The Israeli tour guide course is long, intense and covers a huge amount of information. However, it can’t possibly cover everything, so there are still parts of the country for me to explore, and I take great pleasure in doing so!
A reasonably important one is the area of the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. There are many trails here and unusually for Israel all of them have water all year around, which is great when you are looking to cool off in the heat of the summer.
With a friend arriving who has a passion for hiking, it was a great excuse to get up north to the reserve. I picked him up from Ben Gurion Airport at 6.45am and just two hours later we were slapping on our sun cream as we prepared to hike around the upper part of the Zavitan stream, a particularly popular trail that I shall definitely need to know for the future.
As we set off, we were somewhat unimpressed by the lack of shade (with the sun already beginning to reach high temperatures. However, we soon began to reach some pleasant little creeks which provided some respite.
Continuing further, we hit the real attraction, a series of pools surrounded by basalt columns that are in various stages of erosion. The columns, caused by physical forces at work in the cooling of lava when the basalt was formed, exist in quite a few parts of the Golan, most famously at the ‘Hexagon Pool’, a little north west of us in the Yehudiya Reserve.
The site was crowded although we still found some space for a quick dip, and then continued down-stream where we found a smaller but undisturbed pool which was much more peaceful and to my mind rather more beautiful.
Continuing down the trail led us to a lovely view of a waterfall, although no doubt it is much more impressive after the winter rains. It was possible to descend down to the waterfall and bathe in the pool into which it plunged (probably less appealing after the winter rains!) and there were plenty of people taking advantage of this opportunity to cool off.
All in all, a very pleasant option for a short hike in the Golan, while incorporating some opportunities to cool off in the stream. I am sure I will be back in Yehudiya before long to explore some of the other trails, including the water hike!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 second of our three days in the Golan Heights was the most intense, and focused broadly on sites in the north of the Golan and the lower slopes of Mt Hermon. If you missed the post on the first day in the centre of the Golan, check it out here.
An early start meant that we arrived at the Tel Dan nature reserve before it was open! Once the wardens had arrived we entered and enjoyed the lush landscape and water flows from the Middle East’s largest karstic [formed by water flowing through and eroding porous sedimentary rock] spring. As the saying goes, the early bird catches the worm; in our case we caught a salamander; a beautifully sleek little creature. Quite a lot of them live in the reserve but they are hard to spot as they tend to avoid the tourists. A nice treat!
We hastened onwards to the archaeological remains around the ancient tel. At Tel Dan, they discovered what is thought to be the oldest arch in the world, made from mud bricks, almost 4000 years ago. Until its discovery it was thought that the Romans, or at the most the Greeks, invented the arch. But in fact it seems early forms existed many years previous in the Middle East.
Having heard how the tribe of Dan conquered the site, we whizzed forward in time to the remains of the Israelite city from the 9th century BCE. Particularly impressive was the huge gate structure; we also continued to the site of the temple which they found here; it is possible to see the base of the altar. This corroborates the story in the Bible (1 Kings 12) about the breaking up of the Solomon’s kingdom; with the temple in the Judean temple in Jerusalem the Israelite king Jeroboam constructed his own in Beth-el and here in Dan. We also hold the story of the steele found here; an ancient tablet containing an inscription referring to the two Jewish kingdoms and one of the kings coming from the House of David; a find of huge importance for those seeking archaeological evidence for the biblical narrative.
From the archaeological site we enjoyed a lovely walk hopping on stepping stones across the brooks in the reserve; enjoying the refreshing feeling of the spray of the cool water and the general lush greenery; quite an unusual landscape for Israel. Israelis really do love being around flowing water and I am beginning to understand why; it is something that we take rather for granted in the less arid parts of the world.
Afterwards, we traveled a short distance to the nearby Beit Ussishkin Museum which has a great little exhibition about local archaeological finds and expansive displays on local flora, fauna and geology.
