A dry run

In Israel, the term 'stream' is only a guide.

Dry stream 298 88 (photo credit: Reuven Rosenfelder)
Dry stream 298 88
(photo credit: Reuven Rosenfelder)
his hike in the Judean Hills is short, yet challenging. It is suitable for summer - provided you start early in the day - and it takes less than two hours, with an optional two-hour extension. It is not a circular route, so a two-car arrangement is necessary. The area is at the western end of the Judean Hills, starting near Moshav Eshtaol off Road 38 (Sha'ar Hagai - Beit Guvrin). The trail, with good green markings, takes you from a wide dirt road in the Martyrs' Forest planted by the Jewish National Fund, up the dry streambed of Nahal Carmila, a tributary of Nahal Kessalon. You end up in Moshav Beit Meir. If you wish, you can include a tour of the nature reserve nearby known as the "Masrek." Note: this walk can also be done the opposite way, starting at Beit Meir and descending to the Martyrs' Forest. I prefer going up the hill; it provides a sense of accomplishment. Writing in English for readers who came from the West, one should routinely point out - especially in summer - that "nahal" (stream) in Israel is usually a geomorphic designation, meaning a feature in the landscape. It should not conjure up any images of cool water gushing down. However, over geological time, water-flow during the rainy months has created streambeds all over the country, including the dry south. Israeli hikers know that routes are most often described in terms of nehalim, the streams, as the most salient natural element. Nahal Carmila, the heart of our walk, is a rather short streambed going north-south, and it drains into the more prominent Nahal Kessalon, a major east-west stream in the Judean Hills. The tricky part, however, is finding that spot, because this is where our walk starts. From Jerusalem, travel in the direction of Beit Shemesh. Just before Eshta'ol (5 km. from Sha'ar Hagai junction) look for a brown road sign reading "Hakedoshim" and "B'nai B'rith Cave," pointing left to an unpaved road. It's suitable for all vehicles. After 500 meters start looking carefully to the left, to spot a stone on the side displaying a combined red-and-green trail marking in T-form: red is for the road you are traveling, green for the foot-path you are looking for. If you reach an enclosed infrastructure site (water or electricity) you have gone too far. Turn around for less than 100 meters, now looking to the right, of course. Once you find the trail (No. 9364 on "Mapat Simun Shvilim," Israel's well-known trail map series), you should be ready for a rough patch in the beginning, due to thick vegetation and numerous fallen tree-trunks in the streambed. Take it slowly, and stick with the green markings. There is no reason to be discouraged, because in 15 to 20 minutes you suddenly emerge in open space on both sides. Negotiating that first segment amid streambed stones and vegetation can be fun too, if you take the right approach. Once in the open, look up to the left to an impressive rock dominating the scenery. It's the best photo-op on the walk. Good trail markings will lead you up the hillside by Nahal Carmila, none too strenuous. In this region, the steep mountains and the deep valleys to the east turn into lower elevations, soon to be replaced by the coastal landscape with its gentler features. Look back occasionally to view the ever-expanding urban sprawl of Beit Shemesh. The green trail leads to a junction with a wide dirt road frequented by bikers. Now watch out: just cross the road and avoid (black marking) a branch of it on the right. You want to continue up the nature trail, so look for the green marking a few meters straight ahead. This is the last section of the walk, still in nice outdoor scenery. Follow the markings to Moshav Beit Meir - three stone cottages built as "zimmerim" by an enterprising local family are the end of the trail, at the southwestern part of the moshav. You may choose to walk around a bit in the moshav, which seems prosperous. One always discovers things on foot, like a small, dilapidated mosque in the central area, a throwback to the Arab village prior to 1948. Also, you may extend your activity by visiting the Masrek reserve. Exit Bet Meir through the main gate on the road, and in less than 100 meters you'll see an orange sign pointing left. It's a short distance to the parking and picnic area. Masrek means comb in Hebrew, and it was so named due to the fine, tall pine trees that adorned the hilltop, predating JNF planting. They mostly burned down in a disastrous fire a few years back. Still, a short circular trail (15-20 minutes) is well worth it, much of it shaded and affording good lookouts in various directions. Some trenches dating back to the War of Independence are still noticeable. This vicinity was heavily involved in the fighting. The conquest of the large village of Beit Mahsir by a Palmach unit was key to overcoming Arab forces. Driving four kilometers on Road 3955 will take you back to Highway No. 1.