|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 43
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS
IN the month of May the Rapid was lying in the Bay of Tripoli - the Syrian Tripoli, not the African one. The weather was getting hot, and as there was nothing particular to do at Tripoli, beyond showing the flag, I decided to take a trip into the Lebanon mountains to try and get a shot at a bear.
The party consisted of Lieutenant Carter (Mirehouse had gone home), my coxswain, Sergeant Thomas, Joe the dragoman, and myself. It is quite useless to travel in Syria without an interpreter, unless you can speak, at least, some of the many languages.
Joe hired the horses, including two for baggage and camp equipage, and we started very early one morning, so as to get out of the plain before the heat of the afternoon sun. Our route through the plain lay along the bank of the Brook Kishon, where the Prophet Elijah was fed by the ravens. We found the Brook Kishon quite brackish and undrinkable.
About noon we got into the valley of the little river Kadisha, and began to ascend rapidly. I am inclined to think that the Kishon and the Kadisha are the same river, but am not certain, as we left the former an hour or two before we struck the latter. (N.B.-Distances in the East are counted by hours and not by miles.)
The scenery in the Kadisha Valley was most beautiful. In some places the valley was little more than a gorge
44 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
but it was thickly and beautifully wooded throughout. There was no road, merely a track, and in some places this was thickly strewn with boulders. Yet I don't think I ever enjoyed a ride more than I did that ride up the Kadisha. We had come out of a sweltering plain, and the cool bracing air on the higher ground, the fresh spring green of the trees, the scenery when the valley opened out enough to get a view, combined with a sort of holiday feeling on getting away from the confined space of a small ship, was most exhilarating and enjoyable. There were some magnificent walnut and chestnut trees, the finest I ever saw.
Of course the sergeant brought the faithful Karra with him to guard the camp, both by day and night, and right well the dog did his work; but he did more than this. Joe and I led the cavalcade, which at times became rather straggling, and as the baggage-horses with their attendants were fond of loitering, Carter brought up the rear to act as whipper-in; but unfortunately he dropped too far behind and lost the track. We did not miss him at first, but when we did we got off our horses and sat down and waited. No Carter.
Then up and spake the sergeant, " I'll send Karra to find him." He called Karra, spoke a few words to him, which might have been in Welsh for all I could make of them; then he waved his hand, and the dog trotted off, back on our tracks, with his nose to the ground. After about half an hour Karra reappeared, with Carter following him. Carter had lost his way; Karra found him and led him back to the party. It seemed to me almost uncanny, like magic, and the most singular part of the business was that Carter and Karra were not on speaking terms. Carter could not touch
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 45
him; nor could I, for the matter of that, though he was supposed to be my dog. No officer could touch Karra, though the men could handle him just as they pleased. I have seen the same thing happen before with another dog in another ship. I cannot account for it, as no officer ever ill-treated Karra. On board the ship he lived forward with the men, and never came abaft the mainmast, except for one purpose.
Our first camping-ground was just outside the village of Bsherra, and we pitched our tents on a piece of inviting-looking greensward on the edge of a little stream. Karra was immediately put on guard by the sergeant, and he kept the inquisitive native children at a respectful distance from our tents.
At Bsherra we were four thousand feet above the sea, and the climate was delightfully cool and bracing. We were going up into the mountains, much farther up than Joe had ever been before, so it was necessary to get a local guide, and Joe was sent into the village to get one. In a short time he returned with a fine weatherbeaten old Arab, who answered to the name of Mousa. He could not speak a word of English, and we only knew a few words of Arabic; but it is astonishing what a lot can be done by signs, and for one whole day Mousa was our sole guide, as the work in the mountains was too hard for fat old Joe.
Mousa was a professional hunter, and he had intended starting in a day or two on his own hook to try and get a shot at a bear, if we had not come along and made it worth his while to act as our guide. But a very unfortunate thing happened. Mousa had a rival living in the same village, and this rival got wind of our intentions, and started off that very night for the place that Mousa intended taking us to; but we did not know
46 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
of this until afterwards, when we got to the place and found that the hated rival had forestalled us and shot our bear !
Our next day's march was a short one, to "The Cedars," six thousand feet above the sea, and we pitched our tents about four o'clock in the afternoon, beneath the spreading branches of these magnificent trees.
Many travellers have written about the famous cedars of Lebanon, but no description of them that I had ever read gave an adequate idea of their beauty and grandeur. Some of the trees are credited with a growth of two thousand years; but, alas ! the whole grove contains only three or four hundred trees, covering a space of from thirty to forty acres, and this is all that is now left of what, in King Solomon's days, was probably a magnificent and apparently inexhaustible forest. The grove is now guarded and strictly preserved; but people are allowed to light fires with the windfalls, which we promptly did, as it was cold.
