December 28, 2015

Wildness in the Negev

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” John Muir, 1923.

Our desert adventure of three weeks past was calling to us. We just had to go back. 

We have been hiking the Israel Trail (the Shvil Israel) in small sections for three years and have walked most of the country from Mount Hermon in the north to Arad. Now we find ourselves faced with the southern desert sections of the trail and since winter is prime hiking time in the desert, out come the boots and poles. 

We were able to gather fourteen over-civilized people for this portion of the desert hike. “Fourteen?” a friend of mine asked in disbelief. She couldn’t understand how such a large group of adults could simply escape from life to hike. We are not yet retirees; we are not post-army adventurers; and we are not kids out on a school trip.

We are people who appreciate the benefits of leaving behind the noise of the man-made world, of ‘going home to the mountains’ and returning to the majesty of nature. We like to challenge ourselves physically, clear our minds and reconnect.

I wonder if this would happen were we all ensconced in our North American lifestyles. Previously, most of us were tied to desk jobs sitting for hours in small cubicles, striving to meet pressing deadlines and trying to stay afloat in a competitive dog-eat-dog world.

Many Israelis do live like this, but our crowd of olim (immigrants) find themselves living a more flexible lifestyle. Some are self-employed, while others work hard overseas and then come home to Israel to energize.

And as the level of stress in Israel intensifies daily, who could say no to a stroll through the peaceful, meditative desert? In these dark, violent, complicated times, the simple wildness of the desert does seem to become a necessity.

To start walking early, we had to wake up at 3:15 (a.m., that is!) Sunny yet chilly, we started off wearing hats and gloves, yet peeled them off as the air warmed up. 

We soon came to the rim of the Machtesh HaKatan (small crater). This unique geological formation is found only in the Negev and Sinai and was created by erosion some five million years ago. Seven kilometers long and four kilometers wide, it is surrounded by steep cliffs and has a small opening at the east end.

Our steep path twisted and turned past ochre and mustard colored sandstone. Like children in a sandbox, we would stop to stuff our pockets with small rocks and fill bags with this dusty desert gold. We ran into a group of Australian teenagers on an Israel trip and within minutes, Jewish geography scored a few points. Where else but Israel could you find your college roommate’s daughter’s cousin walking through a desert?

We reached the bottom and walked along a dry riverbed, making our way across the crater floor. Ahead of us loomed towering cliffs. We looked up and, like ants climbing a blade of grass, we saw people slowly moving along a ridge above. As we got closer, we saw it was a group of teens on a school trip hiking down the path. 

They moved on and we moved up. It was a relief to leave their chatter and plunge back into the silence of the desert, to focus on our steps and on our breath. We have each developed our own way of climbing steep paths and we went to work, poles clicking, soles of boots creaking, breath heaving.

As I hoisted my knees onto jutting rocks and pulled up my body, I was thankful for having practiced yoga over the years. As we climbed, we would stop to see our progress, watching those teens become ants crawling in a line across the crater floor. It was liberating, invigorating.

The views were spectacular and as we all met at the top to survey our work, we had our traditional moment of silence to appreciate the beauty of this tranquil place.

We stayed overnight at nearby Cameland and were grateful for the hot shower at the end of this 20-kilometer hike. 

Ariel, our Cameland host, sat regally in his chair. Wearing a thick embroidered coat lined with sheep’s wool, he looked as if he had always been a part of this landscape, yet he left city life to come to the desert. 

Fast forward thirty years and he is now a specialist in camel husbandry and teaches his skills internationally. He has developed a specialized camel saddle and, together with his Bedouin staff, he offers camel tours. He has several simple rooms that he rents out and offers hikers transportation to and from the trailheads. Ariel has incorporated the very wise words of John Muir that prefaced this posting, that "wildness is a necessity."

We eagerly retired to our simple cots in our tiny rooms on this remote camel farm. After a full day out in the Negev, we felt intensely satisfied: grateful for life’s simple pleasures, thankful for the strength in our own legs and in our ability to reconnect to a place that takes us away from being over-civilized and back home to ‘inner peace.’

Check out the hiking details and see more photos on our hiking blog

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