Forest encore to Meitar

We're back on the Israel Trail, this time in the Lahav forest; the walk is a crowning celebration of the highlights of the trail.

lahav forest 298.88 (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
lahav forest 298.88
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
This part of the Israel Trails comes as something of a surprise. The semi-desert charms of the last section-and-a-half of the trail begin to pall, and you resignedly set your teeth for more of the same. But far from being a succession of flat and scrubby horizons, the walk is a crowning celebration of the highlights of the Israel Trail up to now. Start walking at Devir junction on Route 40, perhaps after coffee at the gas station. Follow Route 3255 to the east for about 10 minutes, crossing the railway line. A well-marked path turns left, and you will soon join the orange, blue and white-marked Israel Trail in the Shikma Valley. With irrigated crops and the odd orchard to the right, and forest - pine, mixed pine, eucalyptus, cedar and cypress - on the left, the first hour of the trail fairly bounces its way up the valley past Kibbutz Devira, before setting itself a very sharp right, at which point you take a deep breath. The shaded, but steep Trail pulls up to a circular, white building, which from a distance looks like one of the Shrine of the Book's relatives but turned out to be a water pumping and purification station. A good rest stop. Half of Israel's water is applied to agriculture - particularly to these rain-starved Negev desert margins, a fair sample of which you just passed below. Much of that is recycled waste-water, treated at plants near Rishon Lezion. The process is so thorough that the irrigation water is actually drinkable. (But Mekorot has not yet sold that idea to the public!) Continue eastward. The trail markings become rather poor as the paths fork in different directions. Use the high-tension electricity pylons as a landmark, pass under them, and you should get to an unclassified, metaled road. Do not continue beyond the road to the ostrich farm. These flightless birds, one or two of whom may check you out, prefer to have their territory to themselves. Instead, turn left and follow the road for about 20 minutes. The elusive Israel Trail logos reappear in due course. Just before the waterworks installation, turn sharp right into the Lahav Nature Reserve up a steep, but well-marked track ascending Ga'at Hill. Keep going until you get to the top - the second rest stop. Its views are even more comprehensive than the first - with the Ziklag Valley in front of you and, right behind it, the Lahav Forest and the wooded Mount Lehavim (518 meters). As the trail makes its way downhill, you are quaintly informed that you are in the Lahav North Nature Reserve, and that you must "not disturb the... geological formations." I somewhat dumbly wondered how that might be possible. You are getting right inside a showpiece afforestation project of the Jewish National Fund - the Lahav Forest. The pine trees have tightly rolled leaves that prevent the escape of moisture - very important under the local semi-arid conditions, with only 28 centimeters of rain per year. Try to come now, in the early spring, when edible pine mushrooms and primroses grace the foot of the pines. Planted in the 1950s and '60s, they not only green the desert, but created a demand for labor that temporarily solved unemployment in the Kiryat Gat and Beersheba areas. The forest's 3,000 hectares come with water fountains and picnic tables with access for the disabled. Best of all, there are no forlornly fallen pine trees. The warmer climate enables the trees to grow very tall, without the winter frosts that leave them so brittle. The forest path eventually comes out onto a metaled road, with a forest fire lookout post. Follow it to the Joe Allon Desert Center - an institute combining the Museum for Beduin Culture, research center and field school, all dedicated to the promotion of regional studies. Established by the Joe Allon Association and associates, it commemorates Joe Allon, a veteran Israeli pilot, who was murdered during a diplomatic assignment in the US on July 1, 1973. Just next to the center is Tel Halif, where more than a decade ago the Lahav Research Project excavation teams recovered 550 ceramic and stone figurines and fragments from fifth-century BCE cults. And far underneath to the right (a detour from the trail) is Hurvat Rimon, with a fourth-century CE synagogue. Backtrack a little from the center and rejoin the trail as it pushes down into wooded territory. That pastoral idyll lasts until the trail widens out to meet Road No. 358. Turn left and follow its ruler-straight section up to the right turning, where the path soon forks off to follow the open country up the kurkar sandstone of the Ramadin Valley. The open countryside contrasts nicely with the previous heavily wooded landscape, although it becomes rather poignant with the ominous double metal-fenced border marking the Green Line. Soon after the carob tree, the trail penetrates into the Keramim Forest - with its elegant, yet oddly level curves. The hues of the setting sun filtering through its greenery came to too sudden an end as the trail bypasses the small new religious settlement of Sansana and follows a road before making a final wooded dip, emerging to a boring two kilometers of road to the junction with Route 60 - linking Beersheba with Hebron. At least that section is negotiable if you are caught out by the dark - as I was. (Don't forget to carry a flashlight.) That concludes the Israel Trail for the - very long - day. Unfortunately there is no direct right of way to Meitar. Unless you hitch a lift (not recommended), you turn right and follow the main road to a gas station which appears in about 20 minutes on the left-hand side. Cross the field to the gas station which is on the Meitar road. Turn left and follow it toward the entrance to Meitar, for buses 27 and 28 from Meitar to Beersheba. Otherwise follow Route 60 for another half hour to Shoket junction, with a wide choice of local and intercity buses to Beersheba.