From Tel Dan, we ascended to Banias. When the Hellenists arrived in this area over 2000 years ago, they identified it with being the home of the god Pan and named it Panias in his honour. We visited the area of their temple to Pan which was later expanded by the Romans; many remains are still visible. Later it was expanded into a large capital by Herod’s son Philippus, called Caesaria-Philippi. The area is important in Christian theology as here Peter recognised Jesus as the messiah (Mark 8 27).
We walked a short way along the stream flowing from the springs to the ruins of the palace of King Agrippa, dating to the 1st century. We wandered through the impressive remains to reach the former city walls (and indeed the remains of a later Crusader fortress), to conclude our time at the site.
From Banias we travelled deep into the centre of the Golan Heights and ascended to the peak of Mt Bental. The whole region of the Golan was formed from volcanic activity and lava flows over millions of years; the peaks standing out in the landscape tend to be extinct (or perhaps dormant) volcanoes; Mt Bental is one of these. Apart from the rather cheesily named Coffee Anan café (they claim to have existed before the previous UN Secretary General rose to fame; anan in Hebrew means ‘cloud’); there is a wonderful view over the Golan Heights, and deep into Syria.
Our guide told us some of the background to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and described the sad and bloody battle that happened in the fields in front of us. Remarkably, one of my classmates had actually participated in the battle, and gave us more details. It is a very sad but also moving part of being in this country that the wars are so much more recent and personal; it makes you realise that it is much more than just words in a text book and also helps contextualise other wars in history.
From the viewpoint, we descended to Kibbutz El Rom (which boasts that it is the highest kibbutz not only in Israel, but in the world…!) to watch a film about the Yom Kippur War, and then travelled a short distance to the memorial for the Valley of Tears. The Valley of Tears, which lay before us, was the site of the most difficult and lengthy battles of the war, a tank battle pitting the Israelis against a Syrian army which was both more numerous and more technologically advanced. We heard some stories of the personal heroism and sacrifice which eventually led to an Israeli victory.
We ended the day with a bit of geology. We stopped briefly at a site of paleomagnetism; a common phenomenon in the Golan Heights where the volcanic rock has locked in ancient magnetism from when the magnetism of the globe did not come from the north. You can put a compass on the rock and watch it spin.
From here we visited Jubat el-Kabeira (the Big Juba). This is a sort of crater in the ground, formed by volcanic activity (although there is some dispute as to exactly how). Because water flows into the juba, it is very lush and green, although sadly there was no time to enter and explore.
Our final stop was at Birket Ram in the Druze village of Masade. This large pool was also formed as a result of volcanic activity, although again geologists dispute the actual details. It is also an important archaeological site; here were found tools of prehistoric man dating back hundreds of thousands of years, including the Venus of the Galil.
We concluded the day at the youth hostel, and enjoyed a traditional kumzitz; a bonfire with a good sing song and plenty of liquid refreshment to encourage proceedings. It turns out that we have some very talented guitarists and singers in our group! It certainly helped the group bond and I was even persuaded to do a little rapping, which fortunately was well received…!
Coming soon: Day 3 and our travels around Mt Hermon….
On the one hand it seems a bit churlish to continue with this blog with a war going on; however I very much feel that we must continue to live as normal a life as possible. Indeed, the class continues, our trips continue, so I will continue to write about our activities.
For our third trip we headed southwards again to the Dead Sea region, taking a different route (so we could learn a new route, and also be told about new things that we were passing), and heading towards Mt Sedom. The day contained fewer sites than the first two, partly because of the long journey times from Tel Aviv (around 3 hours in each direction) and partly because of two reasonably long hikes which were part of the programme.
We began the day though, at the Meitzad Zohar viewpoint. I’ve actually stopped off here before; it is a small lay-by on route 31 from Arad down to the Dead Sea, not too long before the junction with route 90. It is a lovely view (as evidenced above), but it was nice to also know a bit about what we were looking at. There was some ancient history: beneath us were ruins of what archaeologists think was a Roman customs house. Salt was a major commodity in ancient times (some Roman soldiers were paid in it; this is the origin of the word salary), and the checkpoint was located in a narrow part of the road towards Mt Sedom (a major source of salt) to stop people taking it without permission.
