Part XX: Going upstream

Hiking the Israel Trail: A rural walk through the big cities between urbanized Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and Petah Tikva.

The recent rerouting of the Israel Trail away from the foothills of Samaria brings you close to the heart of the Tel Aviv area - home to a third of Israel's population. Once into the walk, however, the trail gives the pleasant sense of being decidedly rural, in spite of running between urbanized Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and Petah Tikva. This walk extends to the fortress at Antipatris, by the source of the Yarkon. On raised ground, this site was of vital importance to successive ancient civilizations controlling the region - Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines and later on, Romans. You will not get lost on this section, as it follows the Yarkon River upstream for its entire length. There are no difficult sections; it can be comfortably completed in eight hours on foot and in rather less time by bicycle. It passes through the elongated, well-cared-for Hayarkon Park before tracing the graceful river through the shade of water reeds and eucalyptus trees, planted during the period of the British Mandate to drain the swamps. In due course, the trail opens out into farmland, crossing orchards and open fields - with aromatic grapefruits and persimmons in season, and finally parallels the railway to the entrance to the protected reserves of Antipatris and Afek - open to the public until 4 p.m. It is, however, rather long, and families are recommended to split it into two by exiting and reentering at Yarkon Junction, on Route #40, between Petah Tikva and Hod Hasharon - especially if taking in some of the sites and attractions close to the trail. A word about the Yarkon. This watercourse has a dubious reputation. The heavily polluted character of the water was highlighted during the 1997 Maccabiah, when four Australian athletes died as the rickety bridge over the Yarkon collapsed, and a number of others were poisoned by the river's waters. I had expected an ecologically dead, foul and malodorous flowing sewer, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the river worthy of being the only section of the trail to constitute a freshwater walk throughout. I also spotted a black creature swimming in the greenish depths which I took as a member of the dogfish family, but turned out to be a scavenger introduced as part of biological warfare against river pollution. THE STATE of the Yarkon became serious in 1955, when the river's headwaters were diverted to the Negev via the national water carrier for irrigation purposes. As sewage replaced the natural flow of fresh water, habitats were destroyed and flora and fauna disappeared - including, as a blessing in disguise, the fatal bilharzias snail which had flourished in the Yarkon, and continues to be a widespread killer in rural Egypt. It was exacerbated by continuous discharges of industrial effluents and municipal sewage into the rivers, enabling algae to multiply and kill much of the remaining life by consuming the river's life-giving oxygen. In fact, almost a decade before the Maccabiah disaster, the Yarkon River Authority was actively revitalizing the river, preparing stretches for sailing, fishing, swimming and other recreation. The quality of the water improved with modern sewage treatment plants at Hod Hasharon and Ramat Hasharon. The river was dredged to restore its original depth, restoring its natural flow. River banks were raised and reinforced, and outfitted with hiking and bicycling paths, and picnic and fishing areas - supported by substantial contributions from the Australian Jewish Community through the Jewish National Fund, who pledged to create a clean future for the heart of Israel. Major efforts are going into balancing the local ecosystem, based on environment-friendly pest and biological control methods. I saw few of the Yarkon's infamous mosquitoes, but there were plenty of dragonflies around, who were no doubt doing a good job. Starting on the south side of Bar-Yehuda Bridge, the trail leads along the banks of the Yarkon River into Hayarkon Park. Its imaginative Pepsi-Max shaped caravan-kiosks were closed, but the more central one set me back a record NIS 10 for a half-liter of Diet Coke. Soft drink prices appear to rise steadily southwards along the Israel Trail. At this rate, I'll be looking at a second mortgage for a celebratory drink at Taba. With something for everyone, Hayarkon Park is one of the unclaimed treasures of Israel - at least on weekdays. Ducks and other water birds are returning to the cleaner river in droves. They have been joined by small parrots: once kept as pets, they escaped and adapted to the local wild. With stealth and perseverance, you might glimpse the nutria, the very shy otter that acclimatized itself to the Yarkon River. Try also to spot the yellow water lilies recently introduced to the Yarkon. Families can enjoy kayaks, row-boats and motorboat cruises on the river itself and the adjacent lake. A short detour takes you to the adventure playground, mini-golf and a challenging climbing wall. On returning to the trail, you will reach a well-preserved steam-powered flour mill - one of the seven that served the neighborhood villages a century ago. The parkland draws to a close beyond the site of the Maccabiah Bridge opposite Ramat Gan Stadium. A RUDE shock lies ahead. Before you know it, you are picking your way through ugly industrial landscape with profusions and confusions of electricity-bearing cables bordering Tel Aviv and northern Bnei Brak. Mercifully short, the way plunges under Route #482, and later under Route #4, into the countrified water-reeds and eucalyptus setting, which continue for the next two to three hours. The graffiti thoughtfully painted by Bratzlaver Hassidim urge Israel Trail-blazers to "be happy" and "not to give up." Very apt: summer midday temperatures soar to the mid-30s, and the reeds give mediocre shelter. I appreciated the natural air-conditioning effects of the cool waters of the Yarkon. You will be wading through the Yarkon twice - once before it dips under Route #40 under the Petah Tikva-Hod Hasharon highway, and a second time soon after. The river can be quite swollen after the winter rains, so check before tackling it at that time of year. To the north is a structure reminiscent of a sawn-off camel hump. It's not an igneous rock intrusion, but the Hod Hasharon municipal garbage dump. Maybe a sports-minded benefactor would care to drape the whole in plastic mock snow and turn it into an all-year artificial ski center? On fording the river the second time, the rerouted Israel Trail and the abandoned old Israel Trail become one again, soon to pass Beit Habiton - the so-called "concrete house," the first building in the Holy Land to be constructed in reinforced concrete. It supplied irrigation water to the farms of the Petah Tikva area by the means of the last word in early 20th-century technology - a diesel-powered centrifugal pump. Splendid from afar, with fancy Gothic arches and turreted tops, a notice strictly forbids entry: a rather pointless exercise, as everything worth stealing has long been stolen and sold to a contractor in the Far East. The way passes orchards and skirts Baptist Village, whose basketball courts and flower-bedecked homes make an ideal retreat. The public is cordially invited to join at prayer at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. Pass under the railway between Hod Hasharon and Tel Aviv, which serves Pepsi-Max-shaped passenger cars. Turn eastwards, and presently reach the appropriately named Pill Box. Built by the British out of heavily reinforced concrete, it is positioned along the ruler-straight railway track between Petah Tikva and Rosh Ha'ayin, for defense against Arab attack on the main local railway communication system. Presently, the path winds it way around the fenced Afek Gardens, containing the source of the Yarkon and Antipatris Fortress. Save it for the next stage of the trail as closing time is at 4 p.m. It will open with a chapter of Egyptian history at Tel Afek. I had been looking forward to a Pepsi-Max-supported air-conditioned ride in one of those new passenger cars from Rosh Ha'ayin Station through to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the ultra-modern railway halt was barred and bolted - permanently, according to locals. Disappointed, I glumly continued a few hundred meters to Afek Junction, and standing-room-only Bus #185 to Petah Tikva.