Machtesh Ramon - Desert airs

The amazing Ramon Crater offers a great desert escape from city life.

Desert airs (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Desert airs
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

As part of their navigation training, Israeli soldiers in certain elite units are dropped off somewhere in the Negev and told to rendezvous four days later at Mount Katum. Instructed not to move in daylight, the commandos wait silently until dark. Then they begin hiking through Negev hills and riverbeds with only the stars to guide them.

At the foot of Mount Katum soldiers stuff small rocks into their backpacks and climb the steep cliffs to the top. Once there, they use the rocks to draw unit insignia, compose funny slogans, and inscribe their names on the table-shaped summit: proof they have completed their mission.

We heard about Mount Katum a few weeks ago, while planning a visit to Mitzpe Ramon with my American family. Since they travel to Israel quite frequently, and stop at Mitzpe Ramon on each trip, they needed something new and different to offer their teenaged boys. With this in mind, I consulted Yehuda Rotblum, an electronics engineer-turned-tour guide who suggested a hike to Mount Katum. Located just outside the southern wall of Machtesh Ramon (the Ramon Crater), Mount Katum is off the beaten track — but the walk is easy enough for anyone in reasonable physical shape.

Although Rotblum joined us on our Mount Katum outing, people familiar with Israeli terrain can do this two- to three-hour hike on their own.

Keep in mind, however, that the ascent is fairly steep and you may need help with the last tricky meter near the peak. In our group, I was the only one who had to be pushed up and over the ledge; the American teenagers, as well as my daughter, husband and our guide, had no trouble at all.

Begin at one of the many lookouts in Mitzpe Ramon. A quiet little town situated on the crater’s northern rim, Mitzpe Ramon boasts a beautiful promenade from which you can gaze directly into the crater, as well as a visitors’ center suspended just above it and a large sculpture park [see box] with unending views.

Founded in the early 1950s as a residential center for people working in the region, Mitzpe Ramon gained official status as a town in 1954. Waves of immigrants have settled there, most recently arrivals from the former Soviet Union, along with Israelis who had resided in the Sinai peninsula before it was returned to Egypt.

Over the past decade or so, however, Mitzpe Ramon has become a haven for nature lovers: Rotblum picked the sleepy, little town for its fantastic weather, its breathtaking scenery, the pace (there isn’t any) and the fact that not a single traffic light mars the rural atmosphere.

Mitzpe Ramon’s most amazing natural offering is the Ramon Crater.

Forty kilometers long, 10 km. wide and 400 m. deep, the crater is Israel’s largest nature reserve and probably has more varied scenery than any other natural region in the Negev.

If you peer at the crater’s southern walls, you will spot two darkly brooding mountains with a saddle hanging between them.

Rotblum told us that long ago the two hills were connected. Over time, wind and water pounded at the mountain’s center and washed it away.

The hill on the left is Mount Marpek, or Elbow Mountain, so called because it seems to lean on what remains of the crater wall; Mount Katum (Truncated Mountain) is the shorter one to your right. Called ’table mountains’ because of their distinctive shape, they seem to have had their peaks sliced off. What is left are flat slates made of hard flint that cover soft levels of clay.

Now drive from Mitzpe Ramon into the crater on a steep and winding road called Independence Ascent. The first road from the Negev to Eilat, it was officially opened on Independence Day in 1953.

Continue until you reach a parking lot on your left, where a sign says ’Wadi Gevanim,’ and prepare for your hike. There is no path and there are no trail markers leading to Mount Katum. Just take plenty of water, look up to find the mountain, and make a beeline in its general direction. You will be going south.

As you walk, look out for rocks composed entirely of shells — reminders that the entire Negev was once under water. You will also see beautiful, horizontal layers of sedimentary rock that sank as they grew older and died — as nature intended. Yet on your left is a strange hill in which the layers are almost vertical. Called Hakir Hahafuch (’Flipped’ or ’Backwards’ Wall), it was tipped over by a geological fault that runs across the crater’s southern wall.

MUCH OF the time you will be strolling through one of the gullies that flow into the Gevanim riverbed. Foliage here includes several large white brooms, desert bushes whose leaves are shaped like long needles. Rotblum told us that according to Beduin belief, women who boil the branches and inhale their fumes become amazingly fertile! Look for moricandia, a plant whose bright pink elliptical petals begin to blossom after the first rain. Moricandia leaves are delicious in salads, with a delicate taste reminiscent of kohlrabi.

Cross the saddle dividing the two table mountains. Then navigate the narrow path that leads to the top of Mount Katum, stopping to catch your breath and to see how very far you have come! After you manage the final climb up to the peak, you can begin examining the interesting souvenirs that soldiers have left behind. Look for a camel beautifully drawn out of flint rocks on a bed of lighter stones; discover a scorpion and the words ’a fish wouldn’t understand.’ Other funny mementos include an inscription that reads ’no brains no worries’ and the name of a commando crew.

