Winter pools bring nature’s bounty

The South offers more than wildflowers in the cooler weather – a tour of the northern Negev also spotlights strange creatures, recreational sites, monuments and a defunct reservoir.

The Shafir Pool (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Shafir Pool
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
If you are anything like me, you know next to nothing about the strange little creatures that thrive in this region’s winter puddles.
Ranging from the Middle East tree frog and fairy shrimp to the lesser water boatman and non-biting midge, they require a very specific habitat in order to survive. In fact, to be effective, winter puddles – also known as winter pools – must dry up in the summer.
We learned all this and more on a winter’s jaunt with Talila Livshutz, community and forests director in the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s northern Negev district.
Along with winter puddles, our marvelously varied route featured vast carpets of wildflowers as well as recreational sites, monuments and a now-defunct reservoir.
You can take the same route – but do it soon, while the flowers are in full bloom and the pools are brimming.
Your first stop should be off Highway 3, a few kilometers south of Kiryat Malachi. Just past the gas station to your left, a brown sign points to the Shafir Winter Pool.
According to Livshutz, at one time Shafir was in fact a winter pool, filling with rain during our wet season and drying up in summer. Settlers planted eucalyptus trees in the water, apparently hoping to drain what they thought was a large, annoying puddle. But the eucalyptus trees, instead of drying up the water, dropped leaves full of toxic chemicals into the pool; development of roads, industry and settlement in the area since 1948 more or less destroyed the pool and its inhabitants.
In 2006, the regional council decided to rehabilitate the pool as part of an ecological park. Inaugurated six years later, and potentially filled with water all year round, the pool is now the major attraction in a large and beautiful recreational area.
After reveling in the sight of lush eucalyptus trees reflected in the water, follow a path through the park. It ends at a touching monument dedicated to Dutch-born Dani Stahl. A pilot in the Israel Air Force, Stahl was participating in training maneuvers in 1956 when his Mosquito aircraft went into a tailspin and crashed nearby.
Back in your car, continue west on Highway 3. About 500 meters east of Hodiya Junction, turn left and immediately right onto a dirt road. At the T junction, turn left and you will find yourself at the lovely Hodiya Winter Puddle, which the JNF finished rehabilitating just before this year’s first winter rains.
Money for the initiative, which will include complete wheelchair accessibility in a month or two, became available when the powers-that-be decided to widen Highway 3. In order to do so they needed to co-opt land in neighboring KKL-JNF forests, and their compensation is paying for the project.
Don’t try to pass through the masses of flora in order to get closer to the water, or your feet will get wet. The plants growing around the pool, specific to winter puddles, include different type of spike rush.
WINTER POOLS are seasonal bodies of water fed mainly by rain and overflowing streams, and sometimes shallow aquifers. The water does not sink into the earth because the bottom of each pool is sealed with a non-porous clay.
Historically, villagers were not only sensitive to the ecological importance of winter pools, but utilized them in their day-to-day life. They would use the water for their flocks and crops, the silt for building their homes. When the pools dried up in summer, the damp ground became ideal for growing watermelon.
But once the country’s development kicked into high gear in the last century, water that had been flowing naturally into the pool disappeared – and along with it, the tiny creatures that had been living and growing inside. This particular pool suffered the same damage, especially when a local farmer built an embankment so that rainwater would collect in his fields. Thus prevented the water from flowing into the pool; fortunately, he was persuaded to knock it down, and nature is again taking its course.
Until recently, the KKL-JNF had never dealt with winter pools. But a few years ago Livshutz stumbled upon articles on the subject and read about the Hodiya Pool, noticing that it filled up every winter and dried up every summer.
Hopefully, she thought, it could be turned into a functioning winter pool.
With the help of Sarah Ohayon, head of winter puddles at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, she made the rounds of historic pools – as well as new ones created by the SPNI in other parts of the country in order to save our amphibians.
After an extensive survey of the Hodiya Pool, determining how deep they could dig without harming the clay on the bottom, work began. The pool – which was only 20 centimeters in depth – was deepened in one portion to nearly a meter and a half. This made it possible for at least part of the pool to remain wet until egg-laying season was over.
Have a picnic in charming Pine Forest Park (courtesy of the Sheinbaums of Houston, Texas). Across the road, among the flowers, stands the tomb of a sheikh named Muhammad, incorporated into the well that served the pre-state village of Julis. Cement troughs next to the well date back to 1917: When the British conquered Palestine, they used this well to water their horses.
Before the War of Independence, Julis and two adjacent military camps topped the hills, controlling an extremely important Negev junction. On June 10-11 of June, 1948, the hill was captured by soldiers of the 53rd Givati battalion. A month later, the Egyptian army attacked in a massive assault that included large numbers of infantry, tanks and artillery. The Egyptians were pushed back, leaving behind a number of sorely needed tanks.
