UNPUBLISHED TOUR GUIDE STORIES: The wayward bus leads us toward Shabbat

The luscious green fields of the valley below were deepening in color, merging in their definition. The group inside the bus was by now, well and truly familiar with what needed to be done.

By GRAEME STONE
February 8, 2015 01:21
Nature

The Hexagon Pool in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve.. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

Wintry January weather had descended upon the North, bringing with it heavy rains, cold weather and snow to altitudes above 600 meters, as other parts of Israel dealt with heavy rains or flooding and high-velocity winds.

My group – 11 tourists mostly in their mid-50s, from England – had been traveling with me for the last five days, as part of their 11-day “Dan to Beersheba” tour.

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Despite the name, we changed the itinerary due to the weather and began at Sde Boker. And until this point, we seemed to have avoided the severe weather by keeping a half-day ahead of the floods. Strangely, each time we stopped to tour a site, the deluge would briefly cease – only to renew its ferocity when we resumed our journey.

With flood warnings forecasted for the Dead Sea and foreboding weather in Jerusalem, we improvised and headed north to Lake Kinneret. We had a lovely time despite the weather – sailing on the Sea of Galilee between storms, successfully touring various sites between episodes of heavy rain. We experienced delightful sunrise views over the Golan and dramatic skylines throughout the day – with those classic images of rays of sunlight penetrating through openings in the menacing gray cumulus clouds.

I scrambled to change our reservations so we could stay in the North for Shabbat, booking rooms in the field school at Kibbutz Snir; I thought it would be an interesting experience for the group to spend Shabbat with lots of Israeli families coming north to enjoy the snow on the Golan and Mount Hermon. That’s when the adventure threatened to turn into a nightmare.

On Friday morning, we visited the Benayahu Lookout at Misgav Am, enjoying stunningly clear views of the Hula Valley, Mount Hermon in the clouds, the snow-covered Golan Heights and the colorful landscapes of southern Lebanon surrounding the rich agricultural areas near Metulla.

The Dan River in Tel Dan was beginning to swell from the effects of the recent heavy rains, and after a brief energetic walk in the pristine air along its vibrant riverbed, we witnessed the Banyas waterfalls from the suspended trail as the magical main waterfall performed, with volumes of muddy water gushing vociferously in its own trance. The group adventurously continued along the walking trail to the Pan temple and cave, while I brought our minibus around to the main entrance.

At Banyas, I was informed that the road to the Golan was open and we would be able to visit there by way of the Druse village of Mas’ade. It was 3 p.m., leaving us with a few more hours of daylight, so the decision to ascend the Golan seemed quite reasonable; traffic appeared to be moving in both directions, and visibility was good. We passed the view of Nimrod’s Castle, and the Saar waterfall; the rain had ceased and the vistas of the surrounding countryside were outstanding.

As we continued to rise in altitude, snow covered the landscape; we saw children playing in it and families stopping to take photos. It was wonderful and white – an idyllic spectacle. Closer to Mas’ade, we saw the villagers clearing their driveways of snow, preparing wood stacks for their fires.

The car in front of me, which for some reason had an enormous pile of icy snow on the back tray, was beginning to stall and falter; I was keeping a wary distance of it in case it stopped and perhaps rolled backwards.

It was towards the end of this ascent that I sensed my minibus was losing acceleration power.

Looking ahead, I could see a traffic jam in front of us at the traffic circle on the crest of the hill. And I grew increasingly aware of my own predicament and future scenario – potentially not making it to the top of the hill, essentially the plateau of the Golan Heights; being stuck on the narrow road, pointing upwards, with a busload of tourists and their belongings. I imagined creating a major traffic jam leading up to the northern Golan, with little hope of imminent rescue from our impending disaster, and having it provide fodder for media coverage the next day: “Tourists stranded in snow! Entangled bus requires dramatic rescue, squads working until wee hours to rescue tourists and guide.”

It was at this point I decided to share my view of the situation with the tourist group leader, Glen, who was sitting beside me. Without raising any hint of suspicion in my voice to the panic that had descended into the bowels of my being, I said, “Glen, I think we have a situation… I don’t think the bus is going to make it over the crest where the traffic circle is, in front of us – we still have 20m. to go. My wheels are spinning and I have no traction and no acceleration, and if by some miracle we make it to the traffic circle, I am going to turn the vehicle around and go back down the hill.

“Do you think the group would mind if I opened the door, and they got out and pushed the bus – because now we are stuck with no power, and otherwise may not be able to get out of here tonight?” With Glen’s agreement, I made the announcement, and somewhat stunned and bewildered, the group got out – amid the snow and traffic – and heaved and pushed the bus. With all the extra help from God and a little more, we edged our way around the traffic circle, while the other drivers stared in disbelief at the strange sight of a bus being pushed along by a chorus of tourists, hooting with laughter and consternation.

It was not over yet. We still had the descent down the narrow road, where clouds of mist were now drifting in. The group clambered back onto the bus, and I began the downhill drive, clutching the steering wheel for mercy while carefully maneuvering the slippery, winding road.

The fact that the road was narrow, with two lanes of traffic, poor visibility and a cliff dropping down the side, made me very conscious of the lack of margin for error. I knew it was all downhill for 18 km. as I had ridden my bike down this hill once before, and I calculated we could get down to the turnoff to Kibbutz Snir, since it was at the bottom of the mountain.

With the gas pedal now inoperable we coasted downhill, and with a vocal sigh of relief, descended below the snow line. The ignition, steering and brakes were working fine, and we did not need power as we warily cruised downward, following the winding switchbacks that graced the side of the mountain.

But we weren’t out of the proverbial woods yet. After I made the turnoff from the main road into the road leading to Kibbutz Snir, how far would the bus travel before it simply ran out of power? I managed to time and maximize the speed sufficient to maintain inertia after I turned off the main road, and after executing the turn, we seemed to cruise listlessly for about 700m. toward Snir… and then, the bus stopped. No more movement – stopped. The minibus had finished for the day.

The sun was beginning to wane over the Naftali Range, the shadows growing long as the light faded.

The luscious green fields of the valley below were deepening in color, merging in their definition. The group inside the bus was by now, well and truly familiar with what needed to be done.

A miracle had occurred which had brought us this far; all that remained was for everyone to disembark with their luggage and walk the next 300m. beyond the next bend, to the gate of the kibbutz and field school. There, we would be able to check in and enjoy a wonderful Shabbat dinner, full of camaraderie, as we laughingly reminisced about the unusual turn of events.

As for me, I was surprised and grateful about how we had crossed over the precipice of the traffic circle, negotiated the downhill journey, landed so close to our planned destination and enjoyed all this wonder – just before Shabbat.

The writer is a licensed tour guide and can be reached at [email protected]


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