In the land of nomads, the Negev comes alive in winter

Just an hour-and-a-half drive from Jerusalem, epic hiking, Beduin-style villas at Kfar Hanokdim and a weekend of relaxation await.

Mount Kana’im (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Mount Kana’im
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The Tze’elim stream near Masada and the Dead Sea marks the biggest gorge in the area. Its entrance, about 12 kilometers from the Dead Sea, is 350 meters above sea level, but when it flows out of the tan, dry canyon toward the salt flats, it is 300 meters below sea level. Its stark and beautiful landscapes are just an hour-and-a-half drive from Jerusalem.
In the old days, trade caravans used to pass up this way to get to Hebron. Some of them carried salt from mines near the Dead Sea. Joni Gritzner, who manages public relations for the nearby Kfar Hanokdim desert hospitality village, says that the Beduin in the area used to waylay the caravans, stealing their goods or extorting them.
The cabin at Kfar Hanokdim.The cabin at Kfar Hanokdim.
“There were bandits and they were the only ones who knew the ways here and they made local gunpowder.”
Looking over the landscape from Mount Gorni with the sun beginning to set, one can imagine those old days. Tze’elim is the Hebrew name for Wadi al-Sayal, which is a reference to the flash floods that the narrow canyon can produce when it rains upstream. The Hebrew word Tze’elim is taken from the name for the acacia tree, a shady tree noted in the Book of Job where it says, “He lies under shady trees, in the seclusion of reed and marsh.”
Even though this area is very dry and relatively hot, there are brief desert flowerings here between January and February. Tucked into caves along the canyon, archeologists have found pottery, axes and parchment with Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek on it.
The best way to explore the beauty of the desert, or just to get away from the bustle of the city for a weekend, is to stay at Kfar Hanokdim, near Arad. Located in a wide valley of the Kana’im, which translates as “fanatics” or “zealots,” it sits along the road from Arad to Masada. This is the way that the Jewish zealots went on their way to Masada before the Roman siege in 70 CE.
From afar, Kfar Hanokdim resembles a kind of Beduin camp built around an oasis, with palm trees, low-lying tents and simple structures. Up close, the facility, founded in 1991, is much more than that. At the entrance there is a small shop with local products and a man in Beduin clothes with tea and coffee. Paying tribute to its surroundings, which include Beduin families living nearby, the reception area has local rugs and some of the sleeping and entertainment accommodations are made from giant black goat-hair tents. The furniture and rooms all give hints of staying in simple desert villas of the sort that used to be popular among tourists in Sinai when Israeli tourists flocked there after 1967.
The resort, which offers programs for businesses, organizations and large family events, as well as single guests, is always changing. They’ve been learning the latest way to take care of the local camels, of which several dozen are around.
“We wanted to see how we can contribute to that change, so we have doubled the veterinary visits,” says Gritzner. They offer camel tours and visitors take a short safety course. “We now have a movie we show that teaches people about camel biology and the history of camels and camel milk, which is a super food.”
The concept is to give visitors a whole introduction and experience of desert life, from hiking to camels and local food and music at night. In addition, the site offers a tour of a kind of “ecological workshop” that teaches people about ecology and desert sustainability. There is a satellite dish that can utilize the heat of the sun.
“You can roast a marshmallow with it,” says Gritzner. There are water boilers and a way to extract water from plants. They’ve used old fridges to set up hydroponics to grow various plants. This is called a “wicking bed,” which is a way to make sure none of the water is evaporating or soaking into the soil and being wasted.
SOME COME to the desert for weddings and bar mitzvas, but my wife and I came just to sit and look at the sunset and enjoy the desert air. There is a variety of types of accommodation, including more simple “villas” that sleep up to eight in a kind of wooden cabin. These include hammocks and a sitting area and a kind of cool fort on top to relax and sip wine (or beer) while the sun goes down. We took a room that has AC and heat, to be comfortable, as it gets a bit cold in winter.
At night, guests make their way to a giant communal dinner. Food at these kinds of buffets tends to be less than optimal, but Kfar Hanokdim’s spread is tasty and filling. It begins with salads, including hummus and GETAWAY In the land of nomads, the Negev comes alive in winter cabbage, and then portions of fish and potatoes, chips, hot dogs (for the kids), and luscious lamb made Beduin style. You won’t go hungry here. There is also slow-cooked meat, rice, and loads of deserts, as well as the sweet Beduin tea. Wine and beer can be ordered at the site.
After a fattening up, guests can move on to listen to a local musician play live inside one of the giant Beduin-style tents. While waiters bring around steaming coffee, the musician, named Brian, belted out some Enrique Iglesias tunes.
In the morning, after checking out the peacocks that roam the property and the other local animals that kids can wave at, we set off for a short tour. Masada is several kilometers down the road and there are six marked trails nearby. It rains an average of three days a year here, so you won’t have wet weather to deal with. Three kilometers away is an access to the Tze’elim canyon. Parts of the stream require a 20-meter rope and some expertise in difficult hiking and bouldering. However, one can reach the Tzfira natural pool from a parking lot. In addition, one can walk down to Ein Namer (Leopard Spring), several kilometers down the stream. A green-marked trail bypasses the steep lower portions of the stream,called Gei Bahak (Bright Valley) and Gei Sla’im (Valley of Rocks). Maps and explanations for the hike can be found online.
If the trip to Tze’elim seems too much of an exertion, Kfar Hanokdim offers camel rides and a local guided tour. In addition, day trips to Masada and the small makhtesh (crater) are worth a trip, and a ride down to the Dead Sea is possible. Ein Bokek is a half hour drive away and Mitzpe Ramon is an hour and a half away, while the Avdat National Park is a bit over an hour away.
The writer was a guest of Kfar Hanokdim.