In more modern times, we heard about the Lot Operation; part of the War of Independence when a company of soldiers hiked down this route to win back the Dead Sea factories which had been taken by Jordanian forces. I always find it interesting when you find these connections from ancient to modern history.
For our next stop, we turned off road onto a dirt track which lead us up to the Arazim Plane, which lies just past Mt Sedom. This was probably a lake many many years ago, now the lake has evaporated and the former bed slowly eroded by various streams; this sort of landscape is referred to as ‘badlands’ of which the most famous examples are in North and South Dakota in the US. We went into one of the small ravines created by a stream called Nachal Peratzim. As we hiked down the currently dry bed of the stream, we noticed beautiful patterns along the ravine walls.
These patterns were caused by centuries of wet (winter) and dry (summer) seasons. In the winter, rain would wash lots of mud into the former lake, creating a grey/brown layer of sediment. In summer, the water would evaporate with the heat, leaving a new layer of white sediment because of the minerals the water naturally contained. These layers are pretty straight, but in various places are jumbled up, looking a bit like a marble cake. The geological theory is that these were caused by seismic activity (the Dead Sea falls in the Great Rift Valley which is a fault line). The rocks were beautiful and it was very interesting to hear the theory behind it.
We continued hiking down the stream bed until we reached the entrance to the Flour Caves. I have very fond memories of trips to the flour caves with various different groups. They are covered in a white plastery powder, reminiscent of flour, and the fun part was to throw it at each other. Then, on emerging, we would be given some watermelon, leaving us with white faces and bright red lips. Very ghoulish. As you can imagine, this sort of activity was very popular with bus drivers. Sadly, the caves are now closed; some seismic activity caused some of it to fall down a few years ago and it is deemed too much of a risk to let people in, particularly in this sad age of litigation when things don’t go wrong. Our guide pooh-poohed the risk but still wouldn’t take us in; of course there is no way we could take tourists in there, sadly.
We returned to the bus and then a short drive took us to the start of a new hike, crossing Mount Sedom. We learned about the formation of the mountain, which is largely composed of rock salt (entirely composed of rock salt at its base). Without getting too much into the geological details, rock salt, when put under pressure, becomes malleable, a bit like plasticine. The pressure on the salt in the valley by heavier minerals is pushing the rock salt out and upwards, as it is constrained in how far it can go outwards by other rocks blocking its bath. This mountain is still actually growing, at the rate of 3mm per year (that’s pretty quick in geological terms). I never took much of an interest in geology before, but the guide made it pretty compelling. I tried to feel the mountain growing but cannot say I succeeded.
The hike was lovely, with stunning views over the Dead Sea pools and Jordan across from us. Perfect time of year; it was warm, but not too hot. A very steep descent though, not so kind on the knees. Huge respect to the 75 year old man on the course who took it all (literally) in his stride.
After finishing the hike at the bottom of the mountain, we travelled a very short distance south to the entrance to the Sedom Cave. The mountain has various caves created by the rock salt being surrounded by other, harder rock, and then being dissolved/eroded by rain fall. The cave had a very nice new sign outside it saying that, like the flour caves, it was dangerous to enter. But we went in anyway (having made it clear to us that it was at our own risk). Again, not somewhere we can take tourists, at least while the sign is there, but it was quite stunning to clamber through the darkness and arrive in a cavern with an extremely high ceiling and a hole in the roof, letting in light and lending a very special ambience to the place. Hopefully it can be reopened soon.
Our final stop of the day was by the Dead Sea factories. Not the most aesthetically pleasing sight, but still interesting to learn about the history of the factories which were originally envisioned by Theodore Herzl in his novel about the Zionist utopia, Altneuland. The factories are a huge part of the economy in the Negev region (indirectly employing 4000 families) but they do exact a toll on the environment and remain a controversial subject in Israel. For now though, they continue to operate, and are apparently the largest Bromine producers in the world.
And that was that; as the sun set behind us, it was time to head home to Tel Aviv.