“Wadi” is the term used throughout Arabia to describe any wash, or drainage, in the vast deserts of the region, but when we dropped into Israel's Wadi Ze’Elim last month I wasn’t prepared for the deep, dramatic canyon looming ahead. This rocky feature cuts through Israel’s expansive Judean Desert and was reminiscent of some of my favorite canyons in Southern Utah. But with the turquoise waters of the Dead Sea—at 450 feet below sea level, the lowest place on earth--shimmering just to the east, it’s clear we’re not in Utah any more. Who could have known that here in the heart of the Holy Land we would find a desert canyon to rival any?
As we entered the broad mouth of the wadi and ventured farther upstream, towering walls of limestone soared upward toward the clear blue skies above. The trail is marked by small patches of white and blue stripes painted on the occasional boulder, reminiscent of trail markings in the French Alps, but this is not Europe, and it’s unlikely we are going to encounter other hikers here. Two miles from the entrance we stop for a light lunch of local sandwiches we picked up earlier in the day, savoring the perfect silence of the canyon, and the austere scenery. Terence, the British born expert birder in our small party, binoculars around his neck, identifies a raptor seen only here in the Middle East. “That’s a new one for me,” he says with a crooked grin and the obvious satisfaction bird watchers get from the sighting a new species. But for me, it was the visual impact of this arid landscape here in the southern part of Israel that hit home.
Wanting to explore this remote canyon country as thoroughly as possible in the little time we had, I set out on my own, returning down canyon and climbing up through the steep flanks of the wadi until I reached the canyon rim. From that high vantage point I could see the Dead Sea nestled in its deep basin (deep enough to make your ears pop), with the mountains marking the western boundary of Jordan glowing pink in the setting sun. Looking south, I was surprised to see the silhouette of Masada, that mesa-top fortress where in the year 73 AD a small band of Jews held out for almost a year against the siege of a Roman legion. History reigns supreme in this ancient land. From the canyon rim, this famous landscape was laid out before me, with not another human in sight. I found it to be not just beautiful, but rich food for thought, and proof that adventure is often discovered in unlikely places.
It was just a few weeks ago, in the middle of November, when it already was cold and rainy back in the Pacific Northwest, that I ventured to the Mediterranean for this voyage of discovery through Israel, in the heart of the Middle East. For such a small country I found a frankly unreal variety of terrain and sea shore here, along with a robust and vibrant culture. But as an avid canyon hiker, it was Israel’s expansive deserts in the south that drew me here.
The Negev Desert is only a few hours drive south from the bustling city of Tel Aviv but holds some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. Hiking through the limestone mountains of Ein Avdat National Park revealed a network of striking canyons, some harboring dark, deep pools of water surrounded by hanging gardens of greenery and ocasional sightings of the rare ibex. A three hour day hike here can take you from limestone rim, to canyon pool, to canyon mouth, then back to the rim again. But by far the most impressive location in the Negev is Ramon Crater, the so-called Grand Canyon of Israel. "Crater" is a bit of a misnomer here, as this huge valley is not an impact created geological feature, but a water carved one. Hence the comparison to the Grand Canyon is accurate, and it’s impressive size and complex landscape makes it one of the most interesting places to camp in all of Israel. The crater and its unique geological formations can keep a hiker busy for days, while the Halukim Hills, just to the north, has some of the premier mountain biking terrain in all of Israel.
Ironically, it’s another form of travel—by camel back—that can serve to remind adventure minded visitors that this is not Europe or North America, but the Middle East. I explored the hills around Mashabe Sade for half a day by camel, easily ascending the gentle hills and dunes of this arid landscape. Not unlike a horseback ride in a Montana dude ranch, but with a very different animal, and in a very different environment, camel rides with Bedouin guides reflect the rich past of the Negev. To my surprise, I found travel by camel to be not just amusing, and novel, but instructive. Not for nothing are these creatures called the ships of the desert, but to experience the reality of the camel’s easy, rocking gait, and tireless progress, and to ponder the fact that they can go a month between drinks of water, helps bring home the reality of what travel in the deserts of the Middle East has been like for eons.
Every first trip to a new place is, in reality, a reconnaissance, and what I found in Isreal made me wish I had more time to explore. I knew there was good snorkeling and diving down in Eilat, on the Red Sea, and interesting hiking terrain up in the Golan Heights, in the far north. Those places will have to wait for my next visit. But the one thing you learn on a trip through Israel is there are different kinds of adventure. Jerusalem offers an urban experience like no other, a city so holy to many cultures--to Jews, to Moslems, and to Christians--and with such iconic historical sites, that for many, it is the primary reason to come here. To wander the narrow streets of the Old City, following what many believe is the route taken by Jesus with his cross, or to gaze out over the blue tiled roof of the Dome of the Rock, commemorating Mohammad’s ascent to heaven on horseback, is to have a travel experience available nowhere else. See and hear the Islamic call to prayer as it reverberates over the rooftops of Jerusalem at day's end.
I had a day in Tel Aviv to catch up on my notes before the long flight back to the United States. Built along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean in just the last century, Tel Aviv is a bit reminiscent of the French Riviera: a civilized, sophisticated European style city that clings gracefully along its white-sand sea shore, with café’s and restaurants every fifty yards down the beach, stretching all the way to the ancient port city of Jaffa. The food turned out to be a highlight on this trip, ranging from the regional favorites we enjoyed every day, such as humus or baba ganoush with warm bread and condiments, to the sophistcated meats and seafood and other fare served in upscale Tel Aviv restaurants. This is a country that enjoys its cuisine--and its wines, many of which are created in local vineyards.
There’s a decent break right in town, where local surfers can be found all along the beach, but most seem to congregate at the old breakwater just north of Jaffa, riding the swells rolling in from as far as Gibraltar. The Israelis have built a number of outdoor public gyms along the beach, so you can break up your stroll in the surf by pumping a little iron, or cranking some chin ups, or locking in for some ab crunches, all to the roar of Mediterranean surf. This is not a beach for mere sunbathers. Spirited games of “matkot,” which looks like a particularly aggressive form of hand-ball--but played with big wooden rackets--are as frequent as the cafes.
After a long exploratory walk thorugh Jaffa's historic center, with stone buildings as old as those in Jerusalem, I hiked along the beach back to my hotel in sunny, 80 degree weather, my shoes in my hand as I kicked through the surf. At one of the many cafes, I took a moment to stop for a glass of the excellent Israeli beer, Goldstar, to make some notes and reflect on my hiking trip to this unique part of the world. The beautiful thing about adventure travel is that the allure of something like a great climb or a unique hike can bring you to places where you find something altogether unexpected. Israel manages to combine an intoxicating landscape ripe with adventure potential with a land rich in ancient history and mythology in a way that makes for an experience unlike any other.
Israel's national airline, El Al, has convenient flights from both New York and Los Angeles, and Israel's national travel web site can assist in making plans for an adventure trip to the Middle Eastern country.