With the Purim holiday joined onto a pleasant weekend, four of us set off armed with huge backpacks to spend three beautiful, eventful, and challenging days on the Israel National Trail, in the desert mountains around Eilat.
We decided in the early stages of planning this hike that we won’t have someone accompanying us by car, which means that we have to carry everything on our backs for three days. Why is this a good thing? By doing this you get to see places that you would never see on a one-day hiking trip. We slept in some amazing places, as you will see further down.
With this type of trip it’s important to plan a little more precisely, mainly so we don’t get stuck without water in the arid desert. We’ve calculated that we need 8 litres per person, per day.
Before the hike we travel down to the Eilat Mountains and bury bottles of water, tins of food and dry food in two places (Nachal Schoret and Ein Netafim). We do this because it would be impossible to lug three days’ worth of things around on our backs. Often even one day’s worth of supplies seems too much to carry.
Be’er Ora means ’well of light’ (renamed from the Arabic ’well of darkness’) and is a communal settlement established in 2001 and located 20 kilometres to the north of Eilat. It’s like a ghost town, as its unusual houses are inhabited by 90 invisible families. Apparently.
We leave the car in Be’er Ora. After the settlement’s self-important and egotistical security guard opens the back gate for us, we wade across the remnants of a Gadna (גדנ”ע – Hebrew for Youth Brigade) camp which was closed at the end of the 1980s. We then enter the dark desert. We proceed past a large well, which supplied Eilat with water before the city was connected to the national water network. Thanks to the full moon and my good instincts J, after several minutes of searching we find the path marked in black. We climb uphill towards the north-west. We have to walk around the mountain in front of us. Then, after turning to the south we can join the southern stretch of the approximately 1100km-long Israel National Trail, which crosses the country from north to south and is equivalent to the blue hiking trail in Hungary.
En route, G loses the neck warmer I lent her, which she usually uses as a cap to hold her thick, curly hair in place. We put down our backpacks and I go back with her into the windy darkness. Then, contrary to our expectations and after walking for around 1 kilometre, we spot the neck warmer. This sends us into such a fit of jubilation that you’d have thought that we’d stumbled across pots of gold.
After walking uphill for two kilometres we reach the summit. If we were to look back towards the east the view of the landscape would clearly be beautiful but it’s pitch black so we can’t see it at all. We head down to the wide Racham Vadi and turn onto the green hiking trail, which is also the Israel National Trail. A few kilometres to the north we would reach Timna but we are heading south. Several hundred metres later we lie down under the first big tree. It’s here that we’ll spend the night. We have a quick rest and then we split up to collect twigs, which is no small feat in the desert, especially at night. Sometimes a twig looks like a snake getting ready to attack, at other times it looks as if a jackal or a hyena is scurrying before my eyes in the dark.
I light the fire and we all sit around it. We chat and laugh while tasting Tubi60, a lemon-based alcoholic drink that G has brought.
“It’s at times like these I realise what a city girl I am”, says D. “Budapest-Tel Aviv. A child of the concrete jungle. I love sitting beside a fire, yet it’s so long since I’ve been near one.” We have dinner. Everyone brought different things and we taste each other’s food.
We don’t have any watches with us and our mobile phones are switched off. There is a palpable sense of serene timelessness in the air. We don’t know whether this is the beginning of humanity or an eternal reality. There’s just fire, smoke, light, warmth, cold and the endless desert.
É can’t get her toothbrush out of the packaging. Clearly due to too many sips of Tubi60. We climb into our sleeping bags and we yearningly look at the endless starry sky, pondering over which came first, the chicken or the egg. We then fall asleep without an answer to our question. During the night I occasionally wake up to the blinding light of the moon but I quickly fall back asleep.
In the morning I make another fire, make some coffee and we have breakfast. It’s chilly and we talk about techniques which can be used to stay warm. For instance, if divers are very cold, they pee in their diving suit. Maybe this would also work for hikers with sleeping bags… It has to be said that toilet issues are a very popular topic of conversation when hiking.
As the only man in the group, I ask the three women what colour t-shirt I should wear that day – light blue, red or grey? My question makes them laugh.
É’s finger has become infected by something overnight. We pour Tubi60 on it because the alcohol in the first-aid kit has run out and I didn’t replace the disinfectant at home.
I notice that some of them are throwing toilet paper onto the fire by the bubbling pot of coffee after blowing their noses, going to the toilet or having a wash. I remember how last night’s instant soup tasted strange and I tell everyone that I don’t think the aroma of snot goes with anything.
By the time we set off in the Racham channel the sun is shining. We’re all in high spirits and on the way we continue our previous discussion while laughing a lot.
At the Atak Valley crossing (Nachal Atak – נחל עתק) we walk past some overnight accommodation (which is no more than a sign indicating this). The desert is more barren now. It occurs to me that we might not find enough material to make a fire for the next pot of coffee, although miraculously the most beautiful flowers break through the rocky ground.
