Part VII: In search of the fair shepherdess

Hiking the Israel Trail: Attempting a demanding climb to the foot of Mount Tabor.

The ninth section of the Israel Trail will suit discerning, hardy and experienced walkers with stamina. It is not for first-timers. Long and exposed, it incorporates a demanding climb and a gradual descent to a long, remote plateau at the foot of Mount Tabor. It will reward the fit and confident with rarely viewed, stunning, magnificent scenery way beyond the picture-postcard circuit. And your successful finish will convince you that you are up to just about any leg of the Israel Trail. Don't let the distance deter you. The kilometers just seem to roll off. Beware, though, of the lack of shelter. The low altitude and absence of tree cover can make for very hot, very exposed conditions, which persist until the last few kilometers of the walk. By then you won't have much use for shade, whatever time of the year. Get on to a good start by drinking to capacity at Yardenit, and put at least another five liters in your pack. Pick up the orange, blue and white-marked Israel Trail at Yardenit, which will take you to the banks of the Jordan, on its first leg of its meandering course from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea. Your level one-and-a-half kilometer riverside walk makes a tranquil cooling environment - good preparation for the harder ascents inland. The path diverges from the Jordan, and in less than half an hour, makes an abrupt right turn, which begins the ascent of the rarely-visited Nahal Yavne'el. You have just joined the Derech Hahoranim - the Way to Haran, which you follow for the next three kilometers to Ein Petel. This track is part of an ancient route from Haran, near the Syrian-Turkish border, to the Mediterranean coast, at Acre. Sorry, but the path taken by the biblical patriarch Jacob, on his return journey from Haran is further south, via Penuel and the Jabbok brook. Do stop at Ein Petel. It lies just past the remains of an aqueduct from a later period, which tapped the Yavne'el Stream to supply Tiberias with water under pressure. Eucalyptus trees and pink-flowering oleander cover water of variable quantity and doubtful quality. This is the last break before the climb, where the Israel Trail turns left, and follows a black-marked sinuous uphill climb. You will enjoy the ascent as long as you watch for its ankle-twisting potential, and take plenty of brief stops. The black markings and the Israel Trail signs are one and the same as you pass up through the Ya'ala nature reserve, cross the red-marked wide track of the Elot rise and enter the territory of Elot - the second nature reserve. A FORBIDDING "Shepherds Keep Out" notice snuffs out any chance meeting with a gentle shepherdess on these hills of Lower Galilee. I suppose the authorities are trying to protect the sparse vegetation from being uprooted by goats. Following various geological uplifts and earthquakes, the rift valley resembles frozen playing cards, petrified in the act of being shuffled. The Jordan is far below at the bottom, with the settlements of Alumot and Yavne'el taking the intermediate ground. You are going for the higher places in the locality, crossing the 300-meter contour and peaking at the bristly Atlantic pistachio tree that clings to the craggy viewpoint at the top. Add the 200-meters-below sea-level start, and - congratulations - celebrate with some well-earned liquid refreshments. Follow the Israel Trail westwards as it parts company from the black markings. After half an hour you reach the pass, where for about a hundred meters you get the best of both worlds. Right behind you is the Jordan Rift Valley, and its associated mountain ranges. And ahead emerges the perfectly formed hump of Mount Tabor - whose bottom marks the end of today's installment. You have just crossed the watershed - the natural divide between the Jordan River and Nahal Tavor. The hard work is over but the long work is just starting. You have an extended gradual descent of the Nahal Tavor Plateau, covered mainly in pasture land. While I didn't see any sheep, there were a fair amount of cattle here and there. If one with horns gives you a second look, don't take it too much to heart. He's not a bull, but a bullock. The difference? The bull will be in a field by himself. Bullocks are castrated bulls, rejected for breeding purposes. That little operation pushes down their hormone level, rendering them harmless and fit to socialize with other cattle. Their ultimate destination is beef. So insists one of my Irish teenage students with a farming background. Mount Tabor is your chief landmark for the rest of the journey. The Israel Trail does not take a direct route, but tends to zigzag, because of the shape of the land, and local rights of way. Its descent skirts Hurvat Olam (Olam Ruins) - a settlement with roots from the fourth century CE, hurriedly abandoned by Arab villagers in 1948. Largely destroyed, its remains include overgrown foundations and mosaic tiles. A similar fate betook Hurvat Sirin (Sirin Ruins), a further half an hour's walk down the plateau. Remains of an ancient synagogue were found in its vicinity, which is marked by a somewhat more recently built abandoned mosque. You will go by some heads of cattle and beehives. Keep away from the bees and don't frighten the cows. Just keep walking and everything should be fine. Forty five minutes should get you to the flour mill and the shaded area of the Nahal Tavor reservoirs, where the Israel Trail continues to be marked in green up to its junction with the red-marked path which you follow, turning to the right. You will enjoy the cooling sensation of running water on this leg of the walk as you ford the streams. Proceed carefully. Your reentry to civilization is marked by the access road out of Kfar Kish. Turn left and follow it until its junction with the more heavily traveled Road No. 7276 from nearby Ein Dor. Cross that road and follow the Israel Trail along a wide path by the Tabor Stream before it rejoins that road, which strikes the finish of this section at Gazit Junction, with the Afula-Golani road No. 65, right under the shades of Mount Tabor. I confess I cheated on the roadwork. A pretty young accountant and her daughter offered me a ride past Gazit Junction and another kilometer up to Kfar Tavor to an ice-cold Coca-Cola at the kiosk, and the bus stop opposite back home to Jerusalem (and other major destinations). Perhaps she was the sweet and gentle shepherdess in disguise.