A walk through Ben Shemen Forest

Hiking through the largest forest in Israel, one experiences more than just nature.

ben shemen 88 (photo credit: )
ben shemen 88
(photo credit: )
The maps show this walk running close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Route 1 expressway. However, that road is conveniently obscured by the low, rolling hills between Samaria and the coastal plain. Its presence continues to be discreet until entering the Ayalon Valley, and the short part on the final section to Latrun where you actually follow it doesn't go on for too long. Watch carefully for the opening to this section. It lies on the south side of the heavily trafficked Route 443. Parking should present no problem for private vehicles, but if traveling on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv bus 471, persuade the driver to drop you off at Mitzpe Modi'in the Modi'in Observation Point. It is located some three kilometers to the west of the entrance to Neot Kedumim, and two kilometers to the east of the Ben-Shemen junction with Route 1. Follow the wide path into the forest for a couple of minutes to the orange-painted starting station of the Israel Trail. Stop, take a few deep breaths of forest-scented air, and tune into the landscape. You are inside the century-old Ben-Shemen Forest. Its first plantations bore the title of Herzl Forest, after Theodor Herzl the then recently deceased creator of modern Zionism. It is the largest single unit of forestry in the country today. Under the jurisdiction of the Jewish National Fund, it has flourished since the planting of groves of olives and other fruit trees in 1908. There was little woodland then. The region's natural Mediterranean forest was steadily denuded over the centuries to make way for farmland, and much of what was left fueled the early generations of steam locomotives on the Turkish-built railways. At that time, the newly established JNF was prioritizing buying land for reforestation. The reasons were solely environmental; the species were generally unsuitable for the construction and paper industries. Trees were and are still planted in Israel to improve and reclaim the land. Most Israeli forests are on the edges of deserts, and on hilly land of little use for commercial farming. Trees keep the soil tightly packed together, preventing soil erosion. They improve the air quality, converting expired carbon dioxide into oxygen, all day long. They transpire moisture which moderates the climate, making the summer a little less hot and the winter a little less cold. As a walker, you will appreciate their pleasant environment and shade, which also protects parks, buildings and highways from the searing Middle Eastern sunshine. You may join in the action by adding a tree or two yourself: you will presently pass a bilingual invitation showing how and where to do just that. You will follow a long line of predecessors, whose plaques include an un-Egyptian-sounding Mr. Blumenthal of Cairo, and the illustrious hi-tech Intel both of whom planted whole groves. THANKS TO the JNF and other interested bodies, Israel is the only country in the world that has reversed deforestation in the very long term. There are far more trees in Israel today than there were a hundred years ago. However, at 3 percent, its forest cover proportion is only a quarter of that of Greece and Portugal. The trail becomes hillier and more densely wooded with cypress, cedar, pine, oak and olive trees as it goes deeper into the forest. The Ben-Shemen forest area might well have been the scene of conflicts between the Maccabees (whose tombs are nearby, close to Shilat) and the Seleucid Greeks in the second century BCE, but your visit will show remains of more recent carnage, between the forest authorities and garbage-dumping thoughtless visitors with the latter generally winning. Leave only footprints, take only photographs... An hour from the start, the forest thins out into a more open oak and olive landscape. This was the ground of heavy fighting in the War of Independence of 1948, for very understandable reasons. Its paramount strategic value lies in its 360-degree commanding view of the region at its summit at Hirbet Regev including the Samarian Hills, the Modi'in area, the Judean Hills, and the Shfela, the main routes linking Jerusalem and the densely populated coastal plain. On the way, you will pass a grim three-tier white limestone structure commemorating the spot where three Hagana commanders were blasted to their deaths as their vehicle struck a land mine on July 20, 1948. There is free lunch for late August and September walkers juicy sabras, ripe figs and black olives just waiting to picked. By the time I got there, the figs were mediocre, but just about edible. Though the olives were fairly soft, their sharp taste made them decidedly unpalatable. The reddening sabras, however, were