From 1200 metres above to -20 metres below sea level. An illustrated account with rocks, family, a gypsy girl, loneliness, snakes, Jesus, Sanhedrin, a stone pillar, skulls, Jacob’s ladder and other tidbits.
I start the hike at an altitude of 940 metres, in the same place where I was pounded by hailstones recently. I know that this time I’m going to have to deal with heat and thirst so I set off with six 1.5 litre bottles of water. Although I know that I will reach a tap soon, I never trust the map completely. In the past I’ve reached a stream or well, only to find that it’s long dry or that the tap indicated on the map cannot be turned on. Incidentally, my leg might break before reaching water (on two occasions my leg did go – good thing I wasn’t alone…) and in that case I would have to wait for helicopter to come and rescue me, which could take hours or even days if there isn’t any reception.
I climb the 1130-metre Neria Mountain on a narrow path, hiding among oak trees and red-barked strawberry trees. To the west there is sometimes a clear view of the Mediterranean Sea. Now and again, when I stop because I am dripping with sweat and my footsteps and panting can no longer be heard, hear cowardly venomous snakes hiding from me in the bushes. I have a bad stomach ache. On the first challenging slope of every hike I start to feel nauseous and dizzy. Then, after a good dose of diarrhoea empties my body of all the bad stuff, I turn into a new person and I am like Hercules for the rest of the hike. This is the case now, too.
From the top of the mountain there is a stunning view over northern Israel. A few kilometres later and I am standing at the highest point of the Israel National Trail, 1190 metres above sea level. Israel’s highest point (2236 metres) is on Mount Hermon. This is closely followed by Mount Meron at 1208 metres but the summit cannot be reached, because the Israeli army has one of its strategic bases there and this is obviously closed to hikers. I bypass the summit and see a tap. I fill up my bottles and feel rather disheartened at the prospect of having more to carry, although from now on I’ll mainly be heading downhill.
I stumble across the ruins of the mid-19th century Jewish agricultural settlement which was founded by a rabbi, printer and doctor from Safed named Israel B-K (1797-1874). The initials stand for Ben Kdusim (son of saints) or, according to others, Baál Kore (reader). Israel was given this opportunity as a reward from the country’s Arab governor for curing him of some kind of disease. Later, another governor came and the local Arab residents, sensing that he had fallen out of favour, started to harass the farm. Then, after an earthquake destroyed the rabbi’s printing house, all 15 Jewish families left the settlement, three years after its foundation. Thus, Erec Israel’s first modern Jewish settlement was no more. Ruins from the Hellenistic and Roman periods can be found there along with an oil press, reservoir, dovecote cave (columbarium) as well as the remnants of the farm buildings and plantations with large walnut trees.
It’s a hot summer day yet the natural world around me is still humming and singing. For most of the trip my smartphone is switched off, but as my Whatsapp message alert tone is birds tweeting, the sheer number of birds singing in the area makes me feel like the whole world is messaging me. Maybe they recorded the chirping sound for the application here on Mount Meron.
The sun is blazing. I only stop to rest if I don’t see my shadow, i.e. if I’m in the shade. This the golden rule of every hike.
It’s a good thing my camera is waterproof because sweat is continously dripping onto it from my chin and my nose.
I have drunk four litres of water over the course of the day but I only have one little pee. I sweat out the rest of the liquid or it evaporates in the heat.
I pass a 90 metre-deep vertical cave, or karst shaft (huta), which was formed by rainwater in the soft rock. There are many of these in the area and it’s important to be careful because they’re not all fenced off. Lonely oak tree in a clearing.
I hold the camera in front of me with two hands to protect it as I move, just like a stealth hunter or soldier does with his rifle. The photo is my weapon.
“Are you hiking the whole length of the National Trail, or just part of it?” asks an approaching hiker without saying hello.
“Both”, I reply. “I’m doing the whole thing for the second time in sections lasting several days”.
I’m hot but I feel a pleasant sea breeze when I reach the western side of the mountain.
