2 Day hike of the southern Judaean Desert

As always I cut my nails and shave my head the night before setting off. The kids ask why I shave my head before hikes and I tell them that for me, the desert is the most sacred of places and that it’s important to give it the respect it deserves. During the night Magi dreams that I use light blue nail varnish. We have a good laugh about this in the morning and in good spirits, we set off.

They are playing nice music on the radio. I keep my fingers crossed that between songs I won’t hear the incessantly annoying voice of the self-satisfied female DJ. They play an Avraham Tal song. ‘Days go by, years fly by, children leave home, mothers cry, tell me what is truly important here…’. Magi comments that this guy knows what he’s talking about, it’s not just hot air. While driving near Hadera I dance to She is the Rainbow by the Rolling Stones and then near Netanya Judith Ravitz’s new song – Daber iti baaviv (speak to me in Spring) makes the already idyllic journey even more pleasant.

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It’s December and the weather is spring-like. Both sides of the road are covered in flowers and there is a hot air balloon hovering in the sky above us.  On the way we check the numbering of the roads to see whether those heading from south to north really are even-numbered whose numbers increase as you head north, and the roads from west to east really are odd-numbered whose numbers increase as you head east (Road 2 on the coast, Road 90 by the Jordanian border.) It’s reassuring to find something yet logical in this chaotic country.

Bedouin women in striped skirts stand at the roadside.  Progress has clearly reached them too, even they have started to opt for colours other than black.
Between Tel Aviv and Arad we pass five of the seven recognised Bedouin settlements – Rahat, Laqiya, Tel Sheva, Hura and Kuseife. Outside these settlements tens of thousands live in ‘illegal’ shanty towns. Most Bedouins are not scroungers, they are very hard workers. They struggle to adapt to modern life and safeguard their ancient traditions, and constantly face a dilemma between cultivation and desert life.

We turn into the desert and its atmosphere immediately overwhelms our senses. Within seconds the daily grind is left behind and replaced by peace and calm.

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“What does a camel think when it looks at me with its big eyes?”, I ponder out loud, whilst sneaking between five or six grazing camels in search of a good position for a photo.  Magi says it must be thinking “I know what you’re thinking, I was also a human once”.

Magi wants to call the children before she turns off her smartphone, so we climb a steep hill in search of reception.  While she is on the phone, I see seven men at the bottom of the hill getting out of two jeeps full of wood. They then take the wood that we had gathered earlier for fire. Magi shouts down to them to leave our things alone but they don’t hear her, or they don’t care. I run down and confront them. They then try to bargain with me by saying that it isn’t my wood because I gathered it from the land and that they need more wood because there are seven of them and only two of us. In the end I manage to persuade them to give it back. Actually, without them noticing I manage to take more back than they took from us.

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We then spot a couple kissing at the top of the nearby hill, to which my wife says that because of the wood thieves we missed our opportunity to kiss each other at the top of the hill, like Jon Snow and Ygritte did on top of the ice wall. “Don’t worry,” I say, “there are plenty of hills around here.”

After sunset Magi is again in the mood for climbing hills and for a short while I accompany her on the steep slope. The rapidly ‘rolling’ stones (ha ha) mean that we must climb on all fours in case we slip. I place my foot in a spot chosen at random and announce ceremoniously that since the world was created nobody has ever stepped on this particular spot. “It was high time to do so,” – Magi replies tersely, “and maybe by stepping on that spot you’ve stopped a volcano from erupting.” We later learned that precisely the opposite happened and at that precise moment two volcanoes erupted. Again, this just proves that the general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the superstring theory are all in harmony with one another. I stop within sight of our tent in case the thieves come back or Bedouins steal our things.
I stay alone in the dark. Magi returns after a long while and responds to my complaint of being cold by saying that it’s the first time in her life she’s heard me say that I’m cold. “I’m not cold”, I say, quickly correcting myself, “I’m just a bit chilly.” “You sound like Vuk, the little fox”, Magi replies. “I’m alone, I’m small, I’m hungry, I’m cold.” I dub her ‘Earth Goddess’ because of her courage and tenacity.

