We did not stash water for this hike because there are many springs from Hod Akev to the Ramon Crater.  These springs are suppose to have year round water and we were hiking in the early spring after a winter of plentiful rain so instead of carrying the water, we carried a water purifying devise with which we planned to make our own drinking water from the springs we passed.  Also, as a safe guard we paid to have water stashed for us at the sign pointing to the Mahmal Fort ( מצד מחמל ), an ancient Roman Fort on the edge of the Ramon Crater where we planned to camp on the second night.    
     We took the usual early train to Be’er Sheva, arrived there at 7:30am, and then took the bus to Sde Boker.  We had to walk around the kibbutz and down a dirt road for about 5 kilometers before we reached the trail where we had left the Golan Stone.  It was on the dirt road walking to the trailhead that once again I fell on my face and hurt my nose.  This is the second time that I’ve done this on these hikes, and no it is NOT funny!  Both times I was walking on boring trails with a heavy backpack when the accident happened. That is the problem.  When my pack is at its heaviest my arms can’t hold the weight if I fall, and thus my poor face hits the ground.  Anyway this time I didn’t break my nose and after a few hours I forgot about the injury altogether, but, sigh, I wasn’t a pretty sight!

Diana falls on her face AGAIN

Sigh,  I fall on my face AGAIN!

 Wednesday 14 March 2012

       It was already 11am when we retrieved the Golan Stone, and there in front of us was Hod Akev, the cliffs that had been haunting us.  As we were getting Taffy into the doubleback harness in anticipation of the places he couldn't climb, the leader of a group of tourists in a minivan stopped and told us that the trail was impossible for a dog.  I tried to explain about the harness, but he didn’t really listen and while he was getting back into the van, he told us that the dog needed to be on the leash at all times.  I nodded my head, and of course we are careful that Taffy doesn’t disturb either wildlife or the rare person we encounter, but the idea of having him on a leash while we tried to navigate the mountain face ahead of us made me shudder. 

Don holding the Golan stone with Taffy in his harness and Hod Akev in the background

Don with the Golan Stone and Taffy with his doubleback harness before we start the climb up Hod Akev ( חוד עקב )

     Finally we were back on the trail and immediately it went straight up.  There were places where the trail was only a few centimeters wide and the mountain face was increasingly high, but there was nothing difficult, just scary.  Only at the very top was there a place where Taffy couldn’t get up himself.  I held Taffy at the bottom, Don climbed up taking the rope with him, found a stable perch, and then with my help calming the dog he hoisted him up.  We’re becoming professionals at the dog lifting process. 

Don on the edge 1
Don on the edge - 2

Don on the edge climbing Hod Akev 

looking down Hod Akev

Looking straight down from Hod Akev 

     It took us less than an hour to climb Hod Akev.  The top was relatively flat with a cone at the top which the trail skirted.  Soon we were walking down into a wide valley.  

The landscape was scattered with Rotem (Retama raetam,  white broom, רותם המדבר ) bushes some of which were thickly in bloom with little white flowers.  These bushes  are supremely adapted to desert life.  They have incredibly deep roots, purportedly up to 20 meters deep, and can thrive even when the upper layers of soil are completely dry.  

Rotem bushes  (Retama raetam,  white broom, רותם המדבר )

 Rotem (Retama raetam,  white broom, רותם המדבר )

Don approaching Ein Akev, the stream is flowing out of the spring

Don walking towards Ein Akev ( עין עקב ) 

     An hour of strolling on an easy path brought us to Ein Akev.  There was a group of girls on a school hiking trip eating lunch around the deep, lovely spring, so we walked back along the running stream, around a corner, and found ourselves a ledge in the rocks where we ate our lunch of pita with egg salad, corn chips, and cherry tomatoes with carrots sticks.  Soon the girls continued on their hike and we made our way to the spring.  If the weather had been hot what an amazing swim we could have had, but it was too cold to even consider getting in the water.  Instead we took out our water purifier and filled several 2 litter bottles.  We drank some of the purified water which tasted fine.  So far so good. 

