A day spent with nature

Violence has hit Lebanon's fragile tourism again. Still, Alex Klaushofer discovered paradise in the

It's a smaller crowd than usual setting off for the mountains on Sunday morning: around 15 walkers, mostly Lebanese and mostly women. I've joined them for a day's trekking in June on Mount Sannine, the snow-capped peak that hovers above Beirut, drawing tired city-dwellers to its clean air and open spaces.

The excursion is taking place against the backdrop of a new crisis for the country - fighting between the Fatah al-Islam militants and the Leb anese army at the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared in the north, from which thousands refugees have now fled. Meanwhile, Beirutis have been shaken by a new spate of bombings around the city, and there is even more disagreement than usual about the identity and motives of the culprits. As a result, many Lebanese have retreated to the relative safety of their homes, while the violence has chased away any foreign tourists who might have ventured here.

The only foreigners are myself and an American woman who has Lebanese relatives. It's her first visit, and she's wide-eyed about everything. She hasn't yet ventured into a Muslim area of Beirut, as she feels it wouldn't be safe. When I point out that the smart Christian district of Ashrafieh where she is staying is a more likely target for bombers, she looks uncomprehending.

Michel Mofarrej, our guide for the day and the founder of Libantrek, the eco-tourism company that has organised our tour, says that numbers for the trip are 30 per cent of what they would normally be. Hiking is his passion, and he started the company a decade ago when it seemed that peace was about to break out in the Middle East. Now he seems to accept that business will be slow for the foreseeable future. "Until there's peace, there will never be foreign tourists."

One hiker, Clemence, has been coming for ten years. She's bubbly and affectionate and - despite her dyed black hair and cosmetically altered nose - a voluble advocate for the benefits of a day spent with nature. "You get on the bus in the morning, and people don't want to talk. By the evening, they're best friends." Her other passions - yoga and a pluralistic spirituality, plus her own communications consultancy - mean that soon I'm thinking of her as New Age Clemence.

Leaving the village of Baskinta, the group follows Michel up a mountain trail, and the first delight of the day appears - the tomb of Mikhael Naema, a Lebanese writer and a lesser-known contemporary of Khalil Gibran, carved into the rock. A giant sculpture of his face, thoughtfully resting on his hand, gazes out of a leafy arbour.

Cries of "Helou!" - "Beautiful!" - fly from the mouths of some of the women. Michel translates the inscription on the tomb - a panegyric to God and nature - and explains that its half-open door symbolises the soul's flight towards the divine.

We walk on through terraced orchards of fruit trees, and down into the valley of the plains. The air is rich with the competing smells of wild thyme, mint and yellow-flowered broom. We replenish our water bottles at a spring, and then begin our re-ascent towards the top of the mountain range. The route has not been precisely charted and at one point, there's an unplanned, arduous scramble up the side of an almost sheer hill. It's coursing with water and mud, and even on our hands and knees we only just make it to the top.

I can't believe that Michel, who is disabled and has only limited use of his arms, will manage to follow us, but somehow his head bobs over the edge, smiling and asking if everyone's all right.

Towards the snowy summit, the lushness of the valley gives way to stony mountain pastures where shepherds are grazing their flocks of goats. They arrived from their winter homes in Zahlé nine days earlier, some of Lebanon's poorest, to set up camp for the summer. Like the guilty middle-class tourists we are, Lebanese and westerners alike, we immediately empty our bags of food for them and admire the exotic interiors of their homes - all carpets and floor-level seating.

I fall into a political discussion with Rania, a straight-talking woman in her mid-forties. Despairing of the problems that beset her country, she has given up watching the news or reading the papers. "I'm not a passive person, but I have no choice." What worries her even more than terrorist attacks is the sectarian thinking she sees engrained in Lebanese society. "They inherit it from their parents - I see it in my children," she says. "This is what scares me more than the bombs, because what makes a nation is the population. I feel it is a desperate situation."

By the time we end the walk, with a round of tea, fruit and nuts at a mountainside cafe, the whole group is wreathed in smiles. We are now so well-bonded that, on the bus back, I feel perfectly at liberty to put my head in Clemence's lap and stretch out across the backseat to prevent an annoying male member of the party from joining us, both of us giggling in complicity. I ask another of the women where she bought her nice black jeans. She leans into my ear to whisper the answer: "Marks & Spencer! I was in London two weeks ago and I bought five pairs!"

But as we approach Beirut, some of the real- politik that determines Lebanon's fortunes obtrudes once more. Philippe, a thirtysomething man who had done the tougher climb to the summit, turns to me. "When you go walking in nature like this, it is paradise," he says. "But when you talk to people, you see the problems."

His own take on the situation echoes a widely-held view on the reasons for the country's continuing instability: the interference of foreign powers. It is the counterpoint to Rania's gloomy analysis about the ineradicable sectarian tensions that divide it internally. "There are a lot of external forces," he says. "They tried to put the Christians against the Muslims, and they failed, the Sunnis against the Shia and they failed."

"Who are 'They'?" I ask.

"This is the question," he replies gravely. "They are not Lebanese. There are lots of interests in this country."

Alex Klaushofer's "Paradise Divided: a Portrait of Lebanon" was published by Signal in May