Down into the valley

Ancient springs in the Judean Hills: Yad Kennedy to Hirbet Hanot.

kobi springs 88 298 (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
kobi springs 88 298
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
Park at Yad Kennedy and roll 15 minutes down the signposted steep tarmac track to join the orange, white and blue-marked Israel Trail at Hirbet Sa'adim. Newcomers may explore the remains of that site's storehouses, olive presses and Muslim place of prayer (though its earliest remains date from the Byzantine period), all of which are under the patronage and tender care of the Hadassah Hospital nearby. The walk begins here, except for experienced hikers putting in a very full summer day's walk, or rather hard labor, combining this section with the previous one. Much of this stretch is well-shaded and scented by the familiar Jerusalem Forest species of pine, cypress, cedar and oak. By the time you get to the open sector though the Mata Valley, the sun's setting over the lower hills should be of scenic - rather than nuisance - value, creating a very pleasant finale to the hike. Check that each person has at least four liters of drinking water, and if in doubt, fill up at the faucets nearby. Do not count on finding water anywhere else on the route - and that includes at the finish at Hirbet Hanot. This excellent hike commences with a precipitous drop into the Refaim Valley. It will put the firm grips of quality walking shoes to the test. Do not attempt this section with anything less, and avoid entirely when damp underfoot, as the greasy quality of wet weathered limestone will hurtle you to the bottom too fast for comfort. Actually, the route avoids the last plummet as it turns right and follows a wide downhill track along the northern side of the Refaim Valley, whose eerie silences awake every half hour to the diesel-powered trains plying the single-tracked, newly reopened Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway. The sleek sausage-shaped multiple units round the tight bends with due caution, and the wooded limestone hills selectively filter and funnel the resonance of their nearing presence. Their approach gives the valley the peculiar sensation of filling up with sound, rather like a bathtub taking on water. However, it must pale in contrast with the growling steam trains of the earlier decades of the 20th century clanking, grunting and wheezing their way up the wooded Judean Hills. The Trail dips under the railway through a superb white stone arch, and then commences its push up the tributary Kobi Valley. On following the snaking path, I can't say I felt altogether comfortable in recalling the NIS 400 million of largely public money applied to running 15 trains in each direction that are largely devoid of passengers. The steep-sided, recently afforested Kobi Valley is a splendid one. Geologists believe that its precipitous narrow "V" cross section is produced by the vigorous vertical erosion of the Kobi River in the process of adjusting to the falling level of the Mediterranean Sea. What was once a sluggish flow has become, at least in winter, a fast rejuvenated fluvial force. Notice the graceful curves incised into the limestone on the left hand size. They are the remains of meanders showing the earlier, much higher course of the river before the base level drop and the current river rejuvenation process. The Trail abandons the wide path halfway up the valley, and begins to push a steeper, far more direct route to Kobi Spring. Bracing for another session down on all fours, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on the Silver Family Nature Trail, declared to "safeguard the paths of justice for He protects the ways of His devout ones" (Proverbs 2:8). Well manicured and made into a signposted walk, it is graced with park benches and conveniently placed steps of a quality not encountered since the rise to the Etzba Cave near Haifa. Near Kobi Springs came another familiar, if unexpected sound. A bearded elder was expounding Talmud Tractate Succa to a group of black-garbed youngsters. My clean-shaven appearance and hiking garb could have hardly impressed the gathering, but I was welcomed, and duly and happily merged into the discussion. It should take about an hour and a half to get to the Kobi Springs and the nearby Kobi ruins. Stop for a well-deserved rest, and you may picnic on the purpose-erected benches among the fig and pine trees. Formerly an Arab village carrying the name of Al Kabu, its remains date back to the Byzantine period. With luck, there will be water at the bottom of the 13 steps that go down the spring itself (reminiscent of the Sataf on the previous walk), but treat it as a bonus; don't count on it. THOUGH Ein Kobi is privileged with benches, it is marred with litter due to its road access. It's amazing how the garbage peters out within a few hundred meters, suggesting the very limited distances average visitors stray from the comforts of their mobile metal wombs. On leaving Ein Kobi, the path penetrates deep into the Begin Memorial Forest with views