ECO-TOURISM IN ISRAEL
TEXT & SELECT PHOTOS: DOMINICK RODRIGUES
Israel – the “Biblical” land of “Milk and Honey” – is witnessing a Eco-tourism Revolution, as ancient eras come alive for tourists worldwide in their “Israeli Journey through History.” Highlighting the fragile yet beautiful desert environment is high on the Israeli Government’s agenda, as they showcase ancient civilizations in the midst of wildlife and nature. I was hugely excited at viewing the azure blue waters and envisioning the Biblical scenes when I visited the Sea of Galilee, where the Bible mentions Jesus Christ ‘walked’ on the waters, drawing his 12 Apostles from their fishing nets and boats to follow him; blessing and sharing ‘five loaves and two fishes’ with a crowd of 5,000, barely 2,000 years ago. We were a huge “dhow” filled with tourists that did a small circular tour from the wooden jetty, while divers plumbed the blue depths below its decks.
Agamon-hula Birdwatching Centre – beside the Golan Heights separating Syria – was where I saw a smaller version of the South American Capybara. Interestingly, I met Inbal Rubin (45) working at Agamonhula KKL as the in-charge of guides – he has been to Goa three times and loved the people and food there. “Goa is now a second home for me,” she said, on knowing that I am a Goan.
Niraspis (Nir), our ranger guide, took us bird-watching and said that around 100,000 migrating Eurasian Cranes come here from Russia/scandinavia enroute to Sudan and Eastern Africa, besides 300-400 white storks from eastern Europe (swallows, beeeaters, kingfishers, hoopoes) – and even the “Black-headed Bunting” from India which was spotted in Mt Hermon nearby – and are in constant flight. “The 2,000acre Agmon Hula Reserve was wetlands (it is peat now) till 1990 and agriculture was not economical till the JNF stepped in to promote agriculture and protect the Sea of Galilee from pollution. Today, vegetation here includes pecan, mulberry, fig, pomegranate, eucalyptus, watermelon, potatoes, carrots, greenpeas, chickpeas,
besides peanuts and corn, of which eight tonnes is fed daily to the visiting cranes.”
A surprising sight on the canal was the “Nutria” – a relative of the South American ‘Capybara” – which had been brought here earlier for their “pelts” but became pests instead, Nir said, adding that the canal is home to carp, catfish and otters, while on land there are the wild Ass, jackals and wildboar.
Agamon-hula’s resident chief ornithologist Shai Agmon highlighted the capture and ‘ringing’ of 550 bird species – coming from Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Georgia, Hungary, Rumania and Sweden – to determine their journeys and health. Displaying one that had been ringed in faraway Tel Aviv, he said “We found three species of sparrow including the Dead Sea sparrow, the “Spanish” and “Common” too. We are losing open habitats worldwide and the sparrow tells us we need meadows as well.” Other trapped birds (he lets children release them) include the Eurasian Bee-eater from Kazaksthan, Basrah reed warblers (which were thought to be extinct after the Us-iraq war till the first breeding pair was noticed here), Western African Palm dove (this bird is not supposed to be here but – due to its cries sounding like “God is Great” – Arabs brought it here and released it in the desert), pelicans, demoiselle cranes and blue jay. Raptors like “Black-shouldered Kite” were extremely rare with barely 8 sightings from 1850s to 2005, but successful breeding now has 400 pairs in Israel including 90-100 in this Valley. Autumn is the best bird-watching time when millions of raptors fly across the expanse. The most exotic bird he caught here was Japan’s “Eye-browed Thrush.”
Cheese and wine were sampled on our culinary trail while visiting Omer Zeltzer’s “Shai Zeltzer Dairy” farm in the Mount Carmel ranges, where 200 ‘Anglo-nubian’ goats provide milk for cheese. “Goats are seasonal milk-givers and high season is spring, but milk and cheese depends on what the goats eat – as they are picky and eat from different trees in season like ‘Mediterranean Brush’, ‘Oak” (female and male Oak trees have different flavours, but goats prefer the female Oak and leaves of the male Oak) and Pistachio ,” California educated Omer said, while noting that this dairy farm started as a place for “dropouts” to evolve through regional funding in the 70s. “We started with plants and vegetables, and later goat farming with the Anglonubian breed from USA’S genome bank which gives thick milk, for making different types of cheeses like ‘Ramon’ (lactic cheese named after his brother and agriculturist, who grows vegetables on rooftops); ‘Rya’ (winter cheese named after his ‘bee-keeper’ sister), as well as ‘Coal’ cheese and ‘Vine Leaves” cheese (aged in vine leaves for a month inside dark caves).”