school girls around Ein Akev

Girls on a school trip around Ein Akev ( עין עקב )

     About an hour after we arrived at the spring we hauled our heavy packs on our backs and got back on the trail.  There was a surprisingly difficult little climb out of the spring where we should have taken the trouble to put the harness on Taffy and pull him up, but we didn’t because it was not far above the ground.  It proved, however, just a little bit to high for Taffy to jump, and even after repeated and increasingly hysterical attempts (Taffy is an emotional dog) he just couldn’t make it up.  Finally with Don pulling on his collar and me pushing from behind we succeeded.  He was an upset puppy by that time, and our initial laziness lost us time.

reeds growing out of a flowing stream going into Ein Akev in the Negev Desert

Reeds growing out of the stream flowing into Ein Akev ( עין עקב )

     We now found ourselves in a broad flat valley with a flowing stream trickling down the middle.  The tracks of antelope were prevalent along the banks of the stream.  We were in the middle of the Negev Desert, but there was more water around than we had seen since we started up in the Golan.  Soon the valley narrowed and we were walking along the stream with reeds up to 3 meters high growing up from the water.  To the left and right, up the sides of the valley, the desert was as stark as always, but there along the stream it was lush with the chatter of birds and the rustle of the reeds in the wind.  I hope that I can go back to that area some day and simply stay there and relish the peace.  

fossil of a coral

Fossil of a coral near the Akev stream 

strange layer of flint protruding from the limestone

Strange layer of flint near the Akev stream 

     I noticed an almost perfectly circular fossil of a coral on the side of the stream, and we also noticed layers of flint protruding from the limestone that were odd and beautiful.  We walked through this extraordinary landscape for about an hour until the trail turned towards the east and we climbed a wadi steeply out of the valley.  We were now on a high plateau with views of endless desert in all directions headed towards Ein Shaviv.  This spring is actually only a few kilometers up the dirt road from where we had started.  Nobody ever said that the Israel Trail takes the shortest way between two points! 

Ein Shaviv in the evening, Don and Taffy ahead

 Don and Taffy in Ein Shaviv ( עין שביב ) but where is the water?

     Evening fell as we wondered along the trail going down towards Ein Shaviv.  We were increasingly tired and it was lucky that the way down was relatively easy and didn't require any climbing.  By 5pm we were at the bottom walking in a dense oasis of wild palm trees.  The area was clearly a place of abundant moisture, however, we didn't see any available water.  We needed to fill up our bottles for the night and the next day’s hike so it was crucial that we find water.  I stayed on the top of the oasis with the packs and Don took a bunch of empty two litter bottles and went in search.  He eventually found a place to fill the bottles, but by the time he returned it was too late for us to continue hiking.  It is strictly forbidden to camp near a spring in the desert, however, it is also forbidden and dangerous to hike after dark.  So we found a spot at the very edge of the oasis where we hoped we would not scare the animals from getting water and made camp.

      As the glow of the sun from behind the mountains faded, Don cooked our standard camp dinner.   When it was totally dark two planets appeared amazingly bright above the mountain and soon the whole sky was full of stars.   Carefully in the dark we cleaned and packed away the cooking gear, brushed our teeth and retired to the tent.  I was asleep before 7:30pm. 

Camp on the edge of Ein Shaviv

 First night's camp on the fringe of Ein Shaviv ( עין שביב )

Thursday 15 March 2012

          We woke at 4:30am before dawn and were back on the trail with the first light of day at a little after 5.   The trail went immediately up the mountain.   The surrounding beauty was unbearable.  The oasis of Ein Shaviv spread out below us, beyond the oasis, past the plane, in the far distance was HaMachtesh HaGodal from our last hike.  Ahead of us the half moon was disappearing behind the mountains.

          It has gotten to the point where I only feel fully alive when I’m on the trail. 

Half moon setting behind cliffs before sunrise.

Don on the mountain above Ein Shaviv (  עין שביב ) with the half moon setting.

