Head to the valley of the Tannourine mountains to see a geological masterpiece surrounded by beautiful landscapes
The Tannourine mountains in Lebanon’s North are a vast area of largely unspoiled natural beauty, worthy of days of exploration. Though many have heard of the legendary Baatara Pothole, few people have visited, or perhaps even discovered its elusive entrance. Located after the village of Tannourine, in Balaa, down a small dirt track, its entrance is marked by a Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) information board that now bears the scars of bullet holes from passing hunters. A short winding descent down the steps of a grassy bank reveals a true natural wonder. Named the “Cave of the Three Bridges”, an impressive waterfall, only visible in spring, drops from a height of 255 meters, behind three precarious natural bridges connecting the two sides of the enormous hollow gorge.
Back in the early ‘50s, Baatara Pothole was not only a hidden gem but also an undiscovered one, until it was unearthed by French bio-speologist Henri Coiffait (1907-1989) in 1952. Lebanon’s historic Spéléo Club du Liban (SCL) founded back in 1951 by the country’s early caving pioneers Lionel Ghorra, Sami Karkabi, Raymond Khawam, and Albert Anavy – explored the pothole in the same year, eventually reaching the bottom in 1953. They mapped it in the ‘80s, revealing a deep chasm that reaches 250 meters.
“There are many factors threatening its future”
The depth of history on these lands is rather overwhelming. The limestone rocks themselves are ancient, formed around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic period. Water carved this geological masterpiece and the Wadi Baatara stream, which still flows freely in winter and spring from the springs of Ain Daaouq and Ain Arbit, gradually seeped through the limestone until the top bridge was created. Over millions of years, erosion from all sides eventually formed two more natural bridges that give a striking foreground to the flowing waterfall. Back in ’85, a dye test by the Lebanon SCL revealed that the underground water source re-emerged 13 hours later in the spring of Dalli in the village of Kfarhilda, 6km away.
The Wadi Baatara stream, makes up one of Lebanon’s biggest sources of fresh water from the Tannourine mountains, eventually emerging through five natural springs, from its journey across the underground source below this very gorge. “It’s very important as a geological formation,” Johnny Tawk says an active caver and modern member of the SCL. “All the water from the Laklouk river passes through this sinkhole. If it’s polluted directly, then the groundwater of Lebanon is polluted. We’ve found more than 40 sinkholes in the area. They act like a sponge for all the surrounding snow and water.” The Tannourine water plant, located further down the valley, has sourced water from these very mountains for over 30 years, selling 120 million liters of water to Lebanon the region, West Africa and Australia every year.
The Baatara Pothole is sadly under threat, from contamination of water flowing into the pothole, to sediment from sand quarries and excavations along with careless sports activities inside the pothole. The Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) is one of the associations trying to create awareness and help protect it.
“Unfortunately it is being abused,” says Karim El-Jisr from LMT. “There are many factors threatening its future. Climbers and cavers create new routes, further damaging the rock formation and underground network. There should only be one fixed route down.”
Besides the human interference, as with all rock formations Baatara Pothole is still in a slowed-down process of natural evolution, as yearly freezing and thawing continues to evolve the limestone. It’s a kind of metamorphosis in gradual motion, best enjoyed on a clear day with a picnic.
LMT Spring Thru Walk 2014 (05 955302, register at lebanontrail.org) April 4- May 4 Speleo Club du Liban’s international caving expedition (03 201509, speleoliban.org) Aug TBC
WHERE TO EAT
Auberge Eco Dalida, Tannourine El Fawqa, USD40 inc. breakfast
Facebook: Eco Dalida
WHERE TO SLEEP
Moultaka al Nahrein, Tannourine Tahta, USD15-35 03 536874
GO WITH A GUIDE
Georges Sarkis 03 679055
Chalita Tanios 03 223428
HOW TO GET THERE
Baatara Pothole is a 72km (1hr24mins) drive from Beirut. Take the highway north from Beirut through Jounieh, until you reach Byblos. Turn right off the highway towards Douma and Tannourine. Pass Tannourine village and continue on the mountain road upwards until you reach Balaa.