Nature for all

In the heart of the Judean foothills, Britain Park offers a host of wonders.

One Friday morning in late January, a newspaper reported that almond trees were blooming in the hills at Britain Park. The next day, the road was jammed with cars heading in the direction of the park, and all day long, hundreds of nature-loving Israelis hiked up and down the slopes. It didn't end there, for soon blood-red anemones began flowering in the area, and two weeks later, brilliant blue lupin were attracting the crowds. There were still blossoms in the park when a few of us spent a morning there at the beginning of March, and more were just beginning to appear. But we weren't there just for the flowers. Britain Park, a marvelous combination of natural woods and planted forests, also boasts fantastic historic and archeological sites, a plethora of exciting recreation areas and a special biblical trail. Best of all, Britain Park, like almost all recreation areas developed by the JNF, is absolutely free. Take a tip from me, however, and plan your visit for mid-week. Located in the heart of the Judean foothills, Britain Park stretches from Beit Shemesh all the way to Beit Guvrin and boasts a north-south scenic route that is wonderfully diverse. Funds for the park were donated by JNF supporters in Great Britain, who are currently financing extensive ecological projects that will help preserve the park's flora and fauna and limit the irreversible damage created by fast-paced urban development. You can easily spend a week in Britain Park, hiking through a natural wonderland to historic sites inaccessible by car, biking on special trails, driving the scenic routes and enjoying the outdoors with short, easy walks to overlooks, caves and antiquities. To become acquainted with the park, you can try our half-day jaunt that began and ended at the community settlement of Li-On (also known as Srigim, for an iron factory that originally stood there), off Route 38. Pass Li-On and turn left at a wide road that leads into a forest. If the sign hasn't been vandalized, an arrow will point you towards the main scenic route. All along the route, trails lead away from the road, deeper into the woods, and depending on the season, will be ablaze with flowers. Leaflets with information about the trails (in Hebrew) can be found in boxes next to the large informative signs. THE FIRST trail you reach is a 500-meter circular route: Shvil Srigim. Shvil Ha'elot, the next path, is also circular: 2.5 kilometers of woods, forest, blossoming flowers and possibly some wildlife. Near the road there is a picnic site with special tables that allow wheelchair access. Continue south on the scenic route to Hirbet Nakeb. You will notice a difference between typical JNF pine forests and the one you see on your left, for here the pine trees have been thinned out to permit the growth of endemic Israeli foliage. As soon as light began hitting the earth between the trees, masses of growth began to appear and, today, you can't even see the ground for plants and flowers like cyclamen, pink-and-white rockrose, Land of Israel arum and tall white asphodel. Natural woods on the right side of the road are fairly squat. As a result, every once in a while the landscape suddenly seems to unfold - a breathtaking sight of natural beauty. When you reach the overlook at Hirbet Nakeb, get out of your car, but be careful not to step on a sheep! The JNF brings shepherds and their families, goats and sheep to the forest five to seven months out of the year to eat weeds in the park. We met a delightful family from Beersheba at Hirbet Nakeb, whose patriarch was delighted to have plenty of great fodder for his furry sheep. And the JNF is pleased as well, for if fast-growing forest weeds aren't devoured by beasts, they often grow as tall as a meter, dry out in summer, and contribute to the rapid spread of forest fires. It is one of regional forester Eli Ben-Shitrit's tasks to regulate the movements of 3,000 sheep and several hundred goats, watching carefully to see that flowers aren't eaten up by mistake and that the animals consume as many weeds as possible. FROM THE overlook you have a splendid view that reaches all the way to the Mediterranean. Indeed, if you stand here the day after rain has cleared the air, you may actually see the blue sheen of the water. We saw carob trees nearby and ambled over for a bite of their fruit. Ami Hirsch, the JNF regional director of public relations, who accompanied us on our outing, suggested we take a good look at a carob leaf, made up of leaflets arranged on either side of a single stalk. At one time, he explained, each stalk held only one large leaf. Because the carob originated in hot, dry lands, however, it had to adapt in order to conserve its water. Therefore, over time, the leaves evolved into leaflets with spaces in between, creating less surface for evaporation. Instead of lying flat, the leaflets are located at an angle to the stalk. In this way, the sun does not hit the surface directly, keeping many of the rays away. Break a leaf in two, and you will hear a crackling sound that again illustrates the wonders of nature. Although you can't see it, you have broken a special layer that covered the leaf to prevent the escape of water. Look for pungent sage - the name reflecting the aroma that sticks to your fingers when you rub the leaves. Notice the upper lip of the curved white corolla - and the long stamen, activated when a curious insect climbs inside. If you stand still, you can watch the process in action. Burial caves, remains of dwellings and cisterns dating back thousands of years dot this area, but as yet, there have been no systematic excavations. As we peered into a large cistern, Hirsch pointed out the upper portion, dug out of hard nari. A meter or so further down, the rock is soft chalk, like the kind teachers use on blackboards. From there on