A river runs through it

Slog, slosh and swim your way along watery trails in the Beit Saida Valley.

Zaki river 224.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Br-Am)
Zaki river 224.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Br-Am)
Ironically, by the time summer vacation rolls around and you finally have free time to spend outdoors, it is usually too uncomfortably hot to hike through Israel's fabulous natural sites. The solution? A refreshing water walk through a couple of the rivers (nehalim in Hebrew, and also called "streams" in English) that flow into Lake Kinneret! Before you try one of the two outings I describe below, Majrase and Zaki, head up a short way into the Golan Heights for a breathtaking view of the water. Even today, though sadly shrunken, a shimmering Lake Kinneret is still a stirring sight! The overlook I suggest is called Ma'aleh Beit Saida (the Beit Saida Vista Point). To get there, take Highway 92 to the Ma'aleh Gamla junction and turn onto Road 869. The observation point is east of Moshav Ma'aleh Gamla. Dedicated to the memory of Danny Kesten, former chairman of the Israel Basketball Association and Israel's Government Tourist Corporation, Beit Saida Vista Point is located at 110 meters above sea level. It looks out over the glimmering northern portion of the Kinneret and the lush, marshy Beit Saida Valley, bursting with streams that include the Majrase and the Zaki. You are standing above the eastern side of the Beit Saida Valley; the opposite side is bordered by the Jordan River. The abundance of soil and water carried by the rivers has made this region extraordinarily fertile. Across the lake, you can easily make out Mount Tabor and the hills of Lower Galilee, while to the north you will see Mount Hermon. In 1976, the United Nations equated Zionism with racism. In response, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resolved to build four new communities on the Golan Heights. One of the four was Ma'aleh Gamla, just below you. Most of the residents are successful farmers whose prosperity is due to the region's subtropical climate, fertile ground and plenty of water. Now for your summer hike. Choose between a 45-minute easy walk through the Majrase River, where you swish your way through refreshingly cool water, and an off-the-beaten-track trek through the Zaki River - for strong swimmers only! THE MAJRASE RIVER A few years ago, the Majrase became an "official" nature reserve, the kind that has opening and closing hours and charges a fee. While annoying, this policy means that the site is clean, there are restrooms (of a sort), a kiosk offers drinks and there is a short wheelchair-accessible trail to the water. To get there, take Highway 92 to the northeastern portion of the Kinneret. At the Ma'aleh Gamla junction, if you are driving south, turn right at the sign for Daliyot (Majrase). If you are driving north you won't see the sign, but turn left at the junction in the direction of Lake Kinneret. Continue until you reach the Majrase Nature Reserve, pay the entrance fee, and park. Enter the river near a sign that reads "Caution, deep water." Turn left and walk with the current. You are walking inside the largest freshwater nature reserve in Israel, at the spot where the Golan's rivers flow into Lake Kinneret. The trail passes through jungle-like vegetation far more typical of the tropics than Israel. The stream widens and narrows as you slosh (or swim) forward. At one point, near a grove of eucalyptus trees, steps lead you out of the water and onto dry land, and you can turn around and walk back to your car. Alternatively, continue to the end of the watery trail, where you reach lagoons that serve as fish-breeding areas. Then walk back through the water to the beginning of the trail, or climb out and return on an excellent path just above the river. Important: Come early, if you want to beat crowds of schoolchildren and families. Hours: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. (last entrance 4 p.m.) Fee: Adults NIS 18, children NIS 8. Phone: (04) 679-3410 THE ZAKI RIVER Three rivers that surge southwest from the Golan Heights - Yehudiya, Zavitan and Meshushim (Hexagon) - drain into the enchanting Zaki River. Like most other rivers which begin in the Golan, they start with a tranquil flow that picks up speed en route. During the formation of the Syrian-African Rift, the mountains in this area split wide open to create enormous valleys. When the three gushing streams reach the valleys within the rift, they plunge abruptly and create impressive waterfalls. Following their drop, Yehudiya, Zavitan and Meshushim move through much flatter ground and eventually combine to form the Zaki River. Nature lovers will enjoy splashing through the Zaki River Trail, not far beyond the point at which it has picked up all three smaller streams. Although the water walk is only a kilometer or so long, it takes nearly two hours to complete and another half-hour to walk back to your car. The slow pace in the water is due in part to its depth, which ranges from knee-deep to over your head. Mainly, however, it results from a multitude of basalt rocks which cause you to slip and slide around. Yet these petty discomforts (and a few minor bumps) are a small price to pay for a dazzling landscape: Zaki's ever-constant flow is enclosed within a luxurious wilderness of overgrown foliage and colorful blossoms and is heavy with the fragrance of ripening fruits. Take Highway 92 south to the northeastern portion of the Kinneret. At the Ma'aleh Gamla junction, turn at the sign for Daliyot (Majrase). (If you are driving north, turn left at the junction in the direction of Lake Kinneret). You are on a blue-marked trail which runs into a black-marked trail. Turn onto the black-marked trail despite the 4x4 sign. It runs into a green-marked trail that you follow as far as the junction with a second trail marked in blue. Park nearby. Follow green trail markers for about 10 minutes, walking occasionally through shallow water and the rest of the time on rocks and dry land. A sign on a pole will tell you that you have reached the start of your Zaki jaunt. Follow the markers on a short walk through foliage. The trail then goes right into the water where you will slither through, and swim in, both shallow and deep refreshing pools. Located inside the rich and fertile Beit Saida Valley, the tropical-looking paradise around Zaki boasts fruit trees, plants and flowers all packed densely together. Indeed, as you slosh through the water and pick your way through the rocks, you feel part of a completely different world. During your slog through the water, the channel alternately widens and narrows, and the foliage goes from dense to super thick. You will see a multitude of dragonflies of different species. Most striking are the Syrian dragonflies, which are a brilliant turquoise with a black spot on their tails. Dragonflies spend almost all their time in the air, and even mate while airborne. To lay eggs, however, the female dips her tail in the river and the larvae hatch underwater. If you manage to catch one, pick it up gently. Note that its eyes are bigger than its head. After you have been swimming for about an hour-and-a-half, you reach a point where the river is blocked. Here, head left and leave the Zaki. Follow the blue-marked dirt road next to orchards laden with ripe fruit for about 30 minutes (1.8 kilometers) until you reach the junction of green and blue marked trails and your vehicle. Note: If you are swimming through the Zaki, bring shoes for the water (not flip-flops), bathing suits and hermetically sealed waterproof equipment for keys, camera and cell phones. n Excerpted from Aviva Bar-Am's new book Israel's Northern Landscapes: Guide to the Golan Heights, Eastern Galilee and Lake Kinneret