The dry and pleasantly sunny winter may be worrying Israel's water authorities, but for the country's hiking enthusiasts, this winter-that-isn't ranks as just about perfect. Since winter and spring constitute Israel's prime hiking seasons, hikers all across the country have been celebrating every dry day.
Israel - despite its diminutive size - offers just about the best hiking vistas the world has to offer. In the South, with the Arava's moonscape, on up through the rocky, rugged trails the Negev offers, the winter panorama is exquisite, sunrise to sunset. With the sunny weather, even the picturesque desert wadis remain relatively safe. In the north, winter offers lush landscapes, with bubbling brooks, forests and wildflowers at their prime. Kilometer for kilometer, it's hard to beat Israel as a hiker's paradise.
No one knows that better than Israel's foremost father-and-son hiking duo, David and Eran Gal-Or. For the Gal-Ors, co-authors of a series of hiking guidebooks, Maslulim, subtitled "Falling in Love with Israel Again," an eight-month hike the pair took brought about unexpected benefits. What started out as a way to celebrate Eran's completion of his IDF service morphed into a complete career change for David, and for Eran, a chance to earn a living while pursuing his passion.
David Gal-Or, 48, spent most of his life as a marketing manager. "I was in marketing for 20 years, the last 15 for Osem," he recalls. "I decided to take a little break, so several months before Eran was scheduled to finish his army service, we started planning a long hiking trip, one that would take us from Mount Hermon in the North to Eilat in the South, with a lot of side trips, east and west, in between. Eran was done in July 2006, and we set out in September. In eight months, we hiked 1,500 km, most of it in four-day increments. For both of us, it was the experience of a lifetime."
Although it started out as just fun, it didn't take long before the two began to think there might be a business opportunity lurking in the background. "We've always been a hiking family," Eran Gal-Or, 24, says. "I don't even remember my first hike - I was too young. But every weekend, the whole family - mom, dad and three kids - would be out hiking. During longer vacations from school, we'd take trips outside the country, and hike there. But we were always together, hiking somewhere."
Even as the father-son hike was underway, the two played around with the idea of compiling a hiking guidebook. "At the very beginning, we treated compiling the guidebook like a hobby," David says. "It wasn't work. It was just more fun. But once the book was out, we began to see the potential. From that point on, we built the business together - talking, discussing, setting goals, reading other books and of course hiking together, to decide which hikes we'd recommend and which we'd leave out. But it all happened very gradually."
Today, under the general title of Maslulim - "paths" or "tracks" - several series of hiking guidebooks are in print, with two more due this spring. The largest of the series cover Israel's three distinct regions: the lush, greener North; the more populous center; and the eerie beauty of the southern desert. Each contains 40 recommended hikes. A second series of guidebooks focuses on smaller geographical areas within one part of the country or another. One of the newest guidebooks offers 100 hikes suitable for families. In March, the Maslulim series ventures into yet another area: urban hiking, offering 20 urban hikes in Tel Aviv. In April, an album of Tel Aviv hikes will be released, this one packed full of color photographs of the city's best hiking vistas.
The purpose of the guidebooks is to provide information for hikers of all skill levels, from the youngest family member up to experienced trekkers who might want to try something a little different. "What we do is help people find the right place in Israel to hike, and then guide them along the hike itself," Eran says. "Some hikes are recommended for very experienced people, others for people who just want to spend a nice day out of doors, seeing something new and interesting. No hike is over eight hours, but many can be combined, so at the end of the day, you'd end up in one place. Then you could sleep over and start a new hike the next day. We've done each of the hikes ourselves at least once, sometimes more, so we have very specific details. We also feature stories - the 'sipur haderech,' the story of the road. We like to tell people the story behind what they're seeing - what that building over there is, what historical thing happened here, or why that place is significant. We also include seasonal variations, like advising hikers that the field they'll pass by on their left will be yellow in the summer, and green in the winter. And all the books have photos. We make it as easy as possible to follow the path."
As the guidebook venture gathered momentum, David made a career switch. "I enjoyed marketing. I loved my job - and getting a steady paycheck was obviously an advantage. On the other hand, my schedule was terrible. I was gone from five in the morning until nine at night - that's not a good life. I was never there for my family. That's why publishing hiking books has been such a great lifestyle change for me. Now I spend my days working with my son - what could be better?"