down, it was easy for settlers to continue boring into the earth, to widen out the hole and to plaster the sides. Rain pouring onto roofs and into courtyards would have run directly into a filtering pool (you can't see it, as it is covered with tangled growth), then clear water would flow into the cistern. However, if too many of the sun's rays reached the water, micro-organisms developed. That's why it was important that the cistern be shaped like a bottle, with the nari creating a narrow opening that lessened the sun's impact. IF YOU return to the main scenic route, you will soon see the beginning of a 10-minute circular walk to a fascinating cave. This time you are looking east with a sumptuous view of the Hebron Mountains. On a clear day, you can see the houses in Gush Etzion. Beyond Route 38, in the valley the landscape is similar to that of Britain Park and the hills are also full of caves and ruins. Sometime soon the JNF plans to develop that area into Adullam Park. Be sure to keep your head down as you enter the cave. When you finally stand up straight, you will see that you are in a bottle or bell-shaped cave similar to the cistern you saw previously. But this cave served a different purpose. Although there are several rows of little shelves, like those you see in a columbarium, there aren't very many. Look for a large stone with a cut-out center. This was once an oil press, hidden from the prying eyes of soldiers who trampled the earth here over the millennia. Indiscernible from above, the cave kept this family's oil safe from invaders. Before you get back into your car, take a look at the top of the cave from up above. Cisterns, of course, were fashioned in such a way that rainwater would flow inside; this cave was built in such a way as to prevent water from entering. As you continue south, the view just keeps getting better and better. Soon you reach Ramat Avisur, whose heights are covered with blossoms. The cows from Kibbutz Beit Nir, encouraged to graze, don't touch them; they obviously know these are protected flowers! School groups hike up to these delicious heights, where the air is unusually sweet and you can rid yourself of Israeli claustrophobia in these heady, wide open spaces. YOU CAN exit the park as we did, on a road that leads down to Route 38. Turn right to reach Tel Goded, once a city fortified by King Rehoboam and just begging to be excavated. Superficial digs exposed a jug with 'to the king' written in ancient Hebrew on its handle. Do not enter the dangerous caves on the tel without a guide. A very ancient well stands near the road, and has a buckthorn tree growing inside. Unlike cisterns, which are carved into the rock, plastered to keep the water from seeping out and designed to collect rainfall, wells descend to the aquifer - a layer of water inside the earth. Look for the way the sides were beefed up to keep the well from collapsing and see how, over the millennia, ropes lowering buckets down into the water cut deep grooves into the rock. If you want to continue to the northern part of the park, turn around and drive north on Route 38, then west on 383 towards the Re'em Junction. After you go about 800 meters, you reach the northern entrance to Britain Park and Tel Azeka, mentioned in the Bible and overlooking the valley in which David fought Goliath. Inside, on your left, there is a great picnic area with a fun playground, and signs lead you to the Tel Azeka trail. The prototype of several biblical paths that are being planned for the future, it is lined by stones bearing passages about the battle between David and Goliath - handy, joked Hirsch, if you forgot to bring your Bible along. The top of the tel offers a wonderful view of the battle site, located below in the Ayla valley. Continuing on the scenic route, you reach a large grove of carob trees. Originally planted to provide great feed for area cows, the stubborn animals refused the offer. Farmers tried grinding the fruit into powder and tricked the cows into eating it - but, as it turns out, this caused their milk to go bad! A hilltop in the distance, bare of trees and covered with greenish and yellowish foliage, is Tel Ajur; a three- hour walk there and back takes you to a gigantic terebinth (big enough for 50 people to fit underneath) and an ancient oil-press cave. You have a good look at the tel from the overlook next to a sculptured turtle. We looked down at the ground and there, at our feet, a real turtle was crawling around - our only view of wildlife bigger than bees on this trip. Then continue on to Hanion Ha'alon - Oak Tree recreation area. Sometime ago, Ben-Shitrit realized that under a 15-meter wide mass of thicket there was a lovely tree. Two weeks of careful pruning with special tools resulted in the sight of this beautiful ancient oak, offering plenty of shade and perfect for a picnic. On April 2, Geographical Tours is sponsoring a FREE open-air happening at Britain Park. In the morning, guides will accompany private cars and jeeps along a variety of interesting routes. Meet at Ha'ela Junction at 9:30. At 12:30 Geographic Tours invites the public to family pursuits and challenges that include paintball, a rope park and wall climbing. The younger set will enjoy creative workshops. Signs lead you to the spot. Namesakes Although we had stopped in the woods for coffee and cookies during our jaunt, we needed some more sustenance. So we drove back to our starting point, and ended our trip at Aviva's Kurdish Restaurant in Srigim (kosher). A family operation where mom, dad and the kids cook and serve, the atmosphere is delightful and the food is hearty (I especially enjoyed the Kurdish kubeh soup). Aviva was so pleased that we share the same name that she gave me a special shirt to wear. Now, when I have company over for dinner, I wear the shirt and everybody knows that they are eating at Aviva's Restaurant! Copyright The Jerusalem Post