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Planning.
21Oct2011 Stashing water
     Jacob Saar’s guide to the Israel Trail describes this section of the trail as the most challenging of all. So we knew ahead of time that careful planing was necessary to give our middle aged bodies every possible advantage. The difficulty, as explained by Jacob, is the length of time it might take to hike Mount Karbolet ( הר כרבולת) overlooking the Machtesh HaGadol (המחתש הגדל ) and get down to a safe place. We carefully perused the map and found a dirt road which went up to the beginning of the Karbolet where we could stash water and, therefore, camp. This would save us at least an hour. Then at the other end of the hike we walked in about an hour to stash water. In this way we shortened the critical day by more than two hours which we hoped would give us the advantage we needed.

Wednesday 2Nov2011
    
We were 
delighted to find out that there was a train all the way to Dimona, so getting to the trail head was relatively easy. We took the earliest train and then a private taxi to the place on Rt. 206 near the Oron phosphate factory where we’d left the Golan Stone on our last hike in June. So even though we’d began that day way up north in Haifa it was only 8am when we started walking. The temperature was chilly, the skies were blue, and as always nothing is like the feeling we get when we are back on the trail with everything ahead of us. 

Looking up the Great Snapir with Taffy in the foreground

 

Our first challenge came almost immediately with the Great Snapir (הסנפיר הגדול which means the great fin). The Snapir goes straight up to the top of the cliffs around the crater along the top of a ridge that looks vaguely like a fin (hence its name).

Don climbing the Great Snapir (big fin   הסנפיר הגדול )

     On one side there was an ever increasing drop straight down, but thankfully the trail was not exactly on the edge so it wasn’t straight down on both sides. While I waited for Don on the top I made up another one of our black humor ditties.

I lost my husband on the Great Snapir.
How I wish he’d gotten up here!
But, poor guy, he couldn’t conquer his fear.
Now I’m doomed to a life full of tears.
 

The view from the top was spectacular. We could see Ma'ale Palmach, where we’d come from last hike, and the whole Machtesh HaGadol, where we were going, spread out in opposite directions. After we ate a snack and had a drink we continued on easy trails. The conditions were perfect for hiking, cool weather, empty trails, unfamiliar country. 

Looking back at Ma'ale Palmach (  מעלה פלמח)

 Ma'ale Palmach where we came from.

6_Machtesh HaGadol, the big crater, (  המכתש הגדול)

The Great Crater Machtesh HaGadol ( המכתש הגדול) where we were going.

     There was no green anywhere, though the first winter rains had already fallen in the north of Israel, so far no rain had reached this far south. There were plants, but they were all brown. The only colors were the blue of the sky and the varying colors of the rock formations.
    
About an hour from the ascent up the Great Snapir we came to a spot where the trail was right on the edge of the cliffs surrounding the crater. There we realized that we were walking on fossils. We looked around and their shear number was staggering. There are several mentions of fossil ammonites being common in the craters, but the fossils we were walking on looked nothing like ammonites (an extinct kind of mollusk which were related to octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish). I found out that a Paleontologist from the College of Wooster - Dr. Mark Wilson visits this area frequently and has published several papers on the fossils in the Machtesh HaGadol. He identified the fossils we were walking on as mostly the oyster species Ilymatogyra (Afrogyra) africana from the Cretaceous period (145 – 65 millions years old). Fossils from this period are common. But in the hills inside the Machtesh HaGadol are older fossil exposures from the Jurassic period (199 millions years old) and such fossils are less common. 

Don looking at fossils _ mostly the oyster species Ilymatogyra (Afrogyra) africana from the Cretaceous period (145 – 65 millions years old).

     A few minutes walk past the first exposure of fossils we came to another area that was full of geodes. We were unable to open any of them and they were too heavy to take one home, so I don’t know what kind of crystals were inside - that will have to wait for another day and better tools.
    
About 3 hours from where we started we reached a junction where the Israel Trail goes back down off the ridge of the crater, out of the protected nature area, and to a night camp near the Oron phosphate factory; while another trail marked blue continues near the rim of the crater. Since we were not going to use the night camp we stayed on the blue trail. Our motto has been, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is simply to follow the tri!” But in this case we did reason. It made no sense to go down to the factory and then back up even though by going straight we missed hiking up and down two wadis.
    
The blue way was an easy trail, and we found ourselves strolling through the austere landscape, passing many strange rock formations as we went.  