     We’d been worried about climbing Hod Akev, but that had turned out to be easy enough.  Nothing warned us about the climb out of Ein Shaviv.   At first it was an easy, if steep path, but after about an hour of walking, we reached an area where there was a small cliff to climb with no rungs to hold onto.  The path  leading to the cliff had eroded and was practically nonexistent.  The drop was about 300 meters straight down. 

Climbing out of Ein Shaviv.  Why is there no path?

Don on eroded path above Ein Shaviv ( עין שביב ) 

Taffy is not afraid of heights.  So he trotted up to the cliff and jumped up with no trouble.  Objectively the ascent was not hard, but my legs were shaking from fear.  When you have no choice you do what you have to do, I found a rock to hold on to, and somehow lifted my knee up on a slight ledge and got myself up.  Don had a harder time because his backpack didn’t fit around a rock face and he had to take the pack off, maneuver it through, and then climb up.  While this was happening, Taffy decided to jump back down.  Idiot dog!  Then, perhaps, sensing all our fear he decided that he couldn’t jump back up.  For a while I thought I would have to climb back down and harness him up, but thankfully seeing us both up, he jumped up again, and we had made it. 

Wilderness above Ein Shaviv

Wilderness above Ein Shaviv ( עין שביב )

     Released from fear we were euphoric.  We laughed and talked nonstop as we walked alone on the heights.  Soon we started looking for a protected place to have breakfast, for though the sun was now up and shinning, there was a cold wind.  Eventually we ate perched on a slope with some protection from the wind.  The trail was now easy, going up and down gentle slopes on the tops of the mountains.  There were views in all directions but nary a sign of human habitation.
e continued like this for about an hour, and then arrived at a dirt road which goes along the path of the oil pipeline from Eilat to the Ashkelon.  

Dirt road along the Ashkelon Eilat Oil Pipeling

The dirt road along the Askelon to Eilat oil pipeline

     We were on a plateau of flint walking on a seemingly endless dirt road.  If all you know of the Negev is the drive to Eilat, this landscape is all you see.  We were headed to Wadi Hava about 3 kilometers ahead and a little bit past the official Hava night camp.  There we would detour off the pipeline road.  Rotem bushes were in bloom all along the road and after about an hour of making good time we came to a place where someone had written something on the road with small stones.  We tried to make out the message and then realized that it was an arrow pointing to something.   

wild tulips_Tulipa agenensis_צבעוני ההרים
Close up of wild tulips_Tulipa agenensis_צבעוני ההרים

Wild tulips, Tulipa agenensis, צבעוני ההרים 

     There on the side of the road partially hidden between rocks was a spectacular plant of wild tulips.  It was almost impossible to believe that something as opulent as that deep red tulip could naturally grow in such an austere place, 
      ‘it looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.' 
to paraphrase something Raymond Chandler once said.

Two hours on the dirt road brought us to the night camp.  From there we made a steep descent and found ourselves in the upper part of the another large oasis -Wadi Hava.  The dirt road continued towards the southeast, but the trail now veered to the north along the Wadi.  The upper part of this oasis was a gentle place, flat and full of Rotem bushes and other shrubs.
     Initially the trial went along a typical shallow valley, but then the ground simply disappeared from the middle and we found ourselves walking on the top edge of an incredibly narrow ravine.  It was more like a wide crack than a valley.  The trail was mainly flat and easy staying on the edge of the chasm.  It was only important not to trip.   

Narrow ravine of Nachal Hava

Beginning of Nachal Hava from above 

     After about a half hour of walking on the upper edge, the trail started its decent.  There were a few places where the path had been reinforced with steel I beams and concrete so although it was a long fall to the bottom, and there were some scary places, at least the trail was well maintained.  It only took us 15 minutes to get to the bottom.
     And there we were, again, in a strange, secluded, wonderland.  The Hava Wadi is so narrow it resembles a tall cave with no roof.  The Israel Trail continued down the wadi towards the North East, but we wanted to explore the area, and there was a white symbol pointing up the gorge, which indicated that there was something up there interesting to see.  So we left our packs leaning against a boulder, and wondered up, sometimes having to scramble through boulders which had fallen off the cliffs in ages past, but mostly it was easy flat gravel.  

