Off the Beaten Track: Exploring the blooming desert

A new column: Travel expert Joe Yudin introduces "the road less travelled" as well as some new discoveries at more well-known sites.

Negev desert 311 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Negev desert 311
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
We try to leave the hotel early to beat the crowds and the heat, but the Jewish day school kids hover over the spectacular breakfast spread. The Isrotel offers a fine “four star” hotel called the Rammon Inn in this sleepy little developmental town of Mitzpeh Rammon. The new Isrotel down the road called Bresheet looks spectacular as each “villa” hangs seemingly over the edge of the cliffs of the Rammon Crater (technically it’s not a crater but a “machtesh.")
I look forward to my first stay there. Some Israelis are leaving the breakfast buffet as we arrive; all decked out in their bike helmets and tights ready to hit the mountain bike trails that crisscross the crater. I am jealous.
After breakfast we set out to Kibbutz Sde Boker. It’s the perfect place to start a tour of this region as it overlooks the majestic Nahal Zin. We turn off at the sign on Route 40 that points to “Ein Avdat” and wind our way to the upper parking lot. The path to David & Paula Ben Gurion’s tombs is exquisite. It is built to represent a wadi or nahal in Hebrew.
These seasonal stream bed’s dot Israel’s varied landscape and during the winter sometimes fill up with rain water and flash floods bringing life to the desert. David Ben Gurion had a vision: That young Israeli pioneers would come into the desert and make it bloom as is prophesized in the book of Isaiah: “Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest.“
Photo: Joe YudinPhoto: Joe YudinBen Gurion actually quit being the prime minister for a time in order to work amongst the pioneers who created this lush oasis. He chose to be buried here, perhaps to lure other Zionists down into the desert which he saw as the future of Israel or maybe to visualize for us the connection between the ancient Israelites and modern Israelis.
I look down past the graves into the Wilderness of Zin which immediately reminds me of the biblical passage in Numbers, “And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said… 'Get you up here into the South (the Negev)…now…was the time of the first-ripe grapes. So they went up, and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin.”
The spies do come back with giant grapes but only two out of the twelve spies, Joshua and Caleb, believe the Canaanites can be defeated. Because the other ten doubted, all of Israel was forced to wander the desert for forty years, until a new generation was born free and ready to conquer the Land promised to them.
Photo: Joe YudinPhoto: Joe YudinWe drive into the national park of Ein Avdat to the lower lot. This spring which feeds Nahal Zin would have been a perfect place for Moses to camp with the wandering Israelites as a perennial stream flows freely. We spot many different species of birds, reptiles and several ibex in the nahal, as well as several interesting geological formations in the cliff face. The canyon is green and peaceful and opens up to reveal a pool and waterfall at the end. Byzantine monks once occupied these caves over the falls. We return to the car and make our way south on Route 40 to the ancient city of Avdat just down the road.
The ancient Israelites weren’t the only people to inhabit this land, and indeed the Jewish pioneers settling the Negev had the example of the ancient Nabateans to follow as a guideline on how to make the desert bloom. The first historical mention of the Nabateans is in the early 4th century BCE. They lived in what is today the southern reaches of the kingdom of Jordan in a place called “Petra”.
Later Petra would become the capital of their kingdom at the center of their trade routes that stretched from India to Gaza on the Mediterranean shore.  The Wilderness of Zin was the trade route’s main thoroughfare. The ancient city of Avdat perches on Nahal Zin and is the most impressive of all the Nabatean cities outside of Petra. You can spend hours here exploring the ruins from various time periods. The most impressive are the Byzantine bathhouse, Roman villa with a view of a reconstructed Nabatean farm blooming in the desert, burial caves, towers complex,  fortress and a couple of incredibly preserved churches.
Photo: Joe YudinPhoto: Joe YudinOn the way back to Tel Aviv on Route 222, the perfect stop to complete the day is a visit to the Wall & Tower settlement of Revivim. The kibbutz gets its name from Psalm 65, “Thou waterest the ridges…softening it with showers (revivim).” The first Jewish pioneers arrived in the summer of 1943 and took shelter in a Byzantine cave which originally served as a water cistern.  By 1945 the pioneers were using the ancient Nabatean system of damming the wadis and channeling the flood waters from the flash floods into man made reservoirs. This water was used to farm over 7000 acres of desert land. Today, the largest olive orchard in the Middle East is indeed here on Kibbutz Revivim.
In 1947 a United Nations commission visited the kibbutz and was so impressed with the beautiful flowers that had taken root all over the settlements grounds that most of the Negev was included within the Jewish state’s boundaries of the November 1947 UN Partition Plan. Indeed from atop the watchtower one can see the vision of the Hebrew prophets as carried out by David Ben Gurion and Israel’s pioneer movement has in fact come to fruition.  What a sight!
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.