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On the way down the hill we are able to see well in the moonlight. “Why were lights invented?”, I ask, “What tembel1 decided to do that?”  “Why didn’t we just stay in the trees with the monkeys?” replies my wife.
We make a fire, warm ourselves up and have some dinner. Later on, something explodes in the fire. It’s a good thing we’re not sitting by it at the time. We’ve managed to avoid so many explosions, thankfully.
At eleven o’clock at night it turns out that in actual fact it’s only half past six, but we’re tired so we retire for the night.

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The next day we get up early, pack our things up and leave the campsite. There isn’t a soul on the road. We are amazed when we actually see a vehicle coming. “Wow, it’s a car!”
At the Omer observation tower Magi rustles up a fantastic breakfast from tahini, tuna, lemon and ginger. After breakfast we have a nice cup of coffee, get our backpacks ready for the journey and set off.

After the western entrance to Arad we turn south towards the Artists’ Quarter. Once we’re out of the town, groups of stray dogs and ravens rummaging through rubbish brighten up the boring and depressing road. After more than a kilometre we reach a disused airport. This is where residents of Arad looking for something to do at weekends go to ride motorbikes and to fly all manner of objects.
In the middle of nowhere we drive onto the 1400m long runway. A large company asked for the airport to be built when Arad’s industrial zone was being constructed. It was a clever idea to cut the journey time from Tel Aviv from one and a half hours to 25 minutes. However, they didn’t allow for the time spent waiting and at security. Arad isn’t far enough away to justify an airport.

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We travel between Bedouin metal fences along the dilapidated hiking route starting at the other end of the runway. After two kilometres we lose the hiking signs near the El Puraa makeshift school. An oncoming car pulls over next to us. A Bedouin man with curly hair leans out of the window and asks, “Are you heading towards the Kina wadi? My name’s Musa. Go straight on as far as the camel, then next to two donkeys you’ll see a herd of goats. From there, you’ll see a shack next to the second well and that’s where the car park is.”
I looked into it earlier and all the hiking websites claim that if we leave the car by his tent, no one will steal it. They won’t even break into it. It’s worth arranging your arrival time by telephone in advance. We could leave the car there for the night but we forget to leave a piece of paper with our contact details (name and number) on the car window and are therefore afraid that they’ll send out a search team to look for us.

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There was a report on TV Channel 2 about Musa and his sons, instigated by a right-wing organisation, in which they were described as land-robbing mafiosos who demand money from hikers for guarding cars on public roads. In reality, however, they didn’t accept money even when I offered, and the family has official documentation to prove their legal ownership of the land from the time of the Ottoman Empire, before the founding of Israel. What’s more, Ariel Sharon’s government confirmed the legality of the Bedouin settlement and set out to develop the village’s infrastructure. In recent years, however, government forces in favour of constructing a phosphate mine planned for the area have made life impossible for local people by stopping the development of the village, demolishing “illegal” buildings and not allowing local young people to build their own homes. TV Channel 2 has now joined in the row. The owner of this channel has a vested interest in the construction of the poisonous phosphate mine which is so fiercely resisted by locals.

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We park the car in the empty car park and then straight away another car parks next to us. At first I think they’re greedy thieves who couldn’t even wait for us to be out of sight, but I calm down a bit when two boys speaking Arabic, English and Hebrew get out. In actual fact, if robbers come later on, they’ll clearly choose their far nicer car over ours. I chat briefly to the guys and I get the impression that they’re a gay couple. Magi says they’re just friends.

Having read that God promised2 the Kina valley we also set off to conquer this ‘promised land’. The members of the Kenite nomadic tribe (whose name comes from Cain) were the successors of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law3, who migrated with Abraham and his relatives.

