Arava - Amid the sands

Arava - Amid the sands (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Arava - Amid the sands
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

Have you ever heard the Israeli song that begins: ’Right and left, only sand and sand...’? Not too long ago, that was all you would see in the Arava: sand. I liked it that way, for I enjoy losing myself in riverbeds and canyons where cellphones are out of place and you hear only the crunch of hiking boots on the rocks and animals calling to one another.

Things have a way of changing, however, even in the timeless wastelands of the Arava. As it becomes less and less profitable to grow fruits and vegetables in Israel, residents of the region are turning to tourism as a way to pay their bills. Fortunately, the result blends nicely with both the environment and the area’s laid-back atmosphere.

The newest and most exciting Arava attraction is the Antelope Farm, a work in progress that is already well worth a visit. It’s a thrill to watch elands, the world’s largest antelopes, running through the savanna landscape that is the Arava. Maybe you will hear the clicking noise their knees make, the result of the enormous weight they have to carry. Listen to the sounds of the strange-looking wildebeest, and perhaps you will understand why it is also called the ’gnu.’

Owner Yossi Ben from Moshav Tzofar originally intended his enterprise as a breeding farm. He still plans to sell some of his antelopes to zoos in many parts of the world and besides, he says, antelope horns are sold as shofarot and Torah scrolls are often made from their skin. Antelope meat, a kosher delicacy, is in demand all over Europe and Africa and provides Ben with another potential market. Originally there were 150 antelopes at the farm, but breeding conditions are so excellent in the Arava that the number has nearly doubled. Recently, Ben added goats, sheep and ibex; last month he opened the Antelope Farm to visitors who drive through the grounds observing the graceful impala, big-eared kudu, spotted sika deer and other animals as they eat, doze, run, play and court their mates.

But that’s not all. Before you begin your safari, a guide walks you through a veritable Noah’s Ark. A large, two-story wooden structure which burned down last year and was swiftly rebuilt, it includes a miniature ’butterfly world,’ a variety of small animals such as meerkats (like Timon in The Lion King) and hyrax. Watch faces on the younger set light up with rapture as they cuddle baby sheep and bunnies in two large enclosures. Your guide tells stories about the animals, shows you how red-clawed crayfish are bred and explains the process by which humus (earthworm compost) is created.

The second floor of the ’ark’ houses all kinds of colorful and exotic birds. After making the rounds with your guide, and learning their habits, you can return and view them at your leisure (one adult visitor talked incessantly to the parrots — which, rather annoyed, seemed to be talking back!)

Except for the second floor of the ’ark,’ the antelope farm is completely wheelchair accessible, including the restrooms. Overnighters can stay at the farm in African- style lodges that will be ready by March, or camp inside a colorful shelter; guests also have use of the sulfur pool.

It’s easy to find the farm, for the sign on the Arava Highway two kilometers north of Moshav Tzofar that read ’Antilopes’ for nearly four years, now declares: ’Antilopes — Open!’ (Yes, the spelling is still incorrect.) The farm is open all day, all week. Entrance is NIS 25 per person.

CAF? ALOE VERA is a different kind of initiative. More of a kiosk than a coffee shop — although it does boast a lovely terrace complete with tables and chairs — Cafe Aloe Vera is the brainchild of Shula Shaham of Moshav Ein Yahav. Shaham takes groups on free tours of the fields and greenhouses that surround the moshav, explains the history of settlement in the Arava wilderness and talks about life as a pioneer there today. Afterwards — or first, if you are not with a group — you can purchase homemade goodies, as well as aloe vera products. I brought home some face cream which, besides being the best I have ever used, was relatively inexpensive.

In contrast to these commercial ventures, Peace Route is a freebie that was developed by the Jewish National Fund as an alternative to a rather drab segment of the northern Arava Highway. The road takes you through beautiful deep gorges carved by floodwaters digging through the region’s crumbly marl rock.

A newly opened portion of the route, called Derech Hahavarim, offers 12 additional kilometers of wild landscape. The road is well marked and you will find the entrance just a few dozen meters north of the route’s lovely Peace Overlook. First it takes you down to the Hatzeva Reservoir which, if you come in the winter, will be filled to the brim with glistening water. Then it leads through some amazing rock formations.

Some of the ride follows a cliff top, with the Jordanian mountains directly across from your vehicle; at other times you will be inside the Arava Riverbed, driving along the friendly and unmarked Jordanian-Israeli border. Crossing the riverbed, if it has recently been visited with rain, you will see blossoming flowers.

