By Douglas E. Duckett
Most people visiting Israel for the first time do not visit Eilat and the Negev desert (the southern half of the country, shaped like an inverted triangle). Of course, your choice depends on your interests. Most first-time visitors tend to focus on the cities, culture, and history, but those who want wilderness, a more nature/eco-style trip, or year-round warmth may well head south. Because of my experiences touring the wilds of this region with Adam and Nadav Sela and Desert Eco Tours (more below), I have fallen in love with the Negev and the desert experience. And while Eilat is in some ways a resort city, I have developed an appreciation for it as well. The locale is stunning, so it has become part of my Israel experience in recent years.
The Northern Negev, Mitzpe Ramon, and the Makhtesh
The Negev is a vast and truly spectacular desert, and if you are so inclined, by all means carve out some time to tour it. Don’t miss the Makhtesh Ramon, the so-called “Ramon Crater” (a makhtesh is not a crater but a geological, erosion feature unique to this region) near Mitzpe Ramon in the central Negev. This spectacular geological formation is Israel’s Grand Canyon, and it’s just about as breathtaking. There are two other, major makhteshim, the “small” and the “large,” and ha-Makhtesh ha-Katan (“the Small Makhtesh”) is in some ways more spectacular because you can see the whole formation in one glance from the rim and that gives a better understanding of how the geology works. There are only seven makhteshim in the world, five in the Negev and two in the northern Sinai, and “makhtesh” is the correct term for this phenomenon in any language.
I have had the pleasure of touring with guide Adam Sela and his son Nadav Sela who specialize in tours of the Negev, with a focus on the natural and ecological aspects of the central Negev highlands. They live and work in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, just outside Sde Boqer, the kibbutz made famous as the adopted home of Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion. I cannot recommend Adam and Nadav highly enough—they have showed me a side of Israel and the Negev that I not only had never seen but could never have accessed without someone like them. I had heard of “off-road jeep tours,” but had no idea that one could drive a jeep where they took us! We went up mountainsides and down through winding, dry wadi beds. Adam showed us the Makhtesh Ramon—and for the first time, I really understood the unique, geological process that created it. He also showed us the remnants of the Nabataean, Roman, and ancient Israelite presence in the region over the centuries, and spectacular vistas that I would never otherwise have found, let alone be able to get to. The jeep tours are not for the faint of heart, but they are unforgettable and totally worth it. He is also a delight to spend time with. For more information on their tours, see www.adamsela.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Adam or Nadav at (050) 530-8272. Nadav also works with Adam as a tour guide now, and my friend and I toured with him for a full day in November 2014—he, too, is the real deal! In the picture to the right from my 2016 trip, Adam sits with Brett preparing tea in a cave in the Makhtesh Ramon at the end of an unforgettable day of touring.
Some additional options to discuss with Adam or Nadav for your Negev tour:
If you have the time and interest, Adam may be able to set you up with a lunch with local Bedouin in their tents in one of the nearby settlements. In several places in Israel, there are “Bedouin experiences” set up as tourist attractions, and frankly I see them as the equivalent of a Disney Epcot experience—sanitized and artificial. (Remember: my guide, my opinions!) This is not that; Adam took us to lunch at the tent of one of the major Bedouin leaders of the region. In an hour or so of conversation, I learned a great deal about the social problems facing the Bedouin, of their struggles with modernity and with the state bureaucracy, and had a glimpse of the life of these fascinating people. If you are privileged to have this experience, I offer two cautions. First, the food is prepared in genuine Bedouin style—with bare hands, some flies, and bread baked directly on and covered by charcoals. It is not for those who are squeamish or need hyper-sanitary conditions, but it would cause great offense to decline to eat food prepared for you. If you go, that’s the deal, and you need to be respectful that you are in someone’s home and honored to be a guest. I did not take pictures of my host or his family because I did not want to make them feel like a zoo exhibit for tourists. I would recommend similar restraint. It was one of the most remarkable moments of that trip.
Sde Boqer was David Ben-Gurion’s home for the last decades of his life, and he and his wife Paula are buried near there on the edge of the vast Valley of Tzin (part of the “Wilderness of Sin” in the biblical accounts of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness). The view, seen at right, will take your breath away. It is worth this brief stop, particularly near sunset.
