The remote mountains of Lebanon aren’t the obvious place for a burnt-out young Londoner to go in search of solace.
But when Patrick Page realised just how disillusioned he’d become with his work in refugee law, he heard their call.
“The work I was doing was fighting what’s called the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants in the UK,” he tells ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.
“Though I believed in our work, it was very much about conflict and anger against the Home Office. I got to the point where I felt I was more full of anger than being motivated by love.”
Patrick says he chose to go to Lebanon because it is a place of defiant hope. (Supplied: Patrick Page)
Page spent five weeks traversing the historic Lebanon Mountain Trail, which starts near Syria in the north and winds down the country’s spine to Israel in the south.
He discovered a Lebanon beyond the headlines of crisis and protest — a place of striking beauty and boundless generosity.
He walked on slopes coated with fir and cedar trees, past lakes and waterfalls, ancient ruins and craggy mountains dusted with snow.
At night, he’d watch the sun sink into the deep valleys.
The sun sets in the Qadisha Valley, a place Patrick remembers fondly. (Supplied: Patrick Page)
He met shepherds and farmers, and slept in monasteries and family homes.
And over five weeks on the 470-kilometre trail, the colour started to seep back into his life.
‘You have your Lebanon and I have mine’
Page’s journey started in the spring — a time of renewal — as he was about to turn 30.
He chose to walk because it’s simple: one foot in front of the other, again and again and again.
He realises there is some irony in his going to Lebanon, which is home to 1.5 million refugees, or about 25 per cent of the population.
“I am often reminded of that — every time I tell people I’d come here because I’d had enough of the London life, they’d say: ‘It’s ridiculous! We spend our lives trying to get out of Lebanon, and you’re doing your best to come here,'” he says.
Lebanon has recently made the news as protesters flood its streets, venting anger at the dire state of the country’s economy and demanding change.
But Page quotes the great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote: “You have your Lebanon and I have mine.”
“Your Lebanon is an arena for men from the West and men from the East. My Lebanon is a flock of birds fluttering in the early morning as shepherds lead their sheep into the meadow and rising in the evening as farmers return from their fields and vineyards,” Gibran wrote.
Page says “we know all about the Lebanese civil war, sectarianism, corruption” — these are tropes of the Middle East.
“But the beauty that Kahlil Gibran writes about doesn’t get a fair airing. It’s just the most magical place,” he says.
And Page certainly found a Lebanon of his own.
The only hiker, but far from alone
High in the mountains, terraces appear — farmers grow apple and cherry trees. (Supplied: Patrick Page)
Page says one of the extraordinary things about the Lebanon Mountain Trail is that you can walk through four seasons in a day.
“When you’re high up in the mountains, it felt very much like I was in the middle of winter. It’d be misty and there’d be no leaves in the trees,” he says.
“And then you’d go down a little bit further and you’re into the beginnings of spring; there’s blossom on the cherry trees and on the apple trees.
“And then you go further down and you’re into kind of savannah, and it feels like the middle of summer.”
Page didn’t see another hiker for the entire time he was on the trail — but that doesn’t mean he was alone.
High up in the mountains, terraces unexpectedly pop up — and with them, farmers and shepherds appear.
Page says almost everyone he came across would shout “Hawwal! Hawwal!” — an invitation for him to join them.
“From out of nowhere would come a blackened kettle, or some coffee, or warm manaqeesh — a delicious bread which has thyme or cheese baked into it,” Page says.
“They would just pull it out of some bag, and we would talk about how much better it is to be up in the mountains than down on the coast.”
Page spoke enough Arabic to chat away with the people he met.
“They were just overwhelmingly friendly and warm, with no complication or awkwardness,” he says.
“We’d often just sit there in silence and in complete comfort in each other’s company.”
He often slept in the family homes of farmers and shepherds — who also came to his rescue at times.
In an article on his journey, Page writes: “When I had sunstroke I was given infusions of mountain herbs, and when I was ill for four days, considering giving up, the nuns at the convent of Mar Sassine gave me gentle encouragement and nursed me back to health with medicine, biscuits and broth.”
A watercolour painting Patrick did on the trail, showing St Anthony’s Monastery in the Qozhaya section of Qadisha Valley. (Supplied: Patrick Page)
Page says the trail is just as safe as any in Europe or Australia — but you do need to watch out for the shepherd’s dogs.
“If you get too close to their goats, you’re in trouble,” he says.
“I had a few pretty terrifying run-ins with shepherd dogs, just doing their job.
“When you think of Lebanon, you would say it’s absurd to be focusing on dogs when you’re walking in one of the most conflicted regions in the world.”
Struggle and hope
Page says the landscape the trail runs across is “under threat”.
“There’s a lot of illegal mining, there’s a lot of lax planning. There’s a lack of government oversight,” he says.
And Lebanon, for all its beauty, is still a land of struggle.
It still bears the physical and emotional scars of the civil war that ended in 1990, and is currently in the grip of an economic crisis.
Unemployment is high — many of the people Page met spoke of children who have left to find work abroad.
“That is one of the great tragedies and that affects the countryside as much as it affects Beirut,” he says.
“There are very few young people in the villages. My hosts would often talk about their children and many of them would be in Europe, America and Australia.
“I’d come across whole villages where the English they spoke had a strong Australian accent, which kind of surprised me, deep in the mountains.
“That was actually something that did come up regularly — when I would be waxing lyrical about the beauty of the place, they would rightly pour a bit of cold water on that.”
The experience of the trail has lingered with Page.
For now, he is staying in Beirut — a place he says offers a defiant brand of hope.
“For the time being I can’t bring myself to leave,” he says.