Between the stone walls of Druze orchards a snake takes me by surprise, hastily glides past me for several metres and then quickly hides from me. After my encounter with the snake I mistake every lizard sunning itself on a rock, every straight or bent root and every branch for a snake. Even the rustling of my trousers sounds like a snake creeping along to me. The snake must think the sound it makes is the rustling of hiking trousers when it is travelling on this route. Because it knows that this is my path and I know that in reality, it belongs to the snake. It belongs to both of us, it’s just difficult for us both to admit it. Just like both sides of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict – Outwardly we forcefully demand the land for ourselves, then inwardly we shamefacedly renounce it because we are the ones like the parasites.
In any case from now on I’ll always choose the wider path and stay in the middle in order to avoid unpleasant encounters.
The whole way down the mountain I can hear the Mizrahi singer Eyal Golan being played from the Breslov Hasidic settlement down below. They must be having fun to honour the start of the Sabbath.
I am at Elias’s Chair, where Meron Creek leads from. Some people believe that the prophet Elias will sit here when he comes to redeem Israel. I will definitely organise a hike for that occasion so that I don’t miss Israel’s salvation – I think to myself, and then I fall flat on my bum. The camera falls one metre onto my stomach and the object lens squeak loudly. Luckily, it isn’t damaged.
The next sight is a two-storey ashlar mausoleum. This building from the Second Temple Period, before Christ, is the tomb of the last Sanhedrin judge (Shamai) and his wife. His students are buried in cave graves nearby, but there are also wine-making tools here, as well as an oil press and in the valley below, ruins of a watermill. There is also a synagogue nearby which was built at the start of the third century and later destroyed in an earthquake.
By 5 o’clock I reach the meeting place which we decided upon with my sisters, but nobody is here yet. I wait.
An American girl joins me who has been in the country for two days and who has lost her friends. She is roaming the mountains barefoot and with no water. She sits down next to me and tells me about herself. She says that she hopes that there is gypsy blood alongside Jewish blood in her family, as she lives and breathes nature and for travelling. Then she asks me to harvest fruit with her in a nearby grove and she teaches me the word ’fig’ in English. I give her a bottle of water. If I die of thirst because of this, I will be a martyr, that’s a nice death.
My brother-in-law brings my sister and the boys and then heads off to work. He’ll come back at the end of his shift. He takes the wandering woman with him and drops her off at a junction near a religious settlement. My other sister arrives an hour later with her husband and three year-old son. My brother and his family won’t get here until tomorrow so I’m stuck here for a whole day. Never mind, at least I can rest a little.
We make dinner outside in a big stew-pot and then beside the fire we drink beer and wine, smoke some weed, chat, laugh, and then go to sleep.
In the morning, it’s ten o’clock by the time everybody wakes up, has breakfast and gets ready for a short hike. It’s very hot and my youngest sister’s son is whining. They go back after a while and head home. We continue for a bit and then walk back.
My sister and her husband brought lots of food but they don’t feel like unpacking it and making it so they go by car to Karmiel to eat out for lunch.
I stay on my own, take off my clothes and wash myself thoroughly in the hot shower serviced by water warmed up in the pipes, while two Breslov Hasidic Jews walking past stare at my bum.
Their walk around the religious village is like a kind of patrol. They make the place their own by getting to know it. A traveller coming from afar can see straight away from the way they move and relate to the place that these people are at home and he is the foreigner, the one passing through. It’s incredible how similar their white costume and broad kippah are to the loose briefs and headgear worn by religious Druze people. Much of a muchness.
I clean and sort out my backpack, then light a fire with a conifer cone and make some coffee. I clean the area and stamp on the dry grass. In my mind I fix wooden posts into the ground, build a hut and try out life as a hermit.
I lie down on the mat. There isn’t much shade so I move it with the sun, this way I always manage to stay in it. I examine the ants and I discover the reason for the way they move in a zigzagged and seemingly senseless fashion. I won’t go into detail about this here because I don’t have space. Ants are the future of humanity. Then if we reach their level, cows and monkeys will come next, in that order. The evolutionary cycle.
