Follow the footsteps of Bar Kochba through winding and steep trails near the Dead Sea

Follow the footsteps of Bar Kochba through winding and steep trails near the Dead Sea (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
Follow the footsteps of Bar Kochba through winding and steep trails near the Dead Sea
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)

This is a memorable, varied and demanding full-day route. Shaded for much of the way, the earlier parts follow the deep, steep-sided gorge of Nahal Darga, and the sun should be well behind the Judean Hills by the late afternoon descent to the finish at Mitzpe Shalem. Check the flash-flood forecast immediately before this excursion.

The start of the hike is advantageously placed at 50 meters above sea level, with the Dead Sea 400 meters below. The problem is getting there. The ideal is to post a non- hiking driver at the start and finish of the walk. Otherwise, add two hours, starting and finishing at Route 90.

The winding, steeply ascending road from Route 90 to Mitzpe Dragot becomes unpaved four kilometers on, and there remain another two kilometers to the signpost at the junction of the green-and-black-marked routes. You should be fine with very careful driving, but rain erosion may rule out non-4×4 vehicles. Please check beforehand.

Under no circumstances should you leave your car unattended at the start of the walk. One senior consultant at Shaare Zedek Hospital did, losing not only his car, but his laptop computer containing years of carefully prepared, irreplaceable medical research.

At the junction, follow the black route southward. It gets narrower and steeper going down the northern flank of Nahal Darga. Apart from one or two exposed points with conveniently placed metal footholds, there should be no difficulties, as long as respect is shown to the winding and highly scenic drop into the bleak depths of the flash flood-carved Nahal Darga.

Near the bottom is a detour to the Muraba’at Caves. Take it. The ascent is plotted with white sandwich markers with nothing in between. With the assistance of metal footholds, you should make it to the first resting place inside the cave itself.

You have reached one of the last stands of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 CE), led by Simeon Bar Kosiba, a.k.a. Bar Kochba. The official Roman conversion of Jerusalem to the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina with a temple to the god Jupiter fired a rebellion of sufficient magnitude for Emperor Hadrian to bring down his premier general Severus, then in Britain. The fighters retreated, making their last guerrilla-style stands in these mountains in the hopeful but erroneous belief that the geographical obstacles you have just surmounted might deter Hadrian’s imperial army.

Indeed, ancient scrolls left in this and neighboring caves came to light in the early 1950s. Several with military content bear Bar Kochba’s own signature.

Retrace your steps to the main route and take it downward to where it crosses the suddenly narrowing Nahal Darga, and onto its signposted junction with Nahal Tekoa. It’s worth making a second detour along the first half- kilometer of Nahal Tekoa itself. It goes up to an ideal lunch spot, by water-filled pools in season. Advance further and the gorge tightens (due to the very hard variety of local limestone’s slow rate of weathering), but it could be flooded during the winter months. Walk back (your perception changes in the reverse direction) and rejoin the main path, which becomes red-marked as it follows the widening, but very steep sided, Nahal Darga on the southern flank.

The red-marked way progresses on a very strenuous, if not the most difficult, couple of kilometers — from an altitude of minus 100 meters in the wadi itself to the plateau summit at over 200 meters above sea level. Only the fittest should take it in one go; there are several stopping places en route. Be ready for a little scramble here and there, especially if the rocks have post flash- flood wetness. The ascent affords splendid views of the earlier-explored Muraba’at Caves, giving the climber a little smug satisfaction of having made it up and down what looks like a bleak, high, sheer cliff.

Once on top, the way approaches Mitzpe Michvar. The red-marked path joins the blue one, emerging at a splendid lookout post over the Dead Sea. It is a sister location to the more frequently visited plateau viewpoints further south, at Ein Gedi and Masada. This one, however, is not for the vertigo-challenged. Its southern flank sheers down 118 meters to the parallel Nahal Hatzetzon. Ahead is what seems like an aerial view of the Dead Sea, and on the far, Jordanian side, a mirror-image series of valleys cascading to its opposite shores.

These, by the way, contain warm, fast-flowing water all year round, fed by natural, thermally heated underground water reserves.

If caught out by the gathering dusk, stop here until dawn. The stark, steep descent to the Dead Sea at Mitzpe Shalem takes well over an hour, at best. One unwise young man took false steps and plunged to his death. In fact, search parties did not find his body for another week, guided to the spot by the local carnivorous short-tailed black ravens.

Watch and photograph those huge birds sailing down the wadis deep below. Look out also for the smaller blackstart, a grayish songbird with a black tail. And with luck, you might have already come across the Nubian ibex, recalling the Psalmist’s ’The mountains are a refuge for the wild goats’ (Psalms 104:18).

Take the blue path and follow it as it begins to snake downhill. It becomes progressively difficult, requiring deft handwork and footwork. Do stop frequently for water: Dehydration clouds judgment and causes accidents. So does taking it too fast. You are fairly safe as long as you keep to the blue sandwich-markers. If they suddenly disappear, retrace your steps immediately to the last one and renavigate. A party should keep to the pace of the slowest member, as changing directions of the twisting descent frequently obscure vision and voice-carriage. Do not trust mobile phones — reception here is quite unreliable.

The 500-meter descent finally crosses some wire and comes out at the end of a paved road opposite Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem. The chauffeur-less will have another kilometer of roadwork to its junction at Route 90, by the Dead Sea. Here ends the walk.

The details

* Start: Two kilometers along the unpaved road beyond Metzukei Dragot field school. Bus 421, 486 or 487 from Jerusalem. Ask the driver to let you off at the road leading to Metzukei Dragot field school.

* Finish: Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem. Buses 421, 486 or 487 to Jerusalem from Mitzpe Shalem junction.

* Level of difficulty: Quite challenging. Suitable for fit walkers aged 11-plus. Not for mountain bikers or four-wheeled drive vehicles.

* Length: 12 km. Add seven kilometers if starting and finishing on Route 90 by the Dead Sea.

* To check conditions before setting out: Call the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature, (02) 623-3221.

* Map: Scale 1:50,000, Northern Judean Desert.

* Estimated walking time: 7-8 hours, including a detour to the Muraba’at Caves. Add two hours if starting and finishing by the Dead Sea.

* Water: Don’t rely on finding any en route. Bring your own.

* Bring: 3 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, towel, first aid kit, penknife and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception unavailable for most of the hike.