My last excursion in Israel’s South took me into the desert: First, I explored ancient Avdat and then I went in search of an oasis to Ein Akev.
The Negev Desert covers more than half of Israel’s land mass — from Beer Sheva in the North to Eilat at the Red Sea. The Hebrew word negev can be translated to dry or South. However, not all of it is desert; some parts are semi-arid. The Arabic name for the Negev, Naqab, means ‘mountain pass,’ which seems just as fitting as mostof the land is covered in rock rather than sand dunes.
Historically, the Nabateans of Petra fame roamed the Negev as part of the Incense Route that ran from the tip of the Arabic peninsula in Yemen to Gaza at the Mediterranean. That is why you will find numerous ruins dotted about and relatively accessible by car along Route 40.
Not having my own vehicle available, I decided to visit only one place. Avdat, perched on a hill above Route 40, comes with a convenient bus stop for buses #64/65. For navigational purposes, I’m also going to mention that there is a McDonalds next to the National Park visitor center. It’s hard to miss the golden arches when looking for your stop.
Avdat is one of the best-preserved Nabatean cities in Israel. It existed for a thousand years, built under the Nabataeans and continued into the Byzantine era until a strong earthquake led to the abandonment of the city. It is not only unusual for its buildings but also for the system of wells making agriculture in this dry landscape possible in the first place.
Along with other desert cities and the Incense Route, Avdat was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
When I arrived on a Thursday morning in February, I was the only visitor at the visitor center. The clerk sold me my ticket and advised me on hiking routes. Then I watched a 10-minute intro video to the old Nabatean city.
Armed with a map, a camera and 3 l of water, I started climbing into Avdat:
Past the well-preserved Byzantine bathhouse with a deep well, along the dwellings and store rooms hewn in the rock, up to the wine press and the Roman Tower with a magnificent view over the lands. Below me, I could see where 2,000 years ago, Romans had created fields in the desert building on the Nabateans unique skills of collecting and storing even the smallest bit of water the desert yielded.
I explored the old city for about an hour before setting out on the hike I had come for: to find Ein Akev spring.
If you have more time make sure you check out the Roman Villa and Even-Ari Farm, which attempts to reconstruct the ancient farming methods and water storing methods. There is also supposed to be a grave hewn into the rock with a facade comparable to Petra. However, I was not able to get any information from locals as to how to find it.
Note: You do not have to pay the NIS28 entrance fee to Avdat if you are not interested to see the old city. Instead, start your hike from the green path a few meters north of the McDonalds (along the road towards Beer Sheva).
Avdat is located on one of the largest plateaus in Israel, the eponymous Avdat Heights. Avdat Heights is cut through by many canyons. Some of them have springs in them.Ein Avdat and Ein Akev are the biggest ones and favorite spots for a swim in the hot summer months.
Note: Hiking in the summer is not recommended as temperatures can easily reach 40°C, and shade is rare in the Negev. Follow the locals’ lead and use a jeep to get to the pools instead.
Color-coded paths once again make following my route fairly easy. Since I’m hiking on my own, I pay special heed to the words of the visitor center’s clerk: “Look out for the next marker or two from the current marker. If you can’t see them, go back to the last marker and start over.”
I follow the green trail from Avdat past the Roman Army Camp until it meets the blue path. Down the hill, the blue stripes flanked by two white stripes are easy to find. Bedouin tracks cross and disappear.
Two small valleys later I discover the green band emanating from the Upper Akev Spring (Ein Akev Elyon). After two hours of walking, I finally meet two other hikers. Big backpacks with sleeping mats attached to them on their backs, I guess they are doing the multi-day Negev Trail. But there is no exchange. They don’t seem to notice me and my “Hi!” when they pass me. the
Down at the spring, I enjoy the fresh water gurgling from the ground for a little bit. Where it’s standing in small pools, greenish-brown growth makes the water look murky. But it is fresh and nourishes not only high reed groves but also a herd of ibex blocking my path.
I turn right and follow the wadi. Looking up the steep walls sometimes closing in on me, I imagine how once upon a time a river swept through the valley. Now, the water disappears into nothingness, sucked up by the thirsty dry air where the hot sun touches it.
Sometime in-between the markers have turned black.
After another hour, the canyon opens up, and in the distance, I see the plateau drop abruptly.
When I get closer, I notice palm trees.
