Soaring with the Eagles

Camel shaped ridge which gives the site its name

We had been planning a spring trip up north before the summer heat arrives and all the flowers wilt. Having waited a few weeks for the rains to stop, so the paths would not be muddy, we finally made it out again up north to see the rushing water in the waterfalls, the high level of the Kinneret ( Sea of Galilee) and the abundance of wildflowers. I deliberated a little about which waterfall to visit- should we go back to the Dan, the Tanur or the Snir? But then the highest waterfall in the country beckoned- the majestic Gamla National Park, which we had never been to before.

It’s over 2 hours’ drive to get up to the park from the centre of the country, and we had meant to get an early start. However since we only left home at 8, we arrived there a little after 10.30, having decided to avoid the toll road no. 6. On arrival we were a little dismayed to see a large number of tour buses parked, due to a whole school trip of 10th graders visiting the site. But once inside we found it was easy enough to spread out and avoid the noisy throngs. The site itself boasts several interesting features. Firstly there is the Eagle lookout point, from which one can observe the various kinds of raptors – the griffon vulture, Egyptian vulture and snake eagle. These birds all nest within the park and are looked after by the park ornithologists, who protect the nesting birds and have a breeding program which protects the eggs and releases the newly hatched chicks into the wild. The observation point gives a fantastic view over the valley where the birds nest in the cliff face, and all the way down to the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). It is an awesome location, hard to capture in my humble mobile phone.

Misty Kinneret

The next site is the ancient Second Temple period town of Gamla, and the ruins of the Christian village of Dir Keruh. There is not a lot to see here, but there is a multilingual audio guide telling the story of the ancient site in a very accessible way, aimed at kids, but quite cute.

From here you can walk to the Daliyot Stream and along the path to the actual waterfall. On the way you pass some interesting dolmens.

Dir Keruh village
Dolmen

The walk to the actually waterfall is gorgeous. There were loads of scattered wildflowers and the air was warm and balmy. It was pretty straightforward at the beginning and mostly flat, although some parts were muddy and involved finding ways around the mud puddles. Then there was a sharp descent to a bridge over the river itself and a bit of a scramble up the other side to the top of the cliff to see the height of the waterfall drop in all its 51 metre glory.

The whole walk was probably only about 4 kilometres, but we took it very slowly and enjoyed it immensely. As we came back down, there was a guy sitting near the bridge who did not want to continue up to the top of the Falls; we told him he was missing out. The sheer drop and the craggy quality of the surrounding cliffs are hard for non photographers to capture. Added bonus was glimpse of the snow capped Hermon mountains in the far distance (too hazy to photograph)

Picture does not do justice to the view

We had thought we would continue on to another waterfall, but we still had a long drive back home and were satisfied with what we had seen. We went down to the Sea of Galilee and walked a little along the shoreline, but the visibility was poor. So after eating our sandwiches and finishing off with a nice ice cream we set off for home. It was a long but very satisfying day. Stay tuned for the next trip.

The Deep South

The lowest art gallery on earth

I have never been a big fan of Eilat- the glitzy, southern town of Israel on the Red Sea, bordered by Egypt to the South and Jordan to the East. It has always seemed a bit like the Israeli version of Southend (with, admittedly much better weather ).

The last time we visited was in 2009. It is the stuff of shiny tax-free shopping, people frying themselves on the beach and then retreating to their package deal hotels and swimming pools before they hit the noisy nightclubs. Definitely not my thing. But then last year it was arranged that there was to be a reunion of WUJS , the movement that brought me to Israel back in 1979. The members coming from abroad would stay at the Ketura Kibbutz guest house, a 20 minute drive from Eilat, and would come together for various activities and meetups. We all booked rooms hoping that Covid would be over by November 2021. And then it wasn’t. Tourism only opened up here on November 1, by which time the overseas attendees had cancelled their rooms. But we kept ours, since the hosts in Ketura, Avigail and Noah , are great friends of ours, whom we have stayed in touch with over the years. So we decided not to cancel our booking and to spend a couple of days down south. On the way down to the Kibbutz I wanted to stop off at the Dead Sea, a bona fide tourist spot, being the lowest point on the planet, boasting unique geological features and a strange climate said to be good for various ailments and thus popularised by health tourism. It’s another place I don’t visit often.

