Why you shouldn’t miss the Negev

If you visit Israel for the first time, you usually head to one of the favourite tourist destinations – Jerusalem,

Tel Aviv, the Sea of Galilee with its many Christian places, Acre or the Dead Sea. None of these places is located in the Negev which constitutes more than half of Israel. In the whole Negev, only one place is advertised as a tourist destination – Eilat, the Israel's resort city on the shores of the Red Sea. Tourists usually combine the visit to Eilat with the tour to Petra in neighbouring Jordan.

So-called fossil trees - Makhtesh Yeruham
So-called fossil trees - Makhtesh Yeruham

But the Negev has a lot more to offer than just Eilat.  There are many amazing places which can be rated among the most valuable tourist sites. The desert as such is very attractive to Czech people, and in fact to all Europeans, because there is hardly any desert in Europe (the only one being the Tabernas Desert in Spain). And the Negev desert has a lot of attractions to offer to everyone.

There are many striking natural sites which you would not expect to see in the desert. Many people think that “desert“ mean “nothing, just sand and rocks“ but this is not true. You just have to know where to go. You have to know the desert. Or, if you do not know the place, you can hire a local guide who knows. 

Ein Avdat
Ein Avdat

On the weekends and holidays the Negev is full of tourists. But if you look closely, you will see that nearly all of them are Israelis, meaning locals who know where to go. They know which valley holds a waterfall and how to get there. They know which of the many rocky hills contains an adventurous uphill trail with ladders, and which park is worth of making a mid-day picnic. In short, nature-lovers can spend weeks exploring the Negev without getting bored. Some of the most beautiful places were turned into national parks or reserves, such as Timna and Ein Avdat, and there is

some fee to enter. The majority of attractive locations can be visited for free.

For both hikers and bikers, there is the Israel National Trail (Shvil Yisrael), a hiking trail that crosses Israel between the southern and northern borders and extends more than 1000 km. The trail consists of 48 sections, 23 of them being in the Negev.

For those who love history and archeology, the Negev holds such gems as Shivta, Mamshit or Avdat. They are old Nabatean cities which were once a part of the Spice Route from Asia to Europe. All Nabatean cities were usually pagan but later turned Christian. They hold remains of old Byzantine churches with their interesting stories as well as remnants of the Roman bath houses. There are also ruins of Solomon's network of military border fortresses from around 1000 BCE. There are remains of a 7,000 year old Leopard Temple near Uvda. There are so-called “desert kites“, ancient stone constructions aimed at trapping wild animals. The oldest of them is believed to be from the late 4th millennium BCE. To find both fortresses and kites is especially difficult and a local guide is a must.

If you like to taste local wine, olive oil or cheese, the Negev is also a place for you. There is a series of specialized farms which has been built over the last decades with the support of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council and the government. Many of them, besides selling their acclaimed products, also provide accomodation for tourists.

In case you prefer adventure, you can rent an off-road vehicle (4x4 or so-called “tractoron“) and enjoy one of the off-road routes which takes you deep into the desert

Colourful sands in Makhtesh Yeruham
Colourful sands

to explore less accessible places. Some routes are signed with the 4×4 sign that marks their starting point, but many are not marked which makes them less available for tourists from abroad.

When talking about adventure, we should not forget many fascinating hiking trails. In some cases they include exciting climbing ladders, as in Eiv Avdat, the Red Canyon or Nahal Tamar, to put just a couple of examples out of many. Many trails pass by desert cliffs, deep canyons and water holes, sometimes even waterfalls, always offering enchanting views. If hiking is not adventurous enough for you, you can even try rock climbing!

Another type of adrenaline activity is sandboarding. The Negev Desert is largely a rocky desert but there are some areas with sand dunes excellent for this activity. It usually requires to rent a sandboard and to hire someone to take you to the best sand dunes. It is a thrilling experience for both kids and parents.

For camel lovers there are places where you can take a ride from one to several hours in the desert. The camel rides are provided by local Bedouins, usually together with drinking sweet mint tea prepared according to their customs, and drunk from tiny cups.

Mamshit

This gets us to desert flora and fauna. Israel it is one of the best bird-watching places in the world.  Millions of birds from hundreds of species pass through Israel twice a year and stop in their popular resting places. While most of them are in the North of Israel, some of them are also in the Negev. If you know when and where, you can travel there and watch them resting and flying. It’s very impressive when a big flock is flying over your head. Simply an unforgettable experience.

Mamshit

The desert is full of life. There is a wide variety of animals living there. Expect to encounter some on every hike. Lizards of all kinds are ubiquitous - geckos, skinks, lacertid lizards, agamas and if you are lucky, even little chameleons. Nearly as common are deers, antelopes and ibexes. Some of them live very close to people, such as a big herd of ibexes living in Mitzpeh Ramon, a town in the central Negev. There are also foxes, hyenas and wolves. You can see turtles, toads and big colouful dragonflies in the desert streams. Very common are rodents such as hyraxes, polecats and gerbils. There are many different birds from small lovely hummingbirds, hoopoes and spur-winged plovers to magnificent eagles and vultures.

The desert is not as rich in plants as Northern Israel but there are several types of acacia and some desert plants adapted to the desert in a very interesting way. What is especially worth mentioning is the period at the end of winter when the desert suddently blossoms! The Darom Adom Festival (Red South Festival) follows the rainy season, when the landscape of the northern Negev is covered with a magnificent carpet of scarlet red anemones, and many people come to see and enjoy.

Solar power station Ashalim
Solar power station Ashalim

If you like to taste local wine, olive oil or cheese, the Negev is also a place for you. There is a series of specialized farms which has been built over the last decades with the support of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council and the government. Many of them, besides selling their acclaimed products, also provide accomodation for tourists.

In case you prefer adventure, you can rent an off-road vehicle (4x4 or so-called “tractoron“) and enjoy one of the off-road routes which takes you deep into the desert

But there is another fascinating aspect to the Negev desert. Israel’s Negev desert is probably the only desert in the world which diminishes instead of growing. That’s because since the 1950s, Israelis have been finding miraculous ways to green their own desert, using unique technologies. One of them is the drip irrigation, Israeli invention which has spread quickly into many parts of the world. Another one is so-called liman, an easy way how to make a small area which holds water and vegetation. Still another is planting of eucalyptus