Go get lost!

Dairy farmer Michael Bulka has nurtured his own innovative maze at Moshav Sde Ya'acovin the Jezreel Valley.

moo cow 88 (photo credit: )
moo cow 88
(photo credit: )
Dairy farmer Michael Bulka enjoys telling his guests to get lost. Not only do they gleefully romp off and do just that - they even pay for the pleasure, for Bulka has nurtured his own innovative maze at Moshav Sde Ya'acov in the Jezreel Valley. There are about 2,000 meters of pathways inside the maze. From some elevated vantage points it is possible to see heads bobbing along, as adults and children try to navigate the twists and turns that all - amazingly - look the same. Those that succeed in finding their way in, through and out the leafy Ficus Binyamina bush avenues whoop for joy - or just grin in relief at finding the exit. However, every now and then when someone cannot take being 'lost' anymore, a colored flag rises above the greenery and gallant maze-man Bulka goes to the rescue. He doesn't exactly do the whole route to get to whoever is stuck, but has a number of places he can cut in through. No amount of cajoling would get him to share that particular secret, however. Stuck on mazes from childhood, Bulka and his wife mulled over the idea of creating one of their own. Six years ago, after doodling with various designs on paper, he came up with one they both fell for and decided to go ahead with their 'Maze in the Valley' project. Easier said than done, but Bulka's combined sense of challenge, ingenuity and patience has led to the creation of a maze fit for a king. Five years ago, he painstakingly began to plant 3,500 saplings on eight dunams (two acres) of his farmland. The bushes presently stand at two meters, but with Bulka's loving care he expects they will eventually reach three or more meters in height. I was somewhat puzzled as to how one doesn't see the roots or trunks of the bush - not an inch of space between the base of the bushes and the fertile valley soil for one to peek through and possibly encourage a little 'cheating' on the side - but Bulka just smiled and made it obvious that I had touched upon another closely guarded secret. "I pruned the bushes a lot more than one usually would have, but the real effect has been attained by doing something else - but that remains in-house information," he said with a grin. As a child, Bulka was fascinated by puzzles, and particularly mazes. He would sit mesmerized until he solved the ins and outs of puzzle books, and was jealous of Europeans who could get lost in meticulously planned, manicured mazes in stately homes, royal and public parks - not a single one of which he has yet found his way to visiting. The 'Maze in the Valley' opened to the public in time for the last Succot holiday, and Bulka and his family almost got lost among the tide of curious visitors looking for something new to do. "I decided to advertise the maze in synagogue newspapers and, quite truthfully, we were astounded at the response," he says. Open only on Fridays and holidays - it is possible to arrange other times for group visits - the maze attracted record crowds during last month's Hanukka holiday. Apprehensive about possible rainstorms turning the pathways into mud, Bulka trucked in huge piles of Golan volcanic gravel and worked around-the-clock to have everything ready for the Hanukka crowds. But not a drop of the anticipated rain fell on his holiday parade. Instead, he was flooded with visitors coming to try their luck at tackling the maze. The Bulka maze is not the first in the valley: Four years ago, a British-designed one, based on an Alice in Wonderland theme, was created from maize in a field adjacent to Alonim junction. That particular piece of art-cum-challenging entertainment was the work of Hampshire, England maze designer and builder Adrian Fisher, who has puzzled people with magnificent mazes all over the world. The Alonim maze was Fisher's second in Israel, the first having been on the very Elah Valley site where David reputedly slew Goliath. The Alonim junction maize maze almost didn't get off the ground. Just before the Fisher company technician, who hailed from Ulster, was about to arrive to cut the design from the corn plants, a bus was blown up by a Palestinian terrorist at nearby Megiddo junction and the Irishman refused to come to Israel. The owners of the field and a group of just-out-of-the-army buddies did the job themselves, marking out the field with cord according to Fisher's plan and plucking out what needed removing. However, at the end of the season the maize ended up as cattle feed and Alice in Wonderland disappeared. Having meticulously planned and planted his Sde Ya'acov maze himself and patiently watched it grow, Bulka has since developed a play area, small petting zoo and caf alongside the extensive maze. Sde Ya'acov, the first Hapoel Hamizrachi settlement, was founded in l927 and today boasts 120 families, half of whom - including the Bulkas - are farmers. This year, the moshav will be celebrate 80 years since its founding, and the Bulker family's Ficus Binyamina maze will be one of many stories told by local farmers of dreams that came true. Contact info: (04) 983-0255, 0505-404473.