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Ma'aleh Tze'elim and Nahal Mishmar

hike

Not for the faint-hearted! 

It's hard – not only the hike itself, but more of that later. It's hard to find the words and superlatives to do justice to this sensational hike in the Judean Desert in the Dead Sea area.

I joked with my fellow hikers too, that the hardest part of the day, was choosing the photos to post here. Each turn and climb – up and down – in this rocky wilderness revealed new awesome sights and vistas – each more stunning than the last.

The photos do n't do justice to what the eye beholds – especially considering some of the panoramic views from the heights at the top of Ma'aleh Tze'elim and the hike through Nahal Mishmar towards the Dead Sea at sunset; with Jordan glimmering in the distance.

It had been three days of the coldest, wettest, and darkest storm we'd seen this winter – yet the day after, when we set out, yielded the bluest winter skies and clear air that come to Israel – the day after the storm. And once the early morning woolly hats and jackets came off in the desert – the sun shone bright and hot and believe me, we sweated like August, draining my water pack to the last drop.

Our hike began at the Tze'elim campgrounds, a few kilometers south of Ein Gedi on Road 90. The walk is immediately stunning, across rock and boulders towards the massive walls of Ma'aleh Tzeilim. This climb requires strong legs and stamina – and it is a good two and a half hours of constant climb until the peak. Bearing in mind that you start at -200 meters at the Dead Sea and reach +200 meters at the top – you have easily climbed 400 meters of breath-taking mountainside. Every time you stop for breath – the views are other worldly – up, down or back towards the Dead Sea. The early morning haze actually gave a surreal feel to the whole experience.

As expected, the panoramic views from the top across the desert wilderness, Nahal Tze'elim, and Dead Sea are biblical. You would expect to find a wandering Bnei Yisrael around the next rock outcrop.

The route on the plateau is strewn with bright green Chatzavim – Squills, so called in Hebrew because it literally quarries through the stone after the first serious rains. In addition, we found the Kochav Reichani plant hugging the ground. Its smell is beautiful, and you can easily make at home the most delicious tea from its leaves.We also spotted mountain eagles unique to this area – called Racham. The numerous Acacia Raddiana trees also dispelled any thoughts that nothing blossoms in the desert.

The plateau hike ended far too quickly – but not before we witnessed the "Treasure Cave" from afar. A hoard of rare Chalcolithic artifacts was discovered here, giving the area international archaeological significance.

The climb down Ma'aleh Mishmar to Nahal Mishmar, was extreme and not for the faint hearted. Basically, you are going down the other side of the mountain which we had climbed in the morning. It's a near sheer drop, that requires time (several hours), patience, fortitude, and near mountaineering skills. I joked that this group had changed its name to ESRA Mountaineering Club.

There are few photos of the actual climb down and those that I have, do not show the most treacherous or frightening sections – as I had to put my camera away in my backpack, to give me full use of both hands, legs and bum(!) to get down this massive rock wall.

We lunched at the bottom at the base of the dry waterfall, even though we saw plenty of running water, pools, vegetation at numerous springs, and evidence of wild donkeys, ibex and other wildlife. Lunch had to be quick, as we kept a watchful eye on the clock, knowing our daylight hours in December were limited. A few beautiful Tristram Starlings – male and female – visited us at lunch. They even charmed us with their bird song as they hoped for crumbs from sandwiches. They had, obviously, been here before.

Nahal Mishmar was a treat worth waiting for. This stream, that runs into stunning canyons towards the Dead Sea, is surely one of the most beautiful and widely hiked trails in the Dead Sea area. The afternoon hike was incredible, staggering, astounding – what else can I say! The terrain and hiking combines canyons; riverbed walking; rock scramble; bouldering; tall rock walls perfectly smoothed to white stone by water weathering; rock climbing and descending, and never-ending breath-taking views. As we headed towards the sunset across the gleaming blue Dead Sea and the now clear Jordanian mountains – there were moments when you just wanted to stop, sit, and gaze, open mouthed – at why you live, love and hike in this beautiful country of ours.

We made it to the bus as darkness fell, just in time. We changed our plasters, nursed and rubbed our wounds from the numerous falls and scrapes that we had during the day – me included – but the smiles and stories of precipice and rock-climbing adventures, far exceeded any aching legs or sore toes.

This had been an epic and heroic hike. Without doubt, I would say, one, if not the most extreme and challenging I had ever done with the ESRA Hiking Club. Possibly, even more than Mitzpe Dragot, for those who have hiked it. 

The desert and wilderness scenery is postcard picture quality (if they still made postcards) and the flora and fauna is surprisingly abundant. The challenges we faced had been rewarded with an incredible touch and intimacy with nature in its most beautiful form.

And people still ask me why I love geography and photography!

 

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Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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