AMMIQ, Lebanon: A countryside view unhindered by manmade structures is a rarity in Lebanon, but at the Ammiq Wetlands on the green and yellow patchwork planes of the West Bekaa you’ll encounter this unusual sight.
Less than two hours drive from Beirut, the country’s largest wetland is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with 256 bird species having been recorded at the Chouf Biosphere Reserve site. In spring, internationally threatened migrant birds the corncrake and the great snipe can be spied, while small numbers of near-threatened ferruginous ducks take up wintertime residence at the freshwater marsh.
But even without a pair of binoculars and with an interest in birds that extends about as far as perfecting the succulence of a roast chicken dinner, this remote reserve proves a satisfying haven from urban pollutants – aural, nasal, as well as visual – and a delightful place to take a stroll or introduce concrete jungle-raised offspring to the sensation of coarse marshland grass. But one quick heads up: Closed shoes are recommended, particularly for kids, as much of the underfoot foliage is prickly.
In a country of avid hunters and careless litterers, such an idyllic area could not exist without the vigilance and dedication of its protectors. Since the mid-1990s A Rocha Lebanon, a nonprofit environmental protection and education organization, in tandem with the SCAFF estate, which owns the land the wetland lies on, has worked to both maintain and improve this natural habitat.
“Protecting the area wasn’t easy,” says Rev. Joy Mallouh, president of the ARL board. Political divisions and tensions in the Ammiq area made it difficult to impose restrictions in the wetland area, he explains. Some years ago a careless smoker ignited a large swathe of the protected space, damaging both flora and fauna.
Having erected a fence along the road bordering the marsh and hired a security guard to monitor those coming and going, ARL has managed to successfully ensure the environment’s safety, and today no fire damage is evident at the verdant site.
Instead one is greeted by dozens of fluttering multicolored butterflies and sparkling dragonflies. A cacophonous chorus of birdsong, amphibian croaking and cricket chirping soundtracks a stroll along a delightfully overgrown, but far from impassable, walkway between seasonally flooded meadows.
For ornithology enthusiasts the best time to visit is during the spring and fall migration seasons, when thousands of birds soar over the marshland, but even at present it’s worth ascending the purpose-built bird-watching tower to see what there is to see.
The wetland is usually dry by mid-July, but the heavy snowfall last winter means that water levels are presently much higher than usual for this time of year. Water hens with their young swim between reeds as playful frogs spring in and out of pools, poking their heads up between lily pads. Dunia Mina, ARL’s education officer, captures a dragonfly between her cupped hands and shows off its transparent wings. Daily, a herd of buffalo is driven through the marsh to graze, preventing the open water area from being strangled by excess growth.
During term time, Mina facilitates visits by school and university groups to the wetland, teaching them about the environment and its conservation. By calling ahead, any group can arrange a similar introduction to the conservation project.
Indeed, all visitors to the wetland should contact Mina prior to their arrival to ensure ease of access, as although SCAFF and ARL’s efforts have successfully expanded the wetland and kept hunters at bay, controlling access to the area is key to maintaining the natural environment. Mallouh emphasizes this point by pointing out a garbage-strewn riverbank adjacent to the protected wetland, where families regularly picnic. Sadly, odd scraps of trash have blown from this neighboring site into the marsh.
Keen to raise environmental awareness in the area, ARL reached a point several years ago when they began thinking about eco-tourism, says Mallouh. The initial plan, when ARL entered negotiations with development partners in 2005 was to build an eco-lodge offering overnight stays and a range of outdoor pursuits in the old village of Ammiq, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1956. However, budgetary constraints curtailed the scope of the project and instead ARL and its partners built an eco-restaurant. Tawlet Ammiq, operated by Souk el Tayeb, opened its doors for business May 13, and now provides the ideal place to adjourn for lunch after a morning exploring the marsh.
Built a two-minute drive or short hike from the wetland, Tawlet Ammiq is nestled into the Mount Lebanon hillside beneath the village’s ruins. With a grass-planted flat roof and stone-colored walls, the eatery blends with the landscape. Constructed at a cost of $802,000, the building is designed with natural ventilation systems and aims to use as little nonrenewable energy as possible – currently it operates on 80 percent less than a conventional structure. Its rustic furnishings are made from locally sourced wood and the menu features only produce grown nearby – much of the salad leaves and herbs used in recipes are grown onsite. All waste, most of which is organic, is sorted and recycled.
The restaurant is open daily from 1-4 p.m. On weekends an open buffet including wine and arak is served at a cost of $40 per head, while on weekdays guests may order from an a la carte menu.
After lunch, if a nap isn’t immediately necessary, take a short hike up the hill through the broken and abandoned stone houses of the old village or visit the area’s restored church. Longer hikes of up to three hours or more are possible for those feeling less weighed down by lunch, says local tour guide Faisal Halabi. Alternatively, relax after lunch, stay overnight in the area, and wake refreshed to embark on a long hike in the morning.
There is a dearth of guesthouses and hotels nearby, but Halabi can arrange bed and breakfast, for both individuals and couples, with local families at a cost of $25 per person. ARL also has a two-bedroom apartment in the vicinity that sleeps four and can be rented at $20 per person per night.
Spending more than one night in Ammiq may prove difficult for anyone who doesn’t aspire to a hermetic lifestyle, but 24 hours in unobstructed serenity could be just the respite your eyes and ears need, and your support for the area will doubtless contribute to the ongoing protection of one of Lebanon’s last truly natural environments.
Getting there: Travel by car, or take a bus to Chtaura and then find service taxi to deliver you to the wetlands entrance, approximately halfway between Chtaura and Kefraya. (Call ahead to ensure ease of access: Dunia Mina (76-751-410)
Dining: For reservations at Tawlet Ammiq call 03-004-481 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Activities: For organized walking, hiking, birdwatching and other local activities call 05-350-250 / 76-751-410 or visit: www.shoufcedar.org.
Accommodation: Contact Dunia Mina (76-751-410) to book ARL’s apartment or Faisal Halabi (03-330-413, Arabic only) for bed and breakfast with local families.