Golan giddiness

The Heights offer an array of unique nature and tourist attractions, but they aren't in season forever.

iris field 88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
iris field 88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
The change of scenery on the Golan Heights between winter and summer seasons is so drastic that it is quite inspiring. In the summer the heights are dry, brown, rocky and remind one of the lunar surface. Now, the lush springtime greenery, wildflowers and fauna, abundance of migrating birds and swarms of visitors taking it all in make one wonder if this is really the same place. Remnants of snow bravely clinging to the peaks of Mount Hermon as temperatures rise add to the giddiness of Golan contrasts this time of the year. This is a time for nature lovers, with an abundance of specials such as the Golan Iris, her kissing cousin the Swamp Iris and many other colorful and delicate seasonal extended floral family members. Now is the time to get a peek at the Golan's natural beauty before the summer heat flattens, dries out and causes a collective disappearance of flora, fauna, feathered friends and folks who can't take the heat. Joining a trip recently to the Golan with a group of veteran Jezreel Valley kibbutzniks, who have been walking the land with botany and bird books in hand for many a year, proved to be an adventure with many personal stories thrown in. Ascending the Golan via Hamat Gader to Kibbutz Mevo Hama was, as always, a cliffhanger of a ride, certainly not one for the faint-hearted. Before tackling the British-built Masada-like snake path of a road up to the top of the Golan plateau, we made a stop at the electronic fence running between the banana plantations and date orchards around Tzemah area kibbutzim on the one side and Jordanian farms on the other. Farmers work their fields right up to the fence on either side of the divide. An IDF patrol jeep kicks up dust as it drags a chain over the wide dirt track running between the paved road and fence. As it disappears among the plantations, one can follow the path of the now-unseen fence by the cloud of its dust rising from the groves. Straddling a few lower hills of the Gilead mountain range on the Jordanian side is the village of Adasiyeh. A few dogs bark in the distance and the braying of a donkey replaces the barking when they stop. Aiya Leshner, one of the septuagenarian day trippers, has been living in the Jezreel Valley for over 50 years but was born and brought up in Tiberias, where her German-born father Dr. Max Buchman had settled. Looking across the fields and up at Adesiyeh, Leshner recalls that in 1924 her father secured a position in Adesiyeh for a German immigrant eye doctor, Dr. Hans Blumenthal. The residents of Adesiyeh in those days were of the Bahai faith but apparently left the village in the late 1940s. "Dr. Blumenthal and his wife Ruth lived in Tiberias and he commuted to treat the villagers of Adesiyeh, who were suffering from trachoma and other eye diseases," recalled Leshner. Next stop is the lookout point over the recreation site of both Roman and modern times, Hamat Gader. The Yarmuk, Jordan's largest river, runs through the deep wadi between the mountain ranges straddled by a half-destroyed bridge - remnant of the Night of the Bridges operation in 1946 when Haganah soldiers blew up bridges across the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers. Jordanian soldiers man a checkpoint on the road just across the ravine, and the shouts of a young Jordanian shepherd float up from down below. The border agreed upon in 1923 between British Mandatory Palestine and the Syrian French Mandate left the therapeutic waters of El Hamma (Hamat Gader) on the Palestine side of the border. However, during the War of Independence, Syrian forces occupied the site. In the spring of 1951 when a group of 22 Israeli security personnel - ostensibly border police but in the main actually soldiers - attempted to reclaim sovereignty, eight were killed by the Syrians. Only in l967 did Israel take control of Hamat Gader. Ten years later a group of kibbutzim began to develop the site for tourism that has become one of the most popular spots in that part of the country. Huffing and puffing up the hill, our bus passed between the remnants of Jordanian army positions and rows of huge concrete anti-tank blocks on either side of the road - a constant reminder of British fears of a German invasion. The decades-old concrete blocks and basalt rock fortifications are almost attractive, covered in thick clumps of bright yellow and red wild flowers. A yellow sign with red letters is affixed to some barbed wire barely visible above the meter-high greenery: Beware of Mines it reads in English, Hebrew and Arabic. The Jordan Valley begins to open up far down below, a patchwork quilt of small and large fields of varying hues. The Tzemach shoreline comes into view and one can pinpoint the exit of the Jordan River at Degania. Sitting on its high mountain perch, Kibbutz Merom Golan has cultivated fields stretching for miles into the mountains and deep valleys, showing off almost every shade of green possible. A short walk around the muddy paths of the Irus Bizzot Nov Reserve, a remnant of a marshy habitat with damp meadows and seasonal rain pools, was most rewarding. The site is rich in flora and fauna this time of the year, and one gets to see the Iris grant duffi, Romulea bulbocodium and Asphodeline lutea - according to the sign at the entrance. There are flowers and fauna for all seasons at the Nov reserve. The area is also home to the Narcissus tazetta that bloom from December to January, and the ancestor of the domesticated artichoke Cynara Syriaca blooms from June to August. The jewel in the Golan crown however was to be found in a field where clumps of Golan Iris poked up high above the masses of rocks and undergrowth. There was no sign, but the large number of parked cars and heads bobbing in the distance was enough to realize there was something going on in the field. Among the basalt rock remnants of a Syrian village at Ein Pik, the Golan Mountain Rescue Unit was hard at work training, testing equipment and learning from each other's vast experience at emergency rescue. The unit's members reminded one to tread carefully and follow the instructions on the signs when taking a day trip to the Golan.