Go south!

Every August Earth enters the comet trail of Swift-Tuttle. This annual occurrence is anticipated by sky-gazers throughout August, with the peak on August 10, as a meteor shower. Why not consider trav

KARMEY HAR Hanegev Farm, Mitzpe Ramon (photo credit: RHONA BURNS)
KARMEY HAR Hanegev Farm, Mitzpe Ramon
(photo credit: RHONA BURNS)
He who seeks wisdom should go to the south, our sages recommend. A good place to start your search is Mitzpe Ramon. Despite being far removed from the bustling central areas of the country, something seems to be very much alive and bubbling in this small ex-mining town. Although this is not your typical holiday spot, it does offer enough energy and atmosphere for you to consider making it your off-the-beaten-path holiday town. 
One of the place’s best assets is its people, and starting a conversation here can, if you’re lucky enough, get you a long way.  One place this trait is evident more than others is the “Spice Route Quarter” or, as it is more commonly referred to,  the hangars area. 
On cool Mitzpe Ramon evenings and even not-so-cool Friday mornings, one can find many young people and families hanging out in this ex-industrial area located just outside the city (although one can easily get there from the town area by cycling or walking).
On good days you will spot artists, dancers, thinkers, musicians and just your plain old nice folks – Israelis and tourists – scattered around the different points of attraction. 
What are they doing here? That’s a question of style. Some prefer having cake and drinks in Lasha Bakery (the most open secret in the area). Others prefers sitting at Ester’s, just across from there, sipping ice coffee and choosing togs from the beautiful second-hand clothes section, or drinking beer at the local pub called Haberech (The Knee). 
It may seem surprising to many, but this remote place has become home to many characters you would normally find in urban areas. Why is that? If you ask Lasha’s owner and manageress, Hadas, it is the spirituality and tranquility of the desert. She, like many others, came here after she had spent enough of her life in the country’s Center, only to find out that “bread is a very spiritual and womanly activity.”
THERE HAVE been many efforts in recent years to reinvent Mitzpe Ramon, and make it the tourist destination many believe it can become. Located on the edge of the huge natural and ancient Ramon crater, the town offers a convenient base for many hiking tours in the area. However, for far too many Israelis, this place is regarded as either a stop on the way to Eilat, or if you’re on the top end of the population – simply as the background (lovely as it may be) of the illustrious still-newish luxury hotel Beresheet. 
The town and its few but consistent admirers have been trying to push the place in a new direction over the past few years, through the local culture, interesting hangouts and unique activities. 
“The problem of this place of course is the summer,” says Shahar Shilo, director of Negev Highlands Tourism Association, who came to his position after gaining extensive experience as director of the City of David archeological site in Jerusalem. 
“The idea is to try and work on the ski towns’ concept,” he explains about the development plans for the town’s tourist programs. “We have to deal with summer weather that is too hot for some daytime activities; similarly, resort sites have to deal with lack of snow in the resort over most of the year. But you still see people going to those places all year round.” 
Indeed, it seems that the weather is on the town’s side. An interesting characteristic of the place, that some think a hazard and others absolutely love, is the windy weather. Because of the geography here, there is always wind blowing – summer, winter, it’s all the same. 
This obviously serves as a cool relief during the day, and even more so during the evening. That is why even in August, one should bring warm clothing for the evening. 
“Some nights, even in August, you actually have to wear a jumper, it’s that cold,” one local entrepreneur said as we talked in the hangars area. 
 In the hot summers, local entrepreneurs are always looking for things to offer travelers and tourists that are not related to all-day hiking (a highly recommended activity for autumn through the spring). “The high season here is from Sukkot to Shavuot” is a sentence that repeats itself often when speaking with people in the business. 
Luckily, the town has the sky to offer people hints in the right direction. According to Nadav Silbert, an astronomer and tour guide who offers a spectacular spectrum of knowledge and energies combined, the sky of Mitzpe Ramon is “one of the best sites in Israel for stargazing.
“When they complete their plans to make Mitzpe the light reserve it should be,” he continues, “I will say it is one of the best in the world. Right now there is still too much light pollution around,” he explains. Indeed, plans to make the town such a reserve are on their way, something that will entail the advancement of a special standard of use for lights all over the town to reduce the typical light pollution that one sees around inhabited areas. 
If you want someone who really knows his stars, Silbert from the Bateva (In Nature) organization is your man. English is not a problem for him. In fact, there are many English activities planned in Mitzpe Ramon in the last weekend of August, and Silbert’s stargazing tour is one of them.
The Negev Highlands Tourism Association’s site offers a variety of family-orientated packages with numerous activities. Some packages include overnight stays in the price. For best prices book ahead on the site: 
For info in English call 054-733-1421 or go to www.negevtour.co.il/stars2017/?lang=en or.
There are of course other professional stargazers in town who work year-round and would be happy to offer their insights. Some, such as Ira Machefsky, even speak English as their mother tongue and have enough spirit to keep you warm in the cold desert nights. 
It is perhaps the best idea to try to plan your trip on a clear night, something very common in August. 
And there’s more...
If you made it all the way to “Mitzpe,” as the locals refer to the town, here are some more interesting activities you should consider: 
Try the local wines at a place called Tzel Midbar (Desert Shade Eco Lodge, founded 1989). You will find plenty of relaxing space plus a modest inn/ camping area on the crater’s cliff. Special August activities include early hiking, workshops, as well as stargazing in a special package. For info: www.desert-shade.com.
Try your talent in archery with the lovely Yaakov, who will be happy to offer some of his life wisdom along with effective tips on how to hold your bow to shoot an arrow straight. 
In the hangars area you will also find Faran – a local natural soap factory. From my experience, their soaps are definitely worth a try. I love the lavender soap, which doesn’t dry your skin and leaves a pleasant scent. Tours are free but are arranged in advance.
On your way in or out of town, consider a quick visit to Karmey Har Hanegev Farm, where they produce olive oil. Tours are available and cost NIS 20 per person. You must book ahead. There are also accommodation possibilities at the farm.
When all is said and done, the best thing about Mitzpe is still its natural vistas. To properly enjoy them, you will have to venture out of town, just a few steps away and into the crater. At this challenging time of year, you should be sure to choose a reasonable hike for your pace and don’t go beyond the very early hours of the morning (i.e. start your hike at sunrise), so that by lunchtime you will be safely protected from the heat.