At the end of this road, you ride past fields in which residents are growing sunflowers, peppers, green onions, mangoes, eggplants, tomatoes and flowers. Because of the heat, the Arava can market fruits and vegetables way ahead of the rest of the country and Arava products make up 50 percent of Israel’s vegetable exports.

Peace Route is off Highway 90. Begin or end at either Moshav Idan or Moshav Ein Yahav.

FOR 35 years, zoologist Dr. Amotz Zahavi has been studying the behavior of Arabian babblers at the Shezaf Nature Reserve. In the research territory, each babbler has its own name and wears a colorful ring that permits identification of each individual bird. Today there are around 200 babblers living in the reserve and its surroundings as part of about 40 different groups.

Quite tame, by now, these wild, grayish-brown birds come close enough to touch. They are endemic to this part of the world and were given the Hebrew name zanvan (from zanav, Hebrew for tail) because of their distinctive tails that stick up in the air.

There are seven babblers in the group that Zahavi has been observing of late. You may not see them at first, but when he whistles, they gather round and you can watch them interact. You may even see them touch each other for comfort, with affection, or as a means of communication. Animals and people don’t need words to communicate, says Zahavi, and many words that we utter have no value: what matters is the tone, or what he calls the ’music that you hear’ when words are spoken.

Babbler society is unique to the bird world, a group partnership in which a number of fathers and mothers build nests together and raise their young.

Spend several hours with the babblers and you learn about honor and respect. Like people, babblers know that the smartest way to command respect is by contributing to the group. Cost for the two- to three-hour tour: NIS 50 for two; NIS 90 for a family.

FOR ANOTHER interesting outing in the area, visit Boaz and Sigi Oz at Shvilim Bamidbar, located in Moshav Hatzeva. Meant to resemble a resort in the Sinai, with the desert atmosphere that is easy to come by in the Arava, it is studded with zulot — little corners for quiet relaxation — with colorful pillows, rugs and hammocks.

Huts, made of mud bricks, are large enough for families and several have wheelchair access. You can unwind in a Jacuzzi while watching TV if you like. Other attractions include table tennis, a pet corner, and the opportunity for expert help planning your Arava trips.

One special area of the resort is set aside for treatments, and when we stopped in, a young woman from the moshav offered to perform a combination of Tuina and Thai massage on my sore back. A type of Chinese orthopedics that uses rubbing and circular movements, Tuina feels good — and I was delighted to find that my pain had disappeared and I could continue my Arava journey.

My masseuse, Ofrit Maoz, also gives campfire workshops where she teaches families how to prepare healthful food outdoors. Participants help prepare the meals, which include chicken, salads and cooked vegetable dishes.

An overnight at Shvilim Bamidbar looks like fun but personally, after a long day out in the field, I need solitude in super-pleasant surroundings. This I found at the aesthetic Shayeret Hagemalim at Moshav Hatzeva. Beautifully designed, with terrific attention to detail, lovely tiled floors and decorations, it includes its own little zula and a special children’s play area. Lodgings are two-room suites, with kitchenettes.

Breakfasts are generally not included in the price of your Arava overnight here or anywhere else. You can cook your own, hire an Arava caterer to bring it in (like Yael Alon from Moshav Hatzeva, whose homegrown red peppers are a gourmet delight), or ask your hosts to prepare your morning and/or evening meal.

Restaurants are few and far between in the Arava. Although I had read good reviews of the Moa Cafe, on the highway near Moshav Tzofar, I wasn’t impressed with the food. It is, however, the only eatery on the road itself and is open on Shabbat. Locals call it the Baghdad Cafe: It looks totally out of place in the middle of the desert and is worth a visit just to get a look at the decor inside. It was built as an inn for pilots with small planes, and there is a landing field next door.

One of the rare restaurants is located at Moshav Ein Yahav and offers a Japanese/Israeli meal in a beautiful setting. Call first to let hostess Miri Hermoni know you are coming.

Lev Ha’arava may just be the best and most efficient tourist association in the country and it is absolutely free. Founded in 2001 by the Central Arava Regional Council, it provides you with phone numbers and offers a wealth of information on attractions, food possibilities, treatments and trails.

Lev Ha’arava also matches you up with overnight lodgings to suit your taste and pocketbook, and generally follows up to make sure that you had a successful visit. Phone: 1-800-225-007 or (08) 658-2007, Sun.-Thur. from 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.-12 noon.