at their prime. I picked one and attempted to squeeze the juice into my mouth. Please don't do likewise! Some of its tiny spines got onto my lips, continuing to be very painful a week later. With the twin tower blocks of Modi'in looming to the east, the trail descends into the Anava Valley toward what looks like a cooling freshwater lake. It is actually nothing of the kind, but turned out to be the reflection of the sunny blue sky bouncing off the white limestone of the two newly constructed bridges, one of which will carry the fast rail link from the coast and Ben-Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, via Modi'in. These road and rail conduits are above ground level, as the low-lying land suffers severe winter flooding. Turn left toward the wooded area as you go under the bridge. The lunar construction landscape seems to have lost its directing white, blue and orange Israel Trail marker at that point. Otherwise you will reach Route 1, and inhale its diesel-impregnated fumes. THIS TERRITORY has a reputation of bringing Israel Trail walkers (especially the photographer variety) into conflict with armored-car army exercises. It is not unknown for a commander to stop and summarily order a hiker to take the film out of his camera. I had the place to myself, though, and did not meet a soul until the trail crossed the windy, narrow, Sha'alvim access road after a further four kilometers of a hilly and partially wooded walk. There, true to reputation, was the armored car. The young soldier, however, looked as though he had just crawled out of bed and was about to get back into it. But he proved most helpful in identifying what vegetables were growing under plastic in the opposite field. They were eggplants. A little roadwork follows, and the path enters the very attractive woodlands skirting the south of the religious yeshiva-based township of Sha'alvim and its attractive recently-built villa-annex of Nof Ayalon. By now you get the first feeling that you are entering the orbit of the Holy City of Jerusalem which is true at least in terms of telephone area codes. But there are other, more subtle hints. Just past a rock which weathered into a Pooh Bear profile, there is a fenced-in “geniza tunnel.” The word geniza means concealed. As its entrance was garbage-impregnated, I did not feel up to finding out whether the tunnel leads to buried treasure or more likely serves as a depository for holy writ. There is also the sound of religious-based light music wafting through the trees. And upon detouring into Sha'alvim itself, I enjoyed discussing a page of Talmud with a local yeshiva student as we lined up for refreshments mine being of the liquid variety. The remaining few kilometers to Latrun put me in the fast-gathering dusk. The path turns south by Nof Ayalon and makes a sharp descent under Route 1 and hugs its south side for the next kilometer and a half. It then pushes up toward the Latrun reservoir and the military open museum explored in the daylight of the next section of the trail to the terminus of this section on Route 3, with buses 432 and 433 (Jerusalem-Rishon Lezion); 434 and 435 (Jerusalem-Rehovot) and 439 (Jerusalem-Ashdod). You should experience: Forest fragrances of fresh eucalyptus, amongst oaks, stone pines, cedar, and cypress trees Historical links with the struggle to Israel's second independence under the Maccabees, and its third independence under the modern Zionists Comprehensive 360-degree views over the Ayalon Valley and the Mediterranean Coast Plenty of distracting curiosities including apiaries, plaques of curious donors, and a secret passage The challenge of bringing Jerusalem's links to the coast up to modern standards The challenges and delights of living off the land in season The Details Start: Mitzpe Modi'in, on Route 443, to the southeast of the Ben-Shemen Interchange. Bus 471 from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Finish: Latrun Route 3. Buses 432 and 433 (Jerusalem-Rishon Lezion); 434 and 435 (Jerusalem-Rehovot) and 439 (Jerusalem-Ashdod) Level of difficulty: Straightforward Distance: 19 km. approx. Time: 7-8 hours. Negotiable by mountain bikes and four-wheeled drive vehicles. Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridor) Bring: 3 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes with grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, towel, first-aid kit, penknife, and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception OK. Water: At the start and finish of the walk. Accommodation: Nahshonim Country Guest House (03) 938-6535. Restaurants: Maccabis, Maccabim (08) 926-2970; Mevushelet VIP, Mevo Horon (08) 972-6800. Places to visit: Neot Kedumim (Biblical and Talmudic Landscape Reserve), Modi'in (08) 977-0770; Reconstructed Hasmonean Museum, Shilat (08) 976-1617. Attractions: Ben-Shemen Monkey Park, Ben-Shemen (08) 928-5888.