Blue trail

     Close to noon we stopped at a high area with views and ate our lunch. We had tuna fish salad in pita bread with corn chips. As always we had plenty so we could share the food with Taffy who also got his own treats. In the middle of the day, with the sun pouring down, it was warm and pleasant and we dozed for awhile before we started again.
     At a little after 1pm we reached where the Israel Trail rejoined the blue trail.  Only a few minutes after that we reached the dirt road where we had stashed our water and planned to camp. From this point the trail went steeply up to the Karbolet  (כרבול which means cox comb). There was no possible place to camp further along so even though it wasn’t even 2pm we couldn't go further.  We put down our packs and decided that to pass the time we could walk up the road and take a look at the water pumping station at the top.
    
This water tank was perched at the top of the cliffs over looking the crater. There were water pipes carrying water right up the cliff, and like usual with these water stations some water was allowed to drip out making an area of lush growth - a small manmade oasis. I must say it was nice to see some green. We also found that there was a valve where it was possible to get water, always good to know in case we pass that way again.
    
On the way back down there were several of the little black and white song birds, Mourning Wheatears (Oenanthe lugens) (
סלעית לבנת כנף ), singing their hearts out, but every time I got close enough for a credible picture they flew further away before I could get the shot. When we reached our site we set up our tent, made our camp comfortable, and found a place in the sun to sit and read. Don of course had his smart phone on which he downloads his reading material, I always bring a paperback of something worth reading, in other words not my usual junk. This time I had a thin book by Amos Oz called the Panther in the Basement. I love Amos Oz when he’s not overtly political and this story was my favorite kind, set in Jerusalem and based on Oz’s experiences during the English mandate when he was a boy.
    
The sun disappeared behind the mountains at little after 3pm, and then quickly it began to get cold. I took my sponge bath in the last patch of sunshine. By 4pm I had on all my layers of wool, and my hat and neck warmer.

Diana dressed against the cold at the first nights camp

     Right before it became completely dark we made our dinner of noodles and cheese. When we were finished we packed up as thoroughly as we could – obviously without packing the tent etc. We had stashed much too much water because we hadn’t understood how much less water we needed in the cool weather. Don and I had a little argument over how much water we should carry the next day. I thought that both of us carrying 4 litters would be plenty. Don finally agreed, and placed the extra bottles of water right next to a trail marker where other hikers would find them.
    
It was too cold to stay outside comfortably so we retired into our sleeping bags in our tent. For about an hour I read about the little boy in Jerusalem who foraged a friendship with an English soldier and considered himself therefore a traitor, and then at the inspiring hour of 6pm I turned off my flashlight. I began the long process of turning this way and that before I found that magic position where I could fall asleep, but first I made sure Don had the alarm set for 4am the next morning.
    
The next day was going to be the challenge. Could we make it across the Karbolet and down Nachal Afran before dark on a short November day? We had an hour head start compared to staying at the night camp below. We also planned to start as soon as there was enough light to climb up to the Karbolet safely, but it was steep and treacherous, we had to be able to see what we were doing!

Thursday 3November2011
    
We woke up in the pitch black. How I hate getting out of my sleeping bag and getting dressed when it is so cold. But we knew the routine, and in about half an hour we were dressed, packed, and ready to go. For a minute I considered taking an extra bottle of water just in case, but we were on our way before I made up my mind to do it.

Don hiking up to the Karbolet before dawn
     The light was glowing in the east when we started climbing up the ridge. By the time we reached the top we certainly weren’t cold! And there spread out towards the southeast was the Karbolet. Straight down about 200 meters to the crater on our right, and slightly less straight down to the planes on our left. This was some of the most extreme wilderness landscape we’d encountered, but it was marred by the huge Oron phosphate factory that we could sometimes hear and was often in view below and behind us. We decided that we would eat an energy bar to keep us going and only eat breakfast when we’d gotten beyond the factory. In the meantime we walked along the ridge, not too close to the edge, and beheld the rocks become progressively more pink as the sun came up.  
Taffy on the Karbolet: Straight down 200 meters on the right, steep on the left

Mostly the trail was not difficult, just scary. Occasionally we would have to scrabble up and down a rocky outcropping, and once we had to edge our way on the right side of the escarpment with the huge drop beneath our feet, but it was only the heights that made it difficult, in and of itself, so far the hiking was easy. Of course Don made up a little ditty.

