Category: Negev

Ein Avdat, Ben Gurion’s Hut and Mitzpe Revivim

Although the course may have finished, the exploring never stops – all I need is an excuse. My friend Ben happily provided that when he suggested we go on a trip down to the Negev desert, and I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity to check out a few places that I had been meaning to visit.

Hiking Ein Avdat
Hiking Ein Avdat

We began our day at the desert oasis of Ein Avdat. It is a popular hike, because it is quite easy, and utterly beautiful. the combination of the springs with the bleak desert scenery is really very special. Unfortunately, the only way to do the whole hike is by having a car/bus pick you up at the other side (there is a section which is only one way), so we missed out on the very final part of the hike, but we certainly got to enjoy the majority of it.

An ibex in the wild
An ibex in the wild

As we were around at a quiet time, we also had the pleasure of seeing some of the local desert wildlife taking advantage of the oasis. There are many ibexes wandering the Negev and the ones we encountered were relatively unphased by our presence. It was wonderful to observe them.

Having stretched our legs, we headed up to the nearby Sde Boker Field School, which houses the graves of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, and his wife Paula. Nearby is the small hut to which Ben Gurion retired, famously choosing to live a life of relative simplicity on a kibbutz as part of his socialist ideology, instead of occupying a grand house which many felt he was due. He also chose specifically to live in the Negev, an area which he saw as the future of Israel; vital that it be developed in terms of agriculture and settlement for the state’s survival.

David Ben Gurion's Hut
David Ben Gurion’s Hut

His hut is quaint, kept as it was when he lived there. It is particularly interesting to see the gifts he received from other statesman (having just returned from a trip to Burma where we saw photographs of his visit there, it was touching to see the Buddah he received in a prominent position). The library is also quite amazing, giving you a scope of quite how well read Ben Gurion was, and how many languages he commanded. There is no doubt that he was a very impressive man.

Leaving Sde Boker, we popped in to a couple of small farms that were not too far away, both of which specialise in the manufacture of Goat’s Cheese. We particularly enjoyed the Naot Farm which also has options to stay, should you wish to get away from it all.

Mitzpe Revivim
Mitzpe Revivim

We then headed west as I was keen to check out Mitzpe Revivim, one of the first Jewish settlements in the Negev, in the modern period. This small agricultural settlement had a significant impact on the Negev being awarded to Israel as part of the partition plan; the stories that accompany it are perhaps more impressive than the buildings which remain (the modern kibbutz has moved slightly away from the original site).

We had a bit of time before heading home, so we briefly stopped off at the Besor Hanging Bridge, the Maon ancient Synagogue, and the Black Arrow memorial (read more about these in my previous blog post), before returning to Tel Aviv. It is amazing how close we live to the desert, and it was wonderful to take advantage of it. Thanks, Ben!

Beer Sheva and the Southern Coastal Plain

Today’s tour was dedicated to various sites along the southern coastal plain, culminating in a jump into the capital of the Negev desert, Beersheva. A long day, as we move forward in a final push towards the final exams and ensure that we fit in all the necessary sites in the time we have remaining.

Mazkeret Batya Cemetery
Mazkeret Batya Cemetery

Our day began at the quaint town of Mazkeret Batya, founded in the late 19th century by Baron Rothschild and named for his mother. We began our visit in the cemetery which also houses the reinterred remains of the great Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, one of the forerunners of the Zionist movement (and who pre-dates Herzl in his work for a Jewish state).

We continued into the centre of the old town, stopping at the museum, viewing some of the old buildings and hearing the stories of their residents, culminating at a visit to the Shmuel Mohilever museum. The museum is small but does a good job of recounting the story of a very impressive man, and was the highlight of our trip to Mazkeret Batya.

Philistine altar found at Tel Tzafit, believed to be biblical Gath
Philistine altar found at Tel Tzafit, believed to be biblical Gath

We then headed south to the coast, and to the city of Ashdod. Here we began our visit at the ironically named Museum of Philistine Culture. But we quickly discovered that the modern association with the word Philistine is most inappropriate – these were a most cultured people who brought many interesting customs and craftwork to the region, with Ashdod being one of their biggest cities.

The museum is small but extremely well done. We enjoyed the opportunity to reenact Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple, and various other interactive exhibits. We concluded the visit with some tasting of ‘Philistine food’ and dressing up in ‘Philistine costumes’. The latter activities are targeted at children but I can assure you that adults are equally able to enjoy themselves!

