Once in the Negev desert, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, it’s easy to feel that you have to double check your passport to make sure you didn’t enter a different country, a different world.With laid-back locals, expansive blue skies and vast landscapes, this part of Israel is worth enjoying over a long weekend. Hiking and biking trails in this part of the South can easily fill one’s itinerary over a few days – not to mention the wineries, goat-cheese farms and archeological sites that can easily be reached off the main road.The newly renovated and upgraded Ben-Gurion Desert Home Visitor Center is worth a visit, with interactive computerized exhibits and two new films exploring the legacy of the founder of the State of Israel.Krivine Guest House John and Marianne Krivine are an English-French couple who made their home in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.John was looking for a place to settle down and Marianne was finishing her PhD at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Their guest house, comprising the first floor of the house John built with his own hands and a neighboring home they acquired later, can accommodate up to 23 people. The original guest house has four rooms, each decorated in a theme familiar to the couple. The English and French rooms pay homage to the Krivines’ native countries, while the Indian and South Africa rooms are decorated with souvenirs from the family’s travels there.Located next to the canyon’s cliff edge, one is just seconds away from a glorious sunrise or breathtaking sunset. The guest house also operates as a hostel. While each room is self-sufficient – with a dining area and a mini kitchen – the Krivines offer a catering service in a common dining area where guests can enjoy each other’s company as well as a homemade meal.With all there is to do in the area, it’s hard to find time to enjoy the pleasant layout of the guest house, but if one has only a moment, a good opportunity to take is to curl up with one of the books from their library on a patio chair next to the running water of a bird fountain. www.krivine-guesthouse.com 052-271-2304 Double room: NIS 450, includes breakfast on weekdays Family or three adults in the same room: NIS 550, includes breakfast on weekdays.Off-roading the history of the Bible on Mount Karkom In the late 1980s, Italian archeologist Prof. Emmanuel Anati published his findings after years of research on Mount Karkom. He believes it to be the site of the biblical Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the location of the Tabernacle.Anati first went to the mountain in the 1950s to survey the landscape at the instructions of then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion. He was surprised to find tens of thousands of examples of rock art strewn across the mountainside, evidence of humans and ritual in this isolated area, 10 kilometers from the Egyptian border.Haim Berger, with a PhD in ecology and animal behavior, started running tours to Mount Karkom in 1998.The eight-kilometer long and 841 meter high mountain takes about three hours of driving to reach on Jeep roads.One of his Jeeps can fit six tourists, but he has also taken groups as large as 20 in a caravan of four Jeeps. Berger, an expert on the mountain and a pleasant and gregarious guide, says there’s much evidence to support the fact that – even if it’s not the biblical Mount Sinai – it was clearly a mountain of great religious importance. Pausing about halfway to the mountain, Berger points out that on a particular stretch, the rocks are pounded into the ground, supporting evidence that many people had traversed this path, possibly for a pilgrimage. He is diplomatic in his theories, offering his own insight in conjunction with the natural evidence around. The rock art on the mountain, mostly drawings that relate to hunting and fertility, supports the belief that shamans considered this mountain to be an important place of prayer.During one particular outing, Berger observed a strange phenomenon. During the month of December, just as the sun reached its midday height, he saw a natural arch on the mountainside suddenly become brightly illuminated in sunlight. It was such an intense experience that he started to formulate a theory: if Mount Karkom is the original Mount Sinai, could this vision be the burning bush? As rays from the sun pass through, it illuminates the arch so that it looks as though the light is reflected from the bottom, creating an eerie halo. As one changes their vantage point, the archway becomes darker and the halo of light brighter, flickering like flames.“The Bible describes a bush that doesn’t burn; it’s possible that this is the vision Moses saw,” Berger says.On the drive back, with the twisting and turning and the never-ending bumping roads, a small respite is taken.It’s almost two hours after sunset and the spectacle across the sky is breathtaking. The Big Dipper hasn’t risen yet, but one can see the Milky Way clearly. Berger finds some flint stone on the ground and demonstrates how to start a fire, creating a spark by striking a piece of steel. He heats up tea he prepared earlier in the day and over a piping hot cup and with some desert cookies – the small group that made it through the adventure peers at the sky.NIS 580 per person for a full day, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.www.negevjeep.co.il 054-534-3793 Other tours in the area available on the website
ARTHUR DU MOCH with his horse in the Negev.Horseback riding with the leopard tamer In 2007, Arthur Du Moch briefly rose to fame when he subdued a wayward leopard that had found his way into his bedroom in Midreshet Ben-Gurion. The leopard, suffering from arthritis and having trouble hunting, had chased a cat into the room where Du Moch was sleeping. The registered tour guide and proclaimed “horse whisperer” jumped on the leopard’s back, grabbing him by the fur around his neck, and held him for 40 minutes before park authorities arrived.A tall man with a ruddy face and bulbous nose, Du Moch is an amiable man who measures his words carefully with a steady cadence. He offers horse-back riding about once a week to tourists for a few hours’ tour of the surrounding area. Previous experience with riding is helpful – and will lead to a more enjoyable experience – but Du Moch is patient even with a novice like myself. His philosophy is that the relationship between horses and humans should be one of mutual respect. He puts a great deal of emphasis on an introduction between the rider and the horse and for the two to get used to each other.In addition to rides for tourists, Du Moch is passionate about the power of equestrian therapy and its healing properties.www.art4tour.com NIS 600 for one hour; each additional 30 minutes NIS 100 Survey from the sky
THE VIEW of the Shivta archeological site as seen from the air.
ESCAPE TO the Negev for solitude.By day, Shai Nir is CEO of Genesis Seeds – an organic vegetable, herb and flower seed production company. But earlier in the day, he indulges in one of his passions, hot air ballooning.Nir is happy to take visitors up for a bird’s-eye view of his hometown. “It’s a dream come true,” Nir says of being a ballooning captain. Commercial hot-air ballooning began in Israel in 2007.Over Israel, which runs tours in the badlands of the northern Negev, over the Jezreel Valley in the North, and with Nir over Sde Boker, was the first company to run commercial tours for up to 30 people. While most tours begin before sunrise – the cool air is necessary to elevate the balloon – during the winter months, sunset tours are available in the Northern Negev; with a 3 p.m. call time somewhat more amenable than 4:30 a.m.Starting at Nahal Boker, only a few minutes’ drive from Midreshet Ben-Gurion, Nir sets up the balloon just as the sun begins to rise over the mountains.Rising into the air, one sees an impressive panorama take form. Riding over the desert is like no other vista, as one gets a bird’s-eye view of the topography of this vast land. Based on wind direction, one can get, as Nir says, “the express line to Shivta.” The ancient Nabataean city is an archeological site around 20 kilometers from Sde Boker. Seeing it from above gives a unique perspective that many don’t get to experience.Flying over wadis, valleys and through hills, one can make out old Nabataean terraces, ancient water holes, and even see some gazelles and hares running across the landscape.On a really clear day, one can see as far as Mount Karkom, putting in perspective the size and magnitude of the mountain. It’s a fitting end to an exciting weekend.www.overisrael.co.il firstname.lastname@example.org NIS 690 to NIS 1,000