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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!