Part XVIII: On the railroad

Hiking the Israel Trail: Talk a stroll on a section of the Israel Trail from the swamps to the seaside.

This is a straightforward section of the Israel Trail, with only one heavy section: three kilometers of soft, powdery sand, mostly along the railway track serving Haifa and Tel Aviv. Its tiresomeness rivals the squelchy mud of the wintry descent of Mount Tabor: cyclists dismount! Very easily accessible at both ends, it combines forest, sand dunes, riverside and cliffed coastline into a fairly level, but varied walk, with some time over to mark the finish in style at one of Netanya's plush restaurants. The standard of Israel Trail markings varies on this stretch from over-abundance to absence in crucial places, sending you to the map and compass. The trail has also recently been rerouted from inland to along the coastline. It follows the Alexander River seawards, and not inland, as large-scale maps may indicate. Turn right on leaving Hadera station, and follow the route through several pleasant kilometers of eucalyptus forest. Of Australian ancestry, eucalyptus was used by the British to drain the malarial swamps that had claimed the lives of many early modern pioneers. This forest replaced the original local trees, many of which were cut down a century ago to fuel steam trains instead of coal. You will meet their diesel descendants, which thunder their way through the vegetation as they leave West Hadera Station. The forest gives way to a sand-dune landscape as the trail switchbacks over the Breichat Ya'ar (Forest Pool). I am told that it is a motorbiker's weekend paradise, and it hosts a large bird population, but it was rather forbidding. The sand lay in drifts deep enough to turn walking into hard labor. A huge ugly scrap metal yard banked one horizon. The water had dried up by the time I got there. And the resident herons, having spotted the camera from afar, decided to make a quick getaway. By then I was all for doing the same, but the only official, very easy to miss, exit on the Israel Trail is a squeeze-belly tunnel under the railway embankment, fit only for under-fives and contortionists. Being neither, I surreptitiously climbed over the railway, defying warnings of stiff fines for trespassers. Turn south and follow the railway on the western side along 2 km. of wide pathway, made up of fine-grained sand. Take frequent breaks to shake the sand out of your shoes. You are in the Hefer Valley, although the landscape looks more like a plain than a valley. Eventually a discreet trail marking bids you to the west, leading down the Alexander River. Follow it, as the surface becomes harder, and you are in the Alexander River National Park. If you miss it, you will get to the Alexander River a little higher up at Gesher Hatzabim (Turtle Bridge). The test: Throw a twig into the river. If you and the twig are moving in the same direction, you are on the right track. Otherwise, about turn! This is the area of one of Modern Israel's success stories - pioneering sewage recycling. In 1995, a modern waste water and sewage treatment center was opened further upstream in the Hefer Valley, serving the Netanya region. Much of the broken-down waste is used as organic fertilizer. And no sewage passing the Hefer Valley water treatment works is ever allowed to flow into the sea. Some of the treated water coming out of the works enters the red pipe system for crop irrigation. The rest is passed into the Alexander River, going out to the Mediterranean Sea. That river was once a foul-smelling green swamp. Clean treated water from the Hefer Valley Works now flows though it, making it an attractive place for picnics and recreation, and the home for communes of soft backed turtles. Follow the Alexander River westwards for about 3 km., past its landing stages, picnic sites and profusion of metal garbage bins, to where it enters the sea. That is where you finally get over the river - the only place where it is fordable, and with luck, without taking your shoes and socks off. Turn left, and follow the beach southwards with the slowly rising Goldstar Premium Beer sign straight ahead of you. You are approaching Yanai Beach, remodeled on the lines of a Mauritian coastal retreat, with its surfing classes and passably clean toilets partitioned with cane matting. The notices remind you that it had a more somber function as a favorite place to smuggle in illegal Jewish immigrant ships in defiance of the British White Paper of 1938. Six kilometers of cliffed beach carry this part of the trail to its terminus at Herzl Beach, the center of Netanya. Keep close to the water's edge and join the runners, cyclists and exercise enthusiasts. There are changing rooms, showers and toilets serving the clean white sands. Make sure that you swim only in zones supervised by a lifeguard - the invisible currents are treacherous and often fatal. You will see quite a few dinner-plate sized beached jellyfish - they look like plastic bags full of water, but they're definitely "hands' off." So are the backing cliffs - some have been rendered unstable by continued weathering and coastal erosion. Just walk on. Part of the trail is quite literally topped by Kiryat Zanz - the haredi community whose achievements include the Laniado Hospital, established in 1975 as the vision of the Zanz Klausenberger Rebbe. Serving the Netanya area with a population of over 250,000, it was conceived as an "institution providing high quality health care for all persons in need and in accordance with halachic principles." You will notice that you are on a haredi beach while passing its segregated and modestly-dressed clientele. This section of the trail draws to a close on the climb from Herzl Beach into the center of Netanya. Its tree-lined pedestrian walkways, gardens, numerous cafes, restaurants and shopping centers combine with a whiff of the dignity of an English south coast seaside resort - notably Bournemouth. Named after Nathan Strauss, its Jewish-American benefactor, its main income comes from hosting tourists and permanent retirees, and the lucrative diamond-cutting workshops. After appropriate solid and liquid refreshment, follow the partly pedestrianized Rehov Herzl for about seven minutes to the Egged bus terminal just off to the right.