Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Imagine a thousand bathtubs lined up end to end at the bottom of a canyon

Some empty, some filled with cool green water too deep and dark to see the bottom. 

Now above the bathtubs think of the walls of the canyon - and these are right next to the bathtubs on either side, sometimes slick gray, sometimes craggy and fox-fur tan, sometimes too low to be really walls, sometimes a few meters high, a dozen meters, a few dozen meters high, too high to climb up and too high to climb down.

Now - and for me this is the easy part - above the canyon, imagine the hills, rounded and craggy and fox-fur tan, drier than sand or bones or rock (though you can find any of those in the hills) because this far from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv the rainclouds have, like virtually all previous inhabitants, just given up, it's too big a job, if we leave these alone for just a millennium or two who'll notice really, and maybe they're right because despite their lazy gardeners flowers cover the wadis between the hills, which rise far above the canyon, seven hundred meters' altitude from the highest fox-fur hill to the lowest deep green pool, which if you want my opinion (and I'm afraid that if you're reading this you probably do) is too big for any reasonable person to imagine, so you can skip that, and it doesn't make any difference, because you mostly can't see the canyon from the hills.

OK, you're done.

But maybe I forgot to mention that I went through the hills, into the canyon, which is called Nahal Ashalim, through (mostly) the bathtubs, which are called natural rock pools, filled each winter by the floods, and then through the low dusty slopes, which are called Danger of Land Mines Do Not Leave the Path, and out to the coast, which is called Dead Sea Industries B, because not everything along the Dead Sea is beach resorts or even untamed desert.

Though the desert was pretty untamed. There wasn't even trash, most of the way.

The trail started in the hills, gentle slopes, totally open to the hazy sunlight, and headed into the wadis, sandier and sandier, rockier and rockier, climbing along the canyon walls and then back in, passing small pools. The day was very hot and I considered swimming, but the water was dirty and very cold. The sunlight lit the outlines of the rock and the bottom of the pools only after I'd passed them. I waded through some of the pools and climbed over others until I reached a long, narrow stretch which was flooded with nothing visible. 

At this point you might be wondering what's with all the deep water and why I didn't post any pictures. The answer is that I brought a lot of plastic bags but no camera because I didn't know much about the trail but "swimming necessary" translates pretty easily from Hebrew. A shame I didn't take pictures - except that I tried to wade across that narrow flooded stretch, keeping hold of the rocks on the sides in case I slipped. Slipped isn't quite the right word. I kept my head above water and flopped out of the pool in five seconds, but I don't like suddenly falling into a bottomless pool of water.

After that I climbed over the rock on the sides and avoided future pools. The path joined another trail and continued downstream (I use the term loosely; there was no flowing water within a hundred kilometers) before turning uphill, towards a view of the Dead Sea and a horseshoe turn in the canyon. Pity that I hadn't stayed in the wadi; I could have gone faster, maybe swam across a pool with a little more advance warning, instead of cutting across and having to go down the rocks across from...that's a two-hundred-foot sheer cliff inside the canyon.

Those who at this point still believe that cutting off trail is always a good idea, there's nothing I can do for you.

After scrambling down the rocky hillside (but not the cliff) back into the wadi, I passed many more pools before arriving at a steep rock chute into a deep dark pool. I hadn't forgotten the last time and followed the wadi from the lip of the canyon, below an overhang - like a tunnel, only with the left half missing. But the pools lay one below the other as far as I could see, and the overhang kept getting higher relative to the pools, with no way down, until it vanished. I wasn't stuck, but I had to go back, climb up a bit, and follow the canyon from above its edge, a dozen meters up I think, not in the half-tunnel but on a rocky hill, until I found a tributary wadi to climb down. It wasn't nearly as relaxing as you imagine, and when I finally got back down I was still next to a bottomless pool with no way around, and slipping into the last one I'd tried had left an impression. I am not afraid of water but...

I took a break next to the pool.

I am not afraid of water but...

For a while I just sat there knowing I had to go on.

I am not afraid of water but...

I got into the water very slowly. This time I at least knew not to expect anything under my feet. I let go of the rock, remembered that I actually do like swimming, got my pack (everything in plastic bags), and crossed the cool clean deep green water in a few flailing strokes, climbed out, and kept walking until I had to swim another pool, deep where I got in but ending in a shallow gravel bottom, and another. I don't know how many I crossed, not very many, but enough that I was disappointed when they ended and I emerged from the canyon onto a wide white sand road in the warm evening air of the Dead Sea.

