Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Day Eight: The Negev

August 22, 2012

While our activities began again at 8, sleeping in the tent lasted till no later than 6 for most of us.  It wasn't terribly uncomfortable.  In fact, as camping goes, it was quite nice.  No sleeping bag pad I've ever laid on was as cushioned as the ones we were given—because they weren't limited by space and didn't have to carried on hikes.  However, by 5:30 a rooster began crowing, and it continued for the next half-hour until the sun had fully risen in the sky.  At that point I went out to view the desert where we'd hiked the previous night and check on the camels we were about to ride.  They were being woken up as well, prepared for a day of tourist rides around the desert.

I met up with my group for breakfast by 6:45, which took place in a more traditional mess hall.  I guess they didn't think tourists would be pleased to eat two meals in a row on the floor.  Gone were the large platters, replaced by traditional small plates and a buffet of food not too dissimilar to what we'd eaten for breakfast everywhere else in Israel.

Around 8 we organized ourselves into pairs, preparing to saddle a camel.  I remember riding one once before when I was very young, I believe at the Philadelphia Zoo, but that camel was already standing, and it's seat more closely resembled a chair.  We mounted these camels as a team, for once the camel feels weight on its back, it stands up, ready to ride.  The saddles here were also much thinner, just covering the animal's back with a propped up layer of leather, so we weren't directly on top of the camel's hair.

Perhaps the most fun part of the whole experience—and the scariest for some—was getting on.  When the camels feel the added weight on their back they instinctually stand up, so both you and your partner have to swing a leg over the camels back at the same time or one person will be left on the ground.  Once it was clear my partner and I were both seated, the camel stretched out it's front legs, throwing us backward as if we were on a roller coaster climbing upwards to its first drop.  Then it balanced out with its back legs, sending us forward, but now upright.

The camels walked in a line, tethered one to another so that none would pass each other, and they continued for roughly fifteen minutes in a great loop up a hill and then back to camp where we started.  The whole thing was a bit anti-climactic, like a Disney-world ride—or a Venetian gondola—but we all had a blast while it lasted and, for the most part, were ready to move on when it was over.

Sunrise at the Bedouin Village

Camels greet the morning sun

Going to the dining hall for breakfast.


Our chaperone, Ori, and medic/security officer, Dan, "fly" on their "party camel."

This was the hill I'd climbed the previous night, which my friends and I didn't realize had a path in the darkness of night.

Next, we boarded the bus, leaving the Bedouin village, and made our way back a short distance across the Negev to a great canyon (Nahal Havarim) for a hike.  We began by visiting a giant cistern, descending a set of stairs deep into the ground, dug out by Bedouins long ago.  It stayed cool and withdrawn from the desert sun, with bits of greenery growing from the walls.  None of us would have noticed it was there if it weren't for Einat showing us the cavern discretely tucked along one side of the canyon.

The desert canyon may have provided the most gorgeous scenery of the trip.  As someone who'd never been to the desert before, I found it both beautiful and eye-opening, while recalling the imagery of countless movies, such as Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, 127 Hours, and Star Wars.  The walls of the canyon were made of dense chalk, which broke off into smaller and smaller chunks near the bottom, forming a powdery floor.  Lying at the base of the canyon were also bits of quartz, which rubbed off on the chalk, giving it a more orange tinge.

There was also some wild life.  We saw a few Ibex hiking the ridge early on, and later I glanced a tiny lizard that blended right into the scenery and quickly scurried off.  On the floor of the canyon and out on the plains of the desert were some greenery with mostly long sharp leaves to retain and not expend water.  Einat informed us we could eat one of the plants, as its salty quality resembled potato chips.  Salty food was the last thing I wanted in the desert though, so I refrained from eating more than one leaf.

 Descending the carved out steps into the cistern. [taken by Samantha Gellman]

Team Shlomo hangs out in the cistern. [taken by Samantha Gellman]

Starting our trek from flatland down into the canyon.

An Ibex on the ridge.

After an hour or so we reached the road at the other end of the canyon, where we reboarded the bus.

At the end of the canyon, we were met by Shlomo, who drove us to the top of the mountain before us and the final resting spot of Israel's first Prime Minister: David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion had a controversial vision to bring the Negev to life through irrigation and smart farming techniques, an idea that still has some resistance to this day.  When he retired as a politician, he moved south to work on a kibbutz.  Despite the fact that he was a terrible farmer, he made the desert and the kibbutz his home, working mostly on an eleven-volume history of Israel's early years.  Before he died, he made it clear that he wanted to be buried there in the desert, commemorating his unique vision rather than lying beside other great leaders at Mt. Herzl.  If nothing else, the view from his grave was fantastic, overlooking the canyon we'd just walked, and all about it was grass and shrubbery being looked after by Ibex.  Though it has not come entirely to fruition, farming in the Negev has definitely begun.

Our next stop was a tourist farm designed to prove exactly that. Shvil Hasalat, which Einat referred to as "Willy Wonka's Vegetable Factory," was set up only a mile or two away from both Egypt and Gaza to research and demonstrate the possibilities of farming in the desert.  Perhaps the most notable part of the farm was that it did not exist in the open heat of the desert, but each plot was covered by a great greenhouse, retaining moisture, keeping out pests, and moderating the temperature.    Water on the fam is also recycled from urban sewage and then cleaned for a year so it is cleaner than the original drinking water.

We walked about with free reign to pick passion fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs from the garden to eat or smell.  All were delicious, and along the way our site guide informed us about the innovations that made it all possible.  Perhaps the most fun part of the visit was when we were given small chunks of dough to stretch and pull into our own piece of pita, which was grilled right there for us to eat along with olive oil and herbs.

Ascending the mountain to David Ben-Gurion's tomb.

Ibex in the highly irrigated park surrounding the graves.

The Nahal Havarim canyon we just walked stretches out from left to right in this picture below the road.

The canyon opens up as it heads west towards the Mediterranean.

Team Shlomo. [taken by strangers, courtesy of Samantha Gellman]

Ibex on the run.

At the Negev farm.

Tomato vines.

Pita baking. [taken by Samantha Gellman]

Looking through one of the greenhouse screens.

We concluded our activities for the day with a trip closer to the border, discussing the tensions over Gaza.  Nadav spoke about the time he spent serving near the border, where mortar shells became a common occurrence.  What I found most striking up close was the density of the place.  Watching the news for years, I can hardly recall a time when I saw pictures of Gaza.  Usually it is just shown on a map as a little spit of land in the desert south of Israel along the sea.  From our location, we could see about a mile out, across Israeli farmland, an abrupt change in scenery to dense urban development going north and south along the horizon for as far as we could see in both directions.  Being there, and seeing that view made the land controversy much more resonant.

We drove back inland about an hour—nearly to the opposite Israeli border with Jordan—to the small city of Arad, where we would sleep for a few more hours in Israel before making our journey home.  No different than the night before, with the end of the trip so clearly before us, most stayed up chatting in the hotel courtyard until sleep deprivation caught up with them.  While we wanted to spend those last hours and minutes with each other, it was a sleep we surely would need, as the next day began extra early and ran especially long.

A memorial of some sort—whose significance I don't ever recall being explained—near the Gaza border where we discussed the region's conflict.

Looking west to Gaza, along the horizon.

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