Ummayid fortress of Ashdod Yam
Ummayid fortress of Ashdod Yam

We headed further out towards the coast, to the impressive remains of the Ashdod Yam fortress. Dated to the Ummayid period in the 7th century, it seems that it was constructed to help protect local residents from sea pirates who would launch raids in order to kidnap people for the slave trade.

Ashdod Port
Ashdod Port

Our final stop in Ashdod was at the visitors’ centre at the port. Built in the 60s, and rendering the ports at Tel Aviv and Jaffa irrelevant, Ashdod port is now a key part of Israel’s economy. The visitors’ centre was quite fun with all sorts of interactive quizzes, and we were then driven around the port area to marvel at the huge ships and their accompanying machinery.

Rutenberg Power Station, Ashkelon
Rutenberg Power Station, Ashkelon

We drove south to Asheklon, and a visit to the Rutenberg Power Station. This huge facility provides about 20% of the electricity for Israel and the Palestinian territories. We drove around the site and learned also about the history of electricity in Israel – Rutenberg (after whom the site is named) had the vision to electrify the country and succeeded in doing so – a hugely impressive feat that helped drag the area into the 20th century.

Abraham's Well (?), Beer Sheva
Abraham’s Well (?), Beer Sheva

We then traveled south to Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev desert and actually the geographical centre of the country. We first visited the relatively recently opened Abraham’s Well site, where a 3D film that tells the story of Abraham (who first settled in the area of Beer Sheva, according to the Bible); on the film’s completion it is possible to visit an ancient well which may perhaps be connected to the one Abraham dug on arrival.

British Military Cemetery, Beer Sheva
British Military Cemetery, Beer Sheva

We continued with a wonder through the historical centre of the city (although it is not so old – the city was only reestablished in 1900 under the Ottomans). We heard the stories of the difficult battle for the city between the British and the Turks in 1917, and visited both the British military cemetery and the memorial for the Turkish fallen, together with a quite magnificent mosque which was constructed early in the 20th century.

Monument to the Negev Brigade
Monument to the Negev Brigade

With the setting sun, we finished the day at the Monument to the Negev Brigade, a unit of the Palmach who were instrumental in protecting the vital water pipeline that supplied the southern Jewish settlements in the 1940s, and also in securing the Negev all the way down to Eilat in 1948.

The monument commands an impressive view over the Negev and the southern parts of the Shfela, and Mt Hebron. The symbolism employed is both impressive and meaningful, the brutalist architecture jutting out from the peaceful countryside as a reminder of the losses in the battles for this area. A moving conclusion to a long but as always fascinating day.

Campus Negev Day 3: from Ovdat to Mamshit

Click here to read about Day 1 or Day 2 of the campus.

A slightly more relaxed day for me today – not every course does the sites in the same order and I had already covered a good chunk of today’s itinerary with my own group, meaning I could relax a little more than on the previous days of the campus.

View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon from our field school accomodation
View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon from our field school accomodation

First things first though, and we reluctantly took our leave from the Ramon Crater, enjoying the final views before it was time to head north and continue our journey.

Havarim Cistern
Havarim Cistern

Our first stop of the day was at the ancient Nabbatean city of Ovdat. I had been there previously with my course but had not had time to visit the nearby Bor Chavarim, a Nabbatean cistern. These wily desert travelers were careful about hiding their water sources so that only they could navigate the arid landscape.

Hiking Ein Avdat
Hiking Ein Avdat

We then moved north to Ein Avdat. Located near Kibbutz Sde Boker, this series of three desert springs provides a remarkable oasis in the middle of the Negev desert. We hiked up the valley through which the water flows, enjoying the beautiful scenery and the freshness of the water, while learning about the geological formations before us.

Graves of David & Paula Ben Gurion at Sde Boker
Graves of David & Paula Ben Gurion at Sde Boker

On completing the hike, we ascended to the kibbutz and visited the grave of the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. He always emphasised the importance of settling the Negev desert, and of making it bloom. To this end, he moved to Sde Boker on his retirement and requested to be buried there, next to his wife Paula.

View over the Zin valley from Sde Boker
View over the Zin valley from Sde Boker

The grave / memorial site has a stunning view over the Zin valley. The Israeli deserts already bloom considerably more than most and hopefully one day they will bloom in their entirety thanks to the ingenuity of Israeli engineering, thereby realising Ben-Gurion’s vision.

With this, there was time for a brief stop at Mamshit before heading back home to Tel Aviv. With all the campuses now complete it is time for the final strait as we head up to the exams!