We drove down to the Dead Sea, wondering as the scenery changed from our Sharon green, with its citrus groves and then through the green wooded hills of the Jerusalem area, and suddenly morphing into the desert scenery south of Jerusalem, before the true biblical desert area around Kalia, our first stop at the Dead Sea.

Our first point of call was the so called minus 430 Gallery, which is not exactly an art gallery in the traditional sense of the word. The self declared lowest art gallery on Earth is actually an impromptu gallery of graffiti art, on a bunch of abandoned buildings. Originally these buildings were barracks of the Jordanian army, which abandoned the buildings after the Six Day war, and were then occupied by Dead Sea Industry workers. They too abandoned them, and various artists moved in to decorate them. And they are actually rather fetching I think.

Each artist has a different style and message, and the stark contrast with the blue sky and the desolate landscape is really quite striking. I assume that, like all graffiti, these images are constantly changing. In any case it was all rather interesting. We met a pair of Austrian tourists on their way from Bethlehem to Jericho, and chatted a little with them, since we had just returned from 10 days in Austria, and discovered that coincidentally, one was from the Kitzbuhel area and the other from Graz! (see previous post)

As one heads on down south, the mountains tower over the road in ever changing strange shapes and caves, including the Qumran caves where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. You can see all manner of strange figures, including the supposed shape of the Biblical Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt. The Dead Sea area is constantly changing, and the sea is shrinking. In recent years the salt deposits have formed strange mushroom shapes in the sea, very popular among the Instagram crowd. We stopped off at the beach behind the Herod’s Hotel, which has a large free beach with sunshades and chairs, and also showers and toilets. The whole area has many more hotels than last time we were there, and has a nice promenade running the length of the northern part of the sea.

Herods beach

After spending a peaceful few hours sitting by the Dead Sea and reading we continued on to Kibbutz Ketura to check in and meet our friends Avigail and Noah for dinner in the kibbutz communal dining room and chat at their place over tea until bedtime.

Next day we got up and set off for Eilat and the Red (not Dead) Sea. We decided to go to the Coral Beach, which is part of the Nature Reserve and therefore requires sign up but doesn’t cost any money entrance if you have your Matmon Nature parks card (which we do). The beach is very quiet and has a lifeguard and shaded areas, free plastic chairs, toilets and a kiosk. There is a roped off area you can swim and snorkel in without disturbing the coral.You can also do diving courses nearby. It is apparently a very famous place for snorkelling and diving (about which I know very little). It is rather cool to see the mountains of Jordan opposite. We even saw a Jordanian flag in the distance.

After spending a very pleasant day on the Coral beach, we wandered around in Eilat town. If you are so inclined you can rent a glass bottomed boat, or visit the Underwater Observatory, or even swim with dolphins. We did none of these but we did book a place in The Last Refuge fish restaurant, recommended to us by Noah, and very splendid it was too.

The next morning after meeting Avigail for breakfast and saying goodbye, we checked out and headed for home. But on the way we stopped off at a kibbutz called Neot Smadar, which I had heard of and even seen a documentary about. The documentary had made me most curious, but I understood that the current kibbutz is now completely different to what I had seen in said documentary. The place now houses about 200 people, who mostly do art and make cheeses and wines. The arts centre is open to the public for a small fee. You cannot just drive in though. You have to call a number from the gate and fill in a payment form and then you can enter. I think they just don’t want strangers barging into their kibbutz, which is fair enough. They also do various residential art workshops. The place was quite extraordinary and very photogenic. We had a guided tour of the Arts centre complete with short video explaining the history of the place, the winery and saw the goats. It was very enjoyable.

We then drove home “tired but full of impressions” as the Israelis say. The deep south was certainly interesting.

