Part XII: Along the Carmel Spine

Hiking the Israel Trail: On this challenging walk in the forest, just beware of the sheepdogs.

The Carmel Spine links the better known part of the Lower Galilee with the much-visited Zichron Ya'acov and Caesarea territory. Though less-commonly walked, it rewards the hiker with many hidden treasures off the beaten tourist track. Caves, Byzantine and Muslim remains, combined with scrambles up stream beds, make this walk a special one. But real treasures are not just places, but people. I won't forget the jeep driver who stopped me with a "care for a drink?" in the Australian Forest. I will always remember the two young long-distance hikers who shared their provisions and experiences. And the charm of the Indian-Jewish guy I nicknamed Zelaphchad, with his pretty daughters and eight giant sheepdogs. Most of the walk is well set out, but the signs are obscure in a few places. If in doubt, walk 400 paces from the last path marking along the route that seems most logical. Chances are that you are headed the right way, but if no further sign appears, go back to where you started and try again - you probably missed the trail's sudden turn off the beaten track. You begin in front of the Carmel Caves with a kilometer rise over an open limestone surface. It is just weathered enough for walking without scrambling. Although you might feel like using the finger-size rainwater-formed holes in the limestone for a little support, don't. You could sample the excruciating stings of hidden creatures who found those holes before you did. Soon the territory becomes forested with the characteristic Mediterranean oak, pine, cypress and cedar that escaped the severe local forest fires. That gently scented shade will cover you for much of the rest of the walk. While on the subject of forests, Israel is the only country in the world with more forest today than a hundred years ago. But with its total cover of only three percent of the national area, it lags behind Greece and Portugal, with well over 10% apiece. Though forests are less profitable than farmland, they keep the soil tightly packed, preventing it being blown and washed away. They filter air pollutants, taking in the carbon dioxide that we breathe out and turn it into the oxygen we breathe in. They shade parks, highways and hikers from the powerful Middle Eastern sunshine. With their transpiring moisture, they moderate the weather, making the summer less hot and the winter less cold. And forests also make pleasant picnic stops. THERE IS no shortage of diversions on the way up to the Ofer Lookout Point. Plenty of cattle, including the horned variety. Don't worry if one shows a little interest. 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). There's also plenty of history here, if you care to look for it. A traditional Muslim cupola covers Sheikh Amir's Tomb, which may double-up as rent-free accommodation for the desperate. And some debris from the former Arab village of Jaba lies nearby, to the south. It silently commemorates its penalty for armed resistance to Israeli military operations in the 1948 War of Independence. You should make it to the Ofer Lookout Point, with its picnic site, water fountain and sweeping command of the coastal plain, in less than two hours from the start of the trail. Its main attraction is a pleasantly set four-story watchtower, which carries a warning sign telling visitors that it is "for professional use." Going up to the top requires "permission from the forester on site," who seemed to be off duty by the time I got up there. The lowest floor of the lookout post marks the entrance to the Australian Forest. Its plaque-covered walls reel off generous Australians and New Zealanders whose donations made the next hour's walk through the forest possible. The path sign in the Australian Forest welcomes cyclists and anglophiles - for the first time on the trail, the signs appear in English. This area is kept clean and tidy: plenty of plastic-lined garbage bins, and some efforts to reuse appropriate waste to feed the local animals. The usual pines and local vegetation abound, with some eucalyptus trees as mementos to those who picked up the tab for the place. But despite the fact that this is the Australian Forest, don't expect to find any kangaroos or koalas. MAKE SURE you keep an eye on the Israel Trail markers, as you will suddenly make a very sharp right turn that will take you along the edge of the beautiful crater-type valley overlooking the area of Kerem Maharal. You will soon pass a statue with two broken helicopter rotors - a poignant commemoration of the military helicopter tragedy that killed Motti Sharon in 1988. Almost immediately, the trail plunges down a narrower track on the right, to route #7021, linking Kerem Maharal to the #2 and #4 coastal highways. It paid a welcome dividend in the shape of plenty of ripening oranges. I enjoyed some, knowing that the farmers would be pleased to assist a hiker. But as the Yorkshireman would put it: "they weren't half good." The next kilometer-and-a-half climb up a wooded stream bed is the most beautiful, but also the most strenuous part of the walk. It was too densely planted with pine trees. You will find that out as you clamber over their many fallen trunks. Competing for scarce nutrients got them too tall and spindly for their roots, causing many to succumb to frosts and gales. The trail crosses the paved road to the small settlement of Ofer, and then goes through a gate. You can avoid this stretch and turn left and follow the road around the very sharp bend, which runs parallel to the path, and then rejoin the Israel Trail by taking the footpath leading to the Bell Cave (Me'arat Hapa'amon). Instead of doing this, I went through the iron gate, and found my way blocked by flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an enormous white sheepdog lunged in my direction, barking at top volume. I backed away, only to find that I was surrounded by seven other similar dogs, yapping in unison. Those dogs meant business. They were staunch guardians of the sheep, and well trained to handle intruders and poachers. They would accept no excuses or apologies. They didn't let up, raising their voices and showing their teeth. They had me on three sides. And the impassable, prickly thicket on the other left me nowhere to run. I was their prisoner, and they knew it. Ten minutes passed. The dogs held their ground. Each time I backed into the thicket, the heaviest and noisiest among them followed suit, up to a meter. I stood still like a statue. I told them to go away - in Hebrew and then in English. Useless. Then I slowly recited Psalms 121 ("I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?") and 130. That did it! As if on cue, the dogs ran back to the sheep, and I backed my way through the iron gate, happy that my prayers were speedily answered, as were those of King David. I followed the parallel road route and soon ran into the sheep farmer, who turned out to be most charming and helpful. Of Indian origin, he had served with the British and his family's military tradition continued; the eldest of his many daughters was currently in the IDF. He insisted that I was family, as we shared the same surname, and told me how his dogs were his pride and joy - and were absolutely harmless. Our meeting ended as Zelaphchad, as I nicknamed him, showed me down to the path, and his dogs I saw no more. The path eases down a river valley towards the Bell Cave, where it suddenly meets a junction with a black-marked path. It's worth making a detour to the right, downhill, to explore that cave, but otherwise, follow the path to the left, uphill, and it eventually opens out into a huge quarrying operation for building materials. Although most of the walk is in the forest, the last part goes through more open territory. By the time you get there, the sun will probably be on its way down. Your walk finishes as you wind your way though the area of Meir Shfeya Youth Village, with its plantations of loquats, peaches and apples. You'll end up by the traffic lights on Route #70 with Bus No. 836 to Tel Aviv.