Uncertain about what the summer heat has in store for us, we’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the Southern portion of Israel, trying to soak up some of the sights before its too hot to enjoy.
For this adventure, we set off in pursuit of two specific things….giant craters and migrating birds. The former is, obviously, always around, while the latter is much more unique to this time of year. As you may remember from your extensive education on bird migration as a child, many different types of birds fly absurd distances every year to breed, feed, and avoid insane temperature extremes (I actually made all that up…but it seems logical [Matt: She is correct, that is typically why they do it.]). Anyways, I do know that a lot of birds fly between Europe, Asia, and Africa and thats a REALLY long trip [Matt: ~500,000,000 birds pass through Israel each year]. With largely barren land and deserts for long stretches of those migrations, Israel serves as a “re-fueling” station for many birds to stop, rest, and eat before starting the next leg of their journey.
Leading up to this weekend, I found some great websites and exciting YouTube videos (<—worth watching) about the birdwatching scene in Israel. Lets just say….expectations were high [Matt: and what do we know about high expectations???] and all the Facebook posts from bird watchers about the FLOCKS of birds coming through made me believe we wouldn’t have annnnyyyyyy trouble finding these majestic migratory hang-outs. So we packed our bags, grabbed the binoculars, and headed South to the “Ramat HaNegev Birding Center” – seems straightforward enough….drive to birding center….get some info….read some signs….maybe get a map or something….how hard could this be!? Well….its ISRAEL, OF COURSE IT WILL BE HARD! We drove to our best estimation of where this birding center would be…..walked around….and found nothing. It was also the site of Ben-Gurion’s tomb so we went into the visitor center and asked about the bird watching…..and well……it turns out the birding center isn’t BUILT YET! There was an e-mail address of the gentleman heading up the bird scene in the area…so we e-mailed him but needed to made some new plans while we waited to hear back….
NEW PLAN! Head further South to check out some ruins (of course) and the giant Mitzpe Ramon Crater. First stop, Avdat National Park! This site served as one of the next stopping points for “camel trains” on the Spice Road between Petra and the Mediterranean. A place to stop, rest, and refuel. Walls of some of the buildings remained and some general idea of the usage and layout of the old town. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site…which means it holds some significant historical value – I have yet to be disspointed by a UNESCO site, so I usually make a point to visit them when possible.
After Avdat, we continued on our journey South towards Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh Ramon crater. This crater was formed by erosion over some 220 million years ago and is a magnificent site! We walked along the upper edge of the crater and looked down into the crater, spotting several paths and (dry) river beds winding through the desert. Next we drove down into the crater, hoping to maybe find some birds….that didn’t happen….but we enjoyed the views stumbled upon hoards of families scrambling up a random hill to watch sunset….OH Israel….you are so random!
With darkness approaching, we headed back up the crater to find our campground. Once we got back up to the top, we realized it was actually down in the crater….so we turned around and drove back down. We make it to the turn off from the main road and start driving on a dirt road. Google maps said we still had 20 minutes of driving until we reach the campground….hmmmm…..okay……so we drive and drive along this dirt road. We passed a handful of cars heading the other direction and weren’t quite sure what to expect from this supposed campground in the middle of a desert crater….BUT we kept driving. We eventually came around a corner (I think that phrase is becoming quite common) and HELLO CAMPGROUND! Much to our surprise, we arrived at a bustling campground – parking lot full, kids running around, lights, tents, snack stand, bathrooms, showers, the works! We pay our 38 shekels ($9.80) and set up camp! They had large covered areas for the tents – each large enough for maybe 4-5 groups of people to set up camp.
The evening goes smoothly enough….we cook dinner and head up onto some nearby hills to watch the stars. The crater supposedly has some of the cleanest air in Israel and an ideal location for star gazing – I’d say its accurate! We enjoyed the stars and impressive darkness! (These were all taken at night, it was actually much darker but with the long exposure, some of the distant lights and light from the moon make it look much brighter).
Ready to turn-in for the night, we set up our tent and got tucked in. We fell asleep easy enough and slept like angels until about midnight when some lady in a tent RIGHT NEXT TO US decided it was OKAY to use her OUTSIDE voice to calm down her crying kid. OKAY, now its one thing for a kid to be upset/crying on a camping trip…I’m fine with that! But come on MOM! We don’t want to get your narrative of something in Hebrew about your kid going “pee-pee” or something….it’s midnight for crying out loud! It eventually ended and we got back to sleep – and they didn’t even acknowledge the madness in the morning!
Okay….moving on. In the morning, we decided to do a little more exploration of the crater and MAYBE find some birds! We continued driving along the dirt road and found some ruins (of course) and hiking trails. We enjoyed a jaunt down a lush river bed which actually had some running water and saw a few birds! (We were also joined part way through by the LOUD LADY and her family….so we turned around because no bird in their right mind would hang out to listen to that!). We checked out a few more views from the crater and drove back up to the top.
On advice from “the bird man” we headed back North to a park near where we were the day before, Ein Avdat. After some brief confusion about where the trail started, we found ourselves in a beautiful canyon with a stunning walls, a beautiful spring, waterfall, caves, and birds. We didn’t see any of the super exciting birds we hoped for, but they filled the air with song and fluttered around the cliff walls. We enjoyed the cool air and break from the desert sun.
In other news: I finally got my second passport back (which they originally said had been mailed to me on Feb 20…which I didn’t receive…which the Israeli post office couldn’t find based on the tracking number from the Embassy…. which I believed was lost in the Israeli mail abyss… which ended up being found in a drawer at the US Embassy…which had been ready since FEBRUARY 9…..sigh…..). So, now to get the Visa…after more running around, including another walking trip across town to the Ghana Embassy, only to find out they were closed (which in hindsight explains why they weren’t picking up the phone…), a return trip with Matt the following morning, and several phone calls and emails to all sorts of people…….we have completely confirmed it is impossible to get a Ghana Visa in Israel without a work visa (which is in the works but we don’t have the official stamp yet….so no go…)….and the paperwork absolutely needs to go the US. This set off another “joyful” cascade of trying to figure out how to get the “certified postal or bank checks” the Ghana Consular requires…which, believe it or not, you cannot get in Israel (at least not one written in English or from a US Bank). BUT thank you to my AMAZING parents, we were able to send them separately and I dropped my packet off at Fed Ex….which only has one mailing center in Tel Aviv….at the international airport….without any signs telling you where it is….and a completely useless “address” on their website…..and no employees who speak English…..!
SO – My ticket is booked for March 23!