I ran down the road, because I had five or six kilometers and under an hour to catch the last bus, because dusk comes fast, because I wanted to dry off, because it's fun to run downhill alone on a warm evening. The colors darkened in the west, I saw less texture in the dusty white track at my feet, the lights of the Dead Sea Industries shone brighter in my face, I was cold when I took breaks from running, had more trouble reading the Danger Land Mines signs at the side of the path (but read them accurately and stayed on the mine-free road), saw headlights brighter and brighter, and there was the road, I was almost at the bus stop.

I walked by the side of the road on night-black earth which through my sandals didn't feel like earth but something else, for this is the Lake Asphaltis and who knows what lies beneath. Between the dark empty hills and the dark empty waters I saw a light and a sign for buses going north.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The far south - high desert, low desert, and every cliff in between

There are a couple things about the Negev desert which aren't well known, the most important being that it's big. Large. Really quite sizable. A three-hour ride on bus 392 from CBS Be'er Sheva including a break at the Mitzpe Ramon gas station if you want specifics.

It also has amazing geological diversity and forty-four species of herbs, but I know a lot more about the buses so let's stick to that.

Bus No. 392 CBS Be'er Sheva - CBS Eilat Alighting left me and two cyclists at a highway junction in the Ovda valley in the southern Negev after a three-hour ride including a break at the Mitzpe Ramon gas station. I checked the map, talked to the bikers, and made quite sure that I was at the wrong bus stop. I settled for walking an extra 5 km of Shvil Yisrael next to the road, passing occasional Swiss tourists.

Winter had finally soaked into the Negev, and the desert was blooming more colorfully than seventy years of pipelines and bulldozers could manage, not with cleared and plowed fields as ben Gurion dreamed but with the purple and yellow petals of the wildflowers of the wadi.

And the anti-Muslim graffiti on the walls of the bridge over the wadi. The perfect background.

I headed down the wadi, which was very wide and open except for the wildflowers and bushes growing from the sand. The sky was not-quite-flat gray and the land was not-quite-flat brown. There were hills but no landmarks, and it was a very long way to the road and the climb up into the Kasui sand dunes, which I remembered from years before. They aren't freestanding but pour down from the rocky hills in waves of soft tan. I ate lunch there, but the cold east wind blew sand into my pita and cucumbers and bourekas, and behold all was crunchy.

The trail kept near the road after that, but because this is Israel I still passed a few ancient sites, endless desert hills, and an airport, before climbing up into the mountains of broken brown stone, which lay very still under the evening wind and the high clouds stretching all the way to the snowy mountains of Jordan. I followed a high ridge between two deep wadis until sunset.

In the cloudy blue of the next morning I climbed back into the mountains, down to the road, past the site where I should have camped, and into the mountains on the other side of the road. The southern Negev is the rare place in Israel where you can see forever and yet still feel in the middle of nowhere. The mountains roll on, hill after rocky hill and wadi after deep flowering wadi all the way to the Egyptian border, maybe further, but there are no landmarks to the west, and though you stand on the easternmost precipice and look over the Arava towards the high purple mountains of Jordan, they tower in their long line all the way from the Kinneret to Eilat and down the Red Sea coast unchanging. I kept walking, past a line of hikers who told me that I probably couldn't make it to the lake at Timna Park and suggested the visitors' center, which wasn't on the map.

The trail turned away from the edge and into the heart of the mountains, climbing into and out of the wide wadis which cut through them. There were no trees of any size and the hills were rolling and totally open here at the top of the world (only about 700 meters, but who can tell in the middle of the desert). Thunder echoed from the north, and occasionally some light rain fell onto the gravel and vanished. I have a certain amount of fatalism and a light poncho which both serve me well in the backcountry. I knew that I was maybe 10 km from the nearest road and much further from any shelter that could stand up to a real storm, so there wasn't anything to do right now other than put on the poncho. So I did, and then the rain pattered away, because this is the far south where even the winter storms don't come.