I measured the girth of one of the trees with a tape, and it was thirty-seven feet six feet from the ground. It was a grand tree, with immense wide-spreading branches, each of which would have made a goodly tree in itself; its grandeur, moreover, was greatly enhanced by modern art and culture, in the shape of a deeply carved inscription on its massive trunk, which told all whom it might concern that the cedars of Lebanon had been visited by Ebenezer Potts, of New York City, in 1868. But it is fair to say that Mr. Potts was not by a long way the only distinguished traveller who left a record of his visit on the trunk of one of these noble trees. There are bumptious vandals in other countries besides the United States, and I only mention
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 47
this particular inscription because it glared conspicuously on our camp.
There was quite a large gathering of wild-looking natives around our camp fire that evening and well into the night. They all seemed to be friends of Mousa, and Joe also found some old acquaintances. We could not understand any of the conversation, but Joe told me there was a long discussion between Mousa and his friends, relative to the practicability or otherwise of the route by which the former intended to take us to our next camping-ground in the mountains. The friends said the season was late, that May was more like April, and that the snow would not be sufficiently melted to enable horses to get to the proposed camping-ground by any route. Mousa was of a different opinion, and said we could do it; and we did, though with some difficulty.
Late that evening Joe brought to me a venerable-looking old Arab, who was holding on to his cummerbund with both hands and groaning. Joe said his friend had internal pains, so I administered a good stiff glass of whisky, and the old boy went his way; but he came back again next morning, saying that the pains, though rather better, were still troublesome. Joe, however, while interpreting, gave me a wink ; and on this occasion I presented the sufferer with two Cockle's pills. The old gentleman - well worthy of that name - was probably greatly disappointed, but was far too polite to show it. He made a bow, took the two pills, loosened a corner of his turban, wrapped the pills up in it, tucked them in, made another bow, and departed. There is certainly a great charm in good manners, even in a wild Arab seeking whisky, contrary to the tenets of his faith.
48 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
We made an early start on the following morning, as we expected that we had a hard day's climb before us.
After leaving the cedars we had about two hours' easy work on a fairly good track, up a gradual slope, and then we came to the snow, and our troubles began. Our route lay across the face of a very steep hill, and the path might be described as a fairly good goat-path, where it was visible; but in many places it was covered with fresh snow and we had some difficulty in finding it. In some places the snow was deep, and in others the angle of the slope was so steep that the snow could not lie anywhere except on the path itself. It was rather exciting; but on the whole the little Syrian horses were wonderfully surefooted.
At one place we came to a sort of gully in the side of the mountain, round which our path wound; here there was a regular snowdrift, and the snow was lying in ridges, notwithstanding the steepness of the slope. We looked long at this place, and then, deciding that discretion was the better part of mountain-climbing, we dismounted and led our horses.
About halfway across this gully the commissariat horse slipped and fell. Down he went, over and over, first his legs in the air and then his boxes. We looked on breathlessly at what we believed would be the loss of a horse, for which we should have to pay, and also the loss of our provisions; but the snow here was very soft, and after rolling down for about a couple of hundred feet he brought up in an extra soft patch of snow, with his legs in the air and the boxes embedded in the soft snow.
Strange to say, the horse was unhurt and very little damage was done to our provisions; but there was some delay in getting the horse up again, leading him to a
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 49
safe place, and repacking his burden. We then resumed our march, and in about another hour we came to the summit ridge of the spur which had to be crossed to get to our proposed camping-ground. This looked like an insurmountable difficulty; for though the snow slope on our side was gradual and easy, the north wind had blown the snow up into what in Switzerland is called a cornice, and on the other, or southern, side there was a drop of forty or fifty. feet almost perpendicular.
We rode up and down looking for a better place, but it was evident that Mousa, with his local knowledge and hunter's instinct, had already brought us to the best; for, in either direction, to the right or to the left, the snow wall rose higher and was more nearly perpendicular.
Joe chuckled, for he had been a pessimist ever since we left the cedars. He did not like being dragged up into this cold and inhospitable region, and had been repeatedly telling us that we had better give it up and go home. But old Mousa was a man of determination and resource. He had no intention of giving in; his honour and reputation were at stake, and he took entire charge of the proceedings. Once we were down this place, it would be all plain-sailing, as there was no snow lying on the south-eastern face of the mountain, which we should have to traverse; and it did seem hard to be beaten when we were within a few feet of a comparatively good road. So we all set to work under Mousa's directions, and having unloaded the baggage animals, we scooped out a sort of gutter in the snow wall, which, although not quite perpendicular, was very steep. We then strewed shingle in the gutter, and set to work to get the horses down; and this was how it was done.