“We had noticed a strange problem here, only female ‘Yakmurim’ (local elk deer species) were found here, whereas their males were in Syria (enemy territory then). We somehow got the males and bred them successfully,” Omer revealed, while treating us to other delightful cheeses like ‘Bikurim’ (produced from the first milk after weaning baby goats), and Spanish ‘Monchego’ (from goats that eat fallen olives so this cheese contains nutritious ‘Oleaolic fatty acids’). Now ‘Yakmurim’ are bred and released in the Carmel Mountains, home to predators like lynx and spotted hyena, while Persian deer and elk graze alongside the goats.
Just then, a wholly black-clad mysterious woman (Omer said she was a ‘Nun’ who came from the mountains nearby to buy milk and dairy products for her congregation’s ailing Mother Superior) bought curd before silently gliding away, while we watched her, nibbling our cheese.
Our visit to an “Oasis” in the Negev desert was fascinating, where desert
‘greening’ in 90% sunny days (that feed solar panels for electricity) is actually happening through Vines (wine) and Rocks (archaeology), while providing shelter for partridges amidst vines, pomegranate trees, olives, figs, dates and bougainvilla. Young entrepreneur Tchai Aviv showed off both natural treasures. “Ancient Nabateans cultivated land and trapped/diverted rainwater successfully to grow grapes. Today, while our American Oak barrels store port wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, Chardonnay and other varieties were experimented with before we produced four new types of grapes, of which two were harvested. Now we are combining wine tourism here with Bed-nbreakfast+cabin stays, a big draw in desert living, which goes on until winter.”
This 10-acre Oasis produces three main wines including a Kosher variety (1,000 bottles are annually sent to another winery where a religious person blesses it) and the Desert brand. Our wines are made only by Jews and we make nine kinds of wines,” he said, while I tasted the costliest of them, the “Desert Dessert” wine (120 shekels).
Archaeology is a huge attraction here, with ancient weapons made of flintstone being discovered on digs. Nabatean camels
were used in caravans here comprising 5,000 camels in each herd. A walkway directs tourists to the mountaintop where brown rocks highlight ancient writings. “They are Cavemen drawings dating to between 2,000 to 4,000 years years ago,” said Aviv. Horses are kept here for riding and tracing missing persons in the desert.
“You are now enroute to Africa,” said our guide, while driving us along the Great Rift Valley road (which stretches all the way to Africa), before departing the coast and ascending to Mt. Carmel (550 msl), where we saw early 19th century Jewish settlements, which had been the residence of the fabulously wealthy ‘Rothschild’ Jews, who introduced international banking to USA and the world. Our visit to the Arava Visitor centre – along the Great Rift Valley road – revealed creatures like ‘Black desert cobra’ and plenty of vipers, including ‘Palestine viper’, “Saw-scaled viper,’ ‘Lebanon viper’, ‘Persian horned viper,’ and “Black mole viper.’
I was curious to see a ‘kibbutz’ and visited a modern one – the swanky Hagoshrim Kibbutz and Resort Hotel, built on the ruins of the winter palace of Emir Fa’ur, who had ruled the northern Hula Valley since Ottoman times. Facing the ‘Golan Heights’ and the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon and located in a Nature Reserve filled with springs, rivulets and the Rivers Dan, Hatzbani and Banias, the kibbutz hotel has embraced eco-tourism in greening through nature preservation, alongside recycling, energy-saving measures and environment-friendly systems, while its 204 rooms include the “Koren Stream House” rooms with soothing sounds and views of the flowing Koren stream nearby.