We also found the words ’Tzevet Yonatan’ (Yonatan’s crew), apparently written by men under the command of Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed rescuing Israeli hostages hijacked to Entebbe in 1976.

Breathe deeply as you gaze around from the mountain top. Have you noticed how great the air is up here? No cars, no noise, no electric wires or television antennas destroy the beauty of this wild and lovely site. Below the mountain, on one side, you can see directly into the crater for a magnificent view of multicolored sand and stark volcanic hills formed 150 million years ago. White and yellow rocks on the other side, just outside the crater, are about 100 million years younger.

You might want to walk directly back to the car at this point. Rotblum, however, took us on a longer, more roundabout route. We descended the mountain, crossed the saddle, and continued on to the rear portion of Mount Marpek. From here we looked back at Mount Katum and were startled to find that it looked absolutely inaccessible! We then followed riverbeds, walked through canyons, and climbed up and down some small hills. The views were dazzling, including sheer, dry waterfalls and glorious formations.

’I was King of the Mountain,’ said my 16-year-old nephew Jonathan, when we returned to our hotel and he told my stay-at-home sister about the trip.

’We all were,’ laughed Rotblum. ’On Mount Katum we were kings of the mountain — and everyplace else, we are rats of the city!’

An artistic desert

We had already been to the wonderful visitors’ center, the adjacent promenade and Hai Ramon (the Living Desert Museum) several times. This trip tour guide Yehuda Rotblum suggested some other attractions: the sculpture park, desert archery, and the Desert Eco Lodge for sunset drinks and dinner.

Once the town dump, the Desert Sculpture Park runs for two kilometers along the edge of the Ramon Crater. It was built in two parts.

In 1963 artists from all over the world were brought to Mitzpe Ramon and told to create whatever took their fancy. All of them — from Cuban artist to Japanese sculptor — chiseled works out of one large rock. Most of the sculptures, fascinating though they are, tend to overshadow the fabulous view below.

When environmentalism became popular in the Eighties, Israeli sculptors were invited to add works of their own to suit the landscape.

Interestingly, all of the Israeli sculptures are multiple rock creations.

The kids had a blast guessing what the sculptures were meant to be, then asking Rotblum for the artist’s explanation. The keyhole sculpture seems to grow ever larger as you approach, dominating the landscape so much that you focus on the sky instead of the crater below. An ’eye’ looks directly at the volcano — even more amazing if you come here at sunrise.

In one Israeli work the rocks become ever taller until they fall towards each other and form a gate to the crater. In another, a series of stones seems to mirror the crater and, as they get closer to the edge, two large stones lean on one another with no artificial cement. Did this show chaos and stability? Marriage?

My extended family showed a decided lack of enthusiasm for the next item on the agenda: desert archery. They only began to get into the spirit of things as they were measured for their specially adapted bows, grabbed their rubber-tipped arrows, and realized that they would be aiming at strange targets scattered throughout a sandy wilderness.

The idea, says former Jerusalemite and founder Yaakov Everett, is to provide wholesome fun in a desert atmosphere. The game, while similar in concept to golf, lacks a competitive element, he says. Perhaps it is the desert influence, something in the air, the silence, or the terrain, but although they start off hoping to win, players end up just enjoying their own achievements.

I realized how true that was when my extraordinarily competitive relatives began their game. Would the youngest perform better than her older brother, would their father shoot further and more accurately than his college-student son? Incredibly, after a short time each of them was accomplishing something in his or her own way — with the others cheering them on! I had to drag them away for dinner at the Desert Eco Lodge, located on a hill high above the Ramon Crater and constructed wholly from local materials.

Guests come in the late afternoon for a taste of local wine and splendid views; if you reserve in advance you can eat a superb vegetarian meal made from produce grown and found in the Negev Highlands. Be prepared to sit on cushions and to enjoy the lazy atmosphere. Desert huts provide overnight lodgings, with indescribable sunrise views thrown in for free!

Yehuda Rotblum Tours

Yehuda Rotblum guides tourists all over the Negev on foot and in his trusty jeep. A favorite outing is to Mount Karkom, which some believe to be the biblical Mount Sinai. Details at: 058-813112 and

Two hours of desert archery cost NIS 35 per person. For those too tired to run around the wilds or to young to pull the bow, desert archery provides an art workshop with Mitzpe Ramon desert materials.

Call first: (08) 658-7274 or 050-344598, or visit

For dinner reservations and information about overnights at the Desert Eco Lodge call (08) 658-6229 or 058-314776.

The visitors’ center and Hai Ramon — which I highly recommend — are wheelchair accessible and open all day and all week long. A combined ticket for the center and Hai Ramon costs NIS 27 for adults and NIS 15 for children. Details at (08) 658-8691.

The Promenade (also wheelchair accessible), the Sculpture Park and the crater itself are free!