50 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
The first horse was blindfolded and brought to the edge of the slope; a burly native caught hold of his tail, and another man got hold of the first by his cummerbund. The horse was then shoved over into the gutter, willy-nilly. The two men, planting their heels firmly in the snow, acted as a drag and eased the horse down very slowly till he came to the firm ground at the bottom. This was repeated until all the horses were brought down without accident. We then loaded up and continued our journey; another three hours of easy going brought us to our camping-ground, which was a bare, bleak plateau about eight thousand feet above the sea, and near some of the highest peaks of the Lebanon range, which rise to a height of ten thousand feet.
When we had selected the spot for our camp, by the side of an ice-cold stream, it was just five o'clock, and as we came along we watched Mousa scanning the side of the mountain to see if his rival had been before him and disturbed the game. We saw no one, but late that night the rival arrived in our camp, telling us that he shot a bear about four o'clock that afternoon, and having no means of bringing him down, he had buried him beneath a cairn of big stones to save him from the jackals. This was disappointing for us, as it probably reduced our chances of getting a shot, and old Mousa evidently felt his bad luck keenly, for I am sure he was most anxious that we should get a bear. He said nothing, but sat down on a stone and sighed. He did not scold his rival, or reproach him for cutting us out. On the contrary, he forgave him and next day he helped him to bring down his bear, which was a very big one. Mousa, like most Arabs, was a gentleman, every inch of his gaunt six feet.
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 51
Our tents were pitched by six o'clock, and then we looked about us, scouring the sides of the mountain with our glasses; but Mousa's keen and practised sight spotted a bear before we did, and he pointed out to us a small black spot on the side of the mountain near a patch of snow. We could then, with our glasses, see quite plainly a bear grubbing in the ground. This south side of the mountain that we were looking at was nearly clear of snow, which only lay in small patches. The May sun was hot, though the nights were bitterly cold.
When we sighted the bear on the side of the mountain the sergeant was greatly excited, and said that if I would come a little way up and hide behind a rock, he "would just run round above the bear and drive him down" to me, so that I could get a shot. The clearness of the atmosphere and the vastness of the surroundings had completely deceived the sergeant as to distances, and he found next morning that it took him three hours' hard climbing to get to the patch of snow near which the bear had been seen on the evening before.
It was obviously too late to go bear-hunting that evening, so we had to curb our impatience, eat our supper and go to bed, but not to sleep. I don't think any of our party slept. The cold was intense, and all our clothes and blankets failed to keep us warm.
We had not hampered ourselves on this expedition with the luxury of beds; we had only our little camp stretchers and a blanket, and the cold seemed to come up out of the ground and freeze the marrow in our bones. We were afraid our unfortunate native attendants, without tents, would be frozen to death before morning; but it turned out that they were far better
52 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
off than we were in our tents. They built a circular wall of big stones, and in the centre of it lit a fire of dry brushwood, which they took it in turns to feed. The stones soon got hot, and probably kept the wind out better than our tents; and as there was no rain, they were far more comfortable than we were, though they had only the sky for a canopy.
Two hours before daylight next morning Carter and I, accompanied by Mousa and the sergeant, were stumbling along in the dark over the loose stones, slowly making our way up the side of the mountain, Mousa leading, towards the place where we had seen the bear the evening before.
The exercise soon thawed our frozen marrow, and we had not been long out before we were quite as hot as we wished to be, and rather hotter by the time we got to the patch of snow near which the bear had been seen. It was now broad daylight, but the bear was not there, nor in sight anywhere else. This was disappointing, as Mousa had told Joe that if bears are not disturbed they sometimes remain in the same place for several days.
On the previous evening, while we were watching the bear with our glasses, we wondered what he was doing, as he seemed to remain a long time in one spot and appeared to be very busy. We were equally puzzled now we had got to the place, and could see nothing but the bare mountain-side covered with loose stones and no sign of vegetation of any sort. There were great hollows amongst the stones where the bear had been at work, but still not a vestige of roots nor anything that even a hungry bear would eat; so we applied to Mousa, by signs, to unravel the mystery. He laid down his long single-barrelled gun, went down
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 53
on his knees and began grubbing amongst the stones: presently he held up a large brown moth! Then another, and then we found several ourselves. The bear had been eating moths; but it must have taken a great many moths to satisfy a bear that had been hibernating for six months.
We hunted about on this part of the mountain for several hours, seeing bear tracks wherever there was snow, but no bear, and we got back to our camp about noon, tired and hungry, after eight hours' hard climbing.