After even more bleak sandy hills and open wadis thick with flowers and thorns, the trail curved back to the edge of the mountains, but in Israel, below mountains there are more mountains. Cliffs above gave way to canyons slicing through the lower plateau before falling away for hundreds of feet towards the brown mountains in the valley. Perched on the cliff-edges of this sandy-rocky, precipitous, uninhabited landscape were...school groups. I passed them and tried to ignore the shouts of "Ahlan" ("hello", borrowed from Arabic; Shalom is more formal) as they tried to evoke echoes from the cliffs.
a section of the upper cliff

Which I had to get down from, somehow. There was a trail; it twisted around the eastern edge and slid through dust and scree before teetering at the top of a narrow ridge, not a knife-edge, but thin enough that looking down was exciting. There were beautiful views of sandy canyons and mountains with no names, but it would have been nice to see some sign of a campsite, because it was late in the afternoon now, and as the clouds broke up the light was pale gold. Now there were shallow, steep, sandy canyons on every side, and I followed the edges to a nice campsite which was completely taken up by the gear for the same school groups I'd passed before (though the workers setting everything up for them urged me to just stop there for the night) and then into the Sasgon valley, the valley of colors. Colors at this time of day meant soft brown sand.

I crossed a wide valley, pale in the dusk, before I got to the visitors' center. The gate was locked, with a cell number for would-be campers to call. I called, forgot to mention that I didn't have a car and couldn't "come back tomorrow", and explained that I was doing a section of the Israel Trail - 
"So you're doing the Israel Trail, you don't have a car?"
"OK, you can come in..."
A paragraph or two of direction followed.
"Around the side?"

In the morning I climbed Mt. Timna. Now I can read a topographical map as well as any generalization alive, but I still didn't realize that it would be quite so steep. A shady canyon became a stony wadi which climbed high up to wider, lifeless high passes. It was very alpine considering I was at 400 meters. I scrambled past a giant rock mushroom, grasped my way up a few iron bars, and peered at the top of the cliff. A large flock of something was standing on the flat dolomite. I took another step up and they flew away. 

The climb down was harder; there wasn't a trail so much as a slope of scree, boulders, and the occasional blaze. It was midmorning, clear and hot. In the desert every sunny day is summer. Endless sand and barren hills lay across the valley all the way to...the pond. The parks authority has a habit of installing things like that. The environmental logic of putting a large pond in the middle of the desert is lost on me, but apparently they know better. The pond is at the visitors' center and campground, but still...

Past Timna the Israel Trail heads into more hills, stony and colorful, past what seems to be a mine (I don't know whether this was within the park boundaries, though virtually the only thing you can't do in a national park is camp there) and then threaded past the hills at the western boundary of the 'Arava, the long, open valley which runs north-south from the Dead Sea to Eilat and folds along the Jordanian border like the willow leaf it's named for. In other words, it was an easy place to find food.

Sort of. It was a 3-km walk each way to the nearest (surprisingly fortified) village, which had lots of new construction and, more surprisingly, a signpost about the town's history which noted the Bedouin tribe expelled from the area (No, it didn't say that they were expelled. Maybe they all decided to buy apartments in Ra'anana. Maybe). Today the area around the town is, like the rest of the southern Negev, uninhabited.

In the afternoon I followed a wide, sandy wadi slowly up into the mountains, which rose higher and higher as I walked south and redder and redder as the sun set, until at sunset I walked into a canyon which swirled through the sand and the rocks - until it was just rocks, and then bigger rocks, tent-sized, car-sized, house-sized. The trail, of course, went straight through them, and then up some dry waterfalls. It was dusk now. The wadi was supposed to climb up to a mountain pass before climbing down the cliffs to the 'Arava, but it just kept climbing up. As the light faded the shadows came back, short black shadows against a little silver light; the moon was high, but not full. 

The path was above the wadi now, very narrow, trail blaze colorless in the gray moonlight, cool in the evening wind. A little further, a little further...and I walked up to the pass, black mountains above and the lights of Eilat and Aqaba below. I saw the Red Sea, an empty black shape beyond the cities. Of course, I couldn't really see the way down.

It was another narrow path down the sides of a canyon, silver under the half-moon, slippery with dust and scree and darkness. In the far distance there were black shapes which looked like chasms in the night but there was no telling. I had hoped to get to the campground at the entrance of the Black Canyon four kilometers away and a few hundred meters down, but the slopes were steep and cold with only the half moon to light the way, and after a hillside crossroads far too dark to see which blaze was which, I pitched my tent in the sand, tried to stop the wild night wind from tossing it all the way to Eilat, and slept. 