Continue along this scenic forest road, dense with pines, carobs, jujubes, tamarisks, stunning sycamores and prickly pears (sabras). As you ride, watch out for chukar partridges waddling along on the road. Rotund little creatures, they have light brown backs, gray chests and sport vivid black and white wings.
Monuments to the 53rd Givati battalion line the scenic route, which ends at the beautiful Hodiya Recreation Area.
Enjoy, then head for yet more sites by turning right onto Route 232, and then right again on Highway 3.
Drive to Negba Junction, where you again turn right. Three-quarters of the way between the junction and Kibbutz Negba, follow a road to your right that leads to the Tom and Tomer Memorial Garden.
On February 4, 1997, 73 Israeli soldiers died in the worst air catastrophe this country had ever seen. Tom and Tomer is named for two close friends who died in the helicopter tragedy, Tomer Keidar of Kibbutz Negba and Tom Kita’in of Neveh Shalom; but the garden itself, established with the aid of KKL-JNF, is dedicated to all 73 victims of the crash.
Their names, ranks and units are inscribed on stark white stones along a memorial path, offering a striking contrast to the brilliantly blooming flowers draped naturally on top.
As you stroll along the touching memorial trail, loudspeakers pipe out nostalgic songs about youth, friendship, courage and war. A jar at the entrance collects donations to help with maintaining the site.
Return to the road, continue on and turn left in front of the kibbutz entrance.
The road circles the kibbutz and leads you to Highway 35, where you turn left (east) in the direction of Kiryat Gat.
A short side trip into the city’s entrance takes you to a unique memorial to 87 fallen soldiers. As you approach, you will find that the monument strongly resembles two tongues of flame; that’s because these troops were sent into battle right after lighting the second Hanukka candle in 1948.
A few months earlier, Egyptian assault forces had cut Negev settlements off from the rest of Israel. The IDF’s repeated attempts to end the Egyptian chokehold had ended in failure, so on that exceptionally rainy December night, a new campaign was begun. One participating unit, consisting mainly of observant soldiers (Hapluga Hadatit) was charged with the task of destroying the massive Egyptian military compound at Iraq el-Manshiya (today’s Kiryat Gat).
But mud clogged their machine guns and, under massive fire, they became trapped in small quarters with no communications or ammunition; 87 men were killed, and the unit’s remaining five were taken prisoner.
BACK ON Highway 35, pass the city and continue on to the Lachish Junction.
Turn right onto Route 3415 and follow a road past Tel Lachish and other wildflower- covered hills. Turn in at the sign for the Amatzya Forest; keep going until you come to the end of the road – altogether, from Lachish Junction, about 18 km.
On your right you will find a picnic area, but head for the left side of the road to visit the Adorayim Reservoir.
Walk to the reed-lined water through a field of flowering asphodels. They say that desert hermits, who subsisted mainly on wild plants, favored asphodels above all others.
In the early 1960s, an attempt was made to dam desert wadis and use the resulting water to irrigate peach, apricot and almond orchards, along with fruit of the vine. The initiative came from KKL-JNF official Joseph Weitz, famous for a walk he took through the desert wilderness of prestate Israel in 1935. At one point, he stuck his cane in the barren ground and declared, “Here will be a forest!” Today, that site is the largest planted forest in Israel – Yatir.
Adorayim was dammed in 1963, and worked well for a while. Indeed, the whole project was in effect until 1970, when it became clear that although the “reservoirs” fed plenty of orchards and vineyards, over time the dams filled with erosive materials and the pools became shallow and useless. But since nobody has had either the money or the inclination to unplug the dam, John Q.
Public gets to enjoy the result.
Leaving your car where it is, follow the gravelly dirt road just a few dozen meters to the most brilliant field of anemones you may ever see. In Latin, anemone means “daughter of the wind,” a name bestowed on this superb flower because it blooms despite harsh winter weather.
While anemones further north blossom in purple and even white, here all the anemones are a heart-colored red. So impressive are these buds that at one time farmers fed their chickens anemone leaves in the belief that this would increase the number of eggs they laid.
You may have noticed on your way here that the ride to and from Amatzya Forest is one of the loveliest in Israel.
Its bright green open spaces, flowering almond trees, tall cypress trees, twinkling fields and lush hills are absolutely magnificent. Livshutz attributes part of this beauty to the fact that the region has been marked a biosphere reserve – an area where people live in harmony with nature. Every patch of land is meticulously marked for a specific purpose, and residents (or developers) can’t build on portions allotted to tourism, crops or as a nature reserve.
So natural is the scenery, in fact, that you should keep your eyes open: We spotted a fox that was so comfortable here, he just sat on a hill and looked at us!