Posted by: baryonic | July 25, 2010

The Desert Speaks

We really had no idea what was in store for us when we pulled up at the auto dealership in Tel Aviv. Something about borrowing “Jeep-type vehicles” had been floating around, but we certainly weren’t expecting almost new 4x4s in the form of Mitsubishi Hunters (also known as the Magnum or Triton) and Pajeros (Desert edition). With cruise control. Plenty of power. Sufficient air conditioning. Amazing suspensions. Petrol costs covered by a generous donor. Sweet!

An eternity passed as we packed the vehicles, rearranged who was in what truck, and eventually set off for points south and hot. Shortly out of Tel Aviv, we passed this incredible cement plant on the way down to the desert. You’d hardly ever see anything industrial this colorful in the US.

Nesher Cement Factory

Dust devils followed us down the highway as we passed farms, vineyards, and fields of corn.

Dust Devil

Our first stop was Midreshet Sde Boker, a kibbutz on the Negev Desert. David Ben-Gurion retired here after serving as Israel’s first prime minister. His intent: to live out his dream of being a desert pioneer; farming the land and making the desert green. The kibbutzniks, however, told him to just write his memoirs instead of trying to till the land.

The tombs for Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula overlook a vast wadi (dry riverbed; equivalent to an arroyo in Spanish), Tsin Valley. Ben-Gurion had hoped the Negev would be the future of Israel and would bloom as settlers moved to and developed the desert. Some portions of the arid expanses have been given over to agriculture, irrigating with wastewater recovered from Tel Aviv, but at present, there are only a few hundred thousand living in the desert. The lack of residents allows for the preservation of the incredible beauty of this area.

Holding Hands

Tsin Valley

Looking out at the Negev

Our caravan of 4x4s then turned off the main highway and plunged into the Tsin Valley. I’d driven down terrible dirt and gravel roads in New Mexico in my Camry, but nothing could compare to rumbling over rocks, creek beds, and sandstone slabs with ease as we followed the 4×4 track to the Ein Akev oasis.

Ein Akev

Fed by a spring half-way up a waterfall, the pool at Ein Akev was effectively bottomless as we plunged into its bluegreen depths. It’s astounding at how abruptly its cool, dark water ends and dry desert rock begins.

Jumping into Ein Akev

While we were in the pool, an ibex came by to watch us. We returned to the top of the valley, and Kim was euphoric to be driving the Hunter we had commandeered.

Kim takes on the terrain

Back on the highway, we continued further south as a waxing gibbous moon rose above the desert.

Moonrise on Route 40

Numerous signs warned us that camels would be alongside the road, but I wasn’t really expecting an entire herd.

Negev Camels

We soon arrived at the town of Mitzpe Ramon (Roman Lookout), a poor desert enclave with a majestic view of Makhtesh Ramon. Makhtesh Ramon is the remnant of a mountain that was once encrusted with harder rocks surrounding softer assemblages. Water began eroding the mountain, revealing layer upon layer of clay from an ancient ocean floor. Small volcanoes left mounds of basalt on top of limestone formations, leaving the floor of the makhtesh dappled with browns, beige, and white.

Makhtesh Ramon

The road we took into the makhtesh had a few warnings.

Dangerous Curves

Again, we diverged from the paved road and set out into the gathering darkness along a 4×4 track toward our campsite. There was some discussion about where the group had stayed during previous years. While we were waiting for Mustafa to confirm our camp’s location, an impromptu dance party began on top of the other Hunter.

Dancing in the moonlight

4x4 sunset

After making dinner and establishing a gigantic bonfire of forklift pallets (“It has to be visible from SPACE!” demanded Ben), Kim, Eric, and I decided to hike up the mountain overlooking our camp (the one in the shot of the three vehicles). The moon had risen a few degrees, so the desert was mostly bathed in soft light. Our path, being on the northwestern edge of the ridge, was shaded from the moon, so our climb was softly illuminated by starlight and photons reflected from the sun to the moon to the valley below.

The first part of the hike mostly involved walking up a gentle sandy slope, which gave way to a steeper hill covered in sharp rocks. We pressed onward until we reached an almost vertical cliff made out of the desert stone that composed the final few dozen feet of the ridge. Rather than go around the ridge and look for a shoulder with less of a slope, I opted to scramble straight up the cliff face. The rough rocks made it easy to boulder straight up the cracks in the stone, though the occasional rock did dislodge and tumble off into the darkness.

