playground 88 298.
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
Get set to stride ahead though a short but shaded and scenic 10-km. section of the Israel Trail. With numerous entry and exit spots along the way, the route itself is quite modestly secluded. It plays hide and seek with the roads nearby, and generally wins hands down. It is well cared for - nearly all of it goes through the British Park from north to south. Extending over 40,000 dunams, it is a major project financed by British Jewish communities, whose names proudly set in stone at Givat Masua mark the end of the walk. The park enhances Israel's quality of life and forges bonds between Israel and the Diaspora.
Most of the hard work comes right at the beginning. Park the car or get off Bus #27 from Beit Shemesh at Tel Azeka Junction (Routes #38 and #383). Walk some 400 meters southward along Route #38 to the familiar orange, white and blue logo of the Israel Trail painted on a railing on the right hand side of the road. Start here.
With the nearby lemon orchards sending up clean and sour aromas, the path drops steeply into the Haklil Stream Valley. This is David and Goliath country - probably close to where: "David selected five smooth stones from the river bed and put themâ€¦ into his bag" (I Samuel 17:40) - which eventually "struck and sliced the Philistine right on the forehead" (ibid. 17:49).
The geology becomes chalky with the odd sink hole here and there, and the climb up Tel Azeka becomes more severe. Follow the Trail logos on the rocks and you will find yourself gaining height quickly with little scrambling but several concentrated bursts of energy toward the top. In rather less than half an hour you are on the Tel Azeka ridge itself, which is the mainstay of this walk, with the summit a little to the east. By then you should feel that the top plateau belongs to you: all the more so as you bump into those who motored up, instead of getting there on their own steam.
Detour from the Trail to explore the summit of Mount Azeka - which some 3,000 years ago saw service as the Israelite spectator gallery over David and Goliath themselves (ibid 17:3). It certainly affords a grandstand view over the field of battle, with views to the Philistines' rallying point at Socot, as well as their escape route through the Ha'elah Valley towards Gat and Ekron. The summit itself is appropriately topped in white stone blocks with untranslated high points of the Biblical narrative. It includes the ladies' putting the events to the tune of "Saul has killed his thousands and David his 10 thousands" (ibid. 18:7), condemning David to the life of a persecuted fugitive on the perpetual run from King Saul's homicidal wrath and jealousy.
The Hebron Hills create the backdrop in the east, and you should just about identify the coastal cities on the western horizon. That brings to mind two other Biblical figures: Samson and the unnamed prostitute in Gaza, deep within Philistine-held territory. His personal and social activities came to a rather sudden end as he made off with a souvenir of weight and distinction - the Philistine Gates of Gaza. He bore them uphill from the coast to the Hebron Hills (Judges 16:1-3), whose entire route you may trace from where you are now standing.
There was plenty of company on my early March visit to the top - including an exuberant American haredi woman declaring she could not get enough of it.
Your rejoining the trail conveys you southward along the lengthy Azeka Ridge with the Judean Hills on the left and the lower rolling landscape of the Shfela on the right. At times very narrow - only 40 meters wide - it is studded with surprises. One moment you ease your way through dense trees and shrubs along well-manicured footpaths and then grand vistas suddenly open.
Watch for the many give-away signs of the UK in these parts. You don't need anyone to say that you are in Park Britannia. The trails have appropriately set steps where they get too steep for comfort. The parallel very low metal border is not a man trap (as I first suspected), but a serious metal device to prevent the footpath from erosion. There are dry Yorkshire-type stone walls and adventure playgrounds for children - starting with "The Butterfly" and ending with "The Carriageway" - all complete with garbage bins. Trust the British to thoughtfully provide these little extras. Plenty of fun, but no water found (except at Givat Masua). And no pubs. Please bring your own.
This landscape continues for a couple of hours up to the Butterfly Playground. The park's size and range of habitats supply food and shelter to wildlife: notably jackals, wild cats, porcupines and rabbits. I didn't actually see any, but my dusk visit was bird spotting-time: owls, jackdaws, rock pigeons, cuckoos, bee-eaters, and falcons, which nest in the many chalk caves and cavities. The ground was ablaze with anemones, cyclamen and wild tulips, with fruit gardens sprouting almonds, figs, olives, pomegranates, carobs and sabra-cacti in season.