In the meantime my sister and her family come back and bring me a hamburger and a beer. It’s getting dark when my brother also arrives with his family. I am always amazed at how you can get a campfire going again by blowing hard on a fire which is almost out. The wonders of nature. I drink arak from a coffee cup so that I don’t have to wash up.
My sister slightly mistranslates the word for ’ants’ nest’ from Hebrew into Hungarian, while my brother makes jokes mixing the Hebrew word for ’torch’ with the Hungarian word for ’complaint’, which both sound the same.
His son tells me that his father is a child because his father is still alive, and that when they were travelling in Hungary they often translated Hebrew phrases into Hungarian word for word, which sounds funny.
Before falling asleep my brother tells the children not to be afraid – wild boar won’t come near us because they’re afraid of snakes.
I get up at 6 o’clock. My five year-old nephew vomits, half asleep, and then falls back asleep. I leave everybody sleeping there, fill up the bottles of water and set off.
At Ein Tina I walk below the British police station built during the Arab uprising which started in 1936 and which is riddled with bullets. Its job was to protect the Ein Yakim spring. Huge walnut trees stand by the water. My route takes me past old mills, bridges, water pipes and a milling station where wool was softened with water.
I stumble across pools of water (Brechot Shikvi) shaded by huge plane trees where the Meron and Amud creeks meet. There are ruins of a windmill on the banks.
I carry on walking. I look down to the valley, from an olive grove high above, then I head downhill again before going back up. The path is narrow and there is an enormous drop to my right. Sometimes I could really do with something to hold on to. I go back down into the valley, then come back up again, then down, across to the other side and back…
It seems that the dry creek bed is swarming with snakes (caution: poetic licence, it’s not completely dry). I hope that they are blinded by the sun reflected in the camera lens.
I whistle as I walk through old ruins and other places where there is a danger of finding snakes. I also tie the rubbish bag in a noisy manner, but this means ruining the silence and therefore the magic of nature. Sometimes I drag a stick along the ground behind me or I click the pen I use to write my notes. The main thing is that I should not surprise the snake and that it should have time to skidaddle. When heading down to the valley, I am confronted with a sudden strong wind. Laughing, I sing to them as loudly as I can so that they will definitely hear it.
I have a rest and I notice that I left my spoon and my cup at the campsite, so I eat with dirty hands and drink from a sooty coffee pot. While I’m resting, I see a swarm of ants on the rubbish bag. I jump up and knock my open bottle of water over. By the time I realise what I’ve done, half of the water is gone.
I climb down a rock on a boiling hot ladder, then, later I burn my hands on the hooks used when climbing up.
There is now a hot southerly wind. I head down again and have a rest at the bottom of the creek bed.
I only meet one lonely hiker all day. On hot days like this, people stay at home where there is air conditioning.
I’m amazed at how resistant my camera is. Swinging against my stomach the whole time, it absorbs the heat, it’s hit by branches and dust gets into it. It’s also waterproof and only gets wet from the sweat dripping onto it. And despite all of this, it continues to take photos.
I proceed under Road 85, where there is a great deal of construction work going on to build a bridge. In the tunnel, I hear the sound of water trickling, but then I hear more and more rumbling. I hurry to the other side, by which time a huge deluge of water arrives.
It’s already getting dark when I find a small clearing at sea level in the creek bed and I decide to sleep here. I throw my backpack down, then, lying on the ground, I notice that across the whole breadth of the creek bed tiny insects are heading towards the north, in the opposite direction to the course of the stream. They climb over everything in their path. Including me. It’s scary, but there’s nothing I can do, so I stay here.
On these evenings and nights spent alone, there is a sense of infinite peace, as well as immense sadness and pain. Just like life itself.
I feel that I am easy prey in this clearing lit by moonlight. The animals hunting in the area can easily hide and surprise you from the dense bushes at the side. Wild boar, wolves, gazelles, hyenas, jackals, weasals, martens, badgers, mongooses, porcupines, foxes, snakes, frogs, and insects. I sleep with a stick, a bottle, a torch, and a knife. I wake up several times in the nighttime heat and I chase away the jackals and wild boar sniffing around my head and the ghosts breathing heavily in my face. Bats fly above my head and I feel their wings flapping on my body.