I pulled myself up onto the lip of the ridge and almost fell off the cliff in shock at the brightness of the moonlight and the starkness of the other side of the ridge. The eastern flank of the ridge was one long slab of hard sandstone at a 45˚ angle from the desert floor that descended for hundreds of feet down toward the other side of the valley. I was reminded of Vasquez Rocks in the Mojave, jutting out at an acute angle from the ground, perfect for filming scenes from Star Trek.

At the top of the ridge we encountered six or so other instructors who’d taken the easy way up: along the shoulder and back of the ridge. They, alas, didn’t appreciate our hardcore tale of freeclimbing in the dark. The way down was much easier as we passed a mysterious pipeline under construction alongside high voltage wires strung between towers, transformers humming incessantly in the otherwise quiet night.

The next morning we awoke as the sun rose over the desert. MEET graciously provided us sleeping bags but not bedrolls, so, operating under the assumption that a corrugated plastic floor would be more comfortable than a rocky desert one, I’d slept in the bed of one of the Hunters. Better than the beds at the hostel in Carmel!

As the day brightened, we looked at the ridge we’d climbed, which looked a lot more impressive in the darkness than it did in the daylight. Turns out it rises about 250′ from the desert floor, but what it lacked in elevation it made up in the last cliff’s being all but straight up.

We climbed this mountain

We cleaned up camp and set out for the day.

Cleaning up camp

Even Domo-kun was ready for a day of four-wheeling about the desert.

Domo-kun wants to go driving!

We crossed the makhtesh and came across Nabatean ruins along the former spice trade route. This former khan, or inn, along the route was once two stories and was a rest stop of sorts for traders and their camels bringing frankincense and myrrh through the Middle East. The Nabateans were known for their secrecy and understanding of the desert—they were the ones who built Petra in Jordan, and even managed to develop terraced agriculture here in the incredibly arid climate of the Negev.

Nabatean ruins

Our next sojourn off the paved road took us to the edge of an IDF firing range. We all stopped as the tour guide put a call into the military to check if we could use the road. While we waited for them to ring him back, it became rapidly apparent that it was imperative for everyone to pose with the amazing sign we had encountered.

Danger! Photography ahead

The “all clear” came through and we set off, passing mountains that looked like basaltic syrup on top of vanilla limestone, something you could buy at the store in the ice cream section of the numerous convenience stores across the country.

Mountain

Continuing onward along a dry riverbed in the firing range, we saw Mustafa’s Pajero in our review window one moment, then he was gone. Where was he? We stopped to see if he would catch up. No sign of his truck. And the other 4x4s had disappeared as well. Eric and Ben climbed a hill and scanned the horizon, looking for any evidence of Mustafa or the trucks that’d been in front of us. Mustafa was behind us to the south! The other trucks hadn’t waited, but we could see them further up to the north. Fantastic. I turned the Hunter around and we rumbled back along the wadi to find Mustafa et al. changing a rather ripped tire.

Changing a tire

Their wrench wasn’t up to the task, so we loaned them ours and gunned it back along the wadi. Just after spying the other vehicles, we saw a rather intimidating-looking sign.

Danger Mines!

Of course, more photos were obtained.

We climbed up a very horrible patch of “road” (I use this term generously) studded with terribly sharp rocks and big ruts and parked behind the other Hunter, the contents of which were also changing a tire that had seen better days. The manual, of course, was in Hebrew, which didn’t help many of them all that much.

Punctured tire

The road wound up along more wadis up the side of a ridge, but lost the sharp rocks characteristic of the lower track through the firing range/minefield.

4x4 trail

We emerged to a saddleback with the ridges of the makhtesh rippling off into the distance above basaltic volcano leftovers.

Ridges

Along with the basaltic hills, various folds in the clay of the ancient sea floor poked up at the border of the makhtesh.

Sedimentary folds

After enjoying the overlook and the incredible vista of the makhtesh, we started back toward Tel Aviv, pausing to grill lunch at Mitzpe Ramon amid a stray cat and a very deserted sculpture park overlooking the makhtesh and an abandoned housing development.

We arrived back in Jerusalem covered in a layer of thick desert dust, ready to take on our final week of teaching at MEET. The title of this post comes from the Hebrew words for “desert” (המדבר) and “speaks” (מדבר) are only one letter apart. There’s something about the dry, clean, solitary landscape that’s refreshing for the soul.

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