Israelis are known throughout the world for their expertise in water management and desert agriculture—or more poetically, for “making the desert bloom.” This water-starved country is now a world leader in desalination technology, and Israel is where drip-irrigation was invented. If you would like to learn more about the cutting-edge technology that is changing the world of agriculture, have Adam or Nadav take you to the Ramat Negev Desert Agro-Research Center, tel. (054) 620-9040; www.ramat-negev.org.il; e-mail email@example.com. I learned that the cherry tomato was invented in Israel and was amazed how Israel researchers are learning to use desalinated sea water, brackish ground water, and recovered waste water for agriculture. When I was there, a large research group from China was there to learn from this pioneering research center. California’s huge agricultural industry needs to learn from Israel—and fast.
An experience to do on your own in the area, if interested, is Astronomy Israel with Ira Machevsky. Almost every night, Ira takes people out for stargazing tours in the pitch-black skies of the central Negev, away from the light-pollution that destroys night skies in urban centers all over the world. The tours are two hours, split between naked eye viewing and views through his telescopes, and are best on moonless nights. For more information, see www.astronomyisrael.com or contact Ira at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (052) 544-9789. As a life-long astronomy aficionado, I enjoyed this! Bring warm clothes—the desert grows quite cold at night.
I have never been one to spend a lot on posh hotels in Israel or anywhere else. But I have enjoyed stays at a relatively new, luxury hotel built right on the lip of the Makhtesh Ramon, called the Beresheet Hotel (See photo above), 1 Beresheet Road, Mitzpe Ramon 80600, tel. (08) 659-8004, fax (08) 659-8008; www.isrotelexclusivecollection.com/beresheet. This place is a true destination hotel and a major splurge—picture a luxury hotel on the edge of the Grand Canyon. This place is just stunning—built on the rim of the Makhtesh using natural stone from the region so that it blends in ecologically, and some rooms have their own small pools in front. And look at the infinity pool on the edge of the Makhtesh in the photo above right! One constantly sees ibex families grazing on bushes a few feet away—amazing! (Picture at left.) Contact public relations manager Tal Magen with any questions: tel. (08) 659-8000; email@example.com. And please do tell them I recommended this beautiful place.
If the Beresheet Hotel is too expensive—and it is pricey!—you have several other options for places to stay in the area around Sde Boqer and Mitzpe Ramon, either of which make a good base to tour with Adam. One option if you are touring with Adam or Nadav is to take the train to Be’er Sheva and ask if they can pick you up there. One good option is a lovely B&B called IBike in Mitzpe Ramon, 4 Har Ardon Street in the Spice Route Quarter of the city, tel. (052) 436-7878 or (052) 361-1115, website at www.ibike.co.il, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Hosts Aviva Angel-Scheiber and Menachem Schreiber specialize in hosting bicyclists, but all are welcome, and the environs were as charming as the hosts! You may be able to stay at the Field School at Midreshet Ben-Gurion, with youth hostel-style accommodations; my TripAdvisor colleagues who stayed there thought it was fine. For really basic accommodations, you could also try the Desert Lodge at the Boqer Valley Vineyards Farm, tel. (08) 657-3483, web site at www.israeldesertlodge.com, e-mail at nahal.boker.@gmail.com. This was too rustic for me to stay overnight but will appeal to some. It is a great place to have a meal and some good wine, and the view here as well is stunning. Finally, if you want a really different experience, you could stay at the Naot Farm, run by Gadi and Lea Nahimov, located off of Route 40, Ramat Ha-Negev 85515, tel. (054) 421-8788; www.naotfarm.co.il; e-mail email@example.com. This is a working goat and dairy farm that produces wonderful cheeses that are very popular in the region, and while rustic, the cabins offer a true, off-the-beaten-path desert experience with a lot charm. Since the Negev is an alternative experience, consider alternative accommodations—and have an adventure!
Mitzpe Ramon is not a fine-dining destination, but we had a good meal with friends at Ha-Ḥavit (The Barrel), a nice, pub-style good restaurant, which is open on Friday evenings as well. You must reserve a table on Friday or Saturday because it is full. Tel. (08) 658-8226; www.rol.co.il/sites/hahavit/business.html. There are also much more upscale, fine-dining options in the Beresheet Hotel.
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