“I lost my wife on the Karbolet
A tragedy I can never forget,
Up she climbed then down she went
Now I live a life of regret.”

     On several occasions we saw groups of ibex (Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana) (יעל מצוי יעל נובי) clambering along the cliffs. Taffy, was oblivious to the heights and would trot right at the tip, or even go on ledges on the right side, and when ever he saw the ibex below he would threaten to go right over after them.
    
“Calm down Diana! You have to either trust the dog or go crazy.”
    
And indeed, he never did jump off over the edge after the mountain goats!

Morning sun on the Karborlet:  Taffy on the edge

     Finally two hours after we started the day’s hike we escaped from any sign of the factory and stopped for breakfast. We’d been hiking for 2 hours, but it wasn’t yet 7am. With views of the Machtesh haGadol spread out in front of us we rested and enjoyed our hard boiled egg, granola with milk, and hot strong tea.
    
Now that the factory was behind us and blocked by the curve of the crater there was nothing but a magnificent stillness, not an easy thing to explain or record. I took several video clips, but the camera itself makes more noise than there is in those wild places. There was no wind, mostly there were no birds, no insects, it was truly silent.

Don making breakfast tea with a view of the Machtesh HaGadol ( המכתש הגדול)

     At 7:30 we continued. It was all about time. If we reached the blue path that went through Nachal Mador by two hours before noon then according to Jacob’s guide we would make it out by night fall, but if we were later we needed to bale on the Israel Trail and take that blue trail down and out. In spite of the time pressure it wasn’t possible to go fast on the terrain we were traversing. One miss step could be serious.
    
Towards the left, in the distance down in the planes, we passed two large artificial lakes being worked on by heavy machinery. Near them there was a large area planted in trees. We thought it was a park in the making, but from what I could find afterwards it seems to be a part of the Oron factory.
     A
fter about an hour there was a break in the ridge and the trail had to go almost all the way down to the level of the planes passing various weird rock formations, before it climbed back up to the ridge on an easy trail traversing the bottom of a shallow dell. We passed more outcroppings of fossils, and then at 9am an hour earlier then absolutely necessary, we reached Nachal Mador and the blue trail. All systems go, full steam ahead.

Don ahead: trail went down and back up

     We rested after the long climb up and drank our fill of water. I was a bit worried that I had underestimated how much water we would need. As we were getting ready to go again I saw Don making fugitive movements with the water bottles. I assumed he was trying to carry more than his share, we’re always bickering over this, when I realized that actually he had a full two litter bottle of water, extra, which he’d hidden in his pack and had been carrying the whole time! So much for carrying my share of the weight, or of any problems with the amount of water we had. I told Don I had almost done the same thing, and taken an extra bottle that morning. Thank goodness we’d left before I had the chance.
     The trail kept climbing until it was once again on the edge with the crater far below. After about an hour and half we reached the highest point of the hike at almost 700 meters. A few minutes past this point the trail flattened out and there were several interesting rock piles – more like sculptures – built by previous hikers. There in the midday sun we sat down off the path and ate our lunch of salami on crackers, corn chips, oranges and for dessert we had dates, figs and chocolate. Taffy got salami mixed with kibble.

Highest point:  Taffy don't jump!

     About a half hour later the trail left the rim of the crater and there was a steep scramble down a wide rocky incline. The area was shaped like a ‘V’ with no flat place at all at the bottom. It simple went down and straight back up again. Don stood with a foot on each side of the valley, while looking up at the climb ahead of us.
     W
e thought getting up this ascent might have some difficulties, but it proved easy enough. From that high place the terrain began to change. We were now moving away from the crater, in a shallow basin. We passed another exposure full of fossils, most of them the same kind of oysters we’d seen on the first day. There were more plants. Soon there were bushes and some of them were actually greenish. There were even a few lovely and delicate purple flowers. It was 1pm and we were now in the very beginning of Nachal Afran heading down to the planes below. It seemed to us that we had plenty of time, and that the problems of this days hike had been somewhat exaggerated. 
 

Starting down Nachal Afran ( נחל עפרן), Taffy ahead.
Flower in the desert

     After about 40 minutes of walking down the dry river bank the Wadi became narrower, and there were numerous dry pools etched into the rock by the occasional winter floods. There hadn’t been any rain yet and everything was bone dry. Soon there were cliffs on both sides of us, and the pools became deeper and it was sometimes slow going around them or in some cases through them.
    
