(photo credit:Alexander Britell)
'That's weird, they've moved," one of our guides says, pointing to a bare spot a few hundred meters across this most barren of wildernesses. "I was here Thursday, and there was a full Beduin camp. They don't usually pick up and move that quickly."
It's at this moment that Micha Katz, the tour leader, points out a 15-cm. centipede on my shoe - easily the biggest bug that's ever introduced itself to me.
I shake it off, a bit flustered. "Maybe that's why they moved," I say.
It's not every Monday afternoon you find yourself in the depths of the Judean Desert, dodging giant arthropods and picking up millennia-old pottery shards.
But that's the mission of Israel Challenge, based out of Gush Etzion, a company that started nearly three years ago, for what Katz calls "voyages in the Judean Desert."
It's now expanded into a full-fledged, full-service adventure facilitator, performing everything from one-person jeep tours to desert bar mitzvas. It has even managed to condense the two-week IDF basic training into one day, for those who dare.
"We try to give a different kind of adventure than the other companies," says Katz, who moved to Israel from New York in 1992. "We try to do other things, see more places."
That much is clear. Israel Challenge's four world-crossing 4x4 jeeps grant uncommon access to a part of the country that is not easy to reach for a number of reasons (it's not just the hills).
Our particular journey begins at Gush Etzion's Deer Land, a small nature park. The galloping horses, along with evergreen-covered mountains and a wooden base lodge with high-lofted ceilings, make you think, for a moment, you're in the Rockies. Of course, we're only a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem.
Deer Land is the site of what Oriyah Dasberg bills as the second-longest Omega, or zip-line, in the world (the longest is in South Africa), more than 400 meters across a valley the locals nickname Wadi Gan Eden (Valley of the Garden of Eden).
Dasberg, who was born in Gush Etzion, has led the Gush Etzion Tourism Project for a little over six months, working to consolidate all of the area's amenities into one organization.
We soon set out toward the day's raison d'etre: the black 4x4s that will shepherd us through the steep inclines and rocky roads of the Judean Desert and the West Bank.
The jeeps start their bumpy ride up a mountain road leading to a valley with a splendid view of the evenly laid, red-roofed homes typical of this area.
As we descend the hilly pass, we can see how Gush Etzion's brand of mountainous topography has formed a number of natural water holes, which locals use as ritual baths (and, it seems, also attracts a few visitors in swimsuits).
From here it's back on to one of the few paved roads we'll follow today, past scattered Israeli settlements and Arab villages, easily distinguished by their respective terra-cotta roofs or arched windows.
We reach a dirt path leading down to a sweeping canyon, where more than 1,500 years ago Christian hermits came to dwell in natural caves. It is totally silent here, and totally empty.
Traveling this area makes you think you're in a country 10 times the size of Israel. Again, we feel hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, but as the guides are quick to remind us, we are at most 20 km. away.
We drive past modern houses and decrepit trailers toward a large lot with a single house, again, like most of the areas here, overlooking the yellow-white hills.
This is Tekoa, where we will lunch, at perhaps the world's most remote olive oil factory. Alfa Lashemen has been open less than a year and fills bottles of extra virgin, cold-pressed oil in a building behind a newly opened restaurant.
Here, there are kilometers between tiny villages and an almost certainly higher population density of bugs than people.
We bump our way past another mix of regular homes and metal shanties into Nahal Tekoa, the rock-laden outpost where I met the friendly centipede.
We see nothing - nothing - for what must be miles. We climb up to an observation point (I am reluctant to ask what they need to look out for) with a half-torn Israeli flag waving above in the wind.
In the distance stands Herodion, the truncated man-made mountain built by Herod 2,000 years ago, our final destination. From this vantage point, I cannot imagine how anyone might reach it.
It is a daunting journey through unfriendly terrain, but finally we reach the mountain and find a paved parking lot filled with yellow taxis and tour buses. "How did they get here?" I ask Katz.
He tells me there's a new road, making it about a 10-minute ride (paved) to Herodion from Jerusalem. I'm a little surprised, but then I realize I prefer the way we took.
Israel Challenge operates year-round tours and special events in the area surrounding Gush Etzion and the Judean Desert. Call 052-993-4417 or visit www.israelchallenge.com for more information.
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