The hiking trail was marked out by Dov Ponio, an 80 year old man originally from Budapest. Ten years ago Dov realised a long-standing dream by moving from Tel Aviv to Arad and was shocked at how little the town’s residents knew about the surrounding area. He therefore decided to start a group and since then has organised weekly hikes on a voluntary basis. He leads the hikes, explains, guides people, teaches, paints hiking trail markings, registers historical artefacts, writes hiking books, helps protect the environment and is happy to answer all manner of questions about the relationship between humans and the desert.

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We soon reach the top of a hill, where we look at Uzza ruins dating back almost 3000 years to the First Temple Period. The ancient commercial and military fortress, identified with the biblical city of Kina4, is located high above the old road leading from Jerusalem to the Edom hills and the southern part of the Dead Sea via Judean Hebron. This castle protected the Judean kingdom’s south-eastern border from Edomites who often tried to break through.

The King of Israel, Joram, left Samaria to join Jehoshaphat, the King of Judah, and the King of Edom in waging war against Mesha, the King of Moab, for turning against him after Akhab’s death.  They decided to travel on the road across the Edom desert5. The three kings – obeying God’s order – caused a huge amount of destruction, but did not manage to take Moab’s walls because the king sacrificed his firstborn son as a burnt offering on top of the stone wall and this barbaric act horrified the enemy. Mesha immortalised all this in a monument discovered in the 19th century on which he boasts of his extensive conquests and the restoration of his kingdom.

At one time there were nine towers on the the side of the 40x50m fortress, which was surrounded by a double wall. According to earthenware covered in writing found in the rooms, towards the end of the First Temple Period the Edomites expelled the Judean tribe from the area and fought as the southern legion of the Babilonians during the conquest of Judah’s land. Later on, the Persians and the Greeks also used the fortress, then in the first century the Romans constructed a smaller fort in the middle of the original building.

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We head down from the ruins on steeply sloping rocks (flint) to the banks of the Kina stream. Where the path joins the wadi, white signs lead to the three reservoirs which the three kings had built upon orders from Prophet Eliseus when they wandered for seven days without water. “I will fill this valley with pools of water. You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle and your other animals will drink.”6 He then filled the reservoirs with water. “Here it was—water flowing from the direction of Edom! And the land was filled with water.”7 Still today, each winter, even if there is no rain, these reservoirs, capable of storing almost 1000 (!) cubic metres of water, are filled, and Bedouin shepherds use them all year round to provide water for their flocks. Grooves can clearly be seen which have been caused by ropes being used to pull up buckets over the centuries. The water isn’t drinkable for us but we’ve brought enough with us!

While walking along the windy river bed we enjoy the wonderful variety of vegetation found in the desert, including sea onion, desert phlomis, centaurea, desert oregano, silene, papaver umbonatum (type of poppy) and who knows what other kinds border our path.

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After a couple of kilometres, we reach the 30m high Kina waterfall. A helpful Bedouin man is waiting for us on the edge of the ravine, equipped with ropes. He introduces himself politely, his name is Suleiman and without us asking he tells us what to do. Magi doesn’t move towards him and instead weighs up his face suspiciously from a respectful distance. He calls me over to the edge of the ravine and shows me a video on his smartphone of the waterfall in rainy weather.  Magi is only willing to watch the video if I pass her the phone.
Later on, my wife tells me that she thinks that Suleiman had particularly delicate facial features. He had nice hands and the colour and quality of his clothes showed that he has good taste. The colours also matched his backpack. His appearance reflected his individuality. Magi says that a terrorist wouldn’t pay attention to such fine details when getting dressed. I play devil’s advocate and tell her that I believe his hands only seemed nice afterwards because he didn’t toss us into the ravine and that his overly styled appearance made him, in my opinion, even more suspicious.