Looking down from the edge, I see a dark, deep pool of deliciously fresh looking water.
But I cannot see how to get down there. So I follow the edge as it slowly lowers itself towards the ground below, and then turn back to the pool.
There is a handful other people here who look at me like I was an alien. They have come here by jeep or walked from Sde Boker along the jeep track.
The spring water gushes from the rock like a waterfall surrounded by lush green ferns. Pigeons emerge from below the overhand the plants have created. A few meters on, I discover a large lump of soil and brown plant matter giving an idea of the force the water must develop on the rare occasions when rains turn the wadi into a river bed.
I dip my toes into the water. It is freezing. Despite sweating after hours in the baking sun, I skip the dip in the pool. A German couple doesn’t test the water and just jumps in. Their high-pitched screams prove me right in my assessment of the water temperature.
I debate whether to also follow the jeep track, an easy 1h walk in a valley, without major climbs. But I have been told that the walk along the plateau is stunning and that there is a Bedouin selling labneh yogurt with pita bread.
On my way back towards my path along the plateau, I discover markers in the wall to my left. They point up and end in metal handles driven into the rock as a ladder. The rock is slightly slippery with water trickling out but eventually I make it back up to where I had first discovered the springs and the pools.
The path is now marked in green and takes me further up along Divshon Pass (Maale Divshon) with a rock wall to my left and stunning panoramas to my right.
Another hour later, I see makeshift tents on a tableau to my left. They are Bedouin houses. The one with the labneh and pita is quickly found but empty. A sign advises calling the owner in via a local number. But I don’t have an Israeli SIM. So I miss out on the snack and continue along the plateau edge until I see Sde Boker on the other side of the canyon.
The canyon needs to be crossed and the last descent is the most challenging of the hike: It is steep and covered in loose gravel. Some parts are ridges with drops left and right.
I tread carefully and take my time.
Once in the valley, I don’t get to enjoy my feat for long: On the other side, an equally steep incline wants to be scaled.
Wow, it looks like such an arid place, but that doesn’t make it unappealing. Those vistas are so beautiful. And that lizard was good to stop and pose for you 😉
Not the typical hiking areas for me because it looks dry and plain. But that’s the beauty of it! I would love to experience this place too. Thank you for the information!
Yay, a post about Israel! We went there last May, and basically went everywhere in the country EXCEPT the Negev. So nice to live vicariously through your post 🙂 Your section on practical information is super, super helpful. Bravo!
Now I want to hike there and check out the route in the extreme heat. Love to see the lizards now
That sounds like quite the adventure! I don’t know if I could make that trek; I think I’d take the jeep lol. I really love how you captioned each photo! It was lovely to follow along on your journey.
Interesting to know you can hitchhike during Shabbat! I think this area looks amazing and you can see why it’s UNESCO protected. I would love to explore here and find the spring for myself!
You never read a lot of articles about Israel, so this one is really interesting. Unbelievable how dry the landscape can be, but on the other side; you have this amazing water holes in the middle of the dessert, which would be a real oasis for someone who got lost 😉
The place looks very dry and hot for hiking. I look for the greenery, water and splendid view for hiking. But it’s always nice to explore unconventional places for an ultimate adventure.
The landscape looks quite interesting. I do remember about this desert while doing my research on places to visit in Israel. The hike in the canyon looks stressful though
You must really love hiking to do it somewhere so dry and hot! Then again, the scenery is so different that it is probably well worth the effort
So interesting! I love learning the history of a place. I’ve heard hiking wasn’t recommended in summer before! I’m always drawn to green or blue places – forests and beaches!
I had never been top Israel but most probably I’ll visit it this year. And I would love to explore Negev Trails. Thanks for sharing such a detailed post.
Great pictures, they really help let you know what you are in for if you were to do this hike. I never thought I would be interested in doing a desert hike but maybe if I had enough water I’d do it after reading this!
What beautifully written article, and your photographs are nice, too. I’ve yet to visit Israel but the landscape is certainly one which appeals to me as a photographer.
That is very convenient that you can get to the Negev Desert hike by public transport if you need to. It sounds like the hiking route is well marked so that makes me feel better about doing a hike like that. I guess you could do this as a day trip if you were staying in Tel Aviv?
I’ve read your post with great interest! You capture an area that is unknown to me with a lot of detail and passion. However hiking is not always my cup of tea, I would love to visit Israel one day!