Hiking the Israel Trail, part I
Extending from Tel Dan in the north to Taba in the south, the Israel Trail is a hidden treasure of the Holy Land. The 1,367-km. track was opened in 1995, and snakes though nature reserves, national parks, farmland, hills, mountains, desert and coastlands - fully marked with its own standard orange, blue and white sandwich logo.
The route divides quite easily into 55 sections, which we will walk in this series. Most of the trail presents few difficulties, but there are sections that are arduous and strenuous, although quite safe.
Our first walk forms the first leg of the Israel Trail. As you travel on Route 99 from Kiryat Shmona to the start of the Israel Trail at Beit Ussishkin, you will pick up the atmosphere of a holiday camp not doing much business: water parks, kayaking along the various streams forming the headwaters of the Jordan, and the unmistakable smell of freshwater fish restaurants competing with each other for business. Your marathon walk will finish with the smell of seawater fish restaurants in the Taba area.
Too impatient to wait for the next bus, I got a taxi from Kiryat Shmona to the start of the walk. Used to eyeing distances and pricing them accordingly, I settled for NIS 50, but on arrival the driver reduced the price, saying that the going rate was considerably less. Kiryat Shmona must have nice folk.
Beit Ussishkin, in Kibbutz Dan (entrance fee: adults NIS 18, children NIS 15), is the nature museum of Northern Israel, built in commemoration of Menahem Ussishkin's many years as the head of the Jewish National Fund. Its rich display exhibits animals, geology and landscapes of the Galilee, Hula Valley, Golan and Hermon regions. The best part of the presentation features stuffed or otherwise preserved wildlife in the region, including large water birds, raptors and humble songbirds - not forgetting the tiny, but brilliantly-colored Palestine sunbird (tzufit). Also memorable are the rock hyrax, a perfectly formed St. Peter's fish, green toads, and the pear-tree swallow-tail butterfly.
BEGIN THE Israel Trail in style under the grand arch of Beit Ussishkin. Follow the route, which soon turns north along a metaled road, keeping your eyes open for the trail's logo. These colors sum up the trail from north to south: white for the winter snow-clad Hermon, blue for the Mediterranean Sea, and orange for the Negev and Eilat Mountains.
In about five minutes, the trail bears right off the road. The path bypasses the biblical site of Dan, turning west. Soon you may find yourself alone, feeling utterly at peace within the world in general. You are encircled by the Naftali Ridge in the west, the foothills of Lebanon to the north, Nimrod's Castle facing east (with glimpses of Mount Hermon in the background), and lines of oak and pistachio trees in the West... and hopefully a gentle breeze.
The path makes its way along the southern side of the River Dan. This area is rich with bird life, and I counted 18 herons on the water's edge. Crossing the Dan is another story. Change into your sandals and hurl your pack onto the other side of the river! (I didn't, and nearly got my belongings swept down the Dan; one colleague on a similar trip lost a mobile phone that way.) Negotiating the slippery stepping stones is tricky enough, and will require two free hands. The Dan speeds up at this point, and anything lost will almost certainly be swept down the river faster than you can run after it. You will ford the Dan very soon once more, this time on well-set stepping stones. (Cyclists may avoid this section by turning to the left a few meters before the first crossing, rejoining it after the second.)
You are now on flattish land separating the rivers Dan and Hatzbani, which are two headwaters of the Jordan. The Dan flows all year, but the Hatzbani is very temperamental - it floods after heavy rainfall, and can dry out following prolonged drought. The reason is geological. The Dan rises in limestone rocks, with vast natural underground water reserves feeding the river at a constant rate. By contrast, the rocks in the Hatzbani area are largely impervious, so more of the water is released immediately, leaving less behind.
The path turns right along the Ghajar-Hatzbani Bridge road (Ghajar, currently divided by the Lebanese border, is the only Alawite Muslim settlement in Israel), close to the border. The path is flanked by the Dan Reservoir on the left, which looks like a vast open-air swimming pool with a diving board. On closer inspection, it proved to be a reservoir with a supported landing stage.
Follow that road for a little over a kilometer, and enter the Nahal Snir (Hatzbani) Nature Reserve (entrance fee: adults NIS 18, children NIS 15). Refill your water containers, and tell the person at the booking office that you intend to follow the Israel Trail though the reserve. They will advise you on the latest conditions of the temperamental Hatzbani River along this section, nicknamed the "Chopper." Take their advice seriously - if the river is nearing flood, you might be advised to take the straightforward dry track (also suitable for cycles) and leave this exciting section for another time. There is also the possibility of some of the path being overgrown with reeds exceeding three meters in height; have your penknife handy.
Unless there is a drought, you will need to change into sandals: The course takes you past a series of small but spectacular waterfalls, under plane trees, and into the flow of the Hatzbani itself. Work slowly, prepare to get wet up to the waist, and be grateful that there are metal handholds to ease you though the trickiest sections. And be certain to stand on firm ground before whipping out the camera - as you will want to do many times.
You leave the path at the Hatzbani Bridge on Route 99. Cross the road and reward yourself with some refreshments at a choice of eateries. Refill your water containers. This path may be left and rejoined by bus route 55 from Kiryat Shmona to the Golan.
Cross the Hatzbani Bridge and follow the Israel Trail as it turns right along a metaled road to Kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch. This section contains a fair amount of pavement (to avoid trespassing on private agricultural land), which comes as a boon to tired walkers, especially after the strenuous Hatzbani Valley. After 20 minutes, the path leaves the road and turns westward on an undulating trail, flanked by pear orchards and watermelon fields.
In one and a half kilometers the path meets the road going north to Moshav Yuval and the Egel Gate, where many soldiers saw Israel for the last time before crossing over to meet their deaths in Lebanon. The Israel Trail follows this minor road to the edge of Yuval, before turning left to cross Nahal Iyon below the spectacular Tanur Falls at Metulla.
