"You do understand, we want hikes that will be sufficiently challenging – in which we have to exert ourselves but certainly not beyond our capabilities, and definitely not involving climbing down ladders and swimming across pools of freezing-cold water, like we experienced last year…” The “Gevult Trekkers” had returned to Israel to explore a number of popular but challenging treks on a 10-day hiking tour.
The word “gevult” can be defined as anything from “Oh my God!” “Woe is me...” to “Enough already!” The group with said moniker consisted of seven middle- aged men, if 120 is considered by Jewish standards to be the desirable age to aspire. They would also be contesting for the “Gevult Trekker of the Year” award – prestigious among a select few, entitling the successor to keep the group T-shirt for one year.
Day 3 of the tour was to be the big challenge: Nahal Mishmar.
Nahal Mishmar, located between Ein Gedi and Masada, is a relatively short canyon in the Judean Hills along the western edge of the Dead Sea.
The canyon is characterized by the diversity of its natural rock formations and rugged setting. It is surrounded by a pantheon of massive perforated limestone cliffs – which has the appearance of a gigantic suspended palace carved out of stone – with a dramatic palate set in shades of ochre. Looking eastward, the azure-colored Dead Sea shimmers against a mauve backdrop – the Mountains of Moab in Jordan.
The previous evening we had enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner at the Kibbutz Ein Gedi Guesthouse, with arrangements for sleeping accommodations appointed on the basis of decibel levels of snoring.
An early start to the day was required to account for the increasingly warm weather as the day progressed.
Apprehension temporarily quavered through the group when I informed them that the hike would involve considerable challenges, and an assistant named Arik would be required to help negotiate some of the dry waterfall descents.
After breakfast the group was introduced to Arik, a member of the local search and rescue squad who had come prepared with an assortment of ropes, harnesses and helmets.
We drove towards Masada, then branched off along a dirt track and reached an informal parking lot guarded by an old Beduin. We divided the weight of the food supplies among the group and began hiking the dry riverbed, stopping briefly for a group portrait beside an attractive, solitary acacia tree.
Steadily we began our climb, following a passage through the rocky pathway. Ascending the ridge of this mountainous trail revealed outstanding vantage points of the steadily upward constricting stream bed with its dry waterfalls, exposing the difficulties that would lie ahead in the descending trail.
The imposing sheer cliffs curved around and surrounded the narrow canyon. The vegetation was scarce among the boulders and sculptured rock formations.
Our winding path criss-crossed a dry upper stream bed, then we entered a large enclosed valley, walled in by an impregnable fortress-like barrier.
After hiking and climbing for nearly three hours, and with the sun reaching its zenith, we approached the highest point of the trail.
We stopped under a rocky ledge and consumed a meal, ravaged with gusto, enjoying the view of the spring that spouted from the base of the cliff, trickling down a rock wall and creating a large, crystal-clear pool of refreshing water – Ein Mishmar – a meditative respite for our journey.
With everyone looking around and enjoying the magnificent panorama, I gestured toward a hefty cave located some 10 meters from the top of the 150-meter cliff face above us. This isolated cave set high up on the cliff was explored in the early 1960s, revealing a major archeological find – a treasure hoard of beautifully sculptured copper objects used for Canaanite religious practice, dating from some 5,500 years ago and now finding their abode in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
These ritual items of worship, numbering over 450 objects – including ornamented scepters; crowns adorned with ibex and eagle heads; candlestick-shaped maces; and spherical globes decorating ceremonial staves – comprised an extraordinary discovery that fired the imagination of the world of archeology. It was a dazzling display of the lost art form of metallurgy; produced by ancient alchemists, surrounded by an aura of magic, who had converted rock into ornamental, metallic ritual art.
To this day, researchers are puzzled as to how the treasure found its way to this isolated cave, though it has been speculated that it was used in ceremonies in the ancient Canaanite temple discovered in nearby Ein Gedi.
The discovery was made by Pesach Bar-Adon, a maverick- type archeologist who came from a colorful background: a yeshiva student and pre-state pioneer who joined a Beduin tribe, was later a member of the Hagana, assisted in the clandestine maritime immigration and finally received recognition as a celebrated archeologist/ philosopher. Bar-Adon was a man as enigmatic as the discovery he had made, and the questions he left behind.
The descent diverged from the original trail and descended through the narrow canyon of the stream bed. Initially we were confronted with scrambling over rocks and around boulders, sliding down the smoothly sculptured surfaces of dry waterfalls dropping varying heights. Our first large drop required Arik to prepare a rope and harness and to parasail/climb down the waterfall face. Our group learned the technique quickly – something which would be useful later on, as we carefully progressed down these narrow passageways.
There were a number of pools of water at the bottom of these waterfalls, and we used sealed plastic bags to keep our valuables dry as we crossed them.
The careful descent was challenging and required a great deal of team cooperation, to guide one another in placement and location of hands and feet. Steel rungs had been embedded in the more difficult sections by the Israel Nature Parks Authority to assist in the downward climb.
The afternoon progressed; at one stage the gorge opened and became wider and more level, but then the passage narrowed and there was another moderate descent that required ropes, until we approached the final challenge.
When I informed the group of our last major obstacle, there was a commotion and ominous foreboding, expressing itself in dissension and requiring firm leadership and resolute decision-making – since we had no alternative other than to complete this final descent.
The waterfall dropped 15 meters over two sections that had to be negotiated as one descended with ropes and harness. Some members of the group were discernibly unhappy about this precarious prospect, especially as it culminated in a pool of water after a slide through a long, narrow chute.
Arik prepared the equipment and as group leader, I descended first. The first section was a little nerve-racking, but the rope certainly aided one’s confidence in climbing down the steel rungs along the surface of the waterfall. The intermediate landing required each trekker to relocate the steel footholds, then begin the descent to the pool below.
However, some of the rungs were missing, destroyed by boulders in a previous flash flood, and there were only narrow steps and handgrips carved into a confined vertical groove to assist in the slide, until the drop into the pool of water below – which was fortunately only waist-deep, but very refreshing.
The group members progressively descended with the accompanying assistance. As they were being individually lowered down, I asked them to face the camera below as I clicked away. The expressions on their faces were priceless – transformed from vacant stares to looks of terror and oblivion, then filled with surprise and accomplishment, as they dropped into the pool and emerged beaming with pride of achievement.
The sense of satisfaction after completing this assault was great, and well-worth the anxiety and initial trepidation.
The next part of the hike traversed through a narrow gorge of extremely large boulders, which presented a lengthy process of negotiating and finding passageways as we walked through the riverbed toward our vehicle.
Sunset was rapidly approaching. The surface of the Dead Sea had smoothed to a glass mirror, reflecting the crimson-colored images of the radiant Mountains of Moab in the distance.
We had had a fantastic day, expressed in the satisfied commotion inside our vehicle as we drove northward along the Jordan River Valley in the enveloping darkness.
We enjoyed a lusty meal of good food and wine at a local restaurant, resting in comfortable accommodation at the Beit She’an Guesthouse.
All of the Gevult Trekkers were too tired and at peace with themselves to contemplate the challenges of the coming day.The writer is a licensed Israeli tour guide; [email protected] bezeqint.net