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
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