Campus Negev Day 2: The Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon

Click here to read about Day 1 or Day 3 of the campus.

An early rise to enjoy dawn breaking over the crater and a surprisingly good breakfast in the field school. Today’s tour was dedicated to the area of the Makhtesh Ramon, or Ramon Crater, the largest of these geological phenomena in Israel at a length of 40km.

View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon
View over the Ramon Crater / Makhtesh Ramon

We began our day at the newly refurbished visitors’ centre in Mitzpe Ramon. The refurb was funded by the family of Ilan and Asaf Ramon (the name being the same as that of the crater is purely coincidental) in memory of Israel’s first astronaut and his pilot son, who both died in separate tragic accidents.

Replica of Ilan Ramon's spacesuit in the Ramon Crater Visitors' Centre
Replica of Ilan Ramon’s spacesuit in the Ramon Crater Visitors’ Centre

As such, the beginning of the museum tells the story of Ilan Ramon, and a little about Asaf. It is not really connected to the crater but the tale is moving, and one cannot begrudge the family the desire to create a memorial to these two very impressive individuals, and it is done extremely well.

The rest of the centre has a fantastic film/moving presentation about the formation of the crater and another very good film about wildlife in the area. In short, if you plan to visit the area, I really think the visitors’ centre is a no miss.

Khan Saharonim in the Ramon Crater
Khan Saharonim in the Ramon Crater

It was now time to descend into the crater. We journeyed quite a way on dirt roads until we reached the area of Khan Saharonim. Here, next to a small spring, were the ruins of a Nabbatean khan (inn) along the famous spice route that they used to transport merchandise from the area of Yemen to the port at Gaza, sending it across the Roman Empire.

After exploring the area a little; learning about some of the local flora and fauna, we travelled a short distance to Nachal Ardon. It was possible to see the damp ground from the recent flash floods, and the plants that were newly blooming as a result of the rains.

Dykes in Nachal Ardon
Dykes in Nachal Ardon

We soon reached our goal during this short walk – the dykes that lined the walls of the river bed. These are formed by molten rock pushing into cracks in the existing rock; the magma cools and forms a different type of rock to that surrounding it, causing it to erode at a different pace.

The 'Carpentry Shop' in the Ramon Crater
The ‘Carpentry Shop’ in the Ramon Crater

We returned to the northern side of the crater, and the area known as the ‘Carpentry Shop’. Due to volcanic processes, this small hill has formed into a series of small pieces of rock that look similar to wood-chips, hence the name. We learned about the formation of the hill and enjoyed the view out over the landscape of the crater.

Porcupine in Bio Ramon
Porcupine in Bio Ramon

Our final stop was back in Mitzpe Ramon, at the Bio Ramon. A significant sample of the animals that live in the crater are kept here, and it is possible to see them up close and learn about their habits and lifestyles. Night was drawing in, and they were beginning to get active. For us, it was time to return to the field school and prepare for the final day of our campus which awaited us on the morrow.

Campus Negev Day 1: The Negev Mountains

Click here to read about Day 2 or Day 3 of the campus

Time for the final campus of the course, one which I unfortunately missed last year due to sickness, but was eager to attend now – three days of touring in the area of the Negev desert.

The Negev, in the south of the country, consists of around 55% of Israel’s territory, but due to its barren nature and its relative inaccessibility, it is much less frequently visited than the tourist hot spots of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Judean Desert & the Galilee.

Indeed, there is much less history here than in the north of the country, but there are a great deal of stunning landscapes, fascinating geological features, and also the odd archaeological site for the historians among us.

The Yerucham Dam
The Yerucham Dam

Our first day was dedicated to the area of the peaks of the Negev mountains in the north east of the region. Our first stop was in the Yerucham Park. We visited the ancient well and then the more modern dam and man-made lake, learning about the modern history of the area and the struggles of Yerucham to break away from its development-town status. Unemployment is a major problem in the Negev in general and the government actively encourages business to relocate to the area in the hope of encouraging more people to move and improve its status.

From Yerucham, we travelled east to the area of the ‘Large’ Makhtesh. A makhtesh is an unusual type of crater, formed through a lengthy process of erosion and weathering. There are only around 8 in the world and 5 of them are in the Negev (others are in the surrounding area – the Sinai and in Jordan) and their unique nature means the word Makhtesh has now entered international geological parlance as the word to describe this phenomena.

