(photo credit: JNF)
Sapir Park, or, as central Arava residents call it, "The Hidden Valley," is a leafy beauty spot where tourists can rest on their way to Eilat and local people can find a peaceful corner. A charming lake at its center. A waterfall, a flowing spring, extensive lawns, unusual vegetation, shady picnic areas and an impressive sculpture garden - all combine to make Sapir Park a jewel in the desert.
Park Sapir, established by KKL-JNF in conjunction with the Central Arava Regional Council includes signs along its paths paying tribute to contributions from Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide - including Australia, the US, Holland and Canada.
Ami Shaham, director of the Central Arava Drainage Authority who is in charge of the park, calls it "a green lung situated right on the road to Eilat. About a hundred thousand visitors come here every year, including large numbers of schoolchildren, families out for an excursion and local residents. Entrance is free, we allow visitors to camp on site and we host special events."
Ronit Rosenberg, the Regional Council's tourist coordinator, calls it "the oasis in the heart of the Arava."
After resting for a while on their long journey to or from Eilat, visitors can enjoy the varied amenities the park has to offer. They can visit the Baobab Park, which comprises fifty trees, the second largest stand of baobabs in Israel, surpassed only by that of Eilat's Holland Park. They can wander among the doum palms - Sapir Park is the northernmost location in the world where this species of trees grows - enjoy the toddler playground and visit the Thailand Friendship Bell, presented by the Thai government to symbolize the special relationship between local farmers and the many Thai nationals who work on farms in the area.
The sculpture garden at the entrance to the park contains works by five local artists, who belong to a group of sculptors called "Women in the Desert," and students from Shittim School. This artistic and environmental enterprise was set up jointly under the auspices of KKL-JNF, the Israel Association of Community Centers, the Central Arava Regional Council and the Israel Government Tourism Company. The sculptures stand in a desert canyon through which visitors can stroll. The sculptures - which include an enclosure for flocks, a rock shelter, a well, a cistern, and a Beduin couple at a tea-drinking ceremony - express the spirit of the desert and its way of life. KKL-JNF has laid out a circular trail leading from Sapir Park to the canyon and back again. The exhibition is designed to bring art to a wider public, to introduce visitors to the local scenery, flora and fauna and to show them some of the cultural history of the desert dwellers.
The Kandy and Mediker families from Dimona visited the park together. "We always stop here on our way to Eilat," said Solomon, the father. "It's quiet and pleasant here, the view is wonderful, the children play and we really enjoy spending time here together." Six-year-old Shoval joined in: "I fed the fish in the lake, and it was really fun." Her brother Liel adds: "It's a convenient place to stop, exactly half way through the journey. We played football on the grass and it was great."
Michal, Shimi and baby Yuval came from Zikhron Yaakov. "This is our first time here. We came across the park by chance, via the Internet. It's a really lovely place to stop. We've walked around the paths, we rested a bit after our journey, and now we're going on to Eilat." The Rosenbergs have turned up in full force, together with their children, who live in different parts of the country - Rehovot, Ness Ziona and Meitar. "We stop here every time we go to Eilat and we often camp here, too," they said.
"I like the lake. The water's lovely and lots of fun. I had a great time at the waterfall. It's a beautiful place in the middle of the desert," said six-year-old Shira.
Members of the Margi family from Beersheba have also stopped here on their way to Eilat. "We come past here a lot but this is the first time we've stopped," says mother Ilanna. "It's a wonderful combination of river, trees, shade and a place to rest from the journey."
The park's directors have more plans for additional development, including Spice Beds, a botanical garden for unusual species and the Little Prince Garden, which will tell the story of the local communities: the plane is already in place and the baobabs have taken root nicely. With the help of donations, they hope to continue to develop the park as a tourist attraction that provides a refreshing stopover for visitors to the Arava from all over Israel.