Negev Desert Crossing - November 2016 - Trip Report

There was no particular inspiration or realisation that drew me to Israel, I simply studied the Easyjet route map to see what exotic destinations I could get to cheaply. When first looking at this back in September the flights were £120 return (definitely within budget) and so I set about investigating what adventures could be had in 2 or 3 weeks in Israel.

After some extensive googling I settled on a trek through Israel’s Negev desert, part of Israel’s National Trail. I’d never been to a desert before and this seemed like a good way to get some experience. Several weeks later I finally got round to booking the flights and now just needed to work out how to make this plan viable. The main logistics difficulty was that of water; obviously hard to come by in a desert!

Most (if not all?) groups pay for a daily water caches buried in advance by 4x4. The idea of this didn’t sit right with me as I don’t really like the idea of a vehicle driving up every day to resupply, I prefer to go ‘unsupported’ on my trips. Another significant factor is that water drops are very expensive! After several days of research I finally managed to figure out a route that I thought would work – it did however involve carrying 3 days of water on 2 occasions! There is a plan on the internet that gives details for completing this hike without caching water, however I didn’t really understand how this worked as it still seemed to rely on water deliveries on some days (I suspect it is probably aimed at not having to do the caching in advance, therefore reducing the risk water gets lost or stolen, and also reduces the number of water resupplies needed).

My route had been planned using summary maps on a 1:250,000 scale. I had an idea of the trail route, and most importantly the rough locations of water supplies, but the maps weren’t detailed enough to navigate from once hiking. I’d intended to purchase a guidebook once in-country but couldn’t find it in the 3 bookstores I checked (despite the author’s reassurances on the internet that it was easy to get hold of). As I couldn’t find the guidebook I did try one camping store to see if they stocked topographic maps – these were very expensive and they didn’t have the full range I need in stock. After a bit of thinking I decided to forego any proper topographic maps, hopefully the trail would be well marked and I would be able to follow it without the need for proper navigation. I’d be able to tick of checkpoints against my summary map. For emergencies I’d brought print-outs of old Russian 1:50,000 military maps from around 1980 – they didn’t show the trail and so were a bit useless in that regard but in a pinch I figured I should be able to identify my location using GPS and then navigate out from there. I also expected to have phone signal for many sections of the trek which helped provide some redundancy for electronics failure.

I’d flown into Tel Aviv and bussed to Arad, staying at the Dead Sea Adventure hostel. This was a welcoming and cheap place but is about 3km from the start of the trail. On my first day I set out early, eager to beat the desert sun. I didn’t expect it to get that hot but I knew I wasn’t experienced and so needed to be cautious.

To be honest I was feeling apprehensive. I don’t feel like doing any type of remote trip solo, the ‘what if?’ question always preying at the back of my mind. My normal concerns were compounded by my lack of decent maps and the fact that I was carrying about half the recommended water. I’d taken 10l for 3 days, so about 3 litres a day. All the sources I’d read beforehand recommended carrying 5 to 6l with you daily, with maybe 8l being dropped at each water cache t allow spare for evening drinking, washing and cooking. My decision to only carry around 3l a day had been carefully thought out:

  •  I was there in winter, the coldest part of the year. The recommendations are probably cautious estimates for hotter months.
  • I figured I would be fitter and therefore faster than the average hiker. This should mean I would sweat less and could get off the trail and into camp or shade sooner.
  • At each of my water resupply points (every 2 or 3 days) I could drink heavily to rehydrate myself.
  • If I was completely wrong I probably still had enough water for 2 days. I was prepared to turn round and abandon or restart the trek if I needed to.
  • With 10l of water my pack weighed in at around 25kg – I’m not used to long hikes with heavy loads and so this seemed like a sensible upper limit.

The start of the trail was unspectacular. Departing from a roundabout in Arad it is heavily littered and stays within sight and sound of a road for several kilometres. Eventually it branches away into a dry river bed, but soon ends up on a dirt track which eventually leads to the first night camp next to a main road. Sat at camp that evening I was not feeling motivated; the campsite was noisy and dirty and my hips and inner thighs were sore from my bag and boxers rubbing. I settled down for dinner, read my book and mentally prepared myself for the next day.

Luckily I seem to have a useful ability to refresh myself overnight. Rarely can I think of a time where I’ve gone to bed feeling miserable, not to wake up the following morning feeling positive, or at least with a renewed sense of vigour and determination. I remember the Bursar at my old school once telling me that I “bounce back from disaster well” – I’m not sure now what particular incident he was referring to but the quotation has stuck with me!

The second day was better. My bag was lighter and the scenery improved, a herd of camels also spurred me on. About halfway through the day I passed under an 18km long conveyor belt which cuts through the desert carrying minerals from the Dead Sea to factories. Standing underneath this belt I have to admit I was puzzled by the Israeli’s attitude to conservation, this was a confusion that would resurface many times on this trip. In Israel there are a number of rules about where and when you’re allowed to hike, and where and how you can camp – often there are signs in pretty remote locations reminding you of the rules. However there are also lots of human constructions (like this conveyor belt) simply dumped in the desert. There also tends to be a tendency for ‘party groups’ to rock up at the night camps and set up speakers and minibars – apparently this is more acceptable than a discreet wild camper?