View over the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) from Mt Avnon
View over the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) from Mt Avnon

Enjoying a stunning view from Mt Avnon over the ‘Large’ Makhtesh (in Hebrew: HaMakhtesh HaGadol), we learned about the theories about how these craters developed.

Fossilised / Petrified trees in the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol)
Fossilised / Petrified trees in the Large Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol)

Descending into the makhtesh, we stopped to sit on some unusually shaped and coloured rocks, only to learn that these were in fact fossilised (or petrified) tree trunks. The huge size of these rocks are testament to a completely different climate in the area many tens of millions of years ago; indeed the large amount of the campus that was dedicated to geology helped put into perspective the tiny amount of time man has impacted the planet. One analogy was that if all of the earth’s history was represented by a calendar year, the time man has existed amounts to the final hour!

Ein Yorkeam oasis
Ein Yorkeam oasis

We continued our journey through the crater, nothing the different coloured sand layers and the rugged scenery. Exiting the other side, we proceeded to the spring at Ein Yorkeam, a desert oasis with ruins from the Roman period and an accompanying story of a grand Palmach trek in the 1940s.

View from the top of the Scorpions' Ascent
View from the top of the Scorpions’ Ascent

Our final stop for the day was a lookout over the Zin river bed and the twists and bends of the Scorpions’ Ascent which leads from the mountainous region of the Negev down towards the valley of the Dead Sea. Here we heard the tragic story of a terrorist attack on a tourist bus in the 1950s; this led to new roads being laid through the Negev down to the Red Sea at Eilat, meaning that today the area is almost deserted.

With the sun setting on our first day in the Negev, we travelled west to our hostel at Mitzpe Ramon to prepare for the following day’s adventures.

The South in 1948

Last week’s tour was dedicated to the battle for the road to Jerusalem in 1948. We finished the day learning how the siege of Jerusalem was finally broken, a significant victory for the nascent Israeli state. However, the south of the country had been cut off completely by the Egyptian army. With Jerusalem now accessible and resources freed up, the attention began to turn southwards. Likewise, we would now journey south for a tour on the theme of the south of Israel in 1948.

Memorial to the fallen at Ad Halom Bridge
Memorial to the fallen at Ad Halom Bridge

We began the day at the Ad Halom Bridge, formerly known as Jisr Isdud, located next to Ashdod. This was the northernmost point reached by the advancing Egyptian armies, only 34km south of Tel Aviv. Fortunately the Israelis had managed to blow up the bridge, preventing further advancement, and we heard how a mixture of Israeli attacks (ironically complete failures, but psychologically damaging) combined with poor Egyptian intelligence meant that they progressed no further, instead opting to travel eastwards and cut off the south of the country from the centre. As such, the bridge was renamed ‘Ad Halom’, a very literary way of saying ‘up to here’ – a reference to the fact that the Egyptians progressed no further north.

We heard the story of the battles here, together with several acts of heroic individual bravery. This was also the site of the first mission of the nascent Israeli Air Force, if four planes could be called an airforce! The country has come a long way since 1948…

The 'Palace' House - site of the last stand at Kibbutz Nitzanim
The ‘Palace’ House – site of the last stand at Kibbutz Nitzanim

We continued south to the original site of Kibbutz Nitzanim. The Egyptians had not given the kibbutz too much trouble on their push north but with the decision to entrench they returned to clear their lines. The defendants of the kibbutz were hugely outnumbered and did not even have enough guns for one each; their communications device also failed and they were cut off from Israeli HQ – they had no idea if their SOS had been received and if back-up was on the way. They did their best to hold on heroically but eventually surrendered.

This surrender was pilloried at the time but once the facts became clear after the war, those involved in the battle were recognised for their bravery. The site is now also the site of the Women of Valour Centre, a memorial to all female soldiers who have died in battle. This site was chosen as in the last minute evacuation of women and children, 10 women refused to leave, insisting on taking their part in the defence of their home. Three of them were killed by Egyptian fire.

We journeyed further south, although back in time chronologically, to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. Sadly passing by the sign for the bee & honey experience (they make a lot of honey on the kibbutz), we visited the museum of the kibbutz where we heard the story of the battle here in 1948. Unlike at Nitzanim, the Egyptians made a point of conquering the kibbutz on their way north, as it occupied a strategic position on the coastal road.

Statue of Mordechai Anielewicz at Yad Mordechai Kibbutz
Statue of Mordechai Anielewicz at Yad Mordechai Kibbutz

The Israelis bravely held out for a few days but eventually fled in the face of overwhelming Egyptian superiority in numbers and weaponry. We heard of some of the acts of heroism while visiting the cemetery for those who died in the war. Eventually the IDF took back the kibbutz in its push south, and it became the effective border with the Gaza Strip (which was controlled by Egypt after 1948).