In the warm morning I followed the trail through a canyon which opened onto the western 'Arava before leading to the Shakhoret (roughly "black") canyon, a short sandy path through steep brown-black mountains ending at the base of a limestone mountain. In the Eilat mountains there is a dramatic line between basalt and limestone which I kept crossing through the day. I climbed the mountain, which looked a few hundred meters shorter than it really was, climbed down, followed the trail through pale valleys with no trees on a still, sunny day...the hottest summer I ever spent was a winter in the Negev, to grossly distort Mark Twain. I walked on the ridges for the slight breeze, and each kilometer was eternal in the silent desert.

Which was a problem, because I had seven hours and two liters left. The Israel National Trail ends on the coast south of Eilat, twenty kilometers from my valley; I decided to take a shortcut to Eilat via Mt. Shlomo, which I'd seen years before and longed to climb.

Shortcuts are of course never shortcuts. Mt. Shlomo is 700m high and at least 350m above the valley I was in, and extraordinarily steep. Climbing it took an hour and a half or so and I ended up just lying down on the sharp-basalt summit watching the ibex below. It's not often that you get to look down on an ibex.

The way down was, of course, a steep canyon, with much more climbing than walking. The last few kilometers were on wide dirt roads, downhill through the mountains to the city. Eilat is one of those cities which simply ends; I walked out of the desert, crossed one road, and there were the apartment blocks. The tourist areas are by the beach; most of the city is perfectly normal. But I had walked all this way to get to the Red Sea, and I had no time before my bus left but I wanted at least to see the waves. And to drink something, because I'd ran out of water half an hour before I got to Eilat. So I ran down to the nearest beach, ran back to the bus station through the back streets, and watched the sunset from an air-conditioned bus headed north. That was it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Eastern Lower Galilee שביל עמק המעיינות יבנאל - נחל תבור - בית שאן

The bus door was just barely wider than the green backpack, but I squeezed out of it and into the town anyway. Low basalt houses lay against hazy green hills. After a few hundred meters the houses became orange trees with shadowy dark leaves. I followed the dirt road without shade which should have had red blazes, until a shortcut led uphill past an orange grove.

Well, as long as it was going past the orange grove it led uphill. After that it was vertical. After an hour or so of climbing I could see from Mt. Tabor to the Kinneret. As for mileage, I had one kilometer down and an indeterminate but unreasonably long distance to go, but you have to keep things in perspective.
View of the Kinneret and Jordan valley

The trail - with blazes - was a farm road going south. That is, because nothing in life is simple, it was a network of farm roads and mostly went south but sometimes decided that west or east would be much more fun. Tire tracks in the mud had baked very dry and very hard.

The trail-insofar-as-it-was-a-unitary-object went down into and came up from a wadi, which was very green and had a puddle in the channel (This is called winter). Further on, I saw a car, a few people, and a large black puppy. Feel free to guess which one of these wagged its tail and ran towards me.
Mt Tabor from the trail

"It's OK, he's a nice dog," one of the picnickers assured me.
I petted the puppy.
"You're alone? You need a ride?" Hitchhiking is much more accepted in Israel than in the US. My theory is that there's a sense of community and kinship leading to a sense that a stranger isn't a risk. That, or people think I'm lost.
"I'm all right."
He picked up the puppy and carried it back to the car.
"Where are you going to end up today?"
"Today I'm not ending up anywhere. Tomorrow - Beit She'an."
"You've got water?"
The water bottles were on the outside of my pack, but it's another thing people say to hikers.
"Yes, yes, thanks."

The area between the Kinneret and the West Bank is mostly rolling hills above deep wadis. The hills are farmland, and in early winter the wheat was just sprouting. The path kept turning. Mt. Tavor and Nazareth got further away, very slowly. Late in the day I climbed out of one last wadi up to an onion field on the hilltop. A man was lying in an impossibly relaxed way on the hard black earth next to it. He said something to me. After asking him twice what it was, I walked over to him.
The path

"You don't get tired walking around with a heavy pack all day?"
"I enjoy it. I like hiking," was the best I could come up with.

The sunset lit the fields very softly. The path still crossed rolling hills, but the hills were very wide and round at the top instead of peaked or flat - like a pillow. I stopped at sunset just outside the next wadi, though it was a full moon night. I did some homework by the light of the full moon but couldn't actually tell whether it was legible or not.