Stay tuned for our next adventure, now the summer heat has broken and rain is on the way…

Lazing around in the heat

Kinneret

On the 1st September, having booked what is locally known as a “zimmer”, or guest house, up in the Galilee, we jumped in the car and headed north at a staggering 7 am. The date picked was of course the day when families with kids would be packing their offspring thankfully off to school. As a retired teacher, I am now free to go off on a jaunt, to places which up till today have been heaving with large, noisy families. We hoped to find a quiet retreat and some respite from the heat. We were not disappointed.

This trip was supposed to be centred around water spots, since daytime temperatures are hovering around the mid 30s Centigrade, so it is really too hot to do any hiking. I therefore decided to go to the Magrase Nature reserve (otherwise known as Daliot, where one can walk through waist high water to cool down. However the morning we were due to arrive there, the Parks Authority website informed me that it, and a number of other hikes involving water, were all polluted. When I phoned them (on our way up North) they told me that the site was not closed to the public but that walking in the water would be at our own risk. We of course decided not to brave any bugs that might be lurking there, and proceeded to Lavnun Beach on the Kinneret. The Kinneret, for those not in the know, is the local name for the Sea of Galilee, which is not a sea at all but a large lake, and the focal point for most summer recreation in this tiny country. Once we arrived and parked, we quickly found a shady spot underneath the eucalyptus trees, and were happy to see that there were no more than about a dozen people spaced out along the beach. The water was lovely and warm, and we spent a good few hours relaxing in the water, eating our sandwiches and reading.

Kinneret, with early morning mist

Check in time at the zimmer is 15.00 so around 14.30 we packed up our chairs and headed up to Moshav Shefer (no relation) to settle in. I picked the place because it is up above the Sea of Galilee, which is rather warm and humid. Up in the hills the temperature is much more refreshing, and has the added attraction of wonderful views down the valley. Our zimmer consisted of four chalets set in a beautifully maintained garden, and a shared pool. Since we were the only guests on the site it was also quiet and private. The owner, Penina arrived when I called her and showed us how to use the a/c and ostensibly the television, which refused to comply. She therefore called her son who was on his way home from Hadera and whom she said would arrive and fix the problem. Meanwhile we relaxed in the capacious chalet, which had two floors, a jacuzzi and a small kitchenette.

After resting we headed out to look for dinner. WE drove around the Druze village of Rame and failed to locate the restaurant recommended to me by Google maps. We tried to ask locals some of whom did not speak Hebrew, and others who just did not know of any restaurant. Driving around Druze villages by the way requires quite a lot of competence, as the roads were mostly constructed for donkeys and not for two directional traffic. Anyway we eventually found a wonderful little place called Snobar (meaning Pine cone) which served us a huge green salad and tortillas filled with spicy chicken breast and vegetables, all for the princely sum of 90 shekels for both of us. We tipped the charming waitress generously. On the way back to our room we picked some pomegranates from the tree outside our chalet. There were also tons of lemons.

Next day we decided to head for Achziv National Park but first I wanted to check out a place I have heard of but never visited before. It is called Keshet (Arch) cave and is not really a cave at all. It is located in the Galilee, and has a wonderful view of the area, once you have braved the hairpin bends to the top of the hill. It is also a popular spot for daredevil rappellers, not of course for yours truly and her fear of heights. The drive up to the top was breathtaking and also gave glimpses of a number of caves. It was impossible to take any pictures on the way up so you will have to take my word for it. On the path leading to the Arch there are memorial stones commemorating Eldad Regev, Ehud Goldwasser, and other soldiers killed in the Lebanon War.

