Travel to Israel where ancient history meets an adrenalin rush with hiking, cycling, rafting and scuba diving in the Holy Land.
Our SUV breezes through the lowest spot on the surface of the Earth. The sheer cliffs of the Judean Desert rise to our right; on our left, the Dead Sea and Jordan’s Edom Mountains, a row of gigantic broken teeth, silhouetted in afternoon haze. This is Eretz Yisrael, the fabled land of Israel and, like many visitors, I’m here, not just for the historical vibe, but for the chance to commune with my inner Indiana Jones.
When you travel to Israel, you’ll find spectacular deserts and forests, hiking trails once tramped by caravans and Roman soldiers, scores of millennial-old ruins and glorious stretches of ocean—all ripe for the thrills of exploration.
My driver pulls onto the shoulder of the highway, near a tower-shaped rock, sculpted by erosion from the salt cliffs above us. The turn-off reads “Lot’s Wife” after the Biblical character who was turned into a pillar of salt during the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We’re near the presumed sites of these ill-fated cities and that’s clearly got some serious mojo whether you’re a believer or not. Personally, I’m not, but I still pick up a marble-sized chunk of salt and slip it into my pocket, a tiny memento of the unfortunate Mrs. Lot.
My driver’s running monologue daisy-chains historic and mythical vignettes together and keeps me in constant information overload. On the span of road we’ve covered just this afternoon, I’ve seen Mt. Nebo, Moses’ supposed burial place; the caves at Qumran, where scribes stashed the Dead Sea Scrolls 2,000 years ago; the oasis of Ein Gedi, prized by Cleopatra herself for the cosmetic value of its minerals; and the legendary zealot fortress, Masada.
This sunny country is a crucible of history and folklore—10,000 years’ worth—vast epics of strife, faith and redemption that spawned three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Their adherents collectively make up over half the human race.
The Gateway City
The international entrée when you travel to Israel is Tel Aviv, set along an arc of Mediterranean beachfront west of Jerusalem. The city is your launch point for adventure touring to Israel’s interior. How and when to travel, whether a guide or special vehicle is required, lists of outfitters and specialists in the activities that interest you, all this information can be had by contacting the Ministry of Tourism or the Israel Government Tourism Office. Creative use of the Web will help pinpoint your interests and travel plans.
Cycling, both on and off road, has become hugely popular in Israel over the last few years, mostly for the abundance of great venues. We head north from Tel Aviv toward Western Galilee where I’ll meet up with my cycling guide, Ran Gefen. Along the way, I insist on a visit to the fabulous, ancient city of Akko, once the chief port and capital of the Crusades.
Akko is being unearthed and restored to reveal fortifications and bathhouses, ornate Crusader quarters, a huge underground prison and a banquet hall that once echoed with the voices of King Richard the Lionheart and his knights. Up the road from Akko, we arrive at Ran’s bike shop and break out a couple of full suspension mountain bikes plus helmets and bottled water for a jaunt that will lead me further into the era of the Crusades.
From a trailhead near the Lebanese border, Ran and I pedal over a well-worn path in the valley of the Keziv River. This was once a Roman trade route. The trail bends through a forest of wild buckthorn and laurel trees, dotted with snapdragon blossoms. A small, year-round stream, Ein Tamir, trickles from a crevice in the rocks.
Our trail begins to climb and up ahead, perched on a rugged cliff, crusader-built Castle Montfort comes into view. We dismount at the base of a switchback, and hike up to the castle ruins. On this lonely hilltop, Montfort’s broken walls command a 360 degree view of the surrounding hillsides with the Mediterranean shimmering far to the west. The keening of some far off jackals and the wind through the castle’s tired battlements are the only sounds you’ll hear in this remote corner of Israel.
Rafting the Sacred River
The Jordan River appears nearly 200 times in the Old and New Testaments. Joshua and the Israelites were said to have crossed it as they entered Promised Land, Jesus Christ was baptized in its waters, and more. Today, it’s become the place of my next adventure—a kayaking trip on one of the world’s most sacred rivers.
We skirt the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake fed by the Jordan. A riverside grove of eucalyptus is home to Jordan River Rafting, operated by nearby Kibbutz Gadot. My guide for the day, a jovial kid named Tal, takes me to a muddy bank, where we outfit with life vests and helmets, and slide an inflatable kayak into the chilly Jordan.
Yar Den, means “descending” in Hebrew. The Jordan makes a 2,000-foot drop as it flows from Mount Hermon in the north, to its terminus in the Dead Sea, 1,300 feet below sea level. The current is brisk and we paddle, mostly to hold our course, between the thickly wooded banks. Other than the gurgling water and an occasional low pass by a dragon fly, the serene silence is palpable. To ancient Israelites, a desert people, these cool riverside glades would surely have seemed like the Promised Land.
