A road trip through the Negev celebrates the poetic spirit of Israel’s mystical south.
By Monica Haim
There is something about a place where the skies show up each morning dressed in a crisp sheet of electrifying blue; a place where the summer afternoons weigh down on the streets with a heat so intense, it sends grown men straight to their homes and their wives to preparing fresh salads and iced libations.
You see, no matter how advanced Israel may be on almost every level, it remains a tiny oasis in the middle of a desert, which is very much part of its poetic allure. It is said that the ancient Hebrews roamed through the desert for forty years, and one does pick up a sort of biblical vibration that resonates deeply in that mysterious and massive stillness. Many who visit the Holy Land start with its best-known historic sights and urban centers, such as the ever-sprawling Tel Aviv and the sacred and scandalous city of Jerusalem. But it is deep within the dunes of the Negev desert where the natural mystic truly whispers, where the most unique colors, vistas and adventures come to life with every second, and where each second is pregnant with organic dynamism and quiet stimulation. In a country that is tinier than the entire state of New Jersey, a colossal desert stunningly paints the land with the flavors and feelings of deep Arabia. In this desert, every moment is epic.
Only an hour and a half away from Tel Aviv, and about half an hour from Jerusalem, past a slew of Arabic villages and a labyrinth of roads and hills, one can drive to the Dead Sea, an experience that will, without a doubt, make you feel most alive. The Dead Sea is the lowest elevation of the Earth’s surface on dry land, whose waters contain some of the world’s most potent natural resources. From the sweeping row of upscale luxury hotels along Ein Bokeq, where crystallized balls of translucent, hardened salt comprise the sea floor, to the rustic seashores where natural sulfur pools dot the coast, there is no wrong place to spend the day at the Dead Sea. People of all ages from all over the world come to soak in its magic and experience the singular sensation of utter flotation under a fierce setting sun, where each day the skies turn every shade of lavender and pink and the seawater glides off the skin like a magnificent, saline oil. Organic anointment. The mother of all spas. To lie on one’s back with limbs outstretched, in full surrender to the miracle of the buoyancy, and gazing at the sky while being flanked by Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, is to truly experience the enchantment of Israel. Emerging from that sacred soak, one is charged with the secrets of the salts, which is said to have been the legendary place of refuge of the great King David.
To lie on one’s back with limbs outstretched, gazing the sky while flanked by Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, is to truly experience the enchantment of Israel
Just west of the Dead Sea lies Ein Gedi, a desert sanctuary that boasts a stunning diversity of flora and fauna, against a backdrop of yellow-beige cave and rock formations and cold, crystalline waterfalls and springs. The Ein Gedi natural park is one of Israel’s most important reserves, with its two spring-fed streams that flow through the area, creating a unique desert ecosystem that lends itself to some of the most beautiful hiking in Israel. Massive clusters of majestic mountains and cliffs create a landscape that feels perfectly suited for the deep and meditative vibration of the desert, and a hike through any one of Ein Gedi’s trails, is inspiring, breathtaking and satisfying all at once.
On the Eastern edge of the Judean Desert lies the impressive and ancient site of Masada, where the ruins of palaces and fortifications stand in remembrance of the nation’s zealous determination to subsist against all odds. The best option is to hike up its renowned “snake path” at about 4 a.m., just before the sun breaks past the horizon into a new day. Just as one reaches the summit of the ancient fortress, and the rays of sunshine start to streak through the stones, one feels the sense of deep history that permeates the area, and whether one hikes back or takes the cable car down, one leaves Masada feeling charged and impressed by the wisdom and esoteric details of the past.
Only another few hours south of the Dead Sea area, the desert continues to bestow sweet and unexpected gifts.. Driving through the winding roads along the sea and through the white-gray dunes towards the South, the air starts to press down while the sun starts to take over. Several hours into the drive, one approaches Mitzpeh Ramon (The Ramon Crater), which is situated on the northern ridge at an elevation of 2,400 feet and overlooks a massive erosion cirque, which is the crater itself. What appears to be an immense, gigantic bite into the desert floor attracts tourists by the hundreds who arrive each day to photograph the awe-inspiring gash in the Earth; this natural phenomenon boasts jaw-dropping panoramas that are completely unique. Right in the area you can also partake in other obscurities, such as visiting an alpaca farm or spending a few nights at a local eco-lodge nestled in the desert, where you can eat delicious organic food and watch the colors of the sky explode into a brilliant sunset from a hammock each afternoon (check out succah.co.il/en/ to get an idea).
On the drive back to the center, as you remember the endless rows of succulent plants that looked like they could have been from another planet, and recall the sweet smell of their desert flowers coming into blossom, you will likely find that the memories of the last few days in that vast and sacred land will nostalgically linger in your mind and magically recharge your soul.