Brave lads waiting to descend

The walk up from the parking lot to the arch is really short and wheelchair accessible so it’s a fun activity for everyone. From there we continued along the Northern Road (which is the most northerly road in Israel hugging the Lebanese border. It’s odd to look over to your right and see Lebanese towns and villages up close and personal. The view is stunning, and I really think it’s one of my favourite places in the country. After about 20 minutes we got to Achziv park, having first gone by mistake to Achviz public beach, which is only a couple of kilometres further on, but requires a U turn to correct one’s error. The entrance to the Achziv Park costs a bit extra despite my brandishing my “Matmon” Parks card because, as the nice lady explained, there’s the beach. And what a magnificent beach it is too. The site has a few archeological curiosities, and a campsite, for those so inclined, who can go to sleep and then wake up to this glorious vision:

Achziv National Park

After the customary ice cream in the cafeteria ( a family tradition on visiting National Parks, due to us getting a card holder’s discount) we headed down to the beach, which has rock pools where you can wade under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. The water was gorgeous except for the horrid little fish which kept trying to bite me (but then I am also inclined to bite fish when I can too, so I suppose it’s only fair). There is a huge sunshade set up on the beach and it was not difficult to while away several hours there. The site closes at 5pm so from there we headed into Nahariya to get something to eat and watch the sunset before heading home.

A bit of culture in Old Jaffa

view from the Promenade

After a couple of months of not going anywhere or doing any hiking, due to the extreme heat (over 30C most days) and it being school holidays in July and August, and overcrowded everywhere, I finally decided it would be a good idea to check out a nice air conditioned museum. Many museums are popular with families making them not ideal when trying to avoid people,( found this out while visiting the new Steinhardt Natural History museum in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago), but I eventually hit on the perfect solution.

We went off to Jaffa, parking in our favourite place right opposite the Etzel Museum and Neve Zedek. From there it’s only a 15 minute walk down to Old Jaffa. Walking along the Charles Clore Promenade there is a wonderful breeze from the sea, and I was only sorry I had not thought of doing this weeks ago. Anyway Jaffa turned out to be just as charming as I remembered, surely a place one can visit again and again.

After walking around a bit in the beautiful winding alleys of Old Jaffa we arrived at the Ilana Goor Museum, right next to the Uri Geller Museum (which I had never heard of before). The main entrance appeared to be closed, but a nice man let us in through the back door, which led us through the almost overwhelmingly packed gift shop. For the princely sum of 25 shekel each we were then treated to a leisurely wander through a magnificent collection of sculptures and paintings, some by Ilana Goor herself and some from her very eclectic collection of artworks, including portraits of her by other artists, and even one Henry Moore.

Suddenly the lady herself appeared from behind a private door, and we had a short chat with her. She was an elegant 85 year old, very gracious and interesting.

Young Ilana Goor Portrait

Many of the exhibits were examples of the way the artist incorporates unusual elements such as animal hides and skulls into her work. The furniture was particularly unusual. I am not sure it was all to my taste but it was certainly interesting. There are several floors and the open balconies and the roof sculpture garden with the view to the sea were especially lovely. You can sit in the roof garden and eat your sandwiches to admire the view. The artist has lovingly restored the old house (one of the oldest houses in Jaffa, which originally served as a hostel to Jewish pilgrims ) and now lives there herself. The kitchen is particularly striking, with its blend of old samovars and modern fridge and sink. I must admit to having taken far too many pictures, which makes it hard to select the ones I will post here.

The views from the window and the roof garden

After enjoying the gallery we went for a little mosey around Jaffa and rounded off the morning with a quick delicious hummus and falafel at Yfrach restaurant.

Highly recommend this area, and I am sure we will be coming back again soon.

An exciting Passover jaunt

I had been wanting to visit the Park Hamaayanot for some time, ever since I saw some photos of it online. Despite it being Passover week after a year of lockdown, and knowing the roads would be packed, we nevertheless decided to brave it and hop up to take a look, seeing how glorious the weather is right now.

Pleaes note that the same entrance is for Gan Guru, a sort of Australian style animal theme park, and for Gan Hashlosha. IF you only want to visit Park haMaaayanot you take the right parking lot.

As we are early risers we made it to the park by 9.30, and saw that there were already quite a lot of people but it was not dire. Also, after grabbing a map and heading off to the first spring, we found that many people just descend on the park to picnic right near the entrance; the further in we got, the less crowded it became. The springs are quite spaced out, and you can hire a golf cart or bicycle to get around (if you don’t mind standing in line for an hour or so) but the walk between the springs for us was actually the highlight of the whole experience. The sun was shining not too strongly, the air was fresh, and the colours really stunning. At each spring we saw groups of families picnicking, but in between we largely had the place to ourselves. At some points you walk along the river bank, and at others along fields. There are also parts of the trail designated “wet trails” where if you want you can walk in the water. The water is at a constant 24C so you can bathe here all year round. It all looked clean and lovely.

