Wüste in Israel, im Vordergrund Blumen.

Travel

Long-distance hiking on the Israel National Trail

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Portraet Claudia
Claudia
Guest author, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

The Shvil trail runs 1,100 kilometres through the entire length of Israel. It’s a long-distance hiking trail with no equal – even during the pandemic, when it arguably surpassed itself, say Urs and Claudia Weber.

Wonder #1– Entering Israel goes very smoothly. Even in normal circumstances, the border of this small country on the Mediterranean is regarded as one of the toughest in the world. It’s now March 2020, and in two days the COVID-19 pandemic would see Israel completely shut itself off from the outside world. Despite our bulging trekking backpacks clearly marking us out as tourists, the airport sends us on our way with no quarantine notice.

Israel and its people have long held a fascination for us. A book finally gave us the idea of walking through the country on a 1,100-kilometre trail from the Red Sea to the Lebanese border. The Shvil is known as the Israel National Trail, and is listed by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful long-distance hiking trails in the world. The route avoids large cities and traverses the Negev Desert through an archaic, remote landscape.

Ten food packages for the desert

There is no guaranteed water supply for the first few weeks of our tour. Even before the pandemic, we knew that we didn’t want to rely on anybody else in the desert. Before setting off, we dropped off ten food parcels in an off-road rental car on the 470-kilometre desert route. We mostly found people willing to hold on to them for us, but the pandemic meant this wasn’t always possible, so we buried some of the parcels.

  • Negev-Wüste in Israel, ein Zelt, daneben steht eine Frau.

    Overnight camp in the middle of the Negev desert.

    Photo © Urs Weber
  • Eine Person badet in einem kleinen natürlichen Pool in einer steinigen Wüste.

    Perfectly alone: enjoying the desert in the Nahal Tzafit.

    Photo © Urs Weber
  • Eine Frau in der Wüste Israels beim Kochen, im Hintergrund ein Militärfahrzeug.

    Near Shizafon as part of a military base.

    Photo © Urs Weber
  • Ein Kamel in der Wüste.

    The camels in the Negev are not wild animals. They have been kept as livestock by the Bedouins for centuries.

    Photo © Urs Weber
  • Fünf Personen am Tisch, auf dem Tisch steht viel Essen, unter anderem Barbecue und Salate.

    Mangal is the Hebrew word for barbecue and means a lot more than just food. It is a feast for all the senses.

    Photo © Urs Weber

We set off in good spirits from south to north on the Shvil. It’s love at first sight – the desert and us. We instantly feel at home. Solitude, stunning views and narrow valleys with steep climbs are our companions on the way to our first camp. We pitch our tent and meet Annette – a downshifter from Greece.

In the days that follow, we feel very thankful that we had prepared ourselves so well physically and that Transa had given us excellent advice. The equipment works. We have no problems finding the food parcels. In the evenings, we seniors chill around the campfire with young Israelis, who are squeezing in the trail between their compulsory military service and their studies.

Wonder #2 – My birthday is approaching soon, and there are two things I want: a swimming pool and something unexpected on our daily hiking routine. The latter arrives in the morning: a group of German men we meet sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for me. Later, in the evening sun, we discover a small wadi with a pool for taking a dip. Why can’t it be my birthday every day?

We soon reach Shizafon, an oasis in the middle of the Negev. There should have been a restaurant there, giving us the chance to top up on water and food. But it’s closed due to COVID-19. This means that fellow hiker Annette’s tour has come to an end. She sadly gets on the bus, as she cannot get any more supplies. We’ve managed our food packages well and are able to ration things a bit to make up for the restaurants and shops being closed.

Trail angels – the good Samaritans of the Shvil

You encounter true angels on the Shvil almost every day. The trail angels generally make it their business to offer hikers accommodation as an act of hospitality. They usually have a connection to the trail themselves and have walked part or all of the route. And speaking of helpfulness, one day we were running low on food when a Jeep came out of nowhere. We asked for something to eat and were served an all-inclusive dinner in our tent.

The pandemic is forcing a growing number of accommodation providers to close. It gets very deserted on the trail. We enjoy the landscape and are especially glad of the solitude at Vardit Canyon. Contrary to what the guidebook says, the pools are full to the brim with ice-cold water. Removing our clothes and swimming through is the only option.

After about two weeks on tour, we reach Mitzpe Ramon – a small town with some tourist infrastructure. Israel is now in strict lockdown. We are literally alone at the overnight stops – apart from one time when we catch a guy trying to steal water, having a go at getting into the professionally constructed depots for the Shvilists. He quickly flees on his quad bike.

Wonder #3 – Three things we can’t afford to run out of on our tour are water, food and toilet paper. The loo roll proved especially tricky to get hold of. When we ran out, we hoped we’d find an open shop, a trail angel or something in its place. At the next rest stop, a forgotten roll – completely untouched – miraculously appears on one of the picnic tables.

The Ramon erosion cirque stretches out before us, its gigantic rock faces towering upwards. A more impressive backdrop is hard to imagine – absolute tranquillity, untouched nature, starry skies. Because it has rained so much this winter, the desert is more lush than it has been for years. We enjoy and admire everything sprouting out of this dry nothingness.

After Arad, the landscape changes suddenly. The desert becomes a verdant green forest with lush meadows. Now the Shvil winds its way through secluded valleys and over gentle hills. We almost feel at home – apart from the camels grazing here. Our trail guide tells us that the food supply is now no longer a problem. But COVID-19 means things are different: we have to make detours and the taps in the nature parks have also been turned off. The Shvil route – passing close to civilisation, but not right through it – is both a blessing and a curse.

Zwei Personen auf dem Israel National Trail, im Hintergrund eine karge Landschaft.
Photo © Urs Weber

Urs & Claudia Weber

from Bubendorf (BL) have day jobs – he is an architect, she works in the social sector. They’ve also handed down their love of trekking and camping in the great outdoors to their two adult sons. The couple took three months off work to do the Shvil trail. Then COVID-19 threatened to scupper all their plans.

Wonder #4 – Once again, however, we are blessed by the goodwill of others. One morning we had a huge craving for sweets. But we weren’t keen on taking a five-kilometre diversion for chocolate. Our mood turned slightly sulky. A short time later, a Jeep driver stops and asks us if we need anything. We tell him our woes, and sure enough: he gives us some chocolate bars, then drives home to get us more!

We are continually deeply touched by people’s hospitality. Near Tel Aviv, we are invited to a barbecue by some Israelis of Ethiopian origin. Days later, a Bedouin family serves us tea followed by a full meal. An invitation in Herzlia, where we spend a delightful evening on a roof terrace, ends in warm friendship and the promise to return.

Outdoor sport is allowed again

The lockdown is being lifted. Outdoor sport is allowed again. As hikers, we’re no longer attracting special attention. We are stopped briefly in front of Mount Meron, one of Israel’s highest mountains. Due to the large number of pilgrims expected for the Lag baOmer festival, the mountain had been cordoned off.
Nevertheless, the police let us pass and even gave us some water, not wishing to block the way for anyone who had travelled this far.

Wonder #5 – In mid-May, two days before the first heatwave of the year with the temperature over 40°C, we happily arrive at Kibbutz Dan below the Hermon Mountains on the border with Lebanon. Two days earlier, all accommodation was allowed to reopen, allowing us to add another two weeks’ ‘holiday’ on the Mediterranean.

Right from the beginning, we hadn’t booked a return flight. We had always said that we would arrive on the last plane and leave on the first. And that’s how it’ll be – the last wonder of our tour.

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