The land down under down the way

Feed a kangaroo before bed, wake up with a peacock on overnight trip to Kibbutz Nir David's Gan Garoo.

kangaroo 224.88 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
kangaroo 224.88
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
I have just discovered that Australia is a hop, skip and a jump for joy away. Ahead of its August activities for families, Kibbutz Nir David - which runs Gan Garoo near Beit She'an - invited some journalists and their families to spend the night at the Australian-themed park. Members of the press were to be the guinea pigs, as it were, for a pilot project which includes camping out in the grounds. In this case, perhaps, the term should be laboratory rabbits rather than guinea pigs, as the theme was very much Down Under. It was my first visit to the site, although Yossi, my nearly seven-year-old son, had been begging for a trip there since he saw a children's program about it and got excited about the koalas - one of the few places they can be found outside Australia - the kangaroos, which wander freely, the emus and cassowaries and all sorts of other mammals and birds. Neither of us was disappointed. Gan Garoo would be a great place to spend a day with the kids even without spending the night in the bush. LOW RAINFALL? NO WORRIES Our trip - and adventures - began even before we reached the park and set up camp. Kibbutz Nir David, like so many other kibbutzim, has made a conscious effort to branch out and has entered the tourism industry with enthusiasm in a part of the country that is often sadly overlooked. The area, formerly known as the Beit She'an Valley, has now been renamed The Valley of the Springs (Emek Hama'ayanot) in an effort to change its image. When I served as a soldier in a dusty Nahal outpost in the area nearly 30 years ago, I got to know and love Gan Hashlosha (Sakhne), the natural pools of water right next to Gan Garoo which Time magazine voted one of the 20 off-the-beaten track attractions in the world. I had forgotten just how much water runs in the valley, even after a dry winter like the ones we've been having. Nahal Asi runs through Nir David and our experience began with a kayaking trip up- and downstream, under bridges and around bends. The ducks wisely kept out of the way. Struggling to synchronize strokes with a six-year-old holding a paddle for the first time was not a relaxing experience - but it was definitely fun. Even the willow trees on the bank seemed to be laughing rather than weeping as the breeze caught my hat and blew it off my head into the clear water. My son was giggling so much as I retrieved my headgear with my paddle I feared he would literally rock the boat past the point of no return. No wonder wearing life jackets is compulsory. Other families tried out the fishing or relaxed on the lawns while I was trying to get back in the stroke of things. The well-equipped Holtzer Sports Center at the site offers a pool, sauna and fitness rooms, and most importantly for me - clean changing rooms and showers, as more than my hat got wet. Having built up an appetite, we went to eat at the nearby Muza al Hamayim (Muse on the Water) restaurant (dairy, kosher) at Gan Hashlosha, overlooking the pools and waterfalls. It was our second visit to the restaurant within a month and I was happy to find that its book-lined buffet and ambiance were still as good as I had found them on my first visit. IN THE OUTBACK Then it was off for the real reason we came: Gan Garoo. We quickly pitched our tents on a grassy spot next to one of the park's many mazes - "It's a-mazing, Mum," was the verdict of my son, who has inherited my love of wordplay as well as an obsession with wildlife and the environment. There were toilets (including wheelchair-accessible facilities), but no showers. We were to be roughing it for the night (although desperate guests can pay a small charge and use the sports center's showers.) As nighttime fell, we set off on a tour of the park, flashlights in hand. We saw the kangaroo rats - rodents whose appearance and manner of hopping around make it clear where the name came from; flying foxes (bats with a well-developed social life); emus (once the females have laid the eggs, they go off and leave all the rest of the work to the fathers); and cassowaries. These birds have a powerful kick, to which our able guide Yehuda Gat can attest. Gat, who trained and is registered with the Australian Wildlife Protection Authority, once ended up in an Afula hospital after a particularly wild bird took a running leap at him (at 30 kph) and embedded its claw in his leg. The cassowaries, understandably, do not roam free. Not so the kangaroos. The kids enjoyed feeding the kangaroos roaming around at night - it's hard to avoid stepping on their tails by flashlight - and, of course, the highlight of Gan Garoo: bringing eucalyptus branches to the koalas. As it got later, the non-nocturnal humans grew more and more tired, so we ended the tour with an aboriginal-style campfire (albeit with marshmallows) and set off back to our tents. Exhausted by all the activity, I fell asleep almost as soon as my head hit the sleeping bag. I awoke to the sounds of the usual dawn chorus: the doves cooing, the blackbird trilling and, then the unmistakable screech of the pink cockatoo (kakadu) that had screamed at us the night before. Deciding to make the most of my time, I unzipped the tent and fell out - narrowly avoiding a peacock who was ambling around among the makeshift campsite, clearly more at home than most of the journalists. The morning grew more surreal as I passed a goose with a lime-colored beak pecking at its reflection in the crazy mirrors scattered throughout the maze nearest our tents. By the time I had had my morning coffee, I felt a bit like Alice through the looking glass. The silly goose was still working its way through the maze when my son woke up. Then it was off for a daylight tour which delighted my "Joey." The koalas, clasping the branches in their enclosure, woke up lazily as we brought them another meal of eucalyptus. But the thrill for my son was hand-feeding and stroking a mommy kangaroo while a small head occasionally popped out of her pouch. We had our own breakfast in the kibbutz dining room, which also serves the guests from the wooden holiday cabins. As we stood up, tummies full and in high spirits, the staff called us back to take the remains of our rolls with us. It wasn't a kibbutznik ploy to get us to clear our own tables: the bread, we discovered, was for the schools of huge fish who were clearly waiting for their daily treat. There was still one more treat for us. A 45-minute walk through the clean waters of nearby Nahal Hakibbutzim. Led by a guide (who is also a qualified lifeguard), we set off down the river, which, at its deepest, reached about 1.5 meters. We slid down pipes connecting one level of water to another, admiring the scenery (kingfishers and dragonflies) and hoping to avoid the freshwater crabs. It was a refreshing way to end our overnight stay. SLOW DOWN Building on the momentum of the archeological attractions at Beit She'an (which now has a well-reviewed sound-and-light show) and the nearby ancient sites at Beit Alfa, Nir David is definitely reaching out to tourists of different types. Michael Yedid, the Egyptian-born, Italian-raised marketing manager who accompanied us for much of our stay, had just returned from a trip to Tuscany, where he and other people working in the industry in Emek Hama'ayanot studied the growing Slow Tourism movement - based on the Slow Food movement which believes in promoting the good things in life, rather than the fast-food culture. The kibbutz, the first "tower-and-stockade" community, is offering family deals as well as the sort of social group-building trips popular with hi-tech companies (anyone for basketball played from a kayak?). Although it still has some traditional agriculture (growing mangoes, for instance) it also seems to be growing more and more holiday cabins, known in Israel as tzimmerim. The ones we saw, fitted with Jacuzzis, TVs and stained-glass windows set among green kibbutz lawns, looked particularly attractive after a night in a two-man tent. But the walkabout experience wouldn't have been the same without a sleeping bag and stargazing. Perhaps next time we'll try the luxury version. Despite the heat and humidity of the Beit She'an region, which is inescapable unless you take frequent dips in the water, The Valley of the Springs is definitely a cool place to visit - and a lot closer than Australia if you want to see koalas, kangaroos and kakadus.