The flowering Negev

The Jewish people may have spent 40 difficult years in the desert, but one weekend in the northern Negev can be a true retreat

negev flowers 298.88 (photo credit: Shira Teger)
negev flowers 298.88
(photo credit: Shira Teger)
For years now, I've been dreaming of taking a serious road trip across the American West. While so far I haven't been able to find the time, it turns out the northern Negev offers many of the features I've been longing to see, and in a conveniently compact version. This mini-West can be seen along the Besor Route, an 18-kilometer road that runs through a section of the Eshkol National Park in the northern Negev. It follows the course of Nahal Habesor, one of the largest wadis that empties into the Mediterranean. The wadi sits on the border between the Mediterranean coast and the desert sands, providing for some spectacular geological and ecological features. The trek through the Habesor Nature Reserve can be done on foot, in a car, or on a bike - we chose to drive through. We started out at the northern end at Eshkol National Park and headed south toward the Tze'elim junction, although you can progress in the reverse direction as well. In fact, the only other cars we saw on our drive were headed from south to north. As we began driving through the park, we were overtaken by the vast expanses of land and the flowers carpeting the area. The route began with seas of small yellow flowers with patches of purples, reds and whites. By the end, the yellow blossoms were replaced with orange blooms. We were there at exactly the right time to see the blooms, as flowers do not thrive too late into spring. The first marked site we came across was an old railway bridge used by the British. The tracks were laid in 1917, and a train crossed over the wadi three times per week until 1927. The concrete foundation of the original bridge is still visible in the riverbed. A reconstructed bridge was built in 2004. A Chalcolithic quarry was the next stop along the way, followed closely by the "border of the badlands." The scenery at Nahal Habesor was what stunned us repeatedly as we made our way through the reserve. The badlands did not resemble anything we had seen elsewhere in Israel. The "border" is where the sand and sandstone subsoil on the western bank of the wadi meet the badlands to the north. We continued (very slowly) along, until we found another site of interest to prompt us to leave the car - Tel Sharuhen. The tel had been populated almost continuously from the Middle Bronze Age (17th century BCE) until the Roman period (2nd century CE). As we ascended the mound, we were very impressed with ourselves as we correctly identified the moat that surrounded the settlement - before we read about it on the sign. There were also remnants of an Egyptian governor's palace an Assyrian brick wall, and the remains of a Roman fortress. If you continue a bit further on foot, you reach the Sharuhen Well. We got back in the car and continued on to the Sharuhen Pool, which is a natural pool with water year-round. The reserve was home to people for some 10,000 years, many of whom were shepherds. Today it is home to wolves, hyenas, foxes, jackals, boars and mongooses (if this frightens you, don't worry - we didn't see any of the predators on our trip). We followed the road past more hills, buttes, and grasses until we reached Tel Sawavin, the remnants of a settlement from the tenth century BCE. Sawavin means "flint" in Arabic, and is named for the large flint production site uncovered nearby. IT WAS then that we began to notice the cranes. First we spotted one, then another two, and by the time we left the reserve, we had upset flocks upon flocks of the majestic white birds. And the cranes weren't the only birds we managed to spot; there were some large falcons flying overhead, as well as some smaller birds. The reserve is host to a wide variety of birds, including starlings, kites, eagles, buzzards, falcons, partridges, larks and teals. Traveling along, we made a turn toward the Revuva Well. The well was built by the Turkish and renovated by the British. It is surrounded by a small structure, with a not-very-sturdy fence blocking off the well itself. Be careful, though, because you can easily climb around the fence and fall; judging by how long it took for us to hear the 10-agurot pieces we dropped into the well make a sound, it's deep. The well has a picnic area nearby, so if you want to stop and eat, this may be your best shot. As you go, keep an eye out for some of the creepiest trees you'll ever see. The trunks and branches mesh into a complex twist. We couldn't resist the temptation to go and inspect them from up close, but as soon as we were under the foliage, we started hearing the creaking of all the wood. Immediate comparisons to the haunted trees in the Wizard of Oz came to mind, and we hightailed it back to the car. A little further along the road and around the bend (if you're not sure which fork to take, choose the one that looks the best maintained), the drain cliff becomes visible. The cliff is part of a riverbed that was reconstructed after quarrying took its toll. In winter, water flows into the basins, creating little lakes that attract birds. Near the exit (or entrance, depending on which direction you travel) is an 80-meter rope bridge which spans a section of the wadi that contains water year-round. Along the banks of the water we noted some of the biggest rushes we had ever seen; they looked like the regular weeds you would find in a field, only on steroids, or left over from the Jurassic period. The bridge is the only one of its kind in Israel, and was constructed by the JNF in 1995. It allows visitors to reach the other bank of the wadi, where remains from an ancient farm can be seen, as well as a memorial to two local boys who were killed in an ATV accident in the area. Once you return to the road, you can stop at the Tze'elim observation tower to get a view of the whole nature preserve. There is a picnic area as well. A word of caution: Once you enter the reserve, you may never want to leave. How to get there: From the direction of Ashkelon, drive south until you reach Yad Mordechai junction, where you need to turn left onto road 34. Keep going for a while until Gilat junction, where you turn right onto 241. Your other option is to head south on 40 toward Beersheba. Turn right at the Kama junction. Almost immediately, make a left onto road 264. Continue south until Hanasi junction, where you turn right onto road 25. At Gilat junction, make a left onto road 241. To begin from the northern entrance at Re'im, the entrance is off of road 241, between kilometer markers 4 and 5. The entrance is marked. To begin from the southern entrance at Tze'elim, make a right off of 241 at Orim junction onto road 234. Follow the road south and make a right onto 222 at Tze'elim junction. The entrance is a few hundred meters from the junction, where a dirt road leads off of Route 222 (between kilometer markers 184 and 185). The entrance is marked. Length: The road for cars is 18 km-long, and the speed limit is 30 kph. For most travelers, the trip takes about an hour. If you're a city person and as mesmerized by open fields, vast stretches of sky and the smells and sights of flowers in bloom as we were, it could take you significantly longer (we stretched our trip to an unimaginable three hours, stopping repeatedly to walk around and inspect flowers, antiquities and beetles). There are also marked trails for hikers, which take up to a day to follow. Difficulty: If you're going by motor vehicle, the trip is a piece of cake. No 4x4s necessary. If it has rained recently, though, keep an eye out for water over the road and go a bit off the track to avoid the deep puddles. If you're on foot, you will be going up some decent-sized hills, with rocky and muddy terrain. Best time of year to visit: Spring, when the flowers are in bloom and the grass is still green. But don't go right after a large rain, as the road will be very difficult to traverse. Cost: Free! Extra advice: There are no restrooms along the way, so make sure everyone is ready for the trip before you get moving.