Lebanon, Qurnat as Sawda - 3088m/10132ft
After successfully climbing to the highest point In Egypt I took a direct AirArabia flight from Sharm El Sheikh to Beirut. I had pre-arranged a taxi to meet me at the airport take me to my hotel just over 2 hours away in Cedars, Bcharre located at the foot of the highest mountains in Lebanon including of course the countries highest point Qurnat as Sawda (3088m).
Upon landing, I quickly filled in the landing card and headed to the passport control desk so not to keep the taxi driver waiting. I knew beforehand no visa was required so I was expecting the usual hi and bye. As I only carry hand luggage with no need to wait for hold baggage I normally find myself one of the first in the passport control queue. The agent flicked through my passport, then rechecked every page looking carefully at every stamp. I have already travelled quite extensively before my country high points adventures so albeit it being the 48 page jumbo passport it’s getting quite full.
He messed on his computer and then rechecked every page once again in what seemed slow motion, I have several worn stickers on the back that were now being heavily scrutinised. He said wait here and walked off. As soon as he went it dawned on me why he was being so methodical. I remembered reading during my research their rules regarding Israeli passport holders or those who have even just visited Israel (As below for travellers)
“Travelers who hold passports that contain visas or entry/exit stamps for Israel will likely be denied entry into Lebanon and may be subject to arrest or detention. Even if their travel documents currently do not have Israeli stamps or visas, persons seeking entry into Lebanon who have previously travelled to Israel may still face arrest and/or detention if this travel is disclosed.”
Having been to Israel twice in the last three years, The latter to stand on the highest point, I thought this could now be a big or perhaps even a severe problem if he asked if I had ever been to Israel as even just typing “Lee Humphries Israel” into google shows many photos, videos and links of me clearly having been there. If asked I knew I would have to deny ever going to Israel if I stood any chance of getting into Lebanon. Upon his return he flicked through my passport, I confidently smiled while raising my eyebrows and he just waved me on.. Phew! I quickly made my way past customs to the exit as the taxi driver would have already been waiting for me.
There was a young guy on the end of the crowd holding my name on A4 paper, I greeted him and we soon rushed off to his taxi. It was already 20:45 with a 2 hour 20 minute drive ahead it was going to be a long night. I asked if we could pop to a petrol station en route as I could use my MasterCard to buy drinks for the climb as I didn’t plan on having or using any Lebanese cash while here.
After buying more than I thought would be enough to drink for the mountain and somehow still managing to end up with Lebanese cash back from my card payment (Must be a lower limit on transactions) We carried on heading along route 51 towards Tripoli. The driving in Lebanon I would say is erratic at best, The driver who spoke quite good English that he had learnt from watching films wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and constantly on his phone while more often than not going over 140km/h in line with everyone else it seemed and the traffic was busy.. There seemed to be no speed limits at all and many of the cars were not surprisingly scuffed or damaged. He seemed a nice guy though and while driving would turn around and show me a whole array of photos off his phone.
He had been going back and forward with voice messages on his phone with someone for quite a while when we suddenly turned off route 51 and onto a small side road. I thought that’s weird, He looked unsure and asked someone what looked like directions. We pulled off again and I said you do know where the hotel is yeah? He said no problem, Lebanon is only small can’t get lost. After asking several other people as we crept along winding roads I decided to get my phone and GPS out as I had pre-programmed where the hotel was and downloaded the maps for all of Lebanon. It showed there was still an hour to drive and the driver clearly had no idea. Great I thought! I said to him I have the route on my phone and he said to direct him, It wasn’t straightforward it was pitch black with no street lights but I had now assumed the role of a rally car co-driver giving directions including when we were approaching hairpin bends as he was still flooring it on tight winding cliff top roads with little or no indication of how tight the turns would be. Quite exciting really as he did respond and react to what I was saying, So it worked well and I finally got to the hotel around 23:15. He gave me his phone number as I had arranged to be taken back to the airport at 19:00 the following evening and he wanted the ride and of course the money although I had already prepaid on the internet.
I entered the hotel and was met by a man who clearly wasn’t expecting me. He asked for my reservation details but wasn’t convinced. I had planned to set off at 07:00 to start climbing the mountain the following morning so a few hours sleep would certainly be useful. After 10 minutes of faffing around, he phoned the owner of the hotel who straight away must have said yes I did indeed have a reservation. The man apologised and ushered me to my room. It had been a long day of travelling and I was grateful to relax and get some sleep, especially without mosquitoes.