On our way down to camp we magnanimously helped our rival to bring down the bear he had shot on the previous afternoon. He was a big bear and very heavy, but he was frozen quite stiff, so that we were able to roll him down the steep places, until we got to a place level enough for a donkey to stand upon, where the bear was skinned, cut up, and packed on the ass. Carter bought the skin, and we had bear steaks for dinner that evening and bear's paws for second course; but we came to the conclusion that, as food, fresh bear was not to be compared to Fortnum and Mason's tinned sausages. Possibly the bear was a little too fresh, as we had always heard that bear's paws were esteemed as a great delicacy.
We were not inclined to do anything more active this afternoon than to loaf about in camp and smoke, and to explore the course of the little stream by which we were encamped. We found that it was one of three, all of which sprang suddenly out of ground, and then, after running a short course, united into one quite respectable little river, which, after running another short course, disappeared down a hole in the ground and was seen no more.
We decided to start again at about three o'clock on
54 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
the following morning, and scour another part of the mountains as a last chance of getting a shot at a bear. Carter, however, had caught a severe cold and was quite knocked up; so it was decided that only the sergeant and I, with the faithful Mousa, should go up the mountain, and that the rest of the party should strike camp at a reasonable hour and drop down to the cedars, whilst the mountain party should cross over the mountain after their hunt, and come down to the cedars by another route.
This plan was carried out, and although the mountain party did not get a shot at a bear, they had a most interesting climb amidst magnificent scenery, ate a box of sardines and drank a tot of Navy rum on the summit of the highest peak of the Lebanon, much to the sergeant's delight, and then dropped down to the cedars at about four p.m., to find the tents pitched and dinner ready.
Mousa was much distressed at our bad luck in failing to get a shot at a bear; but the old boy had done his best, and he could do no more. He gave the sergeant and me a graphic description of a bear hunt, upon the very spot where it occurred some years before, though perhaps it would be more correct to call it a man hunt. He could not speak a word of our language, and we could only understand a few words of his; yet the whole thrilling scene was as clearly and graphically conveyed to us by signs and gestures as if he had spoken fluently in our mother tongue. The spot was a small plateau not far from the snow-line, wild and barren in the extreme, and near the centre of this plateau, amidst other rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes, there stood a round table of rock ten or twelve feet high, about twenty yards in diameter, a flat top
A TRIP IN THE LEBANON MOUNTAINS 55
and almost perpendicular sides; but there were a few places where an active man might climb up it, if he had time.
On one of his bear-hunting expeditions Mousa had arrived at this place, and creeping cautiously along, listening intently, he became aware of the sound of a bear grubbing amongst the stones. Presently he saw the bear, and taking cover behind the rock, he was able to crawl up to within a dozen yards of the bear without being observed, the animal was so intent upon licking up moths. Mousa waited a minute to get breath, and then, peering round the side of the rock, he let off his long single-barrelled gun and put two bullets into the bear. (Mousa always double-shotted his great gaspipe of a gun. I saw him loading it once. About five drams of powder and two round bullets, rammed down with a greasy rag.) The bear's wounds were not mortal, and, with an angry growl, he came straight for Mousa; and then began as exciting a hunt as any hunter could wish for, the only drawback being that the hunter was now the hunted (" bear behind ").
Mousa thought his only chance was to stick to the rock and not to give the wounded bear the advantage of a straight run in the open over rough ground; so round and round the rock he went, with the bear after him. He had no second shot, and nothing but his long knife to trust to. Once or twice the bear nearly caught him, and he was obliged to lighten himself by dropping his gun, which he had no time to reload. Then Mousa gained a little on the bear, who was probably weakening from his wounds and loss of blood; and choosing a spot - which he showed us - the old sportsman made a rush and clambered up on to the top of the
56 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
rock; but the bear did not give him much breathing time, and was very quickly after him, climbing up at the same place. Mousa, however, had time to pick up a huge stone, which he was lucky enough to find on the top of the rock, and, waiting until Bruin's head appeared over the edge, he brought the stone down on him with a crash which sent him rolling, stunned, to the bottom; and then without giving him a moment to recover, he jumped down after him and plunged his long knife into his heart. The old hunter acted the whole scene splendidly; his eyes sparkled, he trembled with excitement, and we felt as if we had seen it all with our own eyes.
Another night spent beneath the shade of those venerable cedars, and then we marched back to Tripoli, taking two days about it, as before. We said good-bye to Mousa at Bsherra, giving him a good supply of powder and bullets, besides the pay we had agreed upon. The old man was very grateful, and seemed really sorry to part from us. While sitting over our camp fire on our last evening at the cedars he took off some of his clothes and showed us the scars of wounds he had received during various encounters with bears; be had been terribly mauled, and, by the look of the scars, he must, on one occasion, have very nearly had his left arm torn from his body. He was a fine old sportsman, and I hope he may never want powder and shot and bears to hunt.
^ back to top ^