Once upon a time in the Negev
Even though it's winter, the sun is higher in the sky than I'm used to. In a way that's a good thing because my eyes were spared the near horizon glare of our star. Stepping off the road onto the sand produced a sound I haven't heard since leaving Southern California many years ago. The familiar crunch brought memories back to my mind as I proceeded into Israel's Negev Desert.
Reaching that point involved a number of steps. A flight to Ben Gurion Airport, in early January, saw me landing about 3 in the afternoon Israel time. There are a number of ways to get to Jerusalem from there: train, bus and taxi-shuttle (expensive rip off). I didn't want to waste time and took a shuttle in.
Arriving on a Thursday evening meant having to bunk up for three nights at the Kaplan, where I stayed a couple of years ago, because Shabbat begins Friday evening. This gave me about half a day to get some local currency in my pocket and stock up on some food. The decision to hitch-hike as much as possible (to keep the costs down) was made before I left home.
Leaving Jerusalem by foot, heading for a road which runs south, proved to be quite a hassle. I ended up (due to wrong directions) in the eastern part of town and could not get to the road I wanted to reach. National road 40 takes me toward Beer Sheva. I asked some guy who got 4 mixed up with 9 and ended up on Road 90. A couple of rides happened, but at least 3 others I walked away from, as Arab driven vans full of people insisted I pay them. No way, I'm "tremping" (the Israeli term for hitch-hiking).
At one point there was this collection of cafės, a small supermarket, gas station andtwo camels (for tourists to ride). I was about 20 kilometers from Jericho and decided to head for there. It was the wrong part of the country but, after all, I am winging this somewhat. A nice hostel on the outskirts of the city provided a bed for the night, not bad considering the locale.
This section of Jericho is a bit outside of town with Route 90 on the other side, the road which runs down the length of the Dead Sea. As I walked around the place I found the people quite friendly. They are quite poor, yet there seemed to be a comradeship amongst them, the type you find when everyone is in the same situation and just have to get along in order to survive. In it's supermarket I watched an old lady counting her pennies. The man refused payment and even gave her a few extras. They take care of each other.
Physically it's not much to look at, but I kind of liked it. I left the hostel early hoping that I would not have too much trouble reaching the Dead Sea road, within an hour I was on it and caught my first ride. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth.
While most of us know about floating in the Dead Sea. What I noticed as I was going by it were danger signs. It appears that water can collect under the sand then evaporates and leaves a hole sometimes several feet deep. I had not heard of something like that before. Walk on the sand over that hole and down you go, never to be seen again. Maybe in a thousand years someone might, maybe, discover your bones. So if you walk around the areastick to the paths.
A man whose business took him there dropped me off at the main resort. A little bit to eat and wander about then I continued my journey. The area was quite a few kilometers from the entrance to the main road and I had to walk it. Once at the junction I began my tremp. Here in Israel, when hitch-hiking, you don't use your thumb. If you do: the driver acknowledges you, smiles, gives you a thumbs up and does not stop. Instead you hold the hand with the palm facing the traffic and the first 2 fingers together. Doing this brought me a ride by a truck driver going to Dimona.
The first thing that struck me was standing near a camel warning sign. These things wander around all over the Sinai Peninsula. Maybe at one time the Bedouins herded them, but not now. I had hoped to contact a Bedouin guy I met the other year because they know where the water is, after all they've been living around here for thousands of years. I was unable to get hold of him, so just took my chances. I was trained to survive in the desert and the Negev has a lot of water in, under and at various places, so I wasn't too fussed about it. Trouble is, I didn't get to spend as much time out there alone as I had hoped due to the weather
From the depths of the Dead Sea area, we rose many hundreds of meters through the desert mountains. So far, the entire time had been in a dust storm (it lasted 3 days). It was the first time I had been in one. The air was filled with dust, obscuring the sun (a sort of light, browny, hazy glow in the sky sometimes). I have a pair of sunglasses that are scratch proof and wrap a fair ways around my head so my eyes were well protected.