“Have you buried the firewood too?” asks É.
“Sure, we’ve put a bed down there too,” replies G ironically.
We stop to rest under a large desert acacia tree, which provides plenty of shade.
A jeep stops next to us. They enthusiastically stare at how we are keeping cool in the shade of the tree, as if they were on safari. I don’t hear what their leader says but clearly it’s something like “These are wild animals that roam the desert on two legs and take their whole houses with them on their backs”.
I go to have a wash, which means the three girls can get changed. Before I go back, I stop behind a rock and I hear the following conversation: “Does anyone have a mirror? No. Use G’s sunglasses. But don’t squeeze your spots in them…” We set off again.
G thinks the dried-out and sunken part of the tree is a griffin’s nest. “There are no leaves at the top of the tree, the griffin clearly flies in from there,” she says. It’s the first time D has been on a hike like this. She valiantly carries her backpack, which she has packed too heavily, but she doesn’t hide her tiredness. She recounts that she is constantly wondering why she came in the first place, what will happen if she cannot bear the weight of her backpack and if she ruins everyone else’s trip. „I want to quit the hike at the next stop” she says but in the end, she stays…She swears a lot but does so very articulately. It’s almost literary in style… I try to imitate her style but I can’t J. Before the hike G reassured her that the Franks are very decent people because they don’t hurry you along, yet G is the one who hurries everyone.
“So you’re the slave-driver, are you?” asks D.
While on foot, D’s fingers start to swell. It’s not good to walk with your hands in your pockets as it is dangerous. It’s harder to keep your balance and you can’t protect yourself if you fall over. Sometimes you need to change position, keep your hands up and hold the top strap of your backpack with them. The three girls look like they are professionals ready for a round-the-world expedition. Or perhaps more like a three-member elite unit from Iran that has come to invade Israel. I hold my bottle of water as tightly to my chest as warriors do their rifles.
En route, all types of health problems crop up, especially leg and back pain, and we discuss them down to the very last detail.
“Look, hikers!” cries G around noon. I look up, startled. I wasn’t expecting to find a school bus full of noisy kids in the back of beyond. Maybe a helicopter brought the bus here? When we make noise in the desert it’s OK but when others do, they’re a rabble. Fortunately just five guys are approaching. One of the girls says that we should quickly hide the dried beef in case they see it and ask for some.
During a short break É sits on a thornbush by accident. I also mistake a pile of thorns for G’s balloon flower and I enthusiastically grab it, which causes my finger to bleed heavily. We have no alcohol left so we can’t treat the wounds. When we have our nighttime excavation we’ll find some Jäger as I cleverly hid a bottle underground next to the bottles of water and the tins of food. Because there was space next to them. The alcohol and the dried meat were presents from G. That girl has good taste. As the creek bed narrows, magnificent rock formations rise above us and we walk between rocky pools full of water, which are just like ponds. Obviously if the creek bed is narrower, the hiking trail is going to be steeper (depth-water-gravity-speed-destructive force… for those who are slow on the uptake…).
In two steep ravines I lug all four backpacks up on my own. Four young men are resting in a shaded area at the bottom of one of them. They watch with interest as the girls struggle to pass me the backpacks. They don’t offer to help, not because they are impolite but because they are Israeli. That’s the custom here. If we asked, they’d be happy to help but it would never occur to them to offer. After all, this isn’t Europe, it’s the ’Wild East’.
I am short of breath and the sweat is dripping off me. The size of the ring of fresh sweat on my hat reflects the extent to which it is difficult to carry the bags and climb. Someone should design a hat with an outline of salt on it; that would be a real camouflage.
We arrive at the Racham palm trees. I think it would be an ideal place to have lunch or have a nap, in the cool shade of those trees, although all three times that I have been here, the place has always been full of people (and this is the case today). Even though we didn’t see a soul all day, there are still people here. They leave after a short while but we don’t move from the tree we’re sitting under. I look enviously at the people in the oasis from under the thin-leaved desert acacia trees nearby. Then, by the time they have gone we don’t have any energy left to move.
We have lunch. The starter – dry nuts. Main course – dried meat. Dessert – dried fruits. Then some water, followed by coffee as a fifth course. And nobody complains. We enjoy it and we don’t need more. We always eat the tuna, the crackers and the apples for breakfast and we have the instant stuff around the fire in the evening.
Hot coffee is also good because it dissolves the dry soup left over from the previous evening, and you can drink it. This means you don’t have to wash up and you don’t waste water.
After lunch we have a quiet rest for half an hour, then with renewed energy we continue on our way towards the Amram watchtower.
Soon we will reach the top, where we will experience one of the most beautiful views in the Negev desert (or maybe even the whole of Israel, for that matter). In the distance there is the magnificent blue water of the Red Sea in the Bay of Eilat, 400 metres below us rugged wild sandstone. Opposite us is the purply-black volcanic rocks of the Amram mountain crater, next to it the red canyon of the Amir mountain and on the other side in Jordan the splendid, towering Edom mountains in the light of the setting sun. We stop to take photos and then we start to climb up the steep Maale Amram.