A little later, it meets Route 90; turn left and follow the Israel Trail logo to cross that road and climb up the path which one kilometer later opens out at the edge of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi and the magnificent Roaring Lion sculpture commemorating the heroic deaths of Joseph Trumpeldor and his seven companions.
TRUMPELDOR (1880-1920) was born in Piatygorsk, Russia. Trained as a dentist, he joined the Czarist army, serving during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, where he lost his left arm. As soon as he came out of the hospital, he demanded to be sent back to the front. Trumpeldor was caught and imprisoned by the Japanese forces under appalling conditions. He kept his spirits up with his inner fervor to transform the Jewish people from a downtrodden mass into a strong nation.
The Russo-Japanese War ended, and Trumpeldor soon left for Palestine. He worked in Deganya and other settlements, doing any job that had to be done. All the other settlers agreed that with one arm he was the strongest and the best of the agricultural workers.
Following the outbreak of the World War I in 1914 and his refusal to take Ottoman citizenship, Trumpeldor was expelled from the region, and joined the Allied war effort. He was a founder of the Zion Mule Corps in 1915 and saw action in Gallipoli, where he was shot through the shoulder. The Zion Mule Corps was the first Jewish army in nearly 2,000 years, and Trumpeldor eventually became the officer in charge. Later, this group evolved into the Jewish Legion.
Trumpeldor and his comrades were killed by local Arabs believing that Tel Hai and other Jewish settlements in the area were siding with their hated foes, the French Mandate. He and the other seven murdered defenders were buried here. The site is marked by a monumental memorial statue of the Lion of Judah, with Trumpeldor's final words ("It is good to die for our country") on its base.
The resistance of Tel Hai not only became legendary throughout Jewish Palestine but also was an important factor in the final determination (December 1920) of the northern boundary of British Mandate Palestine. That territory later became part of Israel in 1948.
The Hebrew date of 11th Adar, the anniversary of the fall of Tel Hai, is commemorated as "Tel Hai Day," and pilgrimages are made to the site. When the town of Kiryat Shmona was established in 1949, one year after the establishment of the State of Israel, it took its name ("Town of the Eight") from the eight fighters who had lost their lives in the defense of Tel Hai.
The cypress and cedar trees on the burial grounds create an intimate, personal atmosphere. The walk thus ends on a quiet and somber note.
Descend to Route 90 (about 10 minutes), and take bus No. 21 or 24 to Kiryat Shmona Central Bus Station.
What you need to know to blaze the Israel Trail
You will experience:
A magnificent start to the Israel Trail under the arches of the small but nature-packed Beth Ussishkin.
The struggles to maintain the security of the Jewish settlements in the early part of the 20th century.
The deeply moving story behind Joseph Trumpeldor's reported last words: "It is good to die for our country."
Sharing nature with the herons, lizards, hoopoes and the odd herd of cows. You will see clouds of migrating birds in March and September.
Your sense of balance put to the test on slippery stepping stones and tricky paths with handhold supports (may be avoided by the timid).
Start: Beit Ussishkin. Route 99: from Kiryat Shmona, 9 km. east to Kibbutz Dan. Turn left at the brown signpost to Beit Ussishkin and follow the paved road leading up to it. Bus No. 55 from Kiryat Shmona Central Bus Station: ask to be dropped off at Beit Ussishkin.
Finish: Trumpeldor Memorial ("Aryeh Hashoeg") - on the ascent to Kibbutz Giladi. Route 90 north of Kiryat Shmona for 2 km., then left uphill, and follow signs to the Trumpeldor Memorial. Bus No. 21 and 24 to Kfar Giladi road, and a 15-minute signposted ascent to the Trumpeldor Memorial.
Access/exit: Hatzbani Bridge on Route 99 - 4 km. east of Kiryat Shmona (Bus No. 55). Parking and wide variety of refreshments. Hatzbani Bridge is the halfway point on this section of the route.
Entry Fees: Beit Ussishkin Museum, adults NIS 18, children NIS 15. Nahal Snir (Hatzbani) Nature Reserve, adults NIS 18, children NIS 15.
Length: 12 km. Recommended seasons - spring, summer, and fall.
Level of difficulty: easy, apart from the moderately challenging 1 km. "Chopper" section along the Hatzbani River. The rest of the route is suitable for mountain biking.
Estimated walking time (including reasonable breaks): five hours (three hours to Hatzbani Bridge, another two hours to the Trumpeldor Memorial).
Map: Scale 1:50,000, sheet 1, covering Northeast Galilee, the Golan Heights, and Mount Hermon.
Bring: two liters of water, a hat, sunscreen, sandals for wading in water, a towel, and sturdy shoes for walking.
Always carry a compass, first-aid kit, penknife and flashlight. You never know when they might be useful.
Water: at Beit Ussishkin, entrance to Nahal Snir (Hatzbani) Nature Reserve, Hatzbani Bridge, and Kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch.
Accommodation (kibbutz-type): Halom Ya'acov, Moshav Yuval, (04) 694-1287. Vitrage, Moshav Beit Hillel, (04) 695-0893/284.
Restaurants: Nehalim, Alon Service Station on Route 99 (not kosher), (04) 690-4875. Cafe Alon (kosher, closed on Shabbat), (04) 681-7796, opposite the west side of the Central Bus Station offers coffee and cake in style.
Places to visit: Tel Dan Archeological Park, Tel Dan Nature Reserve, Nimrod's Castle, Hula Valley Nature Reserve.
Attractions: Hagoshrim Kayaking, (04) 681-6034, Metulla Canada Center (ice skating and swimming), (04) 695-0370/1.