The cliffs around us were convoluted in strange ways, with layers at different angles and some places which looked more like melted wax than stone. Soon we were maneuvering down steep inclines around deep pools and huge boulders with massive rock formation on each side of us.

Rocks like melted wax:  Taffy below in Nachal Afran נחל עפרן

     And then about an hour into the Wadi we reached the first dry waterfall where we needed to climb down staples in the rocks. It was not really a long drop, and Taffy could have jumped down in several spots. I tried to persuade him to do this, but he refused. Don wisely convinced me that we needed to put the doubleback harness on. I climbed back up the staples (I should have left my pack below but I forgot) while Don took the harness and rope out of his pack. When Taffy was harnessed I went halfway down and tried to keep Taffy calm while Don basically pushed him off the cliff and lowered him. We spent half an hour on this descent.
    
I can never get a photograph of us lowering or lifting Taffy when we’re on our Israel Trail hikes because it is a two man job, and both my hands are occupied while we’re doing it. So the best I can manage is to photographed the place afterwards.
    
From here the trail continued relatively straight and steeply down in a narrow gorge with many deep dry pools. Taffy was first, then me, then Don who was somewhat behind. I was still tired from the exertion of going up and down the last cliff, and the anxiety of doing the right thing with Taffy. That is my excuse, but there was a clear trail marker indicating that the trail turned up to the left, but I missed it and followed Taffy straight down the wadi. Soon I was on an exceedingly steep, slippery (like polished marble) dry river bed, going down on my butt. Ahead of me Taffy was stopped at the edge of a cliff. From where I was sitting I couldn’t see over the edge so I don’t know how high the cliff was, but I did notice that there were no staples, and no trail markers, and I suddenly understood that we were off the trail. I called Taffy to come up. He turned and tried to return to where I was, but he couldn’t get a grip on the slippery rock and he slid back down right to the edge. I suppressed panic, and cheerfully, as if I was asking him to come to me for a treat while we were at home, I called him again. “Here Taffy, come on up here boy!!” Again he tried to come up, his feet kept slipping, but he kept trying, claws digging in, hind feet pushing, and somehow he managed to move up more than he slid down and finally he reached me, then on hands and knees with Taffy ahead of me, we both scrambled up the rest of the way. I would like to know how high is that cliff, but if I’m there again I will be secured with a rope! 

Taffy going the wrong way, and I followed

 Taffy and I went down straight and almost ended up slipping over a cliff.   I wasn't able to see how high the cliff was.

Turn left you dummies!

     In plain sight, before the steep decent down the wadi, was the trail marker showing a left turn, which I pointed out to Don before he also went down the wrong way. So we turned left and labored up the steep slope out of the Wadi. The trail went into a tight crevice and there was another cliff this time that we needed to climb up. Don went up, I stayed down holding Taffy. When Don reached the top I threw him the rope and Don lifted Taffy. Not elegant, but it worked. 

Staples in a cliff

     The terrain was now rough: around boulders, through tight maze like openings, and up and down ragged vertical surfaces. Several times we had to haul Taffy up or let him down using the harness and our 15 meter rope. All of this took time, and I noticed that the sun was already behind the mountains.

Don climbing rugged terrain
 The good news was that we were noticeably closer to the bottom, the bad news was that the going didn’t get easier. There were several places where we had to cross ridiculously steep rock inclines with the help of staples. Then there were two places where we needed to struggle down them. 
Don traversing steep slope
     We could see the bottom, yet these descents were treacherous and we inched our way down. One time I started a small avalanche, and watched in terror as a bunch of small boulders went rocketing down. If one had hit Don or Taffy it could easily have killed them.  
Steep slope with Taffy waiting at the bottom

 

 Even under all this stress I noticed beautiful fossils in the rocks we were climbing, they were long snails which Dr. Mark Wilson told me were silicified (meaning replaced with silica -- essentially chert or quartz). I took several pictures as Don yelled at me to keep going.  

tower snail fossils

     The bottom was tantalizingly close when we reached a perfectly flat sandy area that had clearly been used to camp. We rested there for a few minutes looking over the edge. The bottom was right there almost within reach, this was definitely the last leg, but the going was still difficult. We again had to haul Taffy up a cliff and maneuver another steep descent.
    
And then finally we were off the mountain on the flats. It was a little after 4pm and getting dark quickly, but the walking was now flat and relatively easy so it didn’t matter so much if we lost the light.