There are designated swimming areas, and others where you are not supposed to swim, but we saw people swimming all over. Again there are several different sites to choose from- we saw Ein Shokek and some other points on the river, but we didn’t go as far as Ein Muda, which also has a swimming place.

We also observed families of ducks, lots of birds and fish in the water. We decided not to visit all the springs, as it was getting warm, and the park was getting crowded, and we wanted to include the Bet Shean National Park ( which I had already made reservations for). So after a couple of hours we skipped the furthest spring Ein Muda and headed back to our car. This was just as well, as the parking lot was swiftly turning into a jungle. Getting out took a whole lot longer than getting in, and included a few fairly hairy almost- collisions. Fortunately we made it out and proceeded on to Bet Shean, only a 10 minute drive away.

Having the National Parks Matmon pass has been such a blessing. Not only do we get free entrance into all the parks, we also get a reduction on Magnum ice cream in the shop!

The cafe shop of the Bet Shean park has a lovely shady terrace with a fantastic view of the whole site.

This magnificent archeological site, historically known as Scythopolis, was the leading city of the Decapolis, a league of pagan cities. It was of course settled a long time before the Romans even from the neolithic period, and was subsequently inhabited by Byzantines, Greeks (there are some Greek inscriptions in some of the flagstones), the Egyptians and the Hasmoneans (and pretty much everybody!) . It has a huge amphitheatre, several bath houses with mosaics and public latrines, the main Palladius street and a vast array of houses, showing us how sophisticated and extensive the Roman city was.The current amphitheatre is being restored and is used for outdoor performances.

Amphitheatre

Since it was now after midday, and getting rather hot (Bet Shean valley is known to be one of the warmer places in the country) , we gave a miss to the ascent the Bet Shean Tel,with its copious steps, and decided to head home to beat the crowds. We did this in spectacular manner. Presumably as the main highways were all thronged with holidaymakers, our Waze navigator sent us through the backroads of the West bank area of Samaria. We wondered at the beautiful rolling green hills which we had never seen before. There were no villages or settlements, only a few Beduin encampments and lots of goats and sheep. The view was wonderful and relaxing. Then hubby said we only had enough gas for another 25 km or so. We started looking for a gas station (to no avail) . Google maps informed me that the nearest one was at the entrance to the West Bank town of Ariel (11 km away according to the map). We missed the turning (of course) .After another 2km we made a U turn and arrived at said station. All’s well that ends well.

An explosion of colour

This week’s walk was very different from our previous hikes in nature. We finally made it into the city- Tel Aviv, which we have not frequented for over a year. It is now opening up and as we are double vaxxed we decided to head off to do a self-guided graffiti tour of the Florentin neighbourhood, squeezed between hip, gentrified Neve Zedek and multicultural picturesque Yaffo. Florentin is famous for grunge, garages and carpentry. It is inhabited by many young people, and is well known as the graffiti hub of Tel Aviv. So we signed up for a tour which one can follow on a mobile phone, and comes with maps, audio and video explanations, and walking directions. You can do it at your own pace and you only need one for your group. It was great, as it took us to places that we had never heard of, and would have had difficulty finding alone.

We started off at a park called the Tractor Park,which I had never heard of before. Here we sat on a bench and heard an introductory video about what graffiti is, and what is the difference between graffiti and street art. We were also reminded that as graffiti is dynamic and changing, it was possible that we would find different paintings in some locations. I was amazed not just by the sheer quantity of the paintings, but also the quality and variety of them. As a friend remarked, it’s like being in a free outdoor gallery. It is hard to choose which paintings to show with you ,as there were so many wonderful ones.