I woke up around 06:15 to sort my bag out as I had mentioned to the man that I wanted to leave a bag full of stuff here while I climbed the mountain. I freshened up and just before 07:00 headed down to reception feeling refreshed and ready to go. The owner was in reception, he apologised for the inconvenience of last night and placed my spare bag in a safe room. He offered me a coffee but I politely declined as I wanted to set off so I would have time to freshen up before the taxi came later in case of any delays. The Cedars is a small ski resort during the winter months with several hotels and a few ski lifts taking people high up the mountains. As it was early October and with no snow usually until the end of the month the whole place was deserted. I walked along a winding road, past a few closed wooden clad souvenir shops before turning left just before an armed military checkpoint and headed up a small road that led to the highest hotel in Lebanon and the start of my climb.
I headed around a Ski lift (not open) and walked uphill directly underneath before reaching the main steeper section of the climb where I would gain the most altitude by zigzagging next to a larger ski lift. The views were truly extensive and the going felt good, I was still just about in the shade of the large mountain behind me which was keeping me cool, I was really starting to enjoy the climb. I pushed on thinking Mount Catherine really must have physically done me well. I only stopped to take a few photos, videos and apply sun cream when the sun finally came around to meet me. After an hour or so I was at the top of the saddle where the top ski station is located at around 2820m. From here the land plateaued out and after referring to the map I could see Qurnat as Sawda around 6km – 7km in the distance. It was still early in the day and due to the altitude, the sun felt quite pleasant although of course certainly powerful enough to burn.
As the terrain was quite flat I knew it would only take me just over an hour to get across the sandy plateau to where I would make the final climb to the summit of Sawda. It was a nice walk with not a great deal of vegetation or wildlife, Just a few birds passing overhead now and then. On the climb, I had seen quite a few used shotgun cartridges and used bullets no doubt from hunting and many years of unrest and conflict in the area. I continued following quite a defined track, I knew from my research that ATV’s (All Terrain Vehicles) use the area due to the rocky mars-like landscape. I continued on for a while until the route started to climb and wind around the back of the mountain where It would come back on itself before reaching the summit. Within a few hundred meters distant mountains came into view as I rose above the large plateau. I looked on my map to see where they were and realised that they were in Syria. I hadn’t realised until that point that the Syrian border curved so much towards my position with the border now only about 25km away and around 50km to the severely war damaged city of Homs.
I spent a few minutes searching to see how close Syria’s highest point was but I suppose thankfully it was about 150km south albeit situated along the Lebanese/Syrian border. Syrian military facilities occupy the Syrian summit so it’s still a no go for now. Which explains why I had dismissed it before. With thoughts of an additional country, high point quashed I continued on the track winding around the back of Sawda. A stunning view on the horizon with the always welcome cloud inversion certainly emphasised that I was at 3000m despite spending a few hours on a flat plateau. The track continued but excitement got the better of me and I just headed straight for the summit. It was energy zapping scree but I felt good and before long could see the summit stone and flags, As I got closer I could see one was the Lebanese flag with the two red stripes and Lebanese cedar in the middle. I really do like flags on high points or the country colours on display such as the Hungarians painting the large summit stone in the Hungarian colours on Kekes.
Qurnat as Sawda is Arabic for the black peak. The summit remains permanently snowless throughout the year as the persistent winds don’t allow the snow to settle. This causes a visible black area surrounded by snow. So not surprisingly It was a bit breezy and cool on the summit. The views, especially towards Syria, were fantastic, I took several photos and videos, had some food and drink but quickly noticed that there were now significantly more used bullets and cartridges littering the summit area. In the distance, I could see in a cloud of dust two ATV’s heading my way. Here we go I thought, They were a still several minutes away due to the steeper terrain so I had some more to drink and changed my socks. They pulled up so I smiled and went over to say hi, They were Lebanese but spoke some English and were very surprised to see me and couldn’t believe I was alone let alone having hiked from cedars. We had a chat and took a few pictures before I left them to enjoy the view and started to head down.
I quickly descended on the scree slope knowing that they would sooner or later catch up so I would need to be aware to let them pass. I continued down for a good 25 minutes and had was walking along the rocky plateau when I heard the ATV’s behind. The first stopped and asked if I wanted a lift albeit holding onto the luggage rack with no roll cage protection. I declined as I didn’t want to get back to the hotel too early. They continued and the second ATV pulled up. They also asked I declined but thought it would be a lot more fun for the 5km to the top ski station than walking so I jumped on the back. With no seat, dust glasses or roll cage I knew it was going to be fun, I said to the guys not to hold back as I didn’t want to diminish their fun worrying if I was okay.
