Part XI: The path less traveled

Hiking the Israel Trail: Not for the faint of heart, the Carmel Caves are Israel's main link with prehistory.

This is an unusual and seldom-trodden part of the Israel Trail. Easily accessible, the weary and the bone idle may leave at any point by making their way down the western side of the Carmel Range to Route #4, with its frequent stops for Bus #921. You will not be the first to walk these hills. The recently excavated caves en route appear to have been homes to two types of prehistoric man. Some 100,000 years ago, a group of small, bent Neanderthals lived no more than 300 meters from a colony of more modern, upright human beings. They lived in the area of the Nahal Me'arot Nature Reserve and the nearby caves millennia before their surroundings would become sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims and Bahai. Join the trail at the Oren Parking Lot, on the south side of Route #721. Departing on a black-marked path pulls you up 159 steep and unremitting steps to your first viewpoint of the day. You will also remember this stretch for its caves, and for the heavily pitted, ankle-twisting path - products of carbon-dioxide laden rain that rots in the jointed limestone rocks. Turn into the yawning mouth of the Etzba ("finger") Cave. Legend has it that it formed after the giant Nimrod sensed honey here, and put his huge finger inside the crack, so exciting the bees that they stung it to mammoth proportions. Very nice, but the impact of supersonic booms from Israeli Air Force training programs seems a little more plausible. THE PATH meanders its boulder-strewn way to the summit of that part of the range, through its typical Mediterranean scrub forest, with its oaks, Atlantic pistachios, Aleppo pines, strawberry trees and buckthorns. Arrow-woods and laurels grow in the deeper, well-shaded, damper areas. The markings change from black to red, as the trail proceeds to follow a wide dirt track for a short time before taking a sudden plunge down to the right, to the edge of the artists' village of Ein Hod. Ein Hod is the quintessential Mediterranean experience. Situated on an olive-groved hillside, it views the sea, and baroque sunsets bring each day to a close. The village has preserved its romantic and simple charm of the first years of independence. Very few places in Israel still have gardens of olive, pomegranate, almond and carob trees, together with grapevines and figs. Formerly Al Haja, it was evacuated in a hurry by the Arab population in 1948, who in due course rebuilt their settlement as Abu Al Haja, a few kilometers to the east. In the 1950s, a group of artists led by the famous Dada artist Marcel Janco, decided that the renamed Ein Hod would be a good place for them to work, build studios and workshops, and form a creative environment for art and art education. You will find works in its many studios from that first generation hanging alongside those of young, contemporary artists only recently accepted into the village. You will also appreciate its restaurants and coffee houses. In the summer, there are concerts in the open air theater. Every long=distance footpath walker sooner or later asks the question: "Just what crazy notion got me doing this?" I found myself asking this question on the stretch between Ein Hod and the Carmel Caves, where Nahal Me'arot (Valley of the Caves) comes out into the coastal plain. It ought to be nicknamed "the curse of Adam" - in keeping with "thorns and thistles shall sprout for you, and you shall eat the vegetation of the field" (Genesis 3:18). Seriously, though, it provides a real test for hikers. Theoretically, it affords views over Atlit, Dor, and the sparkling Mediterranean. The flora-minded should spot fine specimens of (protected) anemone, pink and white cyclamen, coral peony, and Madonna lily. The history-minded should pause at Hurvat Mazar, the ruins of an abandoned Arab settlement, where wells are situated between carob trees, from which the shepherds of nearby Abu Al Haja quench their flocks' thirst. But you will probably be too busy extricating yourself from prickly thickets and observing path markings, whose sudden changes in direction come out of a lunatic's dream, to notice. This is, in fact, a very rarely walked section of the Israel Trail. Give three hours for this bit. It drags you everywhere except where you expect it to go - though a picturesque (but inedible) olive grove - and avoids a more urbane (but edible) banana plantation. Just when you're about to lose your patience and quit, the Carmel Caves emerge from around a bend. This is a reward in itself, especially if you toast your arrival with some liquid refreshment from near the entrance to the caves. THE CARMEL Caves are Israel's main link with prehistory. Open Sundays through Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays until 2 p.m., the entrance fee of NIS 18 includes an introductory video show. You will be visiting the El-Wad Cave (Cave of the Valley), the site of the remains of Cro-Magnon-type man, and the Tabun Cave (Cave of the Oven), which has the distinction of hosting one of the most ancient human skeletal remains in Israel - a Neanderthal-type female skeleton, dated to about 120,000 years ago. The numerous bones of fallow deer found in the upper layers of that cave are linked to its chimney-like opening, which served as a natural trap. The animals were probably herded towards it, and fell right down, whereupon they were butchered. Occupied up to about 40,000 years ago, its floor was covered with deposits of sand, silt and clay of up to 25 meters. The highlight of your visit to the caves will be seeing the well-preserved tools of prehistoric man. Their flint and limestone hand-axes were chiseled for effective use on gazelles, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and wild cattle, as well as for digging out plant roots. You will see that they improved slowly over tens of thousands of years. The hand-axes became smaller and better shaped, and scraping knives, made of thick flakes chipped off flint cores, were probably used for scraping meat off bones, and for processing animal skins. Exit the Carmel Caves to Route #4, and its nearby bus stop for #921 to Haifa, the coastal plain, and the Oren Parking Lot, should you need it.