Some places had recurring names of artists, which we started to identify. One artist incorporates braille in her paintings, stating that the blind cannot see the paintings, and the seeing cannot mostly read the braille…

Braille above the graffiti

Some areas had more poems and words incorporated into the painting, and some were more visual . At one square, we came to a huge wall painting reminiscent of San Francisco in the 1960s, complete with flower painted cars, and people lounging around listening to music next to a fountain. There were other places where the synagogue had wall paintings with stars of David blended into the works.

We finished off our tour with a meal in a Vietnamese restaurant called Kanu, right next to the wall of the largest wall painting by an artist called Dede and his partner. This work is made of recycled bits of lumber from furniture and is dedicated to women murdered during 2020. From there it was a short walk back our beloved beach promenade, for a quick look at the sea before we headed home. I would happily do another of these self guided tours. WE saw people in groups doing a regular guided tour, and of course the advantage of our tour was that we could stop wherever we wanted and take our time to look at the paintings. You can also do the tour several times during the 14 days it is available, if you like. The company has similar tours in other locations, which I would like to check out. So stay tuned for more walking adventures…

Huge wall art by Dede and Nitzan Mintz, in memory of women murdered during 2020

No crocodiles- only turtles

This trip was to another national park on the coast North of Netanya, known as Nahal Taninim, or Crocodile stream. There is indeed a stream there, and a system of waterways dating from the Roman and Byzantine period, but disappointingly, no sight of any crocodiles. Wikipedia insists that there were indeed crocs there until the beginning of the 20th Century, adding helpfully that “The last crocodile was hunted in 1912, and is part of a German taxidermic collection currently on display at the natural history museum of the Tel Aviv University.. So there we are. The aqueduct was used to ferry water into the ancient city of Caesarea nearby. Anyway it is a very pleasant place for a strolll and a sandwich. You can walk just around the area of the dam. and even walk along the aqueduct, or you can follow the trail along the river itself. WE did this part way, but abandoned it before reaching the beach as it was rather muddy. There are lots of seabirds circling overhead and the place is a very pleasant day trip.

The Aqueduct

It’s very interesting to see the highly developed hydrotechnology they had so many centuries ago, which looks like it would function just fine today. The site is not incredibly large but very peaceful, and easy to walk around. If you have time you can nip down to the nearby beach at Jisr a Zarqr. Stay tuned for more adventures…

It’s red down south!

I had previously heard ( before this strange epidemic) about the wonderful blossoming of the red anemones in the south of the country known locally as Adom Darom ( Red in the South) . Since we have never gone to see it before, and have just come out of lockdown ( 8th February) we thought we would check it out. I came across several possible locations, all around what is locally known as the Gaza envelope, a part of the country which for obvious reasons I have never visited before. We picked a place called Shokeda Forest,which turned out to be wondrously beautiful and green after the rains, and the trip was quite an eye opener. We finished off the day with a gorgeous sunset on the beach at Palmachim, right next to the Kibbutz,followed by home made scones and rhubarb jam at our son’s house. A perfect day indeed.

Obligatory pose with anemones

And so to Shokeda , about 90 minutes drive from home in the Sharon. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the road open, it being a Thursday after the rush hour. We were accompanied by our faithful sandwiches and apples. On arriving at the small road leading in to the forest we were greeted by the chimes of two ice cream vans, a fact I stored in my memory for later. The forest was full of people but not so crowded that you could not get away and find serenity. The further we walked the fewer people we saw, just an occasional group of walkers of all ages or a lone runner. There were trails marked out for runners taking part in the Adom Darom activities. The red flowers were scattered everywhere and the trail in the forest was pleasant. We even saw a flock of sheep grazing.

After some time we decided to turn back as we had no clue if it was a circular route or not. So we retraced our steps to the car, got stuck into our sandwiches and finished off with the ice cream from the truck. After relaxing on our folding chairs under a tree for a while we set off for the beach at Palmachim so as to arrive before sunset (it being winter this would be at 17.25) On the way we saw the concrete shelters next to bus stops built to protect people from rocket attacks from Gaza.