We zoomed off covering ourselves in dust in the process. The acceleration is crazy and several times I was in the air after a massive rock with no seat belt to hold me down, Taking a video only having my phone to hand while holding on with tight with the other was interesting but I just about managed. It wasn’t long until I could see the top ski station and I could see they would be heading left. on a slower steep section, I said I was going to jump out and thanks for the lift. I jumped out and they swapped drivers before speeding off in a cloud of dust and into the distance. Fantastic! I was completely covered in dust but It had saved me about an hour walking along the plateau.
I brushed myself off had a drink and still at 2820m started the descent back towards my hotel.
The loose rocks and scree made for a quick descent although sliding at times so I had to put the brakes on now and then but before long I had zigzagged down to the lower cable car station. Distant gunshots were now echoing around the valley but far enough to be of no concern. The last section was less steep and a pleasant walk, The clouds were by now rolling in as they had forecast heavy rain and thunders showers for later that afternoon.
Some of the shops and stalls were now open but I simply had no need or space for any of the wood carvings on offer. There was a small local shop that I was hoping accepted credit card. While in my wallet I saw the 1000 note that had been given to me at the petrol station but had no idea of its value although I did have the exchange rate wrote on my notes. I fancied a big bag of Lays crisps and when I asked they were 1000. Perfect! I walked the last few Kilometers back to the hotel, The man was back on reception although with a more friendly demeanour today. I asked for my bag that I had left there and If I it would be possible to get changed and freshen up in a spare room. He said no problem. Now back in cleaner clothes and feeling refreshed I sat in reception and asked if he could phone the taxi driver as I was ready albeit several hours early. The taxi driver was in Beirut so would be another 2 hours. I used that spare time to upload my photos/collage to social media along with a Turkish coffee with the owner of the hotel.
The taxi driver finally managed to get to the hotel after speaking on the phone to the receptionist for over 30 minutes due to being lost. It was just starting to get dark, So I was hoping we could get down from the high cliff top roads and the tight hairpin turns with some daylight remaining. He seemed more relaxed yet still more than happy to accelerate and overtake as many people as possible. After an hour or more we were back on the Main highway towards Beirut. The driving really is crazy but everyone drives the same so it does work. The driver by this point was getting excited and weaving in and out of the traffic and between cars at 140km/h with just about enough room to sneak through which I think surprised himself at times.
After surviving the drive to the airport with my mountain mission complete all I needed to do now was get home. My flight to London was at 04:00 the following morning with AirSerbia via Belgrade. A relaxing 8 hours quickly passed sitting listening to music in Beirut airport which is busy throughout the night. At one point a man sat right next to me holding 100’s of documents spending the next hour distributing them in what seemed like no particular order to masses of Ethiopians who were gathered around him and me heading back to Addis Ababa. It was another bizarre moment to add to the list, Being nudged, feet stood on papers waved and slapping across my face.. The easy thing would have been to move but I was adamant to remain seated rather than risk being trampled to death from the ongoing stampede.
I headed through security and onto passport control around 02:00 and found the sign a little bizarre. “Lebanese passport holders to the right”, “Foreigners and Arabs to the left”. Make of that what you will. I could see several Ethiopians in separate rooms being questioned and when standing in the queue for passport control an officer blatantly walked past everyone who was white but stopped and checked the documents everyone who wasn’t. It was uncomfortable to see let alone for the people who were obviously being subjected to racial profiling.
It was soon my turn to step up to the passport counter, I handed my passport over the officer flicked through then started rubbing the labels on the back. I thought you have got to be winding me up! He said to wait as he needs to go and get it checked. I decided there and then that when I get through I’m going to take all the old labels off! He came back flicked through it again stamped it and waved me on. I spent the next hour trying to get the ridiculously sticky residue that removing the labels had left behind. I was able to now pick up my passport up without even frigging holding it! After copious amounts of saliva, thumb rubbing and several concerned glances from airport staff I decided to just leave it. My passport really does now look and feel suspicious. Brilliant!
There were a lot of tired looking faces at the gate at 04:00 that morning and once on board the half-empty flight I quickly fell asleep. I woke up to the voice of the pilot saying cabin crew seats for landing. They hadn’t even finished boarding when I fell asleep, So I still have no idea how long that flight actually was. After a few hours in Belgrade, I flew my connecting flight to Heathrow where we had to circle 4 times across the city before getting a landing, Great views and saw quite a few football stadiums too. A good ending to another fantastic country high points trip.