I never got to see the park's floral prize - the legally protected bee orchid. It's becoming rarer and rarer as more people pick them. Looking like the wings of a queen bee, male bees (drones) visit the flower again and again hoping to mate with it.
Cross Route #353 at the Butterfly Playground, with its barbecue section, garbage bins and ubiquitous JNF logos. Beyond, the Trail becomes single file only, with a raised cakewalk-type section over marshy ground - recalling its opposite number inside the Noah's Ark at Blackpool (UK) Pleasure Beach. A very secluded section, its silences are broken by residential construction at nearby Li-On - for commuters seeking the same travel distance to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
You meet with Route #353 half an hour later, outside a grand entrance to the southern section of Park Britannia. A wide and elegantly curved carriageway reminiscent of Blenheim Palace, near Oxford (children's playground included), beckons you forward but the Trail skirts it, taking a narrow course to the left, and for the next half-hour pushes you up and down the ridge. By the time you feel you have just about had enough, the Trail makes a dramatic turn to the right, entering the section's finale up a shaded drainpipe, laid at 20 to the horizontal. That should squeeze the breath out of all but the very fit, by the time they make it to the summit and the walk's finish at Givat Masua (Fire Observation Post).
With its tapering top and protruding post, its tall summit building takes the form of a giant Darlek straight out of Doctor Who, the long-running British science-fiction television series. And as Doctor Who, its purpose is to destroy evil across time and through space - in this case, forest fires and perhaps enemy aliens.
Everything was closed by the time I steamed into the gathering darkness at Givat Masua, even the restrooms. I am informed that Yaki, the extremely congenial host, is happy to chat and point out things of interest and that refreshments are available and all food is homemade - and strictly Kosher (not open on Shabbat).
The summit is plagued with the plaques of the worthy contributors to the Park Britannia project. One features a roll call of almost every Anglo-Jewish community I can recall, including Liverpool, my home turf. No doubt that included the trees I contributed at the princely cost of six shillings and eight pence a throw, but the considerable personal sacrifice of several week's pocket money did not make it to the stone setting.
Parking is just below the summit. Those without private transport proceed 2 km. down to Route #38 and another 20 minutes to its junction with Route #353 and Bus #27 to Beit Shemesh.
* Start: Tel Azeka Junction (Routes #38 and #383). Bus #27 from Beit Shemesh.
* Finish: Givat Masua. Accessible by a 2-km. road signposted to the west of Route #38. Ideally, this is a two-car trip. Walkers proceed 2 km. down to Route #38 and another 20 minutes to its junction with Route #353. Bus #27 to Beit Shemesh.
* Level of difficulty - Straightforward. Suitable for families.
* Length - 10 km.
* Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridors)
* Estimated walking time - 4 hours
* Water - No reliable supply found on the entire route.
* Bring: 2 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with good grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, large towel, first aid kit, penknife, a powerful flashlight and a Bible. Mobile phone reception adequate for most of the route.
* Accommodations: Kibbutz Tzora (Country Accommodation) (02) 285-6990; Galon Country and Seminar Accommodation, Galon (08) 687-2410; Moshav Taoz, Fink-zimmer's Accommodation (02) 999-8242; Beit Tamar Youth Hostel, Beit Guvrin (08) 687-4222
* Restaurants: Havat Tzuk, Ha'elah Junction (non-K) 054-523-9117; Kibbutz Zora - By The Winepress (K, non-supervised) (02) 990-8261; Ur-Khan Beit Guvrin (at the gas station, K) (08) 687-4054; Oriental Restaurant (Chinese, K), Beit Shemesh Industrial Estate (02) 999-9488
* Places to visit: Tel Gezer Archaeological Park; Tel Tzora Archaeological Site (between Shimshon and Nachshon Junctions) (02) 990-8642; Beit Guvrin National Park (08) 681-1020
* Attractions: Stalactite Cave, near Beit Shemesh (02) 991-1117/999-4730; Sculpture Garden (President's Forest, near Beit Shemesh) 1-800-250250; Children's Wildlife Center, Kibbutz Tzora (02) 990-8642, 050-728-6693