The dust was all over the place and everything covered in it, including me. Sometimes visibility was down to less than a kilometer, other times I could make out the vague shapes of distant mountains, like spectres calling you to step into the storm and be eaten by the dust monster. And... it was cold, about 5-7C plus the wind chill factor. Sandstorms have much higher winds and you don't even want to think about trying to travel in one.
It's a pity about it, because the landscape can hardly be seen and I missed a lot of the beauty of the Negev. My lungs were full of the stuff so every now and then I had to force a good, get rid of the phlem cough to clear them up. Now I know why the Bedouin wear those head coverings with part of it wrapped over their mouth and nose. Next time I'm in Beer Sheva I'll going to get one.
Beyond Dimona is Yeruham, where I spent the night in a rather luxurious (and too expensive) room. Yeruham is higher and quite a lot colder than it has been the last 2 days. It was here that I managed to change direction toward Beer Sheva. There seemed to be a lot of Sephardic Jews here, most of them were very helpful.
Once morning arrived, I set out toward Beer Sheva. As I walked toward the road, there was this guy, waiting at a bus stop. It was in Yeruham that the astronomical expense and unreliability of travel in England really bore home to me. A bus to Beer Sheva cost next to nothing (7 Shekels), was a lot more comfortable than English ones and on time, so I grabbed it.
This particular day the dust storm stopped and sun came out with the thermometer hitting about 20-25C. En route I kept an eye out for a place to get off and head out into the desert on foot. However, the bus was not allowed to stop until it arrived at the station in the city.
There, once again, confusion reigned. People, including officials, sending me in the wrong direction. I lost time because of that but finally managed to catch a bus going back to Yeruham and a helpful person translated to the driver, who could not understand why I wanted to get off the bus in the middle of nowhere. "Just stop the damned bus and let me off!" He did and I stepped out onto the desert floor.
Finally, later than planned, I was all alone in the Negev. My fleece came off, I tied the arms around my waist, rolled up my shirt sleeves and set off for some nearby mountains.
Early on there was a pile of camel dung, probably no more than half a day old (no dust on it), but the beast was gone and I never saw one. Nearby there was a broken branch of a desert tree. It was still solid and I used it as a pole to give me some stability over rock strewn sand and dirt. There are a lot of small stones and rocks all over the desert floor, making it easy to sprain an ankle. There they were, like malevolent imps, waiting for an unsuspecting human to fall prey to their expertise in destroying balance.
I don't know if the entire Negev is like this or not, but wasn't too slow goingonce I got used to it. Ahead were some low hills, mountains really, the altitude here is quite high. Two were cleared and I stopped, looking for a place to just "be". About 50 feet below was a likely looking spot and I wove through the stones to reach it. At one point a slight scramble was required to cross some washed away ground.
Setting my pack down onto the ground, I just stood and stared. A breeze had begun, but not strong enough to start another dust storm (I was wrong, the storm hit some hours later). The sun was there, smiling at me and I felt good. My jeans began to slide down a little and I realized that a weight loss has occurred over the last few days of walking about. Tightening my belt added to the whole sense of well being which was taking place. With the sun heading swiftly toward the horizon, the return to Beer Sheva was on the cards.
A bus stop was a ways down the road, once I got back to it, so I grabbed the first one that came byall busses go to Beer Sheva. The driver turned out to be the same one as on the outward journey, he looked at me with bewilderment in his eyes, I just winked, paid my fare, said toda (thank you in Hebrew) and sat down. The nice little trek and time alone had been good for my soul. I just wish I could have been there a lot longer.
The second dust storm hit shortly after I arrived in Beer Sheva. A huge market is not far from the bus station, so I grabbed a few bits of food to eat and a bottle of orange juice. I had spent 4 days in the Negev, but only one where I would hike more than a mile or so. The people were great, though many spoke only Bedawi.
It is still winter here and nightime temperatures slide down into the low thirties. An hotel, in the old part of town, that didn't cost a bomb was found and here I am writing out the article, stretching out on a comfy bed with my legs knowing they've had a good workout.
. . . . . . .
Tomorrow I say farewell to the Negev and head north.
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