A ‘Turkish Hamam’ and sauna here offered pampering treatments that eased the muscle kinks from motor travel, but meeting a real-life ‘Kibbutnikti’ – Hanna Levy – at Hagoshrim was an exciting bonus. She narrated her story, saying, “Hagoshrim
means ‘bridges’ and is a bridge of hope for Jews from all over the world, while also becoming a meeting place for different people in different ways.” Born a Jew in Nazi Germany in 1940, the death of her father prompted her mother to take the family to her native Bolivia. “I was 7 years old then and didn’t like Bolivia. When someone from Israel came here to convince Jewish children to migrate to Israel, I decided to go and – on a choice between living in desert kibbutz or one in Upper Galilee, I chose the desert (Hagoshrim) and fell in love with its mountains, trees, water. In 1957, I fell in love again – this time with my husband, and we now have a son Yitzhak (he’s 52 now and hated kindergarten here, and a daughter, now living in Belgium.” Fast forward 43 years; an ebullient Hanna now speaks Spanish, German, French and Hebrew as the Hotel’s marketing manager, and is presently in guest relations. “Hagoshrim Kibbutz is an international Kibbutz with its members from around the world living off agriculture, hotel trade and outside jobs. But today Kibbutz life has changed,” she laments. “We are now capitalists – alongside being a community – and into making money. Pioneers from Russia brought Russian socialism into the kibbutz but now kids rebel, stay till they are 18 with parents, go into compulsory service in the army and then disappear elsewhere – though some come back, pulled in by nostalgic memories. Despite lots of changes occurring, Kibbutzes are contributing to Israel’s economy, with 3% GDP generated through hotels, tourism and agriculture.”
Mizpe Ramon, a town in the Central Negev highlands, added colour and wildlife enjoyment to my tour. As we climbed the hill to view the dazzling serpentine view of the crater, a herd of Ibex appeared and one came towards me. As I fumbled in my bag for biscuits, she shrugged her head disdainfully and moved off. Seconds later, a bearded male strode up to me with a mean look, saying ‘Don’t approach my woman,’ and followed her. A Jewish guy, Eli Yahu, while walking beside me, commented humourously, “Good to eat, huh?” and I retorted “I love – but don’t eat – wildlife.” Eli, a calligraphist hand-writing the Torah, the Jewish Holy Book, said the ibex herds breed and move freely amidst the townsfolk, while eating everything including garbage, and living in the craggy cliffs nearby. I followed the ibex and stood awed by the mélange of colors on the desert floor below, even as the animals ran fleetfooted down the steep mountain.
Israel has 70 national parks in which mountain goat “Arthzy” is the mascot. We met Dotan Rotem (landscape ecologist in the Israel National Parks Authority), in the World Heritage Site, the Nahal Me’arot Nature Reserve, on the Mt Carmel range. He explained, “Israel’s 20,000 sq metres area holds prehistoric caves (500,000-yearold ones featuring Homo Erectus from the Lower Paleolithic period as well as Neanderthals and Homo sapiens), several thousand vertebrates, of which a few
hundred are of predators, with the main one being the ‘Striped Hyena” (Around 20 hyenas now roam the Mt Carmel region, including this 3 sq km Reserve). We have rangers to enforce the law and create an eco-friendly environment for raising funds, besides money coming in from tourism during Autumn and Spring, sometimes even Winter, with 60,000 to 80,000 visitors per year visiting the caves, and over 100,000 coming for hiking, camping and picnics. Kids participate in a one–hour quiz program, “Young Rangers” and get a badge and certificate.”
The Reserve’s caves highlight the wonders of ancient history. “The European man or Neanderthal disappeared from earth 60,000 years ago. But here we found remains of both Neanderthals and African man – which proves that these two groups from distant regions had met and perhaps interbred. Different layers of prehistoric culture were established over 150,000 years, with each mountain layer revealing a different historical age,” Rotem added.