Palmachim belongs to the parks authority so we didn’t have to pay to enter, and the car park gave us a generous reduction because of our Pass, so we were happy. The beach, despite this being winter, was quite full of people, some even braving the water, and loads of pro photographers set up to catch the sunset.

So admittedly we did get stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on the way back but all in all it really was a fabulous day. We shall see how the weather holds out, as we still have lots of hiking destinations to check out. Stay tuned!

Slip slidin’ away in the Jerusalem Hills

In this hike I nearly killed my husband. Not intentionally you understand. But we did get a bit more of an adventure than we had bargained for. We set out for Nahal Katlav, a hike near Bet Shemesh near the Jerusalem Hills, a circular hike of moderate difficulty, supposedly around 7km in length.No problem, we walked over 21km a day sometimes in Japan, easy peasy we thought. The trail starts next to the Bar Bakfar restaurant just near Bet Shemesh. As we parked we were worried that there were so many people in the car park it would be crowded. But it turns out this is the starting point for a number of trails, including some really easy ones for kids around American Independence Park . As soon as we got on our black marked trail we saw few people. All went well at first, a reasonably easy descent towards the wadi, slightly muddy and slippery in places, but we took it slowly. A red marked trail branched off to our left, but my instructions said to continue following the black path along the side of the valley. The views were spectacular, even though occasionally the path was rather narrow and the drop too close to me for comfort. All around were lots of wooded slopes, pine, oak and olive, and yes also the smooth red arbutus (Katlav) that gives the valley its name.

After about an hour or so we met up with the blue trail, as instructed. Here things got a little complicated. The trail got narrower and narrower, and in some places we had to scramble up and down rocks, which we did with the aid of our bottoms. WE got muddy. No matter. But then… at one point we scrambled up an almost vertical rock face, and … the trail markers disappeared. WE could not see where we were meant to continue! Straight on there seemed to be no path at all. On our right a sheer drop into the wadi. On our left a rock face. WE climbed gingerly up it but could see no path whatsoever. There was nothing for it but to go back. Having gone back a couple of metres, we did find a blue path leading down still further. But at this point we had a feeling that this was all taking longer than it should (our pace not being that of spring chickens) so we decided to go back the way we had come. We had been walking for more than two hours, meaning going back was probably going to take another two hours, and this being winter, it gets dark before 5pm.

So we retraced our steps, by which time my knee was aching. But the view was stunning, we were out in the fresh air, and no people in sight. We made it back to the car totally exhausted and very muddy. An exhilarating experience. We shall go back and do the other end of the trail another time.

Down to the desert

On the way to En Avdat

Threatened again with yet another lockdown before Hanuka and it being our wedding anniversary and both of our birthdays round about now,we decided to spend a couple of days down in the area of Mitzpe Ramon, Israel’s modest answer to the Grand Canyon. Having persuaded my better half that it could not be done in a day and we would have to spend a night, I discovered that all the decent accommodation required TWO nights. By “decent” I mean not in a tent with no proper electricity or proper bathroom facilities, something I am not prepared to do at my age.

Our first destination was Ein Avdat, a canyon just south of Sde Boker, in the Negev. The canyon sits just under the ruins of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, and the wadi is apparently the largest dry riverbed in the Negev. As you walk along the canyon you come to a series of waterfalls and pools which make a striking contrast to the surrounding desert rocks. There are basically two possible trails here, one very short and easy and one a long and demanding hike. Guess what, we did the short easy one. But it was indeed very beautiful and photogenic.

From Ein Avdat we continued on down Road 90 into Mitzpe Ramon but passed the turning into the town to cross down into the floor of the huge crater, 14 km wide, and 40 km long. The views from the car on the winding road were stunning but there were few places to stop and take photos, and when we saw such a place it was usually after we had just passed by. Once you have driven through the hairpin bends of Maale Haatzmaut you come to a number of interesting sites where you can stop and admire the view of the canyon. The first we saw was called the Coloured Sand park (pretty self explanatory) , a short walk around it and you see the most wonderful views of the canyon, hard to photograph except with Panoramic mode. The site is actually a restored mining site now preserved. From here you can either hike or drive to the next spot, called Minsara (signposted “Carpentry” in English) where you can climb up a wooden walkway and see an interesting rock formation, which has produced some strange geometric shapes, hexagonal stones which are so regular as to appear man made.

