The Negev is the desert area in the South of Israel. Surprisingly, it covers around 55% of the country and yet is home to less than 10% of the population. I guess deserts are not known for being hospitable and the Negev is no exception: temperatures are extreme, water is scarce, and the rocky landscape is challenging.
My friend Mohammad once said that he had been shocked on a trip to the North of Israel to see how much space there was. He had assumed that Israel was ‘full’ and that was why expansion into the West Bank meant so much to them. I dread to think what he would say if he saw this!
The vastness of the land is perhaps the most striking thing about a trip to the Negev. It also makes it all the sadder that Israel is unwilling to recognise the many Bedouin villages that house around 160,000 people across the Negev. This isn’t a question of capacity but rather a determination to force Palestinians off the land.
Driving South on Route 40 the trees started to fade away and were replaced by thornier tufts. Large Bedouin camps were situated close to the road and I tried to catch a glimpse of what life was like for these communities as we drove past. Goats, sheep and the odd camel wandered around as dusty looking children played. Various ancient vans and car parts littered the site. The word that came to mind was ‘ramshackle’ and this was probably partially out of choice and partially in the knowledge that all permanent structures would be torn down.
The Negev is like a huge backyard to Israel and the barren landscape is dotted with ugly industrial structures and military training camps which can be kept away from everyday sight. For miles we were blinded by the brightest light emanating from an incredibly tall structure which I now know to be the Ashalim solar power station. There was a futuristic feel about the place that was unnerving.
The magic of the Negev is not about people nor manmade structures however. The dramatic landscapes and wildlife are the stars of the show that make a visit so memorable.
We visited the Avdat National Park and within minutes were walking in a beautiful valley with high rocky cliffs around us. On one side a family of ibex clung to the rocks as they gnawed on thorny bushes. I bent down to pick something up and came eye to eye with a huge iguana-sized lizard peering out from underneath a bush.
The sun was beating down and we walked slowly, enjoying the stunning scenery and looking for insects and creatures. Dragonflies the size of small birds darted around in an array of rainbow colours. Sadly, we were not allowed to go into the natural spring to cool off, and instead we sat at the side watching as a large crab scuttled around in the shallow waters.
We stayed in the isolated idyll of ‘Succah in the Desert’. We rented a large hut like structure which was equipped with comfortable beds and some basic kitchen supplies. The huts were well spaced out and blended well into the desert landscape which added to the feeling of solitude. Silence bounced around and was only interrupted by the hee-haw of a donkey or bark of a dog in the distance.
The bathroom facilities were in a separate shared hut and on seeing the sawdust toilet my son remarked ‘there isn’t a toilet, there is just a bin’. Luckily, the novelty was enough to get them on board with this.
Darkness fell like a curtain and by six-thirty we were sitting almost in the pitch dark with only a few small lights. There was still half an hour until dinner and with no phone reception and all the modern trappings of life removed, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Within minutes my husband was fast asleep.
The chef Liad brought imagination and his Tel Aviv training into the vegetarian menu to deliver an array of delicious food. This was his father’s business and he had returned with his friendly American girlfriend to spend the lockdown. Together they had transformed the dining yurt into a stylish space for serving dinner and breakfast.
We went to bed early and rose at first light, slightly annoyed by the kids’ early morning enthusiasm. The advantage was that it gave us the opportunity for a pre-breakfast walk on the rocky crags behind the camp, to take in the scenery and landscape before the sun was hot.
Later that day, we climbed up to the viewpoint at Mitzpe Ramon and looked down over the breathtaking scenery of the Makhtesh Ramon crater. At 9km wide and 40km long this is often referred to as Israel’s grand canyon and it did not disappoint.
The Makhtesh nature reserve was either not well sign-posted or we took the wrong route through it. Regardless of that, it was worth a drive to see the stunning views from the floor of the canyon. Rounding a corner, we saw a watering hole with several families dipping in the water. It wasn’t clear if this was allowed or not, but we didn’t hesitate to join them and jumped in.
It is a great time of year for exploring the Negev and there is more than we had time for on this occasion. I know we will be back before too long.