I woke up at moonset. The moon faded, turned yellow and red just like the sun had, and sank slowly behind Nazareth. Stars appeared and brightened. A shooting star scampered across the sky, and the call to the morning prayer echoed quietly from the mosques across the Jordan valley. I lay in the dark for a few minutes, saw the first gray light in the clouds over Jordan, then got up, shivered, packed very quickly, shivered, and started walking. Stopping at sunset and starting at first light seems smart, but it was much darker now than in the moonlit night. I should have hiked at midnight - the full moon shone for miles.
Folded hills of Nahal Tavor

I made it down to the bottom of the wadi somehow without tripping over a wild boar, but nobody gave me a prize. It was light enough to see color, and the hills were greener than anything I'd seen in months. Winter means regeneration here. 
Gazelles leaped
uphill. I tried to imitate them; there were still a few dozen kilometers to go.

The terrain stayed the same, rolling hills with no shade until the wadi, full of dusty date palms and dusty motorcycles racing through. I climbed out of the wadi at high noon and looked down towards the Jordan valley and Beit She'an. A long way down. I wasn't high up, but most of that area is below sea level and hot. Even in the winter. 

I stumbled into Beit She'an in the late afternoon, late enough to be told that I didn't have much time before Shabbat. A sign warned that roads would be closed for a half-marathon, but for some reason I decided not to run it. I found the hotel after some confused wandering and texting.

"Who are you?" This was at the door.
"Are you asking what my name is, or what I'm doing here?"
I don't remember what the reply was, but they let me in. I was too exhausted to come up with the Hebrew words for Conservative Rabbis' Gathering.

I wonder how often people show up to it like that.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Upper Hula Valley and Golan

In about three days I walked all the way from the Nashot junction down to the Pkak bridge up to Nahal Sa'ar down to Qiryat Shmona. If you happen to be inspecting a topographic map of the Golan Heights right now, you may still have no clue what I'm talking about. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Northern coastline - fishponds, sand dunes, unexplained explosions, etc.

"...then you should go to Ma'agan Michael. They have fishponds, and the migrating birds stop there," someone said.
All right.
The fishponds aren't just at Ma'agan Michael, which is a kibbutz on the coast midway between Netanya and Haifa; they stretch north for kilometers. On maps the coast looks like a net, full of blue holes.
On the ground at Ma'agan Michael it looked a bit more solid. It supported plenty of tour buses, anyway. The area is not a tourist destination and I saw no groups walking around. I weaved around the buses towards the gray herons. A car stopped.
"Do you know how you can drive onto the beach?" 
I had seen a bike pass on dirt roads beyond the fishpond, but didn't know how to get down to the shoreline. "I'm sorry, I don't know."
"You speak English?" the driver asked in English.
"I speak Hebrew, but I don't know how to get to the beach", I said quickly in Hebrew.
"It would be better if you knew how to get to the beach and didn't speak Hebrew," he said in English.
After he drove on, I turned back to a heron below the banks of a pond, which had speared a fish and was holding it proudly.
Gray heron
I walked around the fishponds and the beach (which wasn't drivable). Ibises, egrets, and others flew about by the dozens, but the place didn't seem crowded. By late afternoon I was hemmed in by No Entry signs and walked out past the kingfishers. I checked a map, found a campground a few km up the coast, and headed north on a path through the fishponds until the gunshots started. Distant ones, but I would have preferred them to be more distant. Walking further north, I heard them much closer, so much closer that I cut across to the road while humming loudly and trying to be very visible. I walked the next kilometer or so by the side of the coast road and walked back toward the fishponds once I was past the shots. A turnoff from the highway led to a dirt road, which led to...
"What's at the end?" A father and son, in dati clothing, were walking in the same direction as I was.
"I'm sorry, I don't know. I have no idea." But I kept walking. In the end, the path followed a stream down to a beach with a conspicuous lack of No Camping signs.
It was late in the day. The dunes and wildflowers already glowed orange. I found a pass between dunes as the sun set through the beachgrass and slept in the sand. I tried literally sleeping in the sand, which was a good insulator, but a cold wind blew over the beach and you can't really burrow into the sand. 
Dawn glowed orange over Zikhron Ya'aqov and Fureidis. It was light enough that I had no trouble seeing the sand dunes, soft and brown in the early morning. A few birds called, but otherwise the beach was peaceful and BAM.
What could possibly improve the morning more than random explosions to the northeast?
I walked in the other direction, back towards the stream, which rippled over the sand where it met the sea. Farther upstream, kingfishers staked out a shady pool. Even farther, egrets stalked the stream and ibises flapped around the fishponds. I walked around the dunes before heading out past the fishponds, long lens ready for birds. A family on bikes stopped by me. Actually, they stopped around me. I wasn't really surrounded but I couldn't see all of them at once. 
"What kinds of birds are around here?"
(שלדג (יש אחד שם! עכשיו אף...לא, הינה הוא
I had some idea of what they were in English, but in Hebrew?...
ועוד שאני לא יודע את שמם
I mentioned a few birds whose names I knew in Hebrew (some from signs in other parks; one from a random stranger who had helped me identify a kingfisher earlier in the morning) before heading north through the fishponds towards a bus stop- at least until I got boxed in by No Entry signs and headed for the road, at least until I found that the coast road has pedestrian bridges some of the time...
It was a long walk to the bus stop.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Around the Kinneret (also, secrets of not staying dry in a thunderstorm)

