What goes up

The sky is the limit for fun activities at the Hot-Air Balloon Festival

Hot-Air Balloon Festival (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Hot-Air Balloon Festival
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Many Israelis love traveling to the northern Negev when the anemones begin to flower, but what they don’t realize is how beautiful this region is in the summer, too. One great way to enjoy the Negev this time of year is to partake in the annual Hot-Air Balloon Festival, hosted by the Sadot Shikma Besor Tourism Association. The festival will take place this year on August 10 and 11 at the Eshkol National Park located in the northern Negev.
This popular festival actually takes place simultaneously in two separate locations: one in the northern Negev, and the other in the Gilboa region in northern Israel. The highlight of the festival is a flyover of 16 hot air balloons flown by pilots who come to Israel from all over the world especially for the festival. During the flyover, as the balloons cover Israel’s skies with a variety of magical colors, a number of skydivers will jump out of the balloons, freefall, and then pull open their parachutes just before they reach 1,800 meters above the ground.
The hot air balloon flyover takes place in the early morning hours, since this is when optimal weather conditions allow for safer rides. As a result, many participants choose to camp out in the Eshkol Park campground. There’s nothing more exciting than sleeping out in nature and waking up early for the sunrise and the spectacular view of the hot-air balloons being filled with air. This is such a unique experience to watch up close, and of course as soon as the balloon is full, it rises straight into the air. Two Dutch skydivers will be coming to Israel especially for the festival, and will engage in BASE jumping, which is an extremely dangerous sport. BASE jumpers leap from much lower altitudes, and so they often have mere milliseconds to deploy their parachutes.
One of the balloons that will be participating at the festival has an image of Van Gogh on it, while in another balloon, called the Cloud Hopper, the pilot will be sitting in a harness with his legs in the air – not inside the basket like all the other pilots. Children will love seeing the Panda balloon, which is flying to raise awareness of endangered animals. Panda’s Dutch pilot, Ike Visser, was the first to cross the North Pole in a hot air balloon. After the sun goes down, there will also be acrobatic performances and a special show in which the balloons will be lit up in sync with exciting music.
After watching all this exciting activity, you’ll almost certainly be tempted to go up in a hot-air balloon yourself. Nowadays, this is not such a crazy desire, and you’ll be happy to know that a service called Over Israel offers rides in hot air balloons all year long over the magical desert landscapes of the Negev, including Sde Boker and the Ramon crater. Rides always leave early in the morning, so you’ll most likely want to sleep somewhere nearby the night before. Each ride lasts 45 to 60 minutes, and lands back on the ground before 8 a.m. From high up in the sky you might catch a glimpse of jackals, foxes, wild boars, gazelles and, of course, lots of species of birds. Moran Itzkovich is a talented pilot with years of experience. 
Price: NIS 450 to NIS 590. 
Details: 053-290-0006.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.

House of Honey and Bees
Another great attraction at the festival is the House of Honey and Bees at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. Visitors can watch a short film that explains the process of honey production and the life of the bee. For example, did you know that the life expectancy of bees is only 42 days on average? Or that in the course of its life a bee produces about half a teaspoon of honey?
After watching the film, visitors can stop at various stations around the kibbutz, where they can create candles out of beeswax or take a ride on a tractor, and if you’re already at the kibbutz, there are two other sites I recommend visiting. The first is the kibbutz museum where you will see a room that has been restored to look as it did in the early days of the kibbutz. The second is a restoration of the bloody battle that took place between members of the kibbutz and the Egyptians during the War of Independence.
Dates: Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays during August, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Price: Children, NIS 55; adults, NIS 50. Fee covers entrance to all activities.
Details: (08) 672-0559.
Miriam’s Maze
Another fun attraction awaits you in Moshav Nir Moshe (named after the writer Moshe Smilansky).
Mavoch Miriam (Miriam’s Maze) challenges you to find your way through a labyrinth of herbs and spices that were planted by Eli and Miriam Sadeh five years ago. There are two paths you can take through the maze: the first one is 350 meters long; the more challenging one is 1,600 meters long. It’s an incredible amount of fun getting lost among all these aromatic plants, and during the summer, Miriam’s Maze is also open in the evening.
Every night at 8 participants enter the dark maze with finger lights, which heightens the exciting experience. This is a wonderful activity for every age, and you are even encouraged to pick herbs and store them in a little pouch as you make your way through the maze. You can hang the pouch afterward in your car or inside your closet.
Price: NIS 32 (from age 4). NIS 27 for students, senior citizens, and groups over 25 people.
Details: 050-427-2004.
Where to eat
There aren’t very many restaurants in the northern Negev, so every addition is welcome. Recently, a new establishment called Mifgash Yad Mordechai opened up near the kibbutz inside the Sonol gas station complex, which includes a meat restaurant called Netahim, a branch of Cup O’Joe, a hummus joint and an ice-cream store, which are open all week long.
If you’d rather go for a picnic, you can pick up ready-made baskets (or have them delivered to you) from Tze’ela. The baskets include everything you could possibly need for an incredible meal out in nature: cheeses, fresh bread, freshly squeezed juice, yogurt with granola, sauces, salads and olives.
Price: NIS 150 for a two-person basket, NIS 275 for a family-size basket.
Details: 052-847-8935.
Where to stay overnight
If you are not enamored with the idea of sleeping outdoors under the stars with all the mosquitoes, you’ll find a wonderful alternative at Kibbutz Dorot that won’t break the bank. You might know this name from the little frozen cubes of garlic you can buy at the grocery store. The kibbutz offers spacious rooms with a number of beds, a small kitchenette, and a lovely courtyard with plenty of chairs to hang out.
Price: NIS 300 per person in the middle of the week; NIS 450 per person on the weekend; NIS 50 per person for breakfast.
Details: 050-720-8117.
Location: Northern Negev
Dates: August 10 and 11
Type: Two-day trip including camping overnight
Price: NIS 145 (over age 3). Family package NIS 475 (couple + 2 kids) includes camping overnight in Eshkol Park. Does not include flight on hot air balloon.
Details: www.habsor.co.il.