Don and Taffy_down on the flats before dark

     It took us about half an hour to walk gently to where we’d stashed our water. By the time were arrived it was dark indeed, and it took willpower to set up our tent in the face of the exhaustion that came over us in waves. Don started to feel nauseous, I remembered this is what had happened when we climbed Ma’ale Eli out of the small crater. Again we’d forgotten to eat since lunch, and after he ate an energy bar and drank he felt better.
    
When everything was organized, we took stock. Down where we now were it seemed much warmer so we weren’t forced by the cold to retreat immediately into our tent. We had managed to hike what Jacob said was the most difficult day’s hike on the Israel Trial, and gotten down before dark, and we had done this with Taffy! We were completely satisfied with ourselves. At about 6:30pm we made our dinner of noodles and cheese, fed Taffy his dinner of salami and kibble, and were amiably chatting when Taffy started barking insanely. He was about to run off in attack mode, but we held him back. Soon we heard voices. They were three young hikers trying to figure out what to do.
    
I went up to them and showed them where we were – it turns out that they had just now come down off the mountain. They’d been caught up there in the dark, but had nevertheless kept going and by some means (though for the life of me I can’t imagine how) they had made it down alive in the dark. However, their stash of water was about 3 kilometers further at the official night camp, and they were too tired to get there. We ended up giving them several bottles of our water (we had plenty) and they camped a few meters further along, though out of sight. It felt good to have been able to help them.
    
I had a hard time falling asleep that night and while I was laying awake I noticed an intermittent light. Since sleep seemed impossible, I forced myself out of the warm sleeping bag and went outside to investigate. There were great flashes of light coming from behind the mountains we’d just descended. It was like some terrible epic war was being waged in the distance. But there was no sound, our small dale was silent and peaceful.

I didn’t dream the lights. When we woke up before dawn, Don was witness that lights were still flashing from beyond the crater.

Friday 4November2011
   
Again we choose to not take the Israel Trail’s detour to the official Night Camp and instead took the more direct black trail towards the Hod Akev ascent near where we planned to end this hike. We’d already walked that portion of the trail anyway when we’d stashed the water.
     We needed to get home to Haifa before Shabbat (the Sabbath) started, so even though this last day’s hike was only about 14 kilometers on the flats we still started before dawn. The hiking was not as easy as we thought it would be. While the way was fairly well marked, a lot of the time there was no path at all, and we would stumble over the endless flint always searching for the next blaze. Sometimes we’d find ourselves following a path even though it was off the marked route (it is so much easier to walk when there is a path). Then we'd  have to retrace are steps and find the blazes.

The black trail with no path, Taffy ahead

     At around 6am we ate breakfast in one of the Wadis coming down from the mountains near where the black trail became the blue trail and was joined by the Israel Trail. From that point there was a better path and the walking was easier. Although we were in a large, plane, it was not boring, there were several wadis which we went through, and there was always the views: the mounntains of the Machtesh HaGadol to the North were pink with the morning sun, and ahead of us to the east were the Akev mountains.
     We passed a particularly flat area where some group had used the flint rocks to draw pictures and express themselves in writing.

Writing and drawings in flint, Don in the background

     From that point on the walk was easy, uneventful, and we were able to make good time. We reached the place where the trail started up to Hod Akev at 8:15am. There we carefully hid the Golan Stone and left our extra water so we don’t need to stash anything there for our next hike.

The beginning of our next hike looked intimidating to put it mildly, but hey, we hiked the Karbolet in one day, we can do anything! 

Hod Akev, our next challenge.

     Then we walked the approximately 5 kilometer on the dirt road to the gas station at Sde Boker where there was a bus stop. We had planned to catch the 10:30 bus from Sde Boker to Beer Sheva, so that we could catch a bus from there to Tel Aviv in time to get the very last bus to Haifa, but we’d made some mistake with the schedule, and it never came. Now what?
     While we were looking over our notes about bus schedules, we were half heartedly hitch hiking. A guy stopped for us. His name is Avner Osri and he was going all the way to Binyamina (an easy 20 minute train ride from Haifa). On top of that he’s a lovely, interesting person (archetect by profession), who knows every nook and cranny of Israel the way I can only dream of knowing. We talked for the entire trip.
     Thank you, Avner, for being our Trail Angel!

A man and his dog!  Don and Taffy near the end of the hike

 Our Hike in Pictures

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