As it was getting colder, and sunset is ridiculously early now (16.45!) we decided to drive back into Mitzpe Ramon and find a good place to watch the sunset before hitting our accommodation. There was a sort of balcony just on the edge of town near the visitors’ centre that looked good but apparently doesn’t face the right direction for sunset. We popped into the centre and asked the nice lady there where would be the best place to catch a good desert sunset. She suggested a place called Har Gamal ( Camel Hill) , gave us a map and told us how to get there. So we drove exactly 7 minutes (Mitzpe is a very small place) and found said hill and got ourselves a lovely sunset. We got out our thermos of tea and our beach chairs and enjoyed the show.

Be advised that when the sun sets in the desert the temperature suddenly plummets dramatically. So during the day it can be 22C and suddenly it will be around 9C and you quickly put on your sweater and coat. Since all the coffee bars and restaurants are currently closed, we headed for our accommodation, which proved to be quite nice. It had a nice balcony which we decided would do just as well as Camel Hill for the following day’s sunset.

Our Accommodation (with kitchen and balcony)

The next day I had a surprise for D, as I had reserved a two hour jeep tour on a sort of buggy called a “razor”. The tour was self drive (meaning HE would drive ) around the top of the canyon , and hopefully we would get some good views of the area. The office where we picked up the jeep was very close to our b and b, and on the way we passed through a part of the town known as the Spice Road Quarter, which in normal times would be full of shops, galleries and restaurants but which of course now is all shutttered. I did find some good street art there though.

At the office of Ramon RZR we met the genial Daniel, our guide, (who explained what to do) and another couple, Americans from Neve Daniel. WE were to drive one after the other, no overtaking and no bravado. The buggies had all been thoroughly sterilized, and we got bandanas and goggles to protect us from the desert dust. We had a lovely tour where Daniel pointed out by walkie talkie, a few things en route that we couldn’t hear over the noise of the buggy (one was the Mitzpe Ramon Observatory) and we didn’t take photos as it was too bumpy. But at the end Daniel stopped to take our pictures and to make us lovely strong Turkish coffee . All in all , it was a lot of fun.

Next we drove to a place called Ein Saharonim, where there is a hike to another desert spring. It’s only about 10 minutes from Mitzpe and the hike is supposed to be around 7km circular route from the campsite at Khan Saharonim to Parsat Nekarot and back . However it took us longer than we thought, and we got a bit worried we would get stuck in the canyon at nightfall, so we upped our pace somewhat, the last part of the hike being a steep climb up.

The route was interesting and had we not been pressured for time we would have enjoyed it at a more leisurely pace. The route passes through narrow canyons of polished white limestone pitted with little holes.

Parsat Nekarot

When we staggered back to the car it was about 30 minutes before sunset, so we quickly picked up a pizza and ate it on our balcony with a beer as we watched another desert sunset. On the way back to our place we glimpsed some desert ibex nonchalantly wandering around in the road. They had eluded us in the desert, but apparently they hang out in town where the food is.

Our last morning would be different as we left the Negev desert and headed back up north by way of Habesor National Park and Ashdod beach promenade. I found the park a little disappointing. It seemed rather neglected, and I was happy that our National Parks Pass had allowed us to have a free visit, as it didn’t seem anything to write home about. There is a small stream running through it, picnic tables, and an old railway bridge left over by the bridge. The mosaics from the Byzantine church that were supposed to be there apparently now residing in Australia. ( something to do with the ANZAC forces who fought here. )

Ashdod has a lovely new promenade, the beach was clean and pretty deserted (no lifeguard) and made for a relaxing end to our trip. We found a restaurant selling takeaway Georgian food, which we ate while contemplating the lovely Mediterranean. I wondered at the marvel of sitting on the beach on 2nd December in brilliant sunshine. And so ended another lovely trip around our beautiful country. Stay tuned for the next one…

Ashdod Kshatot beach