The Gal-Ors used their own experiences in hiking with children as a basis for the new family guidebook. "We'd covered a lot of this territory ourselves, so that was a plus in choosing 100 hikes for families. Each family hike ranges from one to three hours, all are easy enough for even the youngest hiker, and all have some interesting element, something kids enjoy."
Eran admits to having had some hiking experiences he can't guarantee for others. In fact, his most memorable hike started with a completely miserable night. "We battled plagues of mosquitoes all night," he recalls. "It was impossible to sleep, so at 5 a.m. we got up and started to walk. It was just before dawn, with barely enough light to see. But as we walked, we saw an amazing array of animals, all kinds of animals. Everywhere you looked, there were different animals grazing or walking. I've never seen anything like it. All the animals were nocturnal, so by hiking only during the day you'd never see them, but because we were on the road just before sunrise, we were lucky. If it hadn't been for that nightmare of mosquitoes, we'd have missed it."
None of the hikes the pair recommends are dangerous, they say, but still, it pays to be prepared and cautious. "In [some] places, you have to walk carefully," Eran says. "Some hikes require a little climbing, so you have to be careful where to step so you don't slip and fall. But it you prepare and take care of yourself, there's no reason to be afraid. You don't need much special equipment - the basic requirement is good shoes. Not boots, just strong shoes that hold your leg firmly. You need a hat to block the sun and a light backpack to carry what you need. If you'll be out overnight, the backpack might weigh 10-15 kilos, with food, water and extra clothes. You probably won't need a tent, just a sleeping bag. You should always carry twice as much water as you think you'll need."
Keeping in touch with someone is also important. "Make sure that someone not on the hike knows where you are. Cell phones cover just about all of Israel now, so if I'm hiking, I make a phone call in the morning to say, 'I'm leaving,' and in the evening, I call again - 'I'm going to sleep.' If something should happen, they know exactly where I am. I usually plan a specific schedule, deciding where I'll stop each night. But I allow for changes, too. Sometimes you find yourself in such a beautiful place, you want to stop. Or maybe you just get tired and want to rest. I make a plan, but I'm flexible, too."
Of course, all winter hikes carry the danger of flash floods. "During the winter, you have to pay close attention to the weather," David says. "The Judean Desert - that stretch of land from Ramallah to Hebron - is especially prone to flash floods, so you have to be sure you know if it's raining, or going to rain, on the mountain tops. The floods result from rainwater washing down the hillsides toward the Dead Sea. Most of the time there's no problem, but you have to watch the weather very carefully."
What do you do if you're out hiking and it starts to rain? "That's not good," David says. "A better thing to do is to hike when it's sunny, not raining. If rain is expected, stay home. You don't want to be caught out there. But even on sunny days, keep yourself aware of the hills around you, wherever runoff might come from."
Gal-Or recalls the May 2007 tragedy in which four young hikers were taken by surprise and killed by a flash flood in Wadi Qumran. "The weather was fine where they were," he recalls. "But at the top of the mountains, there was a short but very intense rainstorm. When the runoff rushed down the mountainside, it traveled very quickly - they couldn't get out in time. So the rule is, if it's cloudy on the mountain top, go home."
Asked if he's had any scary experiences on hikes, David laughs. "The scariest experience is right now, going without a paycheck," he says. "Eran is paid, as is everyone who works for us, but as for me, I'm plowing everything back into the business. My wife, Racheli, is a teacher, so that helps, and after 20 years of working we had a cushion. But still, doing what we did is scary. Now and then we wonder whether the economics are worth it, but so far, it really is. This is the life we want, and we're ready to make some sacrifices."
The rewards are more than just monetary. "Writing and keeping the guidebooks up to date is a communal process," David says. "People take the hikes, then go to the Web site and comment. Lots of times it's little things, like, 'It was closed on Shabbat,' or 'The gate wasn't open,' or something like that. But many times they tell us how much they enjoyed the hike, or add some new fact about the place we hadn't included. That's fun, too, and helps us keep all the information up to date."
Eran mentions other, more profound, rewards. "I love to travel, see beautiful places, get into springs and water, and see the views from mountains," he says. "I never hike without my camera. But it's more than that. I love my country. I love Israel. For me, it's as important to know my own country as it is to know my own home. So I always encourage people: Before you go off to hike in India or South America, why not learn about your own country first? Israel is the most beautiful country in the world. Get out and see it for yourself. Israel is the place to hike."
Maslulim guidebooks are available in bookstores and sports stores across Israel. For more information, www.maslulim.co.il