December 30, 2015

Out in the Wild (part 2)

“It had nothing to do with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” 
from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Day 2 of our Negev hike started with a camel appreciation moment. We sidled up to the camels, fed them hay and were hypnotized by their far-set deep brown eyes, flexible jaws and huge protruding incisors.

Driving us to the starting point, Ariel of Cameland shared stories about his life in the desert and his adventures as the ‘rescue guy’ for this area. He has saved the lives of dehydrated hikers and even carried a 135-kg guy up the steep mountain path we had walked the day before. This is heroic, selfless work.

Getting our bearings at the Roman fortress.
Today we hiked along gentle trails dotted with delicate desert flowers. We spotted remains of ancient Roman roads in the middle of nowhere and thought about the hardships of constructing these high altitude desert roads. The Tzapir Roman fort, its external walls still intact 2,000 years later, offered spectacular views and a great breakfast spot. 

We continued on until we came to the rim of another crater. It had the depth and majesty of a mini Grand Canyon, but we later learned that this was Nahal  Yemin, a river bed etched into a canyon.

There were deep fissures in the rock near the edge and as we imagined this precipice crashing down below our own feet, we quickly headed for the trail and snaked our way down. A group of Arab Israeli boys were on a school trip just behind us, moving quickly along the trail.

At the bottom, the riverbed of Nahal Yatira was lush compared to yesterday’s crater floor. There were many trees, prickly bushes and wild desert flowers. We made our way across this riverbed until we came to a sheer canyon wall, the Palmach Ascent. The only way out was straight up and the Palmach fighters for whom this 350-meter ascent is named after had no ladders to help them out when they were here in 1944.

The climb out started with a very long ladder that seemed to have endless rungs. This was followed by an iron rope, helpful for groping along the narrow path and metal rungs to help us up. At this point, I decided not to look down or up, rather to focus on each footing and hold.

Slowly, we all ascended. More metal rungs and suspension cables. And in some places, nothing to hold onto at all. Sheer will enabled us up and over these obstacles. Finally, at the top, we all needed space to decompress and relax.

Three men appeared, a few years older than us. One of them pulled out a gas stove and we enjoyed delicious sweet cardamom coffee together. Our new friends said they had known each other since kindergarten and had been hiking the Shvil Israel for four years, much like us. 

In passing, one of them pulled out a plastic tie and explained how these are important for securing torn shoes. He gave us a few and stuffing them into our pack, we wondered how and when this could ever be used.
We followed the path and passed a beautiful wadi carved into the rocks. Filled with water and rimmed by soft sand, Ein Yurkam is a true oasis where a mother sat reading to her children as they scampered in the water. We literally ran past it, hurrying to complete the hike, but making a mental note to come back to this spot with a picnic and time to chill out.

We then started to climb what is called the Big Snapir, our final 150-meter ascent. We heard children’s voices from afar then saw kids in white dress shirts climbing down. It was a hareidi school outing and these kids, with their loafers and Shabbat pants, looked better suited to be in a beit midrash than on a dusty mountain.

One kid yelled out in warning, “Aliyah metoorefet!” (A terrifying climb). I bit my lip and continued on, dismissing this and wondering how it could possibly be scarier than the one we just completed, the climb I was still trying to calm down from.

The three kindergarten guys were right behind me. Like Yota in Star Wars, one of them philosophized about fear and climbing. “Ze kol b’rosh,” he said as I grabbed for a rock and pulled my body up and then up, thinking about each foot as I placed it, praying I would not slip. 

'It’s all in my head.' I heard his mantra when there were no ladders or rungs or steel cables to hold onto. This ascent made the previous climb look like a practice run.

A few terrified boys were still stuck way up there, their rabbis trying to coax them down the trail. Did the parents know where the school had taken their kids? It was a miracle everyone was still intact, although perhaps a few of these kids would be scarred for life by this.

Enjoying the view from the Palmach Ascent.
The rocks were sharp and unforgiving, the height dizzying. This ascent should be renamed the Snapir Metooruf, I concluded. We finally all made it to the top and peered over. The view was staggering. 

The large observational balloon that had been floating listlessly above us for the past two days  was below. 

"We're so high, we're above the ballon," we shouted out like kids. On second look, no. The balloon had landed and we were deflated, but not for too long. We then dove into our backpacks searching for food to fortify our tummies and calm our nerves. At this point, people were sharing cold day-old soup, rice and any leftover crumbs they had.  Ripped fingernails, torn pants, muddied boots, sweaty faces, it felt as if we were ‘humans in the wild.’  The three wise men, calm and composed, joined us  yet again.
Luckily, the descent was gentler than the climb. At one point, Danny showed us his ripped shoe. A light bulb went off as we had the exact cure for such a malady; the plastic ties from the wise men! He stitched his shoes back together and we climbed down some more until we crossed a train track, reentering civilization.

The 20-km hike ended at the side of a highway just past some railway tracks. This will be the start point for the famous Carbolet hike, renowned for being the most challenging of the entire 1,000-km Israel Trail. Maybe this last ascent was a bit of an introduction to what lies ahead. 

As we were about to get into our warm, comfortable cars and be reacquainted with civilization, the three wise men appeared. The philosopher opened his hand and showed us two fossils. “Who wants them?” A strange request, yet maybe not so. Mark ran over and excitedly explained that he had been looking for fossils for his son for the last two days and had found none. He was about to go home empty handed.

After such an epic adventure, no one went home empty-handed or empty hearted. The wise men disappeared down the dusty road and as our cars swooshed us away to the comforts of our city lives, our souls were expanded simply by knowing how it feels to be out in the wild. 

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