Standing on the edge of the Makhtesh Ramon “crater,” I felt as if I had been transported to another world — the moon, perhaps, or some unnamed planet. It was hard to believe that less than three hours north by car was Tel Aviv, and even closer was Jerusalem. But once again, I was reminded that Israel is a small country, despite its enormous impact on the world. Only about the size of New Jersey, it makes venturing off the beaten path easy.
My companions and I had left bustling Tel Aviv to explore a small part of the desert that makes up almost two-thirds of the country yet is home to only 10 percent of the population. Few tourists venture here. With the allure of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Galilee, perhaps it can be a hard sell. But it’s so worth visiting. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was convinced that the desert was the key to Israel’s future, a belief so firm that he spent his last two decades here at Kibbutz Sde Boker; and he and his wife chose to be buried in the place he loved.
Negev — meaning both “dry” and “south” — encompasses about 4,000 square miles and was once the heart of the ancient Nabatean empire, where the Nabateans plied their trade along the famed Spice Route, moving spices and incense (think frankincense and myrrh) from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean. The archaeological sites of Avdat, Haluza, Mamshit and Shivta, as well as the Negev capital, Be’er Shiva, incorporate a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is still a nomadic Bedouin population that lives in the Negev.
Makhtesh Ramon, so mesmerizing to gaze at, is one offive so-called craters (actually geologic depressions) in Israel. The largest in the world, formed millennia ago, it is one of the biggest attractions of the Negev; and if you are going to run into tourists, this is the likeliest place. It’s not a crater at all, but a valley that is 25 miles long, 5 miles across at its widest point and about 1,650 feet deep. Fossils, rock formations and volcanic and magmatic phenomenon date back as far as 220 million years. Ocean once covered this area. The crater formed when climatic forces dictated change. As we walked the rim, we saw a rappelling lesson going on nearby, just one of many adventures to be had here.
The Ben-Gurion gravesite is perched over the Nahal Zin, or Zin Valley, yet one more surreal vista that begs to be explored. We spotted ibex hopping around; apparently they are plentiful but easy to miss, as they blend into the desert landscape. The best way to discover the region is to get out of your car and wander on foot, bike or camel, Bedouin-style. My group booked a Jeep tour to take us deep into the valley, then we ditched our ride to hike, finally arriving at a spring where several of us took the plunge to cool off after a dusty journey. On the return trip, our eagle-eyed guide stopped the Jeep and pulled out a telescope to show us Griffon vultures nesting in the cliffs. We didn’t see another human soul until we were closer to the park entrance and a campground where two groups were setting up for the night. I was envious of the solitude and magnificent night sky they were going to enjoy, but I also knew I had a treat in store. We were spending the night at Carmey Avdat Farm, a winery and zimmer (bed and breakfast).
You may think a winery in the desert makes no sense, but in recent years a new wine route has sprung up in the Negev — and certainly the ancient Nabateans were able to make wine. Presses were discovered in ancient Avdat, and wine cellars were even found at Petra.
With help and encouragement from several groups, including the Israel Lands Authority, the Jewish Agency and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, innovative farmers and families have embraced the challenge of operating a winery and the tourism it brings. At Carmey Avdat, my room for the night was a single cabin with a floor of river pebbles and a deep tub that beckoned after a day of hiking. The following morning, I savored a delivered-to-my-door breakfast of fresh, farm-made goodies — jam, yogurt, breads and coffee.
The winery is located on the ruins of an agriculturalsettlement dating back at least 1,500 years. Since the land is terraced and this area often gets flash floods, growing grapes is easier than it would seem. Carmey Avdat produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which I enjoyed so much I bought a few bottles to bring home. It was as good as any I’ve had, with a well-rounded flavor that reminded me of some French Bordeaux.
The next day, we stopped for lunch and a tour at the eco-friendly Kibbutz Lotan in Arava. The cooperative kibbutz focuses on ecological issues and offers a number of programs and workshops including alternative building, organic gardening, creative recycling and sustainable living. There’s a playground for kids that is made from recycled tires and other materials and 20 guestrooms open to anyone seeking an eco-vacation.
From there, we moved to the appropriately named Desert Days zimmer in Zukim, about as opposite as you can get from a landscaped winery. The property, along the Arava road, sits smack in the desert, with the dry riverbed Zofar and cliffs in the west and Jordan’s red mountains to the east. Mud-brick huts, built by the owners, seamlessly blend into the landscape. The word “hut” may connote stark accommodations, but while simple, they were more than comfortable with hot showers and a lovely fire pit outside to sit by at night. The property also offers walking tours in the desert as well as workshops on — you guessed it — making mud bricks. You can also hike out on your own; I took a solo trek and felt like the last person alive on the planet.
Guests can make dinner in the shared kitchen in the open-air main han, or gathering place, but we took off for a Bedouin-style meal at the nearby Incense Route Inn. We sat on pillows at a low table under a tented roof and ate matfuna — a delicious traditional meal of chicken stuffed with vegetables, cooked under embers and served family-style over rice with pita. Nearby, several groups were settling in for the night on mats with sleeping bags while kids ran around. It reminded me of a KOA campground, Middle Eastern style.
The next day, we left the Negev and made our way to the Dead Sea, where it was almost a shock to be around so many people. Floating on the salty water, I was already craving the solitude of the desert.
Info To Go
To truly get off the beaten path, stay at Carmey Avdat Farm, Kibbutz Lotan or Desert Days. For information on the region, visit www.gonegev.co.il.
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