On my first visit to Eilat, in 1964, I was astounded by its beauty. There were mountains, there was a glistening blue sea, and, as far as I can remember, there was absolutely nothing at all on the shore. Sunset in those days was almost an unearthly experience.
Today, the sand is covered with beach chairs, hotels and restaurants and the lively atmosphere can be a bit overwhelming at times.
If you need a change of pace, leave the city proper and take two wonderful outings, both of them best in the late afternoon but great in the morning as well. The first is the ancient site of Evrona; the second is a very special haven for birds.
If there were ever an unlikely place for a farm it would be the wastelands of Evrona, located about 12 kilometers north of Eilat. Yet over a thousand years ago, local residents constructed an elaborate underground water system at Evrona and turned it into a veritable paradise.
Look for acacia trees as you drive (or walk), most of them nearly strangled by mistletoe. Fleshy, bright red mistletoe plants attach themselves to the acacia trunk and in this way can pick up minerals from the ground.
Park when you reach Evrona, where you will find a shelter with maps and explanations.
Tirza Cohen, director of Eilat’s SPNI Field School, accompanied us on our trip to Evrona and explained that the farmers were probably Muslims who came from the surrounding Arab countries. Full of initiative, they captured runoff water from the Eilat mountains about 15 km. away and transported it inside canals. Imagine this barren desert with date palms, peach, plum, almond, and pear trees!
The location was excellent, on the route called Darb el-Haj — Road of the Celebrants. Although it had been used by traders for millennia, after Islam was established, Darb el-Haj became the main pilgrimage trail to Mecca. Thousands of travelers from North Africa and Spain took the route every year, stopping to buy their provisions in Evrona.
Besides using water from the west, long-ago farmers dug to reach fresh underground water and transported it to the fields. Every 10 meters, a shaft was dug so that air could circulate. To reach one such tunnel, follow wooden arrows to the left where yellow railings mark its entrance.
You can descend a ladder down a six-meter shaft, crawl about 20 meters through the tunnel, and surface through another shaft. Flashlights help but are not essential. It’s cool down there — a great way to get out of the heat!
Return to the old Arava road and turn right. You may see gazelles running around here, especially early in the morning and in the late afternoon. Then turn right again at a Nature Reserve sign and drive until you reach towering doum palm trees. Unlike date palms, whose proud trunks are tall and straight, those of the doum palm split into v- shapes that open to the sky. Even their tops are different, for the leaves spread out like wings.
You won’t see any doum palms in Tel Aviv or Ashkelon, as they don’t grow any further north than Evrona. Their presence here for thousands of years indicates that the weather in the past was far different than it is today.
You can end this particular jaunt here, or follow the stone-lined bumpy road to the Monty Overlook. If you do, park next to salt ponds, and get a wonderful close-up view of the birds who come here to drink. Enjoy the sight of flaming pink flamingos, which are very sociable and travel in flocks. You may not spot their heads, as they stick them underwater to gobble up algae for their dinners. You can probably identify the redshanks, which seem to walk on the water’s surface before they fly off.
For a second tranquil excursion, visit the International Birding and Research Center. Here you can walk around both salt and fresh water pools, while tracking small animals and viewing fauna endemic to the region.
Like the automobile, migrating birds need to ’refuel.’ Nature made it easy for birds flying back and forth in this part of the world, for they ran out of ’gas’ just over Eilat. This was perfect, for not only was Eilat the only land bridge between Asia and Africa, but it offered salt marshes, large fresh water puddles, and fowl-friendly fauna.
Sadly, however, Eilat developers went wild after the Six Day War. During the 1970s and ’80s, they built shopping malls, hotels, housing, and restaurants that used the salt marshes of northern Eilat as a landfill for all their garbage. Residents strolling the city streets would find hundreds of dead birds at their feet: the poor creatures had searched in vain for their natural habitat, trying to find the indigenous plants and the salty marshes that had fed them so wonderfully in the past.
Something had to be done — and fast — to save our feathered friends. Fortunately, in 1993, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Eilat Municipality, the Jewish National Fund, the Ministry of Tourism, and the Nature Reserves Authority got together, cleaned up the marsh, and established the International Birding and Research Center.
Since then, the staff have been diligently replanting foliage indigenous to the region, so that birds can again rest in their leaves or feed upon their insects and fruit. Sea-blight, for example, flourishes in saline ground. It also simultaneously flowers and bears fruit during migratory periods and offers birds a goodly repast.
There are three parts to this lovely, restful haven: a ringing station, the salt marshes, and a new fresh water lake. Early in the morning, center director Dr. Reuven Yosef is often to be found measuring and weighing a visiting bird. He and other personnel ring their tiny legs so that the center can keep tabs on their movements as they fly thousands of kilometers across the continents.
Watch as they work with waders, placing the ring above the joint so it won’t get wet when they tread through the water. You may watch them place a wader like the ringed plover on the ground, because he will be too disoriented to be released directly into the air.
Then walk around the fresh water lake, on your right when your back is to the parking lot. Built in 1990 with money donated by a Californian couple, it is thickly lined with foliage that includes alfa-alfa to attract bugs, delicious spongy saltbush, and masses of reeds. Keep still, and don’t disturb the egrets, herons, terns, and other waterfowl you see.
When you cross the sand to reach the salt pools to the south, look down to see evidence of rich animal life. Little burrows are really traps set by ant lions, who create a sort of web to catch unsuspecting ants. There are lots of tracks, but to see the foxes, shrews, hyenas, and snakes that they belong to, you have to come here really late at night or way before dawn.
Dedicated birdwatchers are a common sight in Eilat, notwithstanding security warnings sent by their native governments. On one of our trips an excited birdwatcher drew a picture to show me the citrine wagtail he had spotted, with a yellow breast and two white bands on its wings. Unlike other wagtails, explained our enthusiastic new friend, he hardly moves his tail when he walks.
The salt pools may be playing host to several species of plovers, the black wing stilt, the little stint, gulls, and more. In fact, from September through the end of spring, nearly a billion birds representing 430 different species will pass through Eilat. Luckily, they will have food to eat and places to rest — and live to see another year.
How to get there
Evrona is north of Eilat on Highway 90. Near kilometer marker No. 20, a sign on your right points to Evrona. Turn in, and after a few dozen meters, the road intersects with an old, narrow byway that, until 1990, was the only road from the Arava to Eilat. Turn left (north) on that road and follow signs to the Evrona Farm.
If you want to reach the bird sanctuary do not, under any circumstances, follow the signs in Eilat — they lead nowhere! Instead, drive north from Eilat to Kibbutz Eilat. Just north of the kibbutz, a sign on your right points to the Bird Sanctuary and the Arava Crossing. Turn, and follow the signs.
To book a guided tour with Dr. Reuven Yosef at the International Birding Center, call (08) 633-5339 or fax (08) 633-5319.