Adventuring in the Desert of Israel
The Bedouin man in his traditional long robe and headdress pounds out a rhythm with the ancient wooden coffee grinder. “Tap, tap, pound, tap, tap, pound.” He announces to the village that visitors are in the goat skin tent, so gather ‘round and listen to stories. While he plays his melody, he also grinds coffee beans mixed with cardamom. Coffee won’t be served until after we drink our steaming glasses of hot sweet tea and eat our freshly made pita bread. The pita are baked over an open fire then rolled with soft Lebaneh goat cheese and drizzled with olive oil from the Sea of Galilee.
The nomadic Bedouins are famous for their hospitality. “In the desert, you are never in a hurry,” our host tells us, “You always have time.”
Our stories stretch across the ocean from Israel to America but my friends and I didn’t arrive via camel, the “Ship of the Desert” as the nomadic Bedouins did. We arrived by airplane, in search of the “other Israel-” in the Negev Desert.
Our adventure began at the JoeAlon Center and the Museum of the Bedouin Culture in the northwest Negev, a good place to learn and become acquainted with this vast area that blankets 60% of Israel. Although most of Israel’s four million annual visitors come to the Holy Land, there is an untapped playground for outdoor enthusiasts just south of this congested city.
During our weeklong visit, we’ll experience a combination of hikes, jeep tours, and a camel ride; then top it off with snorkeling with dolphins in the Red Sea, and a float in the Dead Sea. Over 75 national parks and preserves set-aside in a country the size of Rhode Island and we’ll play in just a few of them.
At first sight, the Zin Valley in Ein Avdat National Park is not the type of place you’d expect to see a plethora of wildlife. (We’ve taken a jeep ride into the belly of the wadi or dry river canyon, where we’ll continue on a foot trail to a small oasis.) Hard white light drenches the stark limestone cliffs. A pair of ibex with their great curled horns, lounge placidly amid the rocks, with a confident air that they blend in and are safe. Enormous shadows skim across the bleached rocks as Griffin vultures, with their magnificent ten-foot wingspan, soar the ultramarine blue skies. At our feet, a brood of partridge hop along comically, each one following the leader. And then we hear the rumpus bouncing off the canyon walls- young men singing followed by boisterous laughter.
At the oasis, soldiers take turns throwing one another into the freshwater pool, their automatic machine guns resting against the rock wall. Some in underwear, some fully clothed, some with their ammo belts still attached. I chuckle when I think of my friends back home who cautioned me to “Be careful” when they heard I was going to Israel. But whether in the throngs of Jerusalem or the backcountry of the desert, it feels remarkably safe and friendly here.
On the trail, we also meet up with two long distance hikers who are trekking the entire 1,000-km Israel National Trail that spans this narrow, arrowhead-shaped country.
The Incense Route also crossed the Negev, an ancient merchant route where camel caravans transported spices and incenses from the Orient to the Roman Empire. We’ll sample this adventure when we camel trek down in the most southern tip of Israel at Eliat by the Red Sea.
Tonight we’re guests at Mashabim Kibbutz, one of Israel’s 280 world-renowned communal settlements. Many of these social communities were established as agricultural settlements back in the 1960’s, but have since moved to an industry-orientated economy that welcome travelers like ourselves who are looking for a more-authentic overnight stay. Nearby is the Sfinat Hamidbar Bedouin Camp, where we enjoy dinner in a tent, perched atop plump cushions set around a low table. We feast on fresh salads, cheeses, olives, roasted meats and sweet hot tea. For “dessert,” we travel a short distance to the Neve Midbar- a hot spring and spa with stylized pools filled with thermo-mineral rich waters. Come morning, we share a wholesome breakfast with fellow kibbutz members, and round off our best night in the Negev.
From here, its down to Highway 40 to Mitzpe Ramon where we walk the rim of the Maktesh “Crater-” a 40 kilometer long cliff-walled valley created by erosion. Out of the entire world, only Israel is blessed with these unique geological formations. This huge desert playground encompasses dramatic ridges and tabletops, colorful formations, dykes, and volcanic formations- all great places to mountain bike, horseback ride, hike or camel trek.
Also on our week’s agenda is a hike through the sandstone formations and canyons at Timna National Park, reminiscent of America’s Desert Southwest and a jeep ride and walk at the top of Mt. Soddom, to the pillar of salt that the Bible story claims is Lot’s Wife. Since these mountains and canyons are comprised of 98% salt, and are very bright, mountain biking by the full moon is unsurpassed.
But the most unforgettable experience of our weeklong adventure is a walk up the Snake Path to the top of the ancient fortress of Masada, a 440-meter plateau shaped like a rhomboid. On the summit, King Herod sculpted a three-tiered vacation home for himself and a playground for his officers. This 2 kilometer long switchbacking trail is engineered to be gradual so most moderately fit people can accomplish it. Climbing it has become a Rite of Passage for Jews because of what transpired here. Since it is the highest mountain below sea level, there is an abundance of oxygen, making it easy to breathe as one climbs.
One hundred years after Herod’s time, 2,000 Jewish people took refuge at Masada from the encroaching Roman army. They lived for three years on Herod’s stores (which were still edible) while the soldiers built an earthen ramp at the mountain’s feet to attain access to the 550-meter plateau.
From our trailside perch, the ancient Roman road and 1-meter high wall is clearly visible in the desert below, as are the foundations for eleven barracks. Beyond these ruins stretches the expansive Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. Around the opposite side of the monolith is the colossal earthen ramp that the Romans constructed in order to catapult ammunition and gain access to the mountain top city. This route is an alternative way to hike up to the fortress summit.
Once it was clear that the Romans would gain access to Masada, the Jews decided to commit collective suicide rather than become slaves. They took turns killing one another and drew lots to see who would be last and hence, necessitate falling onto their sword. Pottery shards of the men’s names written in Hebrew were found on site and are on display in the museum.
The gradual climb to the top gives us the time to imagine how it must have felt to live through this incredible event in this incredible place. The expansive desert at our feet reminds us that around every corner is a piece of ancient history and an exciting outdoor adventure waiting to be experienced.