Off the Beaten Track: Road tripping to Nahal Arugot

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

Desert near Ein Gedi 311 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Desert near Ein Gedi 311
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
The light entered my tent before the sun rose. I got up and prepared coffee from my “Bunsen burner” kit and sipped the cardamom spiked “botz” (“mud” in Hebrew) and watched the sun rise over ancient Moab. My friend and I had time before the park opened, so we decided to eat breakfast at Aroma Café in Ein Bokek. I noticed two grungy looking dudes holding their thumbs out, by the side of the road. Obviously they had slept out at the Dead Sea. I did this waaaaay back when, too but I do not recommend hitchhiking today. I stopped to give them a lift.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Masada…and thanks for the ride!” The tall blond one has a German accent, the short guy, French.
“German & French?” I ask. They nod in the affirmative. “Shouldn’t you guys hate each other?”
With a laugh “We do!” “Where are you going?”
“The Oasis of Ein Gedi.” After describing the place they decided to join us.
As we pull into the empty parking lot I think that it pays to arrive early. We drop off our hitchhikers at the shorter and easier trail at  Nahal David, and make our way to the Nahal Arugot (Garden Bed Stream). As we inch up the road, a family of ibex cross. The patriarch is last with his massive horns, sometimes used as “shofars” in Jewish rituals. The Christian versions of the Bible often translate these horns as “trumpets”…not quite right. Every three notches on their horns represent a year of their life. He’s a big boy. I wouldn’t mess with him. “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the rock rabbits (hyrax).” Psalm 104:18.
We pass Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s fields next to what looks like a big circus tent which covers an ancient synagogue. The fragrances from the nearby fields fill my nostrils. I am reminded of the Song of Songs “My beloved is unto me as a cluster of flowers in the vineyards of En Gedi.”
The first synagogue on this spot dates back to the second century C.E. In nearby caves evidence has been found of a headquarters of sorts by Jewish soldiers fighting the Romans during the Bar Kochaba revolt around the same time. The mosaic, which dates to the fifth century, is breathtaking. It depicts astrology, birds, peacocks and clusters of grapes plus several seven branched candelabras or “menorahs” which was a symbol of the Temple that stood in Jerusalem.
We leave the synagogue and head over to the entrance of the wadi. Nearby the ticket booth is a Roman cistern, a Byzantine fortress, a Canaanite flour mill, a Neolithic temple and ruins of an Israelite/Jewish city. After applying sunscreen generously, hats, and lots of water in check, we set out. We descend into the stream and happen upon a family of Hyrax (Connies) sunbathing on a boulder. They see us but pay little attention to us until one of the furry little fellows of the pack seems startled and begins his hop from rock to rock and up a tree. The water is cool and clear. Hundreds of black snails cling to the rocks in the water attesting to its cleanliness. For a good hour we slosh our way through this narrow strip of greenery in the flowing stream. It feels as if we are in the jungles of southeast Asia but every time we reach a clearing, the sun beats down upon us and bare, beige, desert mountains remind us where we are. We stop at several natural pools and go for a swim. At one point the stream has actually carved a natural slide by a water fall and we take the plunge into the clear, cool waters.
We leave the stream and the blue trail and head up the cliff face on the red trail. The desert scenery is stunning. The Dead Sea lies in a hazy mist behind us as the kibbutz hovers in a multicolored mirage on the opposite mountain plateau. A large swath of greenery is dotted with boulders moved by the winter flash floods that come barreling through the wadi without warning. We make our way down to the Hidden Falls and relax by the pool before ascending to the upper pools. Hidden by some boulders is a small bubbling spring, the source of much of this water. We stop and listen to the tweeting birds, flow of the water and chill for a while before heading back on the red trail straight to the lot. Not a bad day.
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.