Diana with Taffy in background in Nachal Hava

Diana and Taffy in the narrow Nachal Hava ( נחך חווה )

     Ten minutes brought us to a lovely spring at the bottom of a dry waterfall.  Taffy drank his full and we kicked ourselves for not having the foresight to bring empty water bottles.  Why is this year round spring not marked on the map? 

Unnamed spring at the bottom of a dry waterfall in Nachal Hava

Don standing in from of an unnamed spring in Nachal Hava ( נחך חווה ) 

     We enjoyed the perfect spot for a few minutes, but then we worried about the kilometers still ahead of us so we walked quickly back to our packs and continued on the trail for about 20 minutes until we reached the place where it turned out of Wadi Hava up into another ravine.  We needed water so we left our packs, took empty water bottles with the water purifier and set off to Ein Hava a spring which was indicated on the map.  A one kilometer detour.  We walked and walked on a rough trail over huge black boulders of flint, it seemed much longer than it was.  The area didn’t look like there would be a spring, but finally thank goodness we did find water.  Two tiny pools carved into bed rock.  A few meters further down there was a dramatic dry waterfall.  Here was another beautiful place, but we were feeling time pressure:  it was 12:30pm, we hadn’t even had lunch, and there was still a long way to go before we were done for the day.  

Don purifying water from Ein Hava

Don pumping water from Ein Hava ( עין חווה ) 

     This time it was more difficult to pump the water through the purifier, but we managed to get the necessary clean water and we hurried back to our packs where we had a lunch of big chunks of salami on crackers with mustard.  We also finished the cherry tomatoes and had chocolate for desert.
     The weather was getting colder and windier, the sun had disappeared behind clouds, and it looked like it might rain.  (??!!)   It didn't seem like an extreme desert.
     Fortified with the food and having plenty of water we turned up into the new ravine.  We scrambled over, around, and under huge boulders as we climbed higher and higher.  Where could this be leading us?  Up ahead were cliffs taller than we had seen so far.  Surely the Israel Trail would not expect us to climb them!  The closer we got the more anxious we became because it looked like there was no way out.  

Diana and Taffy standing in front of high cliffs
Diana and Taffy standing in front of a high cliff (can you see us?).

     Finally after about an hour of steady climbing the ravine ended at a huge dry waterfall and amazingly another spring.  It looked like we were trapped by huge cliffs.  Where was the trial taking us?  Nevertheless, there was a blaze pointing up to a ledge on the cliff.  We struggled up there, Taffy drank his fill at the spring, and we looked around for the next blaze.  We found it directing us steeply up along the edge of the cliff towards the east.  We struggled up the steep path and saw that the next blaze pointed us into a narrow crack in the cliff face.
     Excuse me, we were going to climb up a crack!  Really!!  

Climbing put of Nachal Hava ( נחל חווה ) through a crack

Climbing out of Nachal Hava ( נחל חווה ) through a crack 

     It looked crazy from the outside, but once we reached the entrance and looked inside it wasn’t that hard.  It was simply an extremely steep gravel path with cliffs on both sides.  We labored up and soon found ourselves near the top with only a little cliff with rungs bringing us out of the ravine and onto the high plateau.  Before we could even wonder if Taffy could get up with out the harness he had already scrambled and jumped his way. 
     It was already 3pm and we still had a considerable way to go before we reached the Mahmal Fort where our water was stashed.  The trail was easy, but it still took us an hour and a half to reach the oil pipeline road again.  However, it was only another kilometer to the turn off for the fort and that only took us 20 more minutes.
     Everything would have been perfect if we has simply taken out the paper with the exact directions on where our water was stashed and followed those directions.  However, we were too lazy to get out the page, and we thought we remembered where to look.  We couldn’t find the stash and immediately without thinking (our excuse is that we were too tired to think straight) decided that we were mixed up about the spot.  Don decided to walk to the next landmark about a kilometer further down the dirt road leaving his pack with me.   Meanwhile the weather was getting colder, a vicious wind kicked up, and I was miserable.