Next stop was the famous ‘Dead Sea,” where resort manager Conny Barghoorn told us Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, King Solomon and Queen of Sheba came to bathe, for its medicinal properties. “Apply the mud for 15 minutes and wash it off,” was his advice as we approached. Your ears pop as you reach the lowest dry land point on earth, and you can actually float in this sea as its high salinity makes the water very dense. No marine creature can survive in it. I nearly burnt my bare feet on the fiery noon sand but sighed with relief after dipping them in the Dead Sea’s soothing blue/grey clay and water. “The Dead Sea was formed when the earth’s crust collapsed – creating the Great Rift Valley. It is rich in minerals and its clay is used in expensive beauty products like ‘Diamond Glow’ (Shekels 1,550). 1600 people work around the clock to harvest valuable minerals from the water. It is also an oasis in Israel where all communities come to bathe and relax. The 50-kms-long, 30-metres-deep Dead Sea is depleting by a metre yearly and will vanish in 1,000 years,” we are told grimly. The sea is also known in the Bible as the ‘Sea of Lot’ or ‘Sea of Sodom,’ after Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of Salt after looking back while fleeing the city of Sodom. The Kumeran National Park near the Dead Sea is an archaeological site with relics of the ancient “Essene Sects” that dwelt here. We also visited the ancient fort castle in Masada situated on a high rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, where legend has it that the famous King Herod of the Bible lived with many wives 2,000 years ago, including one whom he “drowned in a vat of honey,” and he killed many of his sons for fear of them usurping his throne, which probably led to the Biblical legend of all newborns in Jerusalem being slain on the orders of Herod after he was told of the impending birth of ‘King’ Jesus. The siege of Masada by troops of the Roman Empire at the end
of the First Jewish-roman War ended in the mass suicide of 960 Jews – the Sicarii rebels and their families hiding there. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of Israel’s most popular attractions and draws over a million visitors annually. Visitors can take a cable car (open at 8 am) to the top. A dawn hike up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain (access via the Dead Sea Highway), is considered part of the “Masada experience”. A Judean date palm seed, 2,000 years old, was discovered here during archaeological excavations in the early 1960s and was successfully germinated into a plant, popularly known as “Methuselah” after the longest-living figure in the Hebrew Bible. We later passed signs stating “Crocodile Farm’ and ‘Antelope Farm” but sadly, there was not enough time for a visit. We then visited a Biblical Oasis called Ein Gedi Nature Reserve (where the Bible says David hid from Israel’s first King Saul). While bathing in its perennial springs, I befriended members of the “Paris Sciences et Lettres” (PSL) orchestra, comprising 25-year-old Cellist Gaspard Kiejman. “We stopped here for a cool bath as we are performing in the Conservatory of Tel Aviv and Hospital Hadassah in Jerusalem,” Gaspard said, as his team frolicked nearby.
“Ein Park Ein Gedi” Oasis hotel and botanical garden was our next destination, where Botanist Mani Gal showed us the fragrant “African Myrrh” of the Frankincense family, that was brought from Ethiopia’s deserts and successfully acclimatized in Israel, although original historical scripts highlight it being bred from the time of King Solomon in vineyards of Ein Gedi and Jericho. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were what the three wise kings presented to the newborn Jesus in the stable in Nazareth. Kibbutz Ein-gedi was established in 1956 on a plateau above the Dead Sea in the Great Syrian-african Rift Valley (the lowest spot on earth, at minus-417-metres BSL) and its desert oasis is home to wildlife like rock rabbits, mountain goats, foxes, leopards, birds and reptiles, besides an ancient temple that was a ritual centre for a developed culture 5,000 years ago. The Village produces an expensive ‘Persimmon Scent’ mentioned in the Songs of Solomon and used in the Hasmoneam, Roman and Byzantine eras. Bats and birds here feed on flowers of African Baobab trees that open only at night and die by day. “This was an Oasis since prehistoric times, that witnessed people living close to waterholes and today, we practise organic farming here and grow dates, vegetables ‘under plastic’ amidst rocky patches, with sweet water, alongside promoting health tourism that includes visits to our gardens and even a petting zoo (where an alligator basked lazily) inhabited by peafowl, ducks, tortoises, rabbits, mountain goats, meerkats and lemurs,” Mani Gal said, noting that space is a constraint for the growing Kibbutz families here and expressing hope that the Government will provide new land to build new Kibbutzes. New settlements on occupied land are a burning issue in the Israeli-palestine conflict. “About 50% of Kibbutz members are retired and the hill is small here. Jewish refugees, including from Sudan, and Bedouin women live and work here. So expansion is a problem. Our ‘Botanical Garden’ is a successful experiment comprising tropical arid plants (2,000 species) and has been included in National Geographic’s list of ten such projects worldwide. The Dead Sea basin is good for growing ‘Myrrh”, the perfume of Arabia, which gives resin, incense and drives away flies. We are researching benefits of myrrh, frankincense and henna, with scientists working here with the University of Tel Aviv on Cancer Cells that Commit Suicide if fed these essential oils” he added.