I get up at 5 o’clock and it’s still dark when I set off.
It’s difficult to see through the vegetation as it is so high. Cows take me by surprise on my way and I am attacked by wasps. I don’t see a soul. It’s me who tears through each spider’s web and I can feel two kilos’ worth of web on my face.
After it gets light, I am joined by a small bird. It shows me the way, just like in fairy tales. It always lands in front of me and then before I reach it, it flies back up again before landing further on.
It’s deadly calm and very humid. The stifling heat makes me sweat profusely.
Next to the Ein Savsevet spring I pass a weathercock on a tower, but there is no wind. It’s not turning and creaking like it was a few years ago when I came here in windy weather. The windmill built in the 1950s had a pump which filled a trough for the animals to drink from.
I reach a strange building which is similar to Jacob’s ladder (although I’ve never seen that). It doesn’t lead to heaven but to Israel’s 130 kilometre-long main water channel. In the concrete steps, there is a 3 metre-wide steel pipe which the water cascades down from a height of 150 metres. Then, on the other side, the water climbs back up to the same level without any external intervention (the law of communicating vessels).
On both sides of the gorge, rocks rise before me. Vultures, falcons, hawks, long-legged buzzards, kestrels and hill pigeons nest on them. In the dark caves bats screech and rest on the skeletons of cavemen with huge skulls.
I reach the 30 metre-high limestone rock shaped like a pillar (“Amud”), which the creek got its name from. Hikers often climb it but I spare myself that task. I reach the road leading to the Hukok kibbutz, have a rest under the bridge for quarter of an hour, have breakfast and then continue on my way at 8 o’clock (the tomb of Prophet Habakkuk is near to the settlement, which originates from Biblical times).
A few hundred metres later there is a skull cave on the left. During the first excavation in Israel in the 1920s, an archaeologist found the bones and tools of the ’Galilee Man’ who apparently lived in the area 150,000 years ago.
I take a close look at an old Turkish bridge, then my route takes me through banana, lychee, avocado and cactus plantations.
I cut across the Calmon Creek bed and I see the signs for the hiking trail which runs around the Sea of Galilee. Then, from the unusual small sign hewn into basalt rock I realise that right now I am on the Gospel Trail, the 65 kimometre-long route from Capernaum to Nazareth. This trail is highly recommended to Christian pilgrims as it passes through Sepphoris, Cana, Tabgha (multiplication of the loaves and the fishes) and the Mount of Beatitudes. On an extended section of the trail you can also reach Tiberias, Yardenit (Christian baptismal site) and Mount Tabor (Luke 4: 29-30).
The Ein Nun spring is on the way. The water from the spring forms a small pool. I can’t resist having a dip in the crystal clear, refeshing water. After a short rest I walk for a few minutes, limping from my blisters, until I reach Migdal (tower), a moshav 200 metres below sea level near to the end of my route. At the beginning of the last century, a group of Germans started looking here for Mary, the mother of Jesus’ birthplace, Magdala. Magdala means ’tower’ in Aramaic, hence the term Mary of Magdala (Mirjam a migdali in Hebrew), like Frankpeti of Karmiel. Malaria brought the search to an abrupt end but later Russian Zionist Jews took over the land and established today’s Migdal next to the old ruins which had been found in the meantime.
I enter the shop at the side of the road and I have a cold beer to end the four-day hike.
Date: August 21-24, 2015
Distance walked: 35 km
Locations: Chomema rom, Har Meron, Chorvat Bak, Ein Zavad, Moshav Meron, Nachal Meron, Nachal Amud, Ein Yakim, Brechot Shikvi, Hokuk, Migdal
Participants: Peti (guests: Agi, Alon, Nadav, Viola, Guy, Atay, Zoli, Szandra, Ariel, Yoav)
Other comments: without tent, and did not drive a car to accompany us
This post is also available in: Hungarian