Taffy and Don in front of the Mahmal Roman Fort on the edge of the Ramon Crater ( מצד מחמל)

Taffy and Don in front of the Mahmal Roman Fort ( מצד מחמל) on the edge of the Ramon Crater 

     So I walked up towards the Mahmal Fort to see if I could find a nice place to camp.  The Roman fort was perched right on the edge of the crater, with a spectacular view.  Behind it was a perfect place to camp.  I walked back down and Don came back without the water.  Then, belatedly, we got out the paper, followed the instructions, and found the water bottles under the rocks exactly where they were suppose to be.   It was getting dark when we reached the fort, and the wind was roaring.  It took both of us total concentration to get the tent up in those winds.  We used every stake to secure it, and set up our sleeping bags.  By that time we were suffering from the cold, and Taffy had gone inside the tent and refused to come out.  It was much too windy and cold to cook dinner out in the open, but in a corner, inside the ancient fort, we found a protected spot and dressed in all our layers we managed to be comfortable while we cooked our hot Ramon noodles and cheese for dinner.  When everything was ready I convinced Taffy to come out of the tent and eat his dinner.  With the hot food in his stomach Don fell asleep sitting there against the old walls 

Don dozing after dinner inside Mahmal Fort ( מצד מחמל)

 Don dozing after dinner inside Mahmal Fort ( מצד מחמל)

     Then we braved the wind, cleaned the cooking equipment, brushed our teeth, and blissfully crawled into the tent.  It felt like home inside, not even a breeze, soon warm from our three bodies.  I fell asleep with the roar of the wind swirling around us bending the tent polls.  Some time in the night I woke to the sound of rain pouring down.  Rain pouring down… in March… in the middle of the most extreme part of the Negev desert!  Not exactly a common occurrence.  There were gusts of wind now that I thought might tear the tent apart, but it held, and we remained protected against the worst weather we’d encountered on these hikes so far. 

 Friday 16 March, 2012

     Again we woke at 4:30am and were on the trail a little after 5.  It was still cold and windy and even while we were walking we were cold.  We had 11 kilometers to walk on the dirt road to get to Mitzpe Ramon.  We were hoping to catch the 10:30 am bus which would get us to Be’er Sheva in time to catch the last train back to Haifa.  The road went inland from the crater for about 3 kilometers and then went on the edge for a few kilometer before again going inland.  It took us more than an hour to walk the first three kilometers, and we decided to give up on the idea of catching such on early bus.  Breakfast on the trail is one of my favorite parts of our hikes and I didn’t want to feel rushed. 

Don making breakfast on the edge of the Ramon Crater (with Taffy)

Don making breakfast on the edge of the Ramon Crater (with Taffy) 

     And indeed we found one of our extraordinary places to eat breakfast.  Right where the road came to the edge of the Ramon Crater there was a hill to protect us from the wind.  We sat with our backs against the hill, looking out over the vast expanse of this largest of all the craters.  The morning sun came shining in and out of the glowing clouds.  We drank our hot tea and munched on granola while we chatted.  Our conversation kept coming back to the road we were on.  We tried to imagine driving on this dirt road that is literally on the brink of cliffs which plummet straight down sometimes almost 500 meters.  There were no barriers, not even a lip – the road on a vertical drop!
     After breakfast we walked the rest of the way to the town of Mitzpe Ramon in about 3 and a half hours.  The hardest part of the hike was the wind which sapped the heat out of us and kept us cold the whole time.  Even walking in the dead of winter near to Jerusalem we had never been cold while we were actually walking.
     We pushed pretty hard and were exhausted when we got to the town.  But we arrived with plenty of time to catch the 11:30 bus to Be’er Sheva in time to get us home before the Sabbath started.  

Pictures of the Hike 

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