The Bekaa Valley
My trip to the Bekaa Valley started disastrously. Could not sleep the night before with a tummy that had gone to water and awoke — if that’s the word after not sleeping — feeling horrible. Seriously contemplated cancelling the day while I showered, thought about it again as I dressed, mulled over it in my muddied and sick mind as I sipped hot tea, all I could keep down.
Trudged downstairs to meet my daughter, Helen, who had agreed to accompany me.
Warned her of my mood, gloomily adding that driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road through murderous traffic out of Beirut in a car we were about to hire did not fill me with glee but with an awful sense of impending disaster.
We Ubered to ‘Adventure Car Hire’ and I anxiously navigated through the traffic to the road out of town under Google Maps instructions from Helen.
Let’s go a step back. BirdLife South Africa’s CEO Mark Anderson had put me in touch with somebody who put me in touch with Assad.
It was my first non-familial appointment in the city, and I met the charming, tall, urbane, handsome head of SPNL, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, at his fourth-floor office in the city’s business district. Grey haired and bearded, Assad Serhal rises from his chair with an instantly friendly greeting, and a broad smile as if we have known each other forever.
SPNL is BirdLife International’s Lebanese partner, and he heads it. Assad entertains and educates me for an hour, presses five books on me, refusing payment, even for the hardcover splendidly illustrated guide to all the mammals of the Middle East (including Lebanon) which he co-authored.
“Great illustrations,” I remark appreciatively, paging through.
“A funny story,” he says. “I’m on my own in a bar in Africa, too much perhaps to drink, and tell the stranger next to me, who has also perhaps had too much, what I am writing, but confess morosely I lack pictures of the mammals.
“‘You are one lucky motherfucker,’ he says. Now this is not the way we Lebanese talk. He tells me he has the best pictures of all Africa’s mammals. And I can have them, free.
“I don’t take too much notice of the bar talk but then all the CDs arrive, with Spencer’s magnificent illustrations of everything. And he confirms we can use them all for no fee. Is that not wonderful?”
We chat about our favourite princess, Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado of Japan, Birdlife’s Honorary President.
“Ah, an interesting story ...” Assad says, then tells me it. On his way to give a speech to accept the prestigious Mindoro prize (for creating 40 protected areas in Lebanon, a country where citizens love shooting birds for fun) he noticed a swan in the garden was in trouble. Torn between continuing on his way and helping the swan he alerted hotel staff telling them to rescue it.
“I sat feeling troubled, but before I spoke, my translator told me not to worry, an ambulance had arrived to take the swan to hospital.”
It was one of a pair in the Imperial Garden that belonged to the Emperor, so Assad was hailed as a hero in Tokyo’s newspapers the next day. The Lebanese Ambassador threw a party for him because of what he had done for his country’s image in Japan.
“Amazing, no?” he chuckles.
With little fuss Assad works out an itinerary for me to visit the country’s top birding destination, telling me I’m lucky as this month is right in the middle of the great flyaway migration which will fly over where I’ll be staying.
A few days later an email arrives:
“It will be our pleasure and honored hosting Peter at West Bekaa Country Club on full board basis, and will guarantee a unique experience at the West Bekaa region, covering the wet lands and related birds watching, butterflies garden, Qaraoun lake and Litani river surroundings and of course the Himas from Ammiq towards Aitanit.
“Jean Mayne, General Manager, West Bekaa Country Club.”
And one from Assad:
“Dear Peter ,
Enjoyed our meeting , and felt that we knew each other in some other life!
Thanks for Your kind words , and for taking the time & effort to visit me at SPNL.
Now that You got a plan to Shouf Cedar Reserve on Wednesday with a Lebanese driver, I know that You will be enjoying a memorable day among the ancient cedars, where I spent 6 full years of my lucky life establishing this reserve ( 1996-2001). Make sure to introduce Yourself & mention my name to the reserve entrance guides.”
This is where we are now headed, daughter dictating, me driving, brand new hire car, through the madness of Beirut to the Cedars of Lebanon. You may recall the phrase as the cedars are mentioned 103 times in the Bible.
Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve is the largest reserve in Lebanon. It goes from Dahr Al Baidar in the north to Niha Mountain in the south. It encloses three cedar forests which constitute 25% of the remaining cedars in Lebanon. This reserve is home to 200 birds that include ones that are rare.
That is where we headed, and arrived, without serious mishap. Up to the entrance, that is. Then I slowly moved the car to the left to avoid a bus coming out.
I’ve always believed disaster happens when three, not two or one, unfortunate events concatenate. The truck was coming for me (1), there was a man standing on the right obscuring a wooden pole jutting out (2) and as he moved away I watched the bus on the right, and drove a little left (3) knowing the man would move aside to make room as I was going very slowly. Did not see the pole hiding behind him. “Dad!” My daughter shouted.
The pole gently nudged her side door. She opened it to look. “Yep, it is dented and will need panel beating,” she said, with a hint of satisfaction.
Already feeling awful, this did not improve my mood. We forgot to tell the people we were Assad’s friends, desultorily trudged through the snow atop the reserve to see the famous cedars, drove through the reserve, admired the forest a bit, and headed of to the West Bekaa Country Club, where I met Jean in a haze of exhaustion, agreed to meet again at breakfast the next day as I confessed I was too tired and sick to do anything and collapsed into a deep sleep. Half woke up for dinner, met fellow birder Martin Kaech from Switzerland, back to sleep again and woke up on Friday feeling refreshed and happy. Lebanon has two Easter Fridays, the Catholic one and a week later, the Maronite Christian one, which was this day.
After breakfast Jean, our generous host, drove us in his spotless Range Rover to the Ammiq Wetland. What a wonderful place.
The Bekaa Valley was once the most dangerous spot on the planet with various Middle East jets screaming overhead, dropping bombs and firing rockets. Now it is beautiful, about 100km long and 20km wide, growing green produce to feed the Lebanese population of six million. Always was beautiful, I suppose, the jets were the ugly ones. Apple trees are everywhere in white pinkish blossom, and lovely lines of poplars frame the roads, acting as windbreaks. It is spring, yellow, purple and white flowers colour the overall green with a sprinkling of distinctive red poppies. As we walk into the wetland Helen spots a bright green frog, then a herd of water buffalo arrive with calves who gambol in the water, delightful to see, warms the cockles of the heart, makes you feel cuddly. A large dog with the shepherd nuzzles the smallest calf as if to say “don’t worry, I’m here.”
Martin, a much better birder than me, Points out some interesting single birds (and some ‘lifers’) when suddenly we spot 52 Glossy Ibis flying lazy circles in the sky, getting higher and higher, then a flock of 50 Night Herons settle in a tree, 50 of them! Best sighting of the day comes later with 38 Common Cranes flying magnificently, slow and stately, andante maestoso my music teacher would have said, then finally about 120 White Storks, more muddled in their flying and much more difficult to count. Eventually the storks break into three groups and head off north after each group decides it has gained their required height. A minute or two separates each group before their deciding to take direction instead of continuing their circling to get higher.
All these large birds are flying from Africa to summer in Europe. Following food, not the weather. The flocks first make an appearance quite low, yet these are all soaring birds, so they then slowly curve around a thermal which takes them higher and higher, and when they get higher than the mountains they head off north to Europe. Awesome to observe. A privilege.
The valley’s mountains form a bottleneck funneling them through from Africa in their hundreds of thousands during April, and back in October November. Every year. Since before history. Also saw 13 Honey Buzzards flying in a flock, trying to gain height on a thermal, when we returned to the Country Club. After the wetland we visited the large Qaraoun Lake and the Latani River which winds through the valley. We saw quaint villages and smart ones, inhabited only during summer by the rich. We heard how three bird hunters had been jailed for illegal shooting, which might herald a change in Lebanon’s bird hunting culture.
“I reported some hunters this morning,” Jean says with satisfaction. Wonderful!
I leave promising I will try to get all my friends in South Africa to visit his lovely, eco-active not just eco-friendly WBCC.
All-in-all, a wonder-filled day. I returned the vehicle to the hire company with a song in my heart. Cost of damages: $66. A pleasure, negligible for fabulous memories.