The kibbutz is named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. The museum also contains information on life in the ghetto and details of the revolt.

Our final stop of the day was at Kibbutz Negba, which became the Israeli southern front against the Egyptian army. After spreading east from Ashdod, they had reached this area, but did not manage to conquer Negba. As we again sat in the military cemetery, we heard how the kibbutz remarkably held out in the face of ferocious attacks, being vastly outnumbered and with inferior weaponry. It was really quite remarkable.

Memorial to the fallen at Kibbutz Negba
Memorial to the fallen at Kibbutz Negba

Here we learned about Operation Yoav, named for one of Negba’s fallen. It was this operation, launched after the Jerusalem siege was broken, that finally broke through the Egyptian lines into the Negev. The decisive battle took place a few kilometres away from Negba.

With the Egyptian army now surrounded, the Israelis opened talks about a ceasefire and withdrawal; 90 days later the Egyptians acquiesced and left; the largest of the Arab armies that had invaded Israel in 1948 had been repelled, and the south had been freed.

Campus Eilat Day Four: Timna

Read about our first day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the Northern Arava and the Ovda Valley), our second day (exploring the area of Eilat and the Eilat Mountains) or our third day (exploring the Southern Arava).

With mixed feelings, we arrived at the last day of the campus. On the one hand, the tour had been very enjoyable, very interesting and the breakfast and dinner buffets were rather marvellous. On the other, we were exhausted! They push you hard on the tour guide course!

Still, there was one final trip before heading back north, a visit to Timna, also known as King Solomon’s Mines. I was excited to visit the park, a major site in Israel which to my recollection I had never been to previously (my mother later told me that I had been there as a very young child), and I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint.

We began our visit with a short film about the site (it was cute, although it was badly tinted green due to a projector problem – I thought perhaps related to copper oxidisation – ho ho!) and then proceeded into the park, a large valley formed by ancient geological turbulence in the area.

Arch at Timna
Arch at Timna

We began our visit at the site of the Arches. Although not as impressive as my visit to the Arches National Park in Utah a few years ago, the effects of the weathering on the local sandstone were still rather beautiful. We went on a short walk through the largest arch and descending to a former copper mine. Everywhere we went it was possible to see specks of green in the rock; signs of the wealth of copper in the area. We had a good crawl through the ancient mine (dating up to 7000 years ago!).

Crawling through an ancient copper mine in Timna
Crawling through an ancient copper mine in Timna

From here, we visited the site known as the mushroom, another geological weathering formation. At the lookout were replicas of the tools used in ancient copper manufacture, and our guide explained the process to us from start to finish. It really is impressive that these ancient men managed to work out the complicated chemical process to extract the copper from the ore. No doubt a huge amount of trial and error was involved as they refined the process over time, eventually stumbling on the idea to combine the copper with tin, forming bronze, and ushering in the Bronze Age.

Copper ore in Timna sandstone
Copper ore in Timna sandstone

We learned that the peak of Timna’s copper production was under Egyptian stewardship in the 14th-12th centuries BCE, although they did so in partnership with locals. Copper was very important for the Egyptian pharaohs both for personal and ritual use.

Ancient hunting scene etched in the rock at Timna
Ancient hunting scene etched in the rock at Timna

On the Egyptian theme, we travelled a short distance to see an ancient wall inscription of a hunting scene from the 12th century BCE. It is unclear whether it was done by a bored worker or was commissioned as a piece of art, but it was quite remarkable to see these etchings still on the rocks thousands of years later.

Ancient temple / ritual site in Timna
Ancient temple / ritual site in Timna

A short drive then took us to an ancient ritual area, used jointly by the Egyptians and the local workers of the mines, with both kinds of gods and rituals present. It is unclear who these locals were although the leading theory suggests that these were the Midianites, a tribe that the bible tells us used to live in the area. In this temple was found a copper snake, similar perhaps to the one famously used by Moses. It is now in the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv.

View over King Solomon's Pillars, Timna
View over King Solomon’s Pillars, Timna

Leaving the temple, we ascended into the cliff face, noting the large seal of the Pharaoh Ramses III hewn into the rock, before descending to the area known as King Solomon’s Pillars. Here, our guide explained to us the link with King Solomon and Timna which developed in the 19th century. There was evidence found there of mining in the 10th century BCE, which is believed to be the time of King Solomon. As we know there was a great deal of copper in the temple, perhaps this was his main mine.