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We head down to the bottom of the canyon where there is a “gev” full of green, stagnant water. A gev is a natural reservoir formed by water pouring from a great height. This is one of southern Israel’s biggest and most imposing puddles. Apparently the water is more than 2 metres deep all year round (although of course by the end of the summer there are only a few centimetres left). For the region’s animals this place is a paradise, but not so much for us. It’s only worth having a dip in the water after rainfall when the water has been replaced. In spring and early summer, the 10m-wide reservoir is a nice place to bathe and freshen up in the desert heat.  As the sun constantly reaches it and, unlike most other reservoirs, it doesn’t dry up, I assume that there is a small spring hiding at the bottom which ensures the water is replenished even during the hottest summers.

There hasn’t been enough rain this year so the water is cloudy. Still, it’s a lovely place to relax, to make some Turkish coffee with cardamom on a slow-burning fire, to stare at the huge rocks rising above us and to have a bit of a sing-song.
A few years ago a pair of golden eagles made a nest on the wall above the reservoir. In order to stop hikers from disturbing these very rare predator birds, the path down was moved from the western side of the canyon to the eastern side.

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After the gev we have a pleasant walk in the windy and sometimes narrow canyon. You can’t hike here in rainy weather because the incredibly strong currents can take you with them, and on hot summer days I think it’s worth looking for more shaded hiking trails.
The surface under our feet alternates between smooth limestone and tiny stones. There are huge mountains on both sides and there are small cave openings on the brown cliff. We have a rest and grab some lunch. Magi picks a cave on top of the mountain and says that’s where she’ll live a holy hermit life. She asks me whether I’ll visit her. Of course, I say, if I find a free helicopter to drop me off.

We are amazed that this apparently dead region is teeming with animals including rarely-seen leopards, Nubian ibexes, rock hyraxes, many species of birds including Tristram’s starlings, blackstarts, ravens, swifts, barn swallows, desert wheatears, see-see partridges, as well as snakes, lizards and bugs. All these creatures turn the seemingly empty desert into an animal metropolis with their territories, battles, relationships and personal dramas.

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After two kilometres we reach a fork in the road. The red path leads to the right. We take the sharp bed to the left on the green path. After the junction we start climbing. We climb up through 1m-high waterfalls and later 4-5m ones. We have to be careful on the white rocks in case we slip and fall. We stop and look back after every step. In the middle of the stunning, staggered valley there is an even higher cliff of around seven metres which is more difficult to climb but isn’t a problem for strong and experienced hikers like us. Weaker climbers can use a 10m rope, which also has a hook. I can’t lean on the cliff because of the camera around my neck and as a result my centre of gravity is pushed too far backwards. I’m hanging on with both hands so it’s impossible to push the camera over my back to improve the situation. I can’t move. I almost fall backwards but I manage to survive by holding on with my fingers. I’m then able to climb up.

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After a long climb upwards we reach a 554m flint plateau from where we look around, satisfied. To the north are the Hebron mountains crossed by the slopes of the Arad valley. To the east are the Moab mountains, and to the south we can see the huge Negev desert. There is reception here so we are able to meet our communication needs.

We climb downhill once again. It seems that at each bend someone else comes in the opposite direction. Firstly Abraham, then Sarah and finally Hagar. Herds of goats and caravans of camels line the mountainsides guided by Bedouin child shepherds on donkeys.

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Before the last climb we have a rest in an attractive cherry tree oasis, then we reach the starting point after crossing a wadi full of caves used by Bedouins for storage. Our car is untouched, although it looks like the full tank of petrol has dwindled somewhat. It gets dark quickly.

Musa’s donkey stares at us and with a melancholic cry laments both the end of our hike and the fact that by going home we’ll have to go back to the tiring daily grind.

  1. tembel: fool (Hebrew slang)
  2. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—  the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites. “ Genesis 15:17-21
  3. The descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, the Kenite, went up from the City of Palms with the people of Judah to live among the inhabitants of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad. Judges 1:16
  4.  The southernmost towns of the tribe of Judah in the Negev toward the boundary of Edom were: Kabzeel, Eder, Jagur; Kinah, Dimonah, Adadah. Joshua 15:21-22
  5. 2 Kings 3
  6. 2 Kings 3:16-17
  7. 2 Kings 3:20

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