UPDATE 10 am Israel time Tuesday:
There have been no major terrorist incidents reported in Israel overnight.
As your humble servant mentioned yesterday, he is currently in Eilat down on the Red Sea. Today’s blog is a reprint of a newspaper article I wrote several years ago about the trip from Ashdod. It is all just as amazingly true today as it was three years ago–except that our trip this year is our 30th annual trip.
“I fell in love with Eilat on my first trip to Israel, and a few weeks ago my family made our 27th annual trek. Heading first down the coastal highway toward Ashkelon, we bisect Tel Ashdod and then pass Nizzanim, which houses a now-permanent neighborhood of Israelis who left Gaza when Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2006. Nearing Ashkelon, we journey east past the Sderot road. We reach Highway 40 and speed south towards the Beersheva bypass.
On the left side of the road are thousands of new eucalyptus and acacia trees planted by KKL (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael). With over 200 million trees, Israel is the only country to have had a net increase of trees at the end of the 21st century.
Looming on the horizon to the right are the minarets of the large Israeli Arab Bedouin city of Raat signalling that for the next 100 miles we will see numerous nomadic and permanent Bedouin encampments with ramshackle tin metal houses, tents, sheep, camels, and water storage trucks. The relationship between the Bedouins and the Israeli government has become increasingly uneasy as the country seeks to develop the Negev. Nevertheless, the Bedouins proudly serve with distinction in the IDF as highly specialized trackers.
We finish the bypass; a left turn would take us past Dimona and along the Jordanian border on the infamous (crazy drivers) Arava highway, but we turn right taking us through the central Negev and the fascinating topography around Mizpe Ramon.
Forty five minutes later we pass Sde Boker, the home and burial place of David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s first prime minister. Ben Gurion envisioned that the Negev would one day become some of Israel’s most valuable land—a vision nearing fruition as Israel and Jordan plan a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea which will provide desalinated water to the Negev.
An hour later we reach Mizpe, always stopping at the same gas station/convenience store to stretch and get a popsicle (‘arctic’ in Hebrew). Leaving the station, we spot a small group of Nubian ibexes, part of a herd that regularly roams through town and inhabits the nearby cliffs. We hurriedly pull off the road and precariously scramble over rocks to the cliff’s edge taking pictures. This headland area is rich in wildlife with populations of leopards, hyenas, gazelles, wolves, hyraxes, red and Afghan foxes, and caracals.
Back in the car to start the steep switchback descent into Makhtesh Ramon crater, the world’s largest makhtesh—and Israel’s largest national park. The makhtesh, which resembles the gigantic caldera of a dormant volcano, is a heart-shaped erosion cirque 40 km long, 2-10 km wide, and 500 meters deep at maximum. The crater was created over 5 million years ago as the Arava Rift Valley formed; long-disappeared rivers carved the soft rock at the center of the crater finally revealing today rocks that are over 200 million years old.
Continuing south, we pass the mountaintop Petra-like ruins at world heritage site Ein Avdat, a 4th century BCE Nabatean crossroads on the spice route that reached from Petra and Eilat to the Mediterranean coast. Over the next hour we bizarrely come upon vineyards, patches of intense green in seas of rocky sand. Israeli vintners say that Negev grapes have a unique concentration of color and flavor because of minimal ground moisture, cloudless skies, and cool humid nights.
Another hour passes. Shitim, Neveh Harif, Ketura: isolated kibbutzes in a vast rocky wilderness. Israel is famous for its kibbutzim, but the movement is in decline with only1.8% of the population living in 268 kibbutzim. But forty kilometers from Eilat we come to arguably the most famous kibbutz in Israel, Yotvata. Years ago, Yotvata gained fame for the amazing mocha and ‘choco’ dairy products only available in its roadside store. Travelers to Eilat always stopped—and we do again today for our tuna fish sandwiches and mocha and chocolate milkshakes. Past the Hai Bar Nature Reserve and the copper mines of King Solomon (disputed by recent archaeology) at Tinma —still in operation after 3000 years.
Finally Eilat! Beachside hotels visible through the salty haze. Two hours later we are at Chof Al-Mog (Coral Beach), 43 C., snorkeling the corals in the icy water and being dessicated by the 35 mph winds buffeting the beach. At night, we stroll the promenade shopping handicraft booths with a cosmopolitan mix of Europeans, Egyptians, Jordanians, Americans (hundreds!) Israeli Arabs, and Israelis.
A few final thoughts. It’s midnight and we’re sitting at a beachfront café, drinking wine, listening to waves lapping against the shore, and feeling like we’re at the end of the world as we gaze down the now-blackened abyss that is the Red Sea. To the left twinkle the lights of Aqaba and northern Saudi Arabia… down the coast to the right pinpricks of light from the Egyptian Sinai. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—all within 30 minutes of this spot.”
Tomorrow I will meet you at Chof Al-Mog, Israel’s beautiful coral reef nature reserve.