I was making good time until I reached the top of the Katan Crater where I made a navigation error and ended up off-route, descending 350m on a steep and very unstable scree slope with drops on either side. About halfway down I realised I this didn’t seem quite and, looking to my left, notice a lovely ridge line with a gentle gradient leading down. Feeling too committed to turn back now I continued slowly down but was definitely relieved to reach the bottom after several half-slips and stumbles.

Walking along the bottom of the crater to the campsite (Crater’s Gap) I passed sand and rock of all different colours. This was the more remote desert hiking experience I’d been looking for. There were also a number of scrambles up and down where the path crossed mini-canyons. The craters in Israel have been created by a fairly unique geological phenomena. Millions of years ago what is now the Negev desert was underwater, and the craters were hump shaped hills, a layer of harder rocks (limestone and dolomite) covering a softer rock (sandstone). Gradually water and other climatic forces flattened the hump, leaving the sandstone exposed from the top. Water then quickly entered through these gaps to carve out rivers through the sandstone below. Eventually the rest of the roof collapsed under its own weight, leaving the crater we see today. The sandstone has then quickly eroded, the roof of the harder layer eventually collapsing under its own weight, leaving just the harder outside edges of the crater. In Israel’s largest crater (Makhtesh Ramon) some of the rocks at the bottom of the crater are thought to be over 200 million years old. These craters are ever deepening and over time even older rock strata will be revealed.

Walking through these craters I was reminded a lot of many of the caves I have been in. Now, having researched the geology of these craters a little, it is good to know that my instincts weren’t far off as they were essentially formed as caves and are now just roofless!

My trail wound across the Israeli desert for a further 11 days. There were several long flat sections and many dirty campsites. However there were also lush isolated oases, spectacular multi-coloured rock and sand sections and a surprising amount of climbing and scrambling moves.

I was fortunate with the weather and it remained firmly within the -2 to 25 degrees range (with not much time at the extremes of those ranges). There was often a breeze, but no sandstorms and a few hours of light drizzle. Generally the desert was dried mud and rock, rather than energy sapping sand and I was able to keep up a decent walking pace. All of my water supplies worked out well and I never had to search for the emergency water sources which I’d listed (which would be harder to find and a less reliable source of water than my planned ones).

My favourite day of the trek was probably climbing Mount Karbolet, just after Oron. Normally I walked and camped alone but there were two nights where I ended up sharing campsites with other groups. One of these was in Oron and the two group there both warned me of the dangers of the descent from Mount Karbolet. Both of these groups set out very early with plans to escape from an alternative easier descent if they didn’t get along the ridge by a certain time. The climb up to Mount Karbolet was uninteresting but the traverse along the top of it, following the rim of the HaMakhtesh HaGadol crater, felt and looked like an easy alpine ridge route. The descent was amazing, climbing down steep gullies formed by water that had previously snaked its way down the mountain, forming deep pits and smooth bedrock the whole way. The descent wasn’t easy and I can see why people would be wary of it, particularly in the dark. However, with care it is perfectly safe as the route is well marked and there are fixed aids to assist the harder climbing and scrambling moves.

My body was beginning to feel it by the end of the trail. I’d averaged 30km days without a rest day whilst carrying a heavy pack with only one pole (half of one of my poles had somehow disappeared between London Luton and Tel Aviv airports!) and my knee was playing up. I’d also been battling blisters constantly for the whole trip – this was new for me as normally my feet stay in good condition. I think the sand, grit and lack of fresh/washed socks was winning through. I finished the trail after 13 days, a fair bit quicker than the 20 or so a lot of groups aim for. I used the last of my blister tape on the morning of the final day (well timed I’d say!) and felt slow that day but was pleased to finish just before dark. There was a supermarket right at the end of the trail and I was excited to be able to get in some decent food – bizarrely I bumped into a young guy I’d met several days ago on the trail. He’d just been out walking for a couple of days and then had hitch-hiked down to Eilat so it was a big coincidence to run into him!

One thing that struck me as unusual was the use of the desert for educational purposes. On 3 separate days I rounded the stillness and silence of one corner of the desert to find large numbers of school students on outings (probably 1500 of them on one occasion). It was a bit of a shock, and annoying on occasions to pass them, but it was good to see so many people out there. I’m not sure quite how the schooling system works but conscription into the military still occurs in Israel after leaving school and I saw children as young as around 14 carrying rifles with loaded magazines taped to the stock.

The hike was a great experience but was sadly littered. A number of the night camps were next to noisy roads or factories and dotted with campfires (rather than fewer fires being created and these reused). As mentioned earlier I’m puzzled by Israel’s approach to conservation.

I only met a few people on the trail and these were all Israeli. They were all very proud of the Negev desert and several told me it was one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. I’m not sure if I fully agreed with this, but there were certainly parts of it that caught your breath. However the long dirt road sections did not hold my interest as well as other hikes I’ve been on. That said the Israelis I met were all very friendly with most offering me food and water – I refused this as I wanted to test the viability of my ‘no water resupply’ plan but I haven’t experienced this level of generosity in the UK.