Egret across from the mountains and wadis of the northwestern shoreline of the Kinneret
Well, about two-thirds of the way. There is a sixty-kilometer trail all the way around, but I didn't have time. It's a very nice trail, put up "to promote the public right to walk freely on the Kinneret's shores". Several areas on the shore, notably the northern end, are military firing zones (mapped but completely unmarked), in which "the public right to walk freely" is subject to the army's approval, but the trail goes right through. I took the road; firing zones aren't used often, but I didn't have the army's approval, and I don't find unpredictable shooting fun when I'm on the wrong end.

Marshes on the southeast shore
I started at the southern tip of the Kinneret and got off the roads (but into a banana plantation) as soon as I could. Soon the trail dived into the marshes which fringe the Kinneret's eastern coast. I walked through dark tunnels carved out of the heavy-hanging reed-stalks, through fig and blackberry thickets, through bushes and reeds. The lake itself was rarely visible. Every kilometer or so the marsh gave way to rocky beaches with signs describing the dangers of swimming so elaborately that I had no trouble realizing how popular it was. Further north, vacation towns (silent and empty on a September weekday) covered the shore, and the marshes vanished altogether, leaving grass-covered, sandy beaches. Egrets walked and flew around the edges.

Kinneret Trail between marshes and the Golan

Evening drew in. I didn't know where to sleep. The beaches and marshes offered soft ground but the prospect of people. The steep, empty golden-brown hills of the Golan might have a tree where I could hang a hammock. Following instinct, I kept walking. By bad luck, I walked into a beach town as east-moving clouds glowed in the sunset, couldn't estimate its size, and headed for the hills. Much of the Golan is also firing zones. Every few minutes as the dusk advanced I stopped to check my map. 

I lay down in an unused trail midway uphill but far above the wadi between the slopes above 'Ein Gev on the eastern coast. The dusk clouds moved further across the Kinneret, hiding and revealing the moon. Thunder crackled, then the rain came. I curled up in my sleeping bag, lined and waterproof in the hot night. Lightning flashed through the fabric and rain splattered over it. 

Believe it or not, this is not my secret design for a rainproof shelter, and at this point, or at least after the second or third time that a storm came through that night, a rational being might have realized that a) this was not a comfortable way to spend the night, b) there was a highway and bus stop 200 m down the hill, and c) staying outside in a thunderstorm is foolish and risky. In my defense, a) I didn't care and the sleeping bag was waterproof anyway, b) ditto, and c) I was in the safest possible place to be outdoors in a thunderstorm, midway uphill, below the lightning and above the flood. 
Sunrise clouds over the lake

Due to my immense caution and foresight, I stayed fairly dry, or at least got dry by dawn. North of 'Ein Gev the beaches are open and the lakeshore is lined with smooth dark basalt rocks. Kingfishers and egrets flapped about as the sun began to shine above the wide, empty lake.

Looking down a wadi at the Kinneret
Around Kursi, further up the coast, I took orchard paths inland and uphill to avoid a firing zone. The dust was warm and brown in the windless sunlight, and the air was hotter and stiller than the dust. Honeybees buzzed from their white boxes, but the bees were much too warm, lazy, and not actually aggressive even to consider swarming after me. The orchard path ended at a road up into the Golan towards another path into treeless hills, climbing through a wadi and then up into orchards and bare ground. The lakeshore is quite a place to hike - hundreds of meters' climbing and still below sea level. It takes work. Then the trail descended to the northern shore.