This theory was dashed when it was discovered that the real peak of the mining here was in the Egyptian period, but discoveries last summer reopened the question. I shall look forward to sharing the full details with tourists in the future!

On that mysterious note, it was time to begin the long journey back to Tel Aviv. Next week we return to the normal routine (and weather). Of course, I shall continue to keep you posted!

Campus Eilat Day Three: Southern Arava

Read about our first day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the Northern Arava and the Ovda Valley) or our second day (exploring the area of Eilat and the Eilat Mountains) or our fourth day (visiting the Timna Valley).

Again, a bright and early start, facilitated by the sumptuous breakfast buffet, and off we went to explore the area of the Southern Arava Valley.

Our first stop, next to the border crossing with Jordan, was at the Eilat Bird Park. As avid readers will recall from our trip to the Hula Valley around a year ago, Israel is a major bird migration station with half a billion birds passing through the country every year in search of warmer climes and the associated increased available foodstuffs. This makes Israel the #2 bird migration centre in the world after Panama.

Our guide shows us some migrating birds in the Eilat Bird Park
Our guide shows us some migrating birds in the Eilat Bird Park

For many birds, Eilat is a final stop to build up energy before the long journey over the Sahara desert (or alternatively a first place to restock having crossed it travelling north) and so is a major spot for bird watching. Although we did not have time to wander through the park or sit out with our binoculars, we were fortunate that our guide had saved a few birds from her tagging that morning (they tag the birds for research purposes to try and track their migration patterns) for us to see.

Flamingos in the Avrona Salt Pools near Eilat
Flamingos in the Avrona Salt Pools near Eilat

We then headed north, admiring the flamingos that have taken up lodging in the nearby salt pools (albeit from a distance), arriving at the Avrona farms.

Crawling through the fugarot / qanat tunnels at the Avrona Farms
Crawling through the fugarot / qanat tunnels at the Avrona Farms

This ancient agricultural settlement dates from around the 9th century and utilised a 1.5km long network of underground tunnels to bring water here that would enable farming (the local water has a very high salt content). The technique is known in local Arabic as fugarrot (in Persia, whence it originates, it is known as a qanat system). We crawled through one of the small tunnels – researches believe they were dug by children or even a special team of dwarves!

Doum Palms in the Arava
Doum Palms in the Arava

A short jump north took us to a botanical stop at the Doum Palms. These multi-trunked palm trees are mostly found in the area of the Nile in Africa, the ones located in Israel in the Arava are the most northern instances of this tree in the world and hence are protected.

Hiking through Canyon Shechoret
Hiking through Canyon Shechoret

It was now time to stretch our legs and as we hiked through the Shechoret Canyon. Having made our way through the towering black granite walls of the canyon itself, we ascended to a beautiful viewpoint over the mountains in the area.

View after hiking through Canyon Shechoret
View after hiking through Canyon Shechoret

Our guide explained the geological processes that made up the multicoloured peaks and created the rift valley that is the Arava.

Ancient predator trap
Ancient predator trap

On our descent, we passed an ancient animal trap. We learned how it worked together with a little about the local predators. As evidenced on our first day of the campus, there used to be leopards roaming the area of the Negev, although they seem to have now died out (there are rumours that there are still some around though and it is fun to keep them going!).

Safari in the Chai Bar: roaming Oryxes
Safari in the Chai Bar: roaming Oryxes

Wildlife was the subject of our next step as with the sunset approaching we arrived at the Chai Bar. Again, avid readers will recall that we visited the northern Chai Bar during our trip to the Carmel Mountain at the beginning of the course! This is the southern version of this impressive project to research species that used to be in the area, which are now extinct, and to gradually reintroduce them.

Chai Bar: feeding time for the leopards
Chai Bar: feeding time for the leopards

We enjoyed a safari drive through the park and then visited the predators section; our guide had arranged for us to arrive at feeding time which meant we were able to see some of these impressive animals in action.

Our final stop, with darkness fast approaching, was at a desert kite. These large structures were first identified by RAF pilots in the 20th century; they are found all over the region – Syria, Jordan, Israel etc and were so called because of their resemblance to a toy kite: two walls sloping in to meet at a point.