down into the Refaim Valley and high up to Yad Kennedy, and in the distance, a last glance of the outer western Jerusalem suburbs. The word spectacular would be an understatement. For the first time on walking the Trail, I got what my family refers to as a Happy Attack. Perhaps that is because I had the good fortune to be walking it a second time in mid-November under an azure-blue sky, yet ideal cool weather, reminiscent of a clear sunny May day in the UK, where every prospect pleases - wooded glades, steep drops and surprise vistas high over deep "V" shaped valleys. The sun was lowering, its light was playing and gently filtering through the pine, cedar and cypress leaves. It brought a song to the heart and smile to the lips with the only regret that there was no one in sight to share them with. I so much wanted to linger that I decided then and there to write a book on walking the Judean Hills after completing the same on the Israel Trail. After half an hour, the woods give way to open crumbling farm terraces, with remains of pre-1948 Arab settlement at several locations. Presently, the way skirts Mevo Betar and Tzur Hadassah and begins its gentle descent along the lengthy Zanoah Valley, with Moshav Mata appearing in the distance. You think the end of this section is almost in sight (and the tired may wish to negotiate the barbed wire and wind up at Mata), but there is well over an hour's walking ahead. Mata was founded in the 1950s by Yemenite and later, North African Jewish immigrants. Mata translates as "orchard," and I was looking forward to exploring the same around the tunneled Mata Spring, and the nearby farm dating from the Crusader period (including a fort with characteristic thick walls and firing slots). However, the Trail suddenly jars right, up rocky, heavily eroded terraces, with any thoughts of following a more direct route frustrated by a chorus of yapping dogs and barbed wire. The Israel Trail is less than perfectly marked, but if you lose it, continue westwards until the familiar orange, white and blue logos reappear. By the time you have had your fill of picking your way through the boulders of disused farming terraces, the Trail suddenly changes its mind and grudgingly descends to the foot of the Zanoah valley, with Mata behind you. It makes its last climb of the day on the other side through a typical Mediterranean forest of oak, pistachio, rockrose and soft hairy calycotome. It was dark by the time I got to the Roman and Byzantine remains of Hirbet Hanot (meaning "the ruins of the inn"). I left the pleasure of exploring the water cisterns and moving the sand covering the beautiful mosaic floor of the main building for next time. There was no public transport, so the walk finished with a 25-minute hike eastwards along Route #375 to the main road entrance to Mata and Bus #184 to Jerusalem just outside. You will experience: * A high quality challenging climb in the wooded Judean Hills along ancient and almost forgotten paths around Jerusalem * Magnificent views over the deeply dissected Judean Hills * Traditional methods of hill cultivation along man-made terraces irrigated by natural spring water * Remains of former river courses within deep 'V' shaped valleys * Natural refreshments of figs, carobs, and sabra fruit - in season * Varied remains from Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Arab periods The Details * Start: Yad Kennedy. Short walk to Route # 3877 at Moshav Aminadav. Bus #150 to Jerusalem from Moshav Aminadav. * Finish: Hirbet Hanot, Route #375. Bus #184 to Jerusalem, 25 minutes eastwards along #374, outside Moshav Mata. * Access/Exits: Mevo Betar - Ein Kobi (Route #375), Moshav Mata (Route #375) * Level of difficulty - Moderately challenging. Not for small children. * Length - 14 km * Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 9 (The Jerusalem Corridors) * Estimated walking time - 5 hours * Water - at the start of the walk only * Bring: 4 liters of water per person, a sun hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with good grips for walking. Include a compass, mobile phone, large towel, first aid kit, penknife and a powerful flashlight. Mobile phone reception generally reliable. * Accommodations - Belmont Hotel, Tzova (02) 534-7070/7090; Shoresh Hotel, Yarok Bahar, Shoresh (02) 534-0262; Yad Hashmona Guest House, Yad Hashmona (02) 534-3953/6; Habayit Hativi, Ein Kerem (02) 641-1288 * Restaurants - MeiHalvat Shai Zeltzer, by the Sataf Reserve (02) 533-3748; Yad Hashmona Guest House, Yad Hashmona (02) 534-3953/6; Aroma Restaurant, Harel Mall, Mevaseret Zion (02) 533-5043; Najji Restaurant, Abu Ghosh (02) 533-6520/8. * Places to visit: Tel Tzova (Crusader ruins), Tzova (02) 534-7952; Ein Hemed National Park, Ein Hemed; Castel National Gardens, Mevaseret Zion (03) 533-0476; Ein Yael Open Interactive Museum (02) 645-1166/7 * Attractions: Kifzuba (Children's Theme Park), Tzova (02) 534-7952; Tzova Bicycle Adventure Course, Tzova (02) 534-7667; Ness Harim Water Park, Ness Harim (02) 533-0260/1; Speedy Kef (02) 534-7952; Biblical Zoo, Jerusalem (02) 675-0111/01