The Ein Evdat National Park Oasis (established 1964), was another exciting Canyon Adventure, whose desert springs highlighted tiny life such as frogs, bullet ants, agama lizards, water beetles, waterworms, etc. An oasis frog lay ‘sunbathing’ passively beside a tiny conical hole in the ground – which is the home of the “ant-lion”, (tiny predator ants living below, from where they toss sand at other insects and drag them in to devour later).
The ‘bumblebee” is the top pollinator for
flowers and plants in the 100-35 millionyear-old Arava Valley, where focus is on sand agriculture, including growing plants in winter for export to Europe and Russia, and hydrophonics – like “floating farms” for fish, vegetables, brackish water-grown sweet melons,” said representative Mici Mayor, adding that the wildlife includes the little green bee-eater, lynx, Arabian oryx, horned owl, agama, gerbils, ram, Dorcas’ gazelle and the Arabian wolf, whose large pack devoured her pet cat. (“Wolves carry rabies. So we put medicine in food left out for them as a safeguard.”)
Young entrepreneur/environmentalist Yaniv Fieldust showcased us his solar nature centre, explaining the use of waste, including recycling plastic and metal now converted into drip irrigation and solar cooking/lighting systems. “This is a sustainable visitor centre, holding educational tours for kids, adults, companies and even lawyers, and bringing about environmental changes in society through proper, useful handling of waste,” said Fieldust, who, with a US $40,000 loan and 20 volunteers, uses a small garden to grow green onions, mint, chives and tomatoes, flowers, figs, and berries. Charging 1,650 shekels for six hours, in providing a hands-on experience for camp participants here and in schools, he explains about the planet’s ‘finite’ resources like plastic, oil, etc. He displays his treasure chest in highlighting “sun-towers,” “Parabolic mirrors” and windmills, and points out that ‘Kibbutz’ Samor in South Israel uses parabolic mirrors to produce hot water and electricity. He showed us the “Karob” tree (whose ‘carat’ seed was used in weighing gold, diamonds and precious stones, which is still prevalent today).
Our last visit in Israel was a ‘desert tourism’ experience in a Bedouin desert camp in the heart of the Negev desert, where we experienced the unforgettable native Bedouin hospitality – our elderly Bedouin Muslim host Athiya, of the Azazmi tribe, served us in his tent a traditional salad with pita bread meal and orange juice, while maintaining his fast during Ramadan. Bedouins are good story-tellers and Athiya had us rocking with laughter at some humorous ones, as he described his family (11 brothers and 16 sisters), brother’s farm, and his massive tents for marriages and other events, besides cabins and bungalows for young couples. I also met Uri Taub from the Israel Ministry of Tourism and he said, “We think Indian tourists would be interested in our leisure and eco-tourism, MICE, Team-building camps in the kibbutzes, Krav Maga (Israeli army’s self-defence system), adventure sports and our drip irrigation agri-technology, as India is undergoing a farming evolution.”
Salt pillars in the Dead Sea in Israel, created when the earth’s crust collapsed, forming the Great African Rift Valley
A rock-carved map of the Biblical trails in Israel
Craggy boulders resembling dinosaur skulls in the desert
Camel safari moving across the sand dunes of the Negev desert in Israel
Summer tourists frolicking in waters of a desert spring
Naturalist Tchai Aviv on the archeological site above his desert vine camp, spread out below
Fieldust and his natural treasure chest
Ancient Neanderthal and African inhabited caves
Tchai Aviv with wines made from vines grown in the desert
A desert winetasting session in progress
Mount Sodom, near where the Biblical Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt
A kibbutz near the Golan heights
A dammed desert mountain spring
The wild Ibex herds roam the Mount Ramon crater
Dhow tour on the Sea of Galilee
The Agamon Hula Nature reserve lies beside the Golan Heights separating Israel and Syria
King Herod’s fort palace on Masada Rock Plateau
The cavemen drawings in the desert