Remains of a desert kite in the Negev
Remains of a desert kite in the Negev

In fact, they were anything but toys – research shows that the ancient inhabitants of the land used them to catch large herds of animals and then slaughter them. The remains themselves were not particularly impressive (viewed from a height, one gets a better idea of the scale of the things) but it was interesting to get an insight into how our forebears had a good understanding of the local wildlife; and managed to develop frankly ingenious methods to catch them.

Our infamous course coordinator Benny lights the chanukkiah
Our infamous course coordinator Benny lights the chanukkiah

We returned to Eilat, and it was time for a small celebration! Tonight was the first night of the festival of Chanukah and we concluded the day together with a communal candle lighting, followed, appropriately, by significant doughnut consumption!

Campus Eilat Day Two: Eilat and the Eilat Mountains

Read about our first day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the Northern Arava and the Ovda Valley), our third day (exploring the Southern Arava) or our fourth day (visiting the Timna Valley).

After rising early and having a hearty go at the ample breakfast buffet, it was time to recommence our trip, with today being broadly dedicated to the area of Eilat itself and the Eilat mountains.

We began the day at the area of Umm Rash Rash, the forerunner to the city of Eilat. The area does not have a long history of settlement due to the lack of water resources (the ancient city of Eilat and later Ayla is modern-day Aqaba, across the bay in Jordan), but at some point in the Ottoman period some fishers from Aqaba began to base themselves out here and in the early 20th century an Ottoman army outpost was built to prevent any future British shelling of Aqaba. After WWI, the outpost was taken over by the British.

Um Rash Rash: Operation Ovda Memorial
Um Rash Rash: Operation Ovda Memorial

Here we heard the story of Operation Ovda (Operation ‘Fact’ – the idea being that it would create facts on the ground), the last operation of the Israeli War of Independence. The majority of the Negev desert was not under Israeli control and the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, saw it is strategically vital to do so, both in order to secure extra space for the pending waves of immigration, and also to have access to the Red Sea for trade purposes.

However with the war in its final stages and ceasefire negotiations ongoing, the position was tricky. Hence Ben Gurion ordered the Israeli army to take the area of Um Rash Rash with two sets of troops approaching from the east and west, without firing a shot.

Our guide told us the remarkable story of how this was achieved, culminating in two jeeps of soldiers arriving at the deserted Umm Rash Rash post. Here was Israel’s Iwo Jima moment – there happened to be a photographer in the jeep who snapped the historic moment of the raising of their homemade ‘ink’ flag; now there is a sculpture at the site in memory of the occasion.

Hiking the Red Canyon in the Eilat Mountains
Hiking the Red Canyon in the Eilat Mountains

We then headed north, along the border with Egypt, deep into the Eilat mountains, for a hike in what is known as the Red Canyon. There is a great deal of red sandstone in the Eilat mountains, formed by erosion of local granite. The hike was just the right level of challenging for me with some lovely views and occasional explanations from our guide about local flora, fauna and geology.

Today was to be the most physically exerting of the campus as we travelled south for a hike through Nachal Shlomo, culminating at the peak of Mt Tzefachot. Our course coordinator had specifically scheduled the Eilat campus at this time of year so that we would be able to enjoy the area in comfortable temperatures (Eilat is the hottest part of Israel) but we were rather unfortunate in that our visit coincided with a ham sin (a heat-wave). Hence we found ourselves making the at times rather steep ascent in temperatures of around 32C!

View from Mt Tzefachot over the Eilat bay
View from Mt Tzefachot over the Eilat bay

Still, the physical effort was worth it, the view from Mt Tzefachot is quite simply outstanding. Looking north, one sees the many colours of the Eilat mountains; south the view expands over the bay of Eilat. It is also known as the ‘Four Countries Viewpoint’ as in addition to a view over Israel you can see deep into the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt), have a good view of Jordan and can even see the northwestern parts of Saudi Arabia. We sat in silence for a good few minutes at the top, enjoying the rush of the wind and the breathtaking view. No pictures can do this justice!

The Red Sea coral reef from the Eilat underwater observatory
The Red Sea coral reef from the Eilat underwater observatory

Having finished the hikes, our final stop of the day was at the Eilat Underwater Observatory – the first underwater observatory in the world! There is a beautiful coral reef along the edge of the Red Sea and using the observatory it is possible to descend and look out on multi-coloured coral and the beautiful fish that live together with it. The site also has an aquarium of local fish and various other attractions – I remember enjoying previous visits as a child with my family so there was a bit of nostalgia here. A nice treat to end the day!

