The perfect remedy for these last hot, sultry, dog days of summer is a day of relaxation at the Besor brook (Nahal Habesor) in the Eshkol National Park. From the moment you turn south on Highway 241 at the Gilat Junction, you know you're in a different world.
Before, there was the dry heat of the Negev flatlands, but in a heartbeat, the milieu changes to a windy road passing through mounds and low rugged hills, everything dotted with vegetation. Soon you're surrounded by palm trees. Stop and sniff - even in August you can smell the water.
This is Park Eshkol, a cool, green, watery place that's open year round, but in late summer is especially attractive. With 3,500 dunams (865 acres), Eshkol is Israel's second largest national park, and because of its location in the northern Negev, it's unique. Not only are the flora and fauna distinctive, but here flows the famed Besor brook - a place so restful and restorative, even King David's army couldn't bear to leave.
History is big in Eshkol, and even the palm trees come with a story - half were grown at the nearby Gilat Junction nursery and the other half were transplanted from Yamit, the seaside settlement Israel surrendered to the Egyptians as a result of the 1979 Camp David Accords.
Eshkol has been a place of rest and refuge for man, beast and even trees. During the Byzantine era, a huge church stood here, and later, during World War I, the Turkish army used the area as a camp, ideal because of the water.
The park is actually Israel's largest wadi, or water drainage area. During the winter, rain and runoff water rush through, cascading into the area from three directions: Rosh Zohar in the east, the Hebron Hills in the north, and the Negev mountains in the south. Depending on rainfall, five to 15 million cubic meters of water pass through the channel annually. The wild, rugged terrain and undulating hills came about as a result of centuries of erosion created by gushing rainwater.
Just gazing at the bodies of water is a delight. There's the river itself, plus several spring-fed wading pools, all in addition to a much larger, meandering lake. Marshy areas abound, and the sound of trickling water is hard to beat. Beyond that, Eshkol Park boasts Israel's largest swimming pool. With 3,500 square meters - almost the size of a football field - there's room enough for everyone to splash.
The park also features an imaginatively-equipped playground for kids, plus wading pools and running space. Picnic tables and BBQ units stand in many different types of scenery - near the water, close to the playgrounds, by the swimming pool or in more private secluded areas. If it's very hot, the area shaded by huge awnings is a good idea. Natural springs bubble up from the earth all year round, with the spring pool remaining at a pleasant 68 degrees.
The entire 18-kilometer perimeter of the park can be driven or hiked. It's relatively flat, and a walk is a good way to see wildlife and the trees - not just the palms, but also pistachio, olive, California peppers, tipuana and several varieties of acacia.
For birds, Eshkol is a paradise, and hundreds of species use the park as a migratory stopover site. One permanent dweller is the spur-winged plover. The plover wears formal attire - a black cap, white cheeks, with a black stripe running down the center of its gray/beige body - and refuses to be ignored. If another bird comes too close, its horrific screech scares them off.
At the northern tip of the park, a small hill called 'Hirbat Shalala' offers an overview. During WWI, Australian soldiers battled the Turks here, and in the process discovered the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church with an exquisite mosaic floor. Much of the floor has now been taken to Canberra and put on display, but the ruins can still be explored.
Near the center of the park, archeologists discovered an ancient city, "Ein HaBesor," which was an important stop on the Egyptian crossroads as far back as 400 BCE. In more modern times, the British army used it to water their horses, using the springs to drive their steam locomotives. The concrete buildings they constructed to house the pumps still remain.
In the Bible, Shmuel recounts the story of King David's army, some 600 strong, who stopped to rest here. They'd been chasing the Amalekites, who'd broken into the Israelite camp and kidnapped all the women and children. By the time the army reached the Besor brook, a third of the soldiers, or some 200 men, were too exhausted and dispirited to go on. So David set off with only the 400, and still managed to subdue the Amalekite camp. The besorah - good news - is that all the women and children were recaptured in good condition.
Today, the brook is a great place to hike, rest, picnic, cool off and contemplate the watery greenery. The park is handicap accessible, offers parking, restrooms, a snack bar, sports area and plenty of room to stretch.
The Eshkol National Park is located 15 minutes from Ofakim. Take Highway 40, then turn on Route 241 past Ofakim. www.parks.org.il.
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