from singing along and my hands were worn from using the table as a drum. That’s when the sky cleared and it was time for night sky photos!
My new friend, his friend and I loaded into his Jeep and took off for a little off-roading to find a suitable location to capture the few stars we could see. The slow, tumultuous ride took us into a field of rocks overlooking a small town in one direction and a dark hillscape opposite it. We climbed into treacherous micro-rock valleys and went to work. The cold didn’t let up for us but the wind had picked up. Tired but excited we balanced and photographed, just three passionate dudes in the night. Eventually after 3am we called it a night, and headed back to camp.
The idea was to stay up a couple more hours and then photograph the sunrise. Still tired from the previous night of little sleep…I didn’t make it. I fell asleep in a hilariously uncomfortable position on one of the benches, and woke up alone to a smouldering fire. I found my compatriot comfortably asleep in his car, he locked the door when I knocked to see if we should go catch this sunrise. Instead we were tasked with wheeling the breakfast cart up the hill from where it had been stored over winter. Afterwards I could barely keep awake so I took my stuff and just laid outside my bivy, and caught a few more zzz’s before breakfast.
Breakfast was worth the wait. You know how people talk about fresh squeezed orange juice? I watched them do it, it was the best I’d ever had. Pretty sure. Then they made manakish, kishek and I ate and ate and ate it all. I had to take a cup of tea and a full manakish and run because a group of people I hadn’t gotten to come back to the night before were going off for a hike and I had semi-invited myself along.
We took a trail and walked casually along. Mostly I was interested in chatting with the group of new people, friends from all over that got together regularly to be outside and enjoy each other’s company. If I ever stayed anywhere for a regular amount of time I could see enjoying those kinds of relationships. Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, someone who lived in Toronto, some had come back from four months in Nepal, everyone was from somewhere or went places. The walk was short and relaxing. We took some group photos, returned for lunch, and one couple offered to take me back to town. Conversing with them was a welcome alternative to a squished bus seat.
As per usual when traveling, I left the comfort of somewhere to be a little lost and a little alone. Serendipity struck again, and I was only alone until I got to where I was going. There I found a slew of awesome new friends, the worst part being I know that I will never have enough time to hang out with them. Therein lies the true peril of travel. Not danger to one’s physical self, but the disappointment of knowing that sometimes the first time you have with the wonderful people you meet, might also be the only time. Take time to enjoy what you have when you have it, take a trail off the main path, and GO CAMPING IN LEBANON!
Useful Info/Gear Used
- Cedars Ground Campsite FB
- Address – Cedars Ground Campsite, Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Bhmaray Entrance Aïn Zhalta, Mont-Liban, Lebanon 00961
- Whatsapp – +961 3 938 187
- Nikon D850
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8
- Nikon 20mm f/1.8
- Therm-a-rest Neo Air
- Enlightened Equipment Recon bivy
- Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt
- Maasai blankets for groundcloth
- Clothing Basics
- Duluth Trading Company Underwear
- Fjall Raven Vidda Pro Regular
- REI brand rain jacket
- Mountain Hardwear Gloves (using these for 7 years now, one hole now)
- Wish I Had – My Bear Butt Tarp