The changes that come from traveling the Israel trail

The Israel Trail was inaugurated in 1995, the brainchild of Avraham Tamir, who was inspired by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Diana and Donald Rich and their dog Taffy on the Israel Trail (photo credit: RICHFAMILY)
Diana and Donald Rich and their dog Taffy on the Israel Trail
(photo credit: RICHFAMILY)
There are many ways to face the challenge of the Israel Trail. Many people find safety in groups, spending nights in campsites or with “trail angels” in their bed-and-breakfast establishments. Others cover the trail with day trips rather than spending the night in the wild.
But Donald and Diana Barshaw Rich and their dog Taffy started their trek the hard way, probably not realizing what a challenge they were undertaking. They set off on the first stage in the Golan Druze village of Majdal Shams at the base of Mount Hermon with a modest supply of food and water, regular sneakers, one backpack, no tent and the sort of sleeping bags that one sends with one’s kids to Scouts camp.
“The Israel Trail actually starts at Kibbutz Dan but most people start in the Golan because it is so beautiful,” says Diana, adding that the first trip finishing at the Roaring Lion at Tel Hai taught them everything they needed to know.
“Hikers usually prepare and buy according to the book,” says Diana, “but we did not go with the trend.”
The Israel Trail was inaugurated in 1995, the brainchild of Avraham Tamir, who was inspired by hiking the Appalachian Trail. National Geographic describes it as one of 20 best epic hiking trails in the world. With minor changes over time, the trail covers 1,015 km from Dan in the north to Eilat in the south.
After a life-changing first leg, the Riches knew better and invested in far tougher clothing and equipment. Nevertheless, covering sections of the trail in legs of three, four or five days, they were totally self-sufficient, slept wherever they found a safe and private spot to camp, carried their own food and water and navigated totally alone. “At first our dog was confused, felt homeless and disoriented, but gradually he learned that he had a job, coped magnificently with the changes in weather and environment, and provided us with a sense of security,” Diana says, speaking fondly of her canine friend who has since passed away.
The decision to take this challenge was in itself a question of making an opportunity out of a crisis as both Diana and Donald lost their jobs simultaneously. “When will we both be free again at the same time?” they asked each other.
The Riches made aliyah in 1989 from New Jersey, where Diana had a post-doctoral position at Rutgers University Marine Field Station. They had each traveled a great deal during their lives in the US.
Diana got a job as a marine biologist at Haifa University but they took a sabbatical in the US in 1998 when she was offered a job of assistant professor for three years.
Upon their return, Diana worked at the National Institute of Oceanography at Tel Shikmona in Haifa and after she lost that job, she taught English as a second language and wrote a regular blog on wildlife in Israel for The Jerusalem Post. The couple have two sons, aged 27 and 31.
When Donald subsequently lost his job and they decided to tackle the Israel Trail, they had very little experience of hiking.
“I was 23 kilos heavier than I am now, so the first experiences were very hard for me,” says Diana.
Diana was determined to walk the entire trail from north to south. At the end of each leg they left a small rock hidden in a place to be found before starting the next stage. In this way, she was sure that they had actually walked every step of the way.
In total, they divided the trail into 18 sections, or legs, the longest lasting six days. Between Kibbutz Yagur – just south of Haifa – and Tel Aviv, they covered the area with day trips. “That was much easier, we did not have to carry so much weight,” says Diana, “but I’m glad that we experienced both types of hiking.”
They had started the trail at its northern point in May 2009 and, avoiding the height of summer, finished in Eilat on April 3, 2013.
“In the north it is easier to find sources of water, but in the Arava and the Negev one needs to stash water in advance,” she says. Some hikers hire a company to stash water and non-perishable foods, some even have their backpacks carried from stage to stage.
But the Riches were doing it alone and in advance of those southern treks would find suitable locations to leave sufficient supplies. “You need so much more water in the south, which is why one should not plan any legs in the summer or during a sharav [heatwave]. It is not just the issue of water, if you hike during the day in the summer in the Negev it will kill you.
“We were not in such good shape when we started the trail,” says Diana, “but by the time we got to the South, we were stronger and better organized. We had to really plan with maps where we could stash water in accordance to how far we could carry the weight of so many bottles.”
Asked why they did not hike the trail in the conventional way, in a group or using organized campsites or other accommodation, Diana replies, “Sleeping in the wild gave an added dimension. To actually sleep on the earth, the land of Israel, had a profound effect on me. Also we were able to see a different side of nature, the nights are profoundly beautiful.
“We had to be inventive with taking appropriate foods. We had a small camping stove and it was important to be able to heat soups and make tea.”
Finding camping spots was also a challenge. “The official camping sites on the trail are not pleasant; unfortunately, hikers do not always clean up after themselves,” she says. So we found spots that were legal and that provided privacy. She noted that farmers often leave a strip unharvested at the edge of their fields and this made a comfortable nesting spot.
Their dog, a medium-large half-Canaan had the character of a Bedouin dog. “We were never afraid when he was with us.” On the other hand, while tackling some of the mountainous sections of the trail, involving ladders and staples, they had to hoist the dog up these heights. “He was magnificent,” said Diana, “we could see him look up at those heights with great trepidation, as if to say ‘how on earth am I going to get up there?’” she reminisces. “But he cooperated and we managed to haul him up those steep gorges.”
The Riches also found the trail far more difficult than they had imagined. Donald is scared of heights but apart from one episode just before they descended to Eilat he did cope.
“The trail changed me physically,” affirms Diana. “The difficulty of hiking with my excess weight encouraged me to lose all those kilos. I also became more athletic and my discomfort threshold was raised, sleeping on the ground became quite comfortable, appreciating the contrast of sleeping in the wild with our home environment of showers and a comfortable bed.
“As a biologist I had a deeper understanding of the routine of nature. We remember every detail of the nights we slept out, the meals we prepared, the cycles of day and night.”
The episode mentioned where Donald experienced a severe case of vertigo was on a difficult leg of the trail, facing Mount Shlomo, the highest mountain in the Eilat range. “From a distance we saw this looming black mountain.” It was not clear to Donald that the trail did not actually go up the mountain but around it. “There is no place on the Israel Trail where you need to be a professional climber; there are always ladders, staples and footholds, and we never ventured off the trail,” Diana explains.
Eventually Donald saw that they didn’t have to go up Mount Shlomo, but while Donald and the dog rested, Diana felt compelled to complete that mountain climb. “I felt super-human,” she declared.
And at last they walked into Eilat and plunged into the Red Sea with all their clothes on.
“We stayed in a grand hotel to celebrate the completion of this amazing adventure, of covering this wonderful country with its diverse geology, ecology, biology, history, geography and archaeology,”she says.
Diana made a further pilgrimage after her mother passed away. She hiked alone this time without even the dog, starting in Eilat, and leaving that same rock at the end of every leg. She finished the hike on this occasion in Jerusalem, where she placed the rock on her mother’s grave.
What does such a challenge do for a marriage relationship? Diana replied they had very few arguments. “Donald is stronger but I am quicker; sometimes I wanted to do the maximum, which was not always necessary. But we are both problem solvers and we never got irritated with each other.”
The Riches are passionate about keeping Israel clean and not littering. “It is surprising what decomposes and what doesn’t. There are many plastics that quickly decompose in the sun, while baby wipes persist for very long periods.”
She pleads: Take out more than you bring in; leave the site better and cleaner than you found it.”
For more information on the trail and support services visit Diana’s website:;;