Tal’s English is limited to one word, “okay” which pretty much limits conversation as we glide downstream. A couple of spots provide a minor adrenaline rush, pushing our bow down, and spinning us around. Eventually we round a bend toward a span of flat water beneath the Bnot Yaakov Bridge.
“Okay?” Tal asks, as we drift up to the bank.
I’m one word up on him. “Metzuyan,” I reply in Hebrew, “Terrific.”
Climbing the Snake Path
Military service is compulsory for most Israelis. Upon their completion of basic training, all soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces swear an oath: “Masada shall never fall again.”
Few antiquities resonate more in the collective Israeli sensibility than the remains of Masada, a mountaintop stronghold where the final siege took place during the 1st Century Jewish revolt against Rome. The tragic tale of 960 zealot defenders choosing mass suicide over defeat by overwhelming Roman legions is indelibly associated with these carefully excavated ruins overlooking the Judean desert.
The easiest way to the site is via a modern cable car. A more adventurous approach is the original access route, called the Snake Path. To a well-conditioned hiker, this is a moderately challenging switchback trail that takes you 1,300 feet to the top, over a distance of around 2 miles. I make the climb at dawn.
Masada’s mountain was formed by two deep adjacent wadis and, from the base, in the bone-gray predawn light, its steep sides look formidable. But the idea of trekking over a foot path that’s 2,000 years old is, frankly, electrifying. It easily dispels the icy nighttime desert wind and the unnerving feeling of solitude as I begin to climb.
Soon, a hot speck of rising sun peeks over a cloud bank behind the Dead Sea. On the mountainside, the light changes immediately from gray to pink. Down below, to my right, daybreak etches the fragile outline of a Roman camp, still intact after 20 centuries. Sunlight finally clears the cloud tops, and tints the steep walls of Masada’s natural fortress a rich ochre. I stop for a swallow of water, and plod up the last rocky pitch of the Snake Path.
At the top a total surprise: a Bar Mitzvah party with some 100 people are filing happily into the remnants of an ancient roofless synagogue to celebrate a young man’s passage into manhood. There’s probably no more meaningful place outside of Jerusalem for devout Jews to participate in this sacred ritual.
Into the Negev: the Makhtesh
The following day, I undergo my own rite of passage, harnessed into rappelling gear (called “snappelling” in Israel) as I nervously ease out my belay rope and lower myself down a cliff face at the edge of Makhtesh Ramon. I’m phobic about hanging from high places, and the rim of this 2,400-feet deep crater decidedly qualifies as such a place.
Later, we descend via Land Rover deeper into the Makhtesh through 200 million years of geological history. Our hike on the canyon floor is a lesson in the ancient history of planet Earth. Striated bands, each from its own primordial epoch, march up the steep rock walls. Ammonite fossils are embedded in the ground, and a score of oil-rich adaptive plant species sprout underfoot. Adam points out a few that are edible. One, whose aroma suggests camphor, is used by Bedouins for tea, then rolled up in their blankets during the day to deter hungry moths.
Today, under the searing blue sky of the Negev Desert, my confidence is bolstered by the guy at the top monitoring my descent. He’s Adam Sela, a desert tour operator, park ranger, rescue climber and dedicated guardian of the complex desert ecosystem that surrounds us. The sprawling Negev, makes up 55 percent of Israel’s total area, and its crown jewel is the cavernous, otherworldly Makhtesh, a 24-mile-long erosion crater unique to this country and a major attraction for adventure touring.
To Moses Rock and Beyond
Desert is the memory of water. In the case of the Negev, the water in question is the Tethys Sea that covered this area 250 million years ago. I think about this, the day after arriving in Eilat, a resort city on the Gulf of Acaba. Scuba diving in the Red Sea is excellent, and with the help of Dolphin Reef Dive Center I spend a couple of hours under crystal clear water, exploring the Negev’s underwater extension at a colorful reef known as Moses Rock. After experiencing Eilat’s topside nightlife, a sort of cross between Las Vegas and Acapulco, I head for my one last stop in Israel.
Jerusalem and the Kotel
This stop is more pilgrimage than adventure. Jerusalem is one of the world’s must-see cities, the cradle of the Judeo-Christian world as well as the Muslim faith. Over two days I visit such fabulous antiquities as the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Mount of Olives and finally, the celebrated Kotel, the Western Wall—Judaism’s most sacred place.
It’s the last surviving relic of the great Second Temple, built around 19 B.C. by Herod the Great. On a windy afternoon, I don a yarmulke and pay a visit to the wall, jotting down a hastily improvised prayer to tuck between the ancient stones. This is a time honored custom, though I’m not at all religious. The gesture seems a little hollow to me, yet, as my Israeli driver suggested on our trek over the length of this country, “There are things you don’t do for yourself; you do them for your ancestors.”
Copyright © Jim Cornfield / 2013 Singular Communications, LLC.