A Day Out in the Desert

12 Dec

So the last couple of weekends Asya and I have escaped the increasingly cloudy and chilly Jerusalem for the peaceful (and always sunny) surroundings of the kibbutz. Although only a 2 hour drive south, travelling to Kibbutz Mashabbe Sade on public transport demands extraordinary levels of patience and determination as you fight you way on public buses along with  hordes of soldiers on their way to and from the large military installations located near the Kibbutz. Trying to force yourself on the bus ahead of a shoving mass of young burly men with armed machine guns is not something I am well-equipped to handle…but I’m getting the hang of it slowly.

This weekend the kibbutz arranged a day-out in the desert with the promise of guided hikes and a visit to the highest sand dunes in Israel. I was initially under the impression that this would only be for the more adventurous people kibbtuzniks, those willing to get up at some ungodly hour at the weekend to tramp around in the desert…but no. Half the Kibbutz turned up, easily filling the 4 coaches the kibbutz had put on.

As the coaches dropped us off we ambled en masse in search of the highest sand dune in Israel. As my pictures attest we are hardly taking about the more mountainous sand dunes we may associate with the Sahara, but it still took a decent to effort to climb. Unfortunately for all those children who had brought with them various sledging devices, the dune sloop was not steep enough to slide down. Still, tumbling head down in the sand proved entertainment aplenty for most – including me.

If nothing else the general disorderly fashion by which people wandered about he desert brought a smile to my face as I thought of how this must have been why Moses had to spend a whole 40 years leading the Israelites across Sinai.

By afternoon our various converged in a mock Bedouin village for a hearty lunch. Although only a replica it was still pleasant to stroll about this makeshift village, enjoying the amazing food all in the shadows of the late afternoon sun. Best of all was dozing off on the coach trip back home to the Sigur Ros. Although their songs were written with the bleak volcanic landscape of their native Iceland in mind, I am sure they work just as well in the eerily empty desert that passed before my eyes as I drifted in and out of sleep.

The whole day was spent on the fringes of Israel, only a few kilometres from the Egyptian border. It’s a strange feeling being so close yet so far from this once hostile neighbour. Indeed, had the borders of Israel followed the 1947 UN Partition Plan this would have been Egyptian territory. However Egypt, along with Jordan,  is the only Arab country that has “normalised” relations with Israel; any territorial disputes put to bed long ago. The proofs of bygone conflicts are nevertheless evident in the dismantled military installations we passed on the way.

For someone who has crossed many an international border the lack of cross border traffic surprised me somewhat. Near the Egyptian border there are no bustling commercial towns taking advantage of border traffic…there is no traffic. Who in their right mind would travel from Egypt to Israel or vice versa? Mistrust and fear are far too engrained and resistant on both sides for there ever to be truly normalised relations. So no popping over the border for cheap goods then…

This part of the Negev desert may well be 100% Israeli but somehow it felt as if we were travelling through borrowed land, a part of Israel that somehow doesn’t fit in with the rest of the country (or belong to them if you’re of that persuasion). 95% of Israel’s population live in the relatively lush lands north of the Negev and pay scant attention to what goes on down south where the desert takes on a more bleak and desolate nature. “For those who make the desert bloom there is room for hundreds, thousands, and even millions,” was what Israel’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, declared early on. Aside from the odd kibbutz here and there, this slogan has remained nothing more than just that. The average Israeli’s contact with the Negev is likely only to come when speeding through on their way down to Eilat or during their time in the military – the desert is essentially one big training ground. However, as the rest of Israel slowly fills up, as the cities bulge under the weight of the latest immigration wave, or as the Golan Height and the West Bank exchange owners, it must only be a matter of time before the desert must once again be colonised.

I don’t know. The desert still seems so different from the rest of Israel, still too inhospitable and desolate to support the excess lifestyles the average Israeli has become so accustomed to. Israel is not a Gulf state that can afford to build golf courses and artificial ski slopes in the middle of the desert for no good reason – and thank goodness for that. The limited attempts to populate the desert, in form of no-nonsense middle-sized towns have failed miserably. Just down the road from Kibbutz Mashabbe Sade you can find the not so wonderful Mitzpe Ramon, a living example of Israel’s failed desert development programme. So I don’t think any mass of Israelis, as Ben Gurion had predicted, will be pulling up sticks and heading south into the Negev furnace any time soon.

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Posted by on December 12, 2009 in Travelling in Israel


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