Campus Eilat Day One: Northern Arava and Ovda Valley

Read about our second day of the Eilat Campus (exploring the area of Eilat and the Eilat Mountains), our third day (exploring the Southern Arava) or our fourth day (visiting the Timna Valley).

It was time for us to head south, as far south as we could go, on the longest and theoretically final ‘campus’ (i.e. extended overnight trip) of the course – Campus Eilat. Sadly for me I still have Campus Negev to catch up on from when I was sick, but I got into the spirit of the finality of the adventure with my coursemates!

Located on the Red Sea, Eilat is the southernmost point of Israel, around 4 hours non-stop drive from Tel Aviv, which in Israeli terms is a whoppingly huge distance. To justify the long journey, the plan was to spend three nights based in the city and use it as a base to explore the area including the Arava valley, the southern-most parts of the Negev and the Eilat mountains.

We set off in good spirits with today’s focus being the northern part of the Arava valley and then later the Ovda valley. The Arava is on the eastern part of Israel’s southern section, forming the southern part of the border with Jordan.

Ruins of an Israelite fortress at Ein Hatzeva / Ir Ovot
Ruins of an Israelite fortress at Ein Hatzeva / Ir Ovot

Our first stop was at Ir Ovot, also known as Ein Hatzeva. It is the largest archaeological site in the Arava valley from the biblical period, consisting of three Israelite fortresses. There are also remains from the Roman period including an army camp and a bath house. It was possible to live here as the natural spring made the settlement part of a desert oasis. We explored the ruins and heard theories about the development of the site.

View from the Peace Lookout in the Arava Valley
View from the Peace Lookout in the Arava Valley

We then hopped of the main road (route 90, for those who take an interest) to travel south along the lovingly named ‘Peace Route’, named and developed in honour of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, it travels along the border with a couple of stops for lookouts over the bandlands of the centre of the Arava valley and the impressive modern agriculture. To the west lie the cliffs and hills of the Negev, to the east the imposing Edom mountains in Jordan.

View from the Jabel Huferia Lookout in the Arava Valley
View from the Jabel Huferia Lookout in the Arava Valley

The viewpoints were lovely, and we learned also about the development of agriculture in this arid landscape. While all the experts said it was impossible to farm here, Israeli pioneers developed drip irrigation techniques and special types of hot houses; now the Arava contributes 60% of Israel’s fruit and vegetable exports.

After a stop for lunch at the famous Yotvata kibbutz (where of course I had some of the celebrated chocolate milk, together with some locally manufactured ice cream – all rather yum) we travelled north west into the Ovda valley. I remember flying into Ovda airport as a child as part of our occasional family holidays to Eilat – it is just one hour drive so is more convenient than flying into Ben Gurion. What I never knew (and it turns out, neither did they) is that there are a wealth of sites to visit in the area.

View over the Arava Valley from Shacharut
View over the Arava Valley from Shacharut

We began by driving up to the lonesome settlement of Shacharut. We did not go inside, but stopped off by the road to enjoy the frankly stunning few over the Arava valley and towards the Edom mountains. It was breathtaking. I do so love the desert in Israel, and this was it at its best. Silence and beauty.

Ancient leopard images at the Leopards Temple in the Ovda Valley
Ancient leopard images at the Leopards Temple in the Ovda Valley

We then visited the Leopards Temple, impossible to locate for those who do not know where to look – it is not signposted at all; there is apparently an attempt to almost prevent visitors in order to preserve the site. Dated to the Neolithic / Chalcolithic periods (i.e. around 7000 years ago) this is an amazing site which was used for ritual purposes during this period. It takes its name from the fact that part of the structure contains several images of leopards marked out in stones.

The whole area of the Ovda valley is a treasure trove of archaeological finds from this ancient pre-historic period; it is a relatively fertile area in the desert due to the amount of rainwater that flows into it during flash floods; there is a high concentration of grain threshing floors and living structures here.

Kasui sand dunes in the Ovda Valley
Kasui sand dunes in the Ovda Valley

Our final stop was quite a treat: the Kasui sand dunes. I had last been here around 10 years ago during my gap year and had always wondered where it was…now I know! Israel does not really have sand dunes so it is great fun to run up and down (or even roll down!); we stood on the dunes and watched the sun set over the beautiful scenery before us.

We concluded the day at our hotel (yes – hotel!) in Eilat. For our previous trips we stayed in hostels but it seems that the budget was a bit bigger for our Eilat trip. Certainly nice to be a bit spoiled and I did my best with the dinner buffet before retiring early – three more big days lay ahead of us!