Saturday, February 11, 2012

Summer 2011: Mitzpe Ramon, Israel

August 17-19, 2011 -- After working on Kibbutz Lahav for two-and-a-half weeks and exploring the nearby city of Beersheba, my next stop in Israel was 85 kilometers (53 miles) south to the small town of Mitzpe Ramon in the heart of the Negev desert. Mitzpe Ramon is a popular tourist destination because the town overlooks the massive Ramon Crater. The crater is actually technically not a crater but the world's largest makhtesh --a geological formation that wasn't impacted by a meteor but instead was created by erosion. I also visited the tomb of Israel's founder and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion near Sde Boker and hiked through Tsin Canyon.

While in Mitzpe Ramon I stayed at the Green Backpackers Hostel, run by Lee and her husband Yoash. The hostel is cozy and clean and offers a free sunset tour of Makhtesh Ramon. The friendly couple was super helpful in providing information about sightseeing and hiking. The hostel is highly recommended if you find yourself needing a place to say in Mitzpe Ramon.

There are Nubian ibexes roaming freely and it takes some time to get used to seeing these harmless desert mountain goats everywhere you turn. When they are not munching on grass and leaves they will stand there and stare at you. Signs warn visitors not to feed the ibexes, cautioning that "human food is harmful to them and may cause death." Sadly, I saw many people violating this rule by carelessly feeding the ibexes, who don't know any better.

I also was somewhat surprised to see a tent city protest encampment in such a small place as Mitzpe Ramon. The social justice protests against the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing this past summer were centered in Tel Aviv and other big cities, but the fact that these demonstrations had spread to even rural areas of Israel shows how powerful they were and how much they resonated with not just big city dwellers but people all over Israel.

The sunset tour of Makhtesh Ramon was spectacular and our guide Yoash was very knowledgeable when it came to explaining how the area was formed millions of years ago and other geological facts. The next day I walked farther along the cliff's edge to the Desert Sculpture Park, which features 19 contemporary stone sculptures. Some of the sculptures are real head-scratchers, and many are missing their plaques with the title and artist. But these massive stone carvings are an oddity that should not be missed on a visit to Mitzpe Ramon.  After walking through the sculpture park, I stumbled upon the new luxury resort hotel called Beresheet. This swank spot features rooms with their own private swimming pool overlooking the Ramon Crater. If you want to see the Ramon Crater in style, then I suggest booking a room at Beresheet. Walking past the hotel there is the Visitors Center, which is currently closed for renovations to commemorate Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, who died during the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Later in the day I hopped on a bus to Sde Boker and Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula are laid to rest. As I walked the tree-shaded path to Ben-Gurion's tomb, I was greeted by more Nubian ibexes. The tombs are located on a cliff offering spectacular views of Tsin Canyon. Ben-Gurion's dream was for Jews to settle the Negev and make the desert bloom. When he retired he became a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker and when he died the Israeli government fulfilled his request to be buried in the Negev, instead of in Jerusalem like Israel's other leaders.

Next to Ben-Gurion's Tomb is the campus of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, where cutting-edge academic research into solar technology and water resources occurs. There were also a lot of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers walking around the campus. After a traditional Israeli pita and hummus lunch, I went on a hike in the middle of the day through Tzin Canyon. Yoash told us the best time to hike is in the late afternoon/early evening when the Negev sun isn't as strong. So being the adventurous American, I ignored the advice and instead took a hike in the middle of a scorching hot day. I felt like Abraham or one of the other biblical prophets as I descended into the desolate valley. As I walked through the trail at the bottom of the canyon, I couldn't help but think back to Yoash's description of the mostly harmless mountain lions that wander the desert. It wasn't very comforting. I kept thinking a mountain lion could at any time leap out of one of the many caves and crevices. And of course running out of water was a concern as well, especially if I got lost. As it turns out, I made it without fending off any predators or dehydrating, although the last leg of the hike back up to the top of the canyon was brutal.

As I was waiting for the bus back to Mitzpe Ramon, I heard from a girl that there was a massive terrorist attack earlier in the day on the same bus route I was planning on taking to Eilat the next dayEgged bus #392 from Beersheba to Eilat. The bus was on Route 12 about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Eilat when terrorists ambushed the bus, firing automatic weapons at the passengers. The terrorists also targeted another empty bus, a private car and a military patrol, killing eight people and wounding dozens. My heart goes out to the innocent victims of these violent attacks, and I will always feel lucky and blessed that I wasn't on that bus, which I easily could have been had my itinerary changed by just one day. I thank HaShem, השם that I was not on that bus. After consulting with concerned family and friends, I decided not to travel to Eilat and Petra, but instead head up to Jerusalem a few days earlier than planned. Of course, this being Israel, there was a terror alert issued for Jerusalem the moment I arrived.

Later that night I joined an older Australian gentleman and two French girls on a drive to the outskirts of Mitzpe Ramon, away from the city lights, to lay under the stars. In the pitch black darkness of the Negev desert, before the moon had risen, the entire Milky Way galaxy unfolded before our eyes. We located some of the constellations and I must have counted at least five shooting stars. With the vastness of the universe twinkling above us on a starry summer night in the Negev, a sense of calm and peace overtook me for a fleeting moment in this troubled world we live in.

Peace. Shalom. שָׁלוֹם. Salaam. سلام‎.

Click here for more observations of Mitzpe Ramon and Midreshet Ben-Gurion on Green Forward Blog.

Here are more pictures from Mitzpe Ramon and Midreshet Ben-Gurion. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr.

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