Date palm in the evening near Capernaum
Which is a firing zone. Mostly I walked on the roads, where I could see all the way across the Kinneret's valley. I stopped once at the Jordan, narrow, muddy, and lazy in the afternoon sun, before taking the trail back into the lakeshore, which is more open and developed on the eastern side. Hills to the west blocked the sun until the forest and reeds were shadowed and only the shoreline was lit. A wooden boat passed by a long pier near Capernaum. The tourists didn't see me. I kept going into the evening past churches and compounds until I found a spreading, thorny tree whose branches created a grotto in the hill and camped in the darkening shade. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Safed to Tiberias

Nahal Akbara and the cliffs above
It is possible to walk between major cities, if you have good directions. I didn't, and took a wrong turn stunningly early on and tried simply walking south, toward the outskirts of Tzfat - a city which plays pinball with its pedestrians; every street turns around within a block. So I kept walking and turning and walking for an hour or two before realizing that the valley below with a trail running south at least had a chance of being the one I wanted to be in. Doubling back a few hundred meters never hurt anyone.

In the wadi, cattle grazed and birds chirped. The noon sky was perfectly clear, and everywhere was painfully bright. Gazelles ran (away) on the wooded cliffs. The small channel on the valley floor flowed gently with what might not have been sewage.

End-of-summer wildflowers at the edge of town, overlooking the wadi
After a kilometer or so, the wadi passed under a highway bridge and dropped away to the east, becoming very open; a paved road followed it. Both of them led to a small town, sleepy and lonely in the noon heat. A few horses grazed at the outskirts. Houses and paved streets appeared and dropped away one by one into land which was neither open nor built, farmed nor wild, just empty. A mosque stood there, its gold dome under scaffolding. Little dirt roads led to little dead ends and garbage dumps, full of wildflowers and pieces of deceased cows. Charming. Actually, they were, but not for people who needed to breathe.

the Akbara mosque
The path south - I did find a sign telling me that I'd found the Akbara wadi - led straight and steep down the canyon. The little town disappeared quickly behind the hill until just the lonely mosque remained. I kept going. The descent to the Kineret from Tzfat is well over a kilometer vertically, and the dirt road through the Akbara seemed to account for most of that, sometimes straight and steep, sometimes twisting and steep through the few pine groves, and eventually straight and gentle, through dusty dry grass and dusty dry brush and sometimes just dust until it reached a crossroads below the looming limestone cliffs where even in late summer water trickled over a footbridge and stream-fed oleander bloomed. 

I turned right and followed the trail over the hill. The area was familiar from a sea-to-sea walk - ים לים - almost exactly two years ago. But I couldn't figure out how to cross the highway. The blazes, no help, pointed to a large hole. I looked for a sign or traffic light, then tried following the trail, which (you'd think I'd remember) followed the hole under the highway, climbed some steps, burrowed through a pipe, and followed a concrete path down to Nahal 'Amud, which really couldn't have been so muddy last time (or could it?). I recommend crossing that stream to anyone who likes Russian roulette. It works on the same principle, but messier and (so far as I know) nonviolently ; sometimes the water cools your feet, sometimes the mud sucks them in, not eternally (while all information is as correct as possible we cannot guarantee accuracy, follow my advice at your peril, etc...) but unpleasantly. 

Stars above Mt. Arbel
After a few hundred yards the stream dried out, and the trail followed it. Cliffs and caves loomed on both sides, blocking the sun more and more. I kept feeling that any second now the canyon would open up and I'd be five minutes from the Kineret, but it didn't until evening. I followed the trail down from the rocks into banana plantations, endless patterns of green leaves and blue bags, and then mango and olive orchards. I considered camping there but noticed hoses round the trees' bases. I didn't know when they turned on. I also didn't know whether they had dogs, or alarms, or unsympathetic guards, but I have my priorities. I kept walking until the trail went past the orchards, which meant nightfall. I heard the dusk prayer from a mosque (I assume; by this time I couldn't see it) a little way up the road. I could camp on a rock shelf above an abandoned building or I could trip over my feet. I didn't care to trip. The stars twinkled above the rock until the harvest moon rose.

In the morning, or close enough anyhow, I continued up the road towards Arbel. Flocks of egrets flew through the valley, first silhouettes above, then, as I climbed, white figures below. The trail ascended steeper and steeper up the brown rock until it really was mountain climbing, over metal handbars sunk into the rock red and pink now from the sunrise. The summit was bare and flat, covered in dry grass. A falcon flew in from the east.