D asks me how I look after my hiking boots and my backpack. “I don’t,” I reply. “But I’m sure I should.” “How long have you known G?” she asks. “Because she said exactly the same thing and then told me to ask you.”
G says that the three-day hike is all about how to step on rocks and ensuring there is enough water and wood for the fire… the problems here are as simple as that. Rather than focusing on big, important dilemmas you are reduced to worrying about your stomach and trying not to fall into some ravine. Sometimes your whole mind is concentrated on one footstep. G guides D by hand on Maale Amram’s dizzyingly high slopes. I can’t pee in the strong wind, which is constantly changing direction, as I don’t want to get wet.
Suddenly, the signs stop and we get lost. We split up to look for them, but we can’t find them. My instinct once again doesn’t let me down and in the darkness we reach the camping ground where we buried the bottles of water, the tins of food and the Jäger.
We are tired and it’s difficult for us to find stuff to make a fire, but the hot tea and soups inject some life into us. I’d like us to play a game of ’Twenty Questions’ but two of them fall asleep very quickly. The two of us left go on an exciting and adventurous nighttime trip in the dark to the nearby gorge, then we also retire for the night.
The next day, we struggle across the black and narrow but stunning Canyon Schoret, and then we climb up the steep Har Schoret. E struggles with severe vertigo, while D can’t stop talking once she finds reception and can call her boyfriend to recount the experience to him. She doesn’t start by recounting how God created the Earth or with the story of Adam and Eve, but even so she takes so long to say everything, and this brings out G’s bossy side again.
We make friends with some brave/cheeky small birds around half a metre away from us. We collect little twigs on the plain in case there aren’t any where we spend the night, then we throw them away when we get bored of carrying them. „There’ll be some there anyway”, we say. On several occasions I unwittingly call the flat desert a meadow or a field. For me the rocks are like flowers and the sand is like grass.
We arrive at a narrow mountain pass no longer reached by the sunlight. It gets dark quickly. Where two gorges meet we stumble upon a clearing which is the perfect place to spend the night. In the evening we distribute the water for the last day (three litres per person). One bottle is left for the morning and evening coffees, for brushing our teeth and for drinking at night. Here it’s also essential to drink at night because of the extreme dryness.
In the end we don’t brush our teeth in the evening, we just use mouthwash.
G says that if we run out of water we can suck the liquid out of the wetwipes instead of drinking. Sitting by fire, we hear D’s life story and then we discuss politics a little in relation to the elections that have been brought forward. Apart from this, the last night is quiet because we don’t have alcohol left. The moonlight is so strong that even in the shade we can easily wipe our bums.
During the night G sees a cute desert fox rummaging in our bags of rubbish. Then a mouse appears, and as a result she then dreams about laughing cartoon mice until she wakes up, terrified and screaming.
We get up at six o’clock so we can save the little water we have by avoiding the hot sun. The hiking trail leads us to amazing places. At several dry waterfalls it’s pretty hard to leave.
We reach Ein-Netafim. It’s an enormous gorge which seems impossible to get through, but then in the rock face we find a small hollow with some metal hooks where we can climb up, but only without our backpacks. We take the backpacks apart, take one part up each and then I pull the other parts up using a rope.
It isn’t far from here to the military control point on the Egyptian border where we want to hitchhike to Eilat from. The soldiers allow us to try out their telescopes while they tell their colleagues on the top of a nearby hill to let them know if they see a car approaching. They do. We ask them to stop the car and only allow them to carry on if they take us with them. An old lady is sitting at the wheel who herself offers to take us. We are relieved to hear that a few months ago she underwent her umpteenth brain operation which has left her with no sense of smell. This means she can’t smell us after three days of hiking…
From Eilat we go by taxi to Be’er Ora and then we’re off home!
I’d like to add that we leave every place with no trace of us ever having been there. We take our rubbish with us, we bury excrement, bury ash or cover it with sand/stones, and we scatter the rocks covered in soot from the fire in such a way that the sooty part faces the ground. By the way, if you like collecting rubbish and lugging it around with you, you won’t get bored in the Promised Land, or the desert.
Another accident- and injury-free hike full of experiences has come to an end, although it will take a few days for hardened skin to become soft again, for blisters to go away, for wounds to heal, for muscular pain to disappear and for dry skin to become hydrated again.
Bye! See you on the next trip!
Date: Marc 4-7, 2015
Distance walked: 2+16+12+5=35 km
Locations: Beer Ora, Nachal Racham, Maale Amram, Har Amir, Nachal Schoret, Ein Netafim, Eilat
Other comments: without tent, and did not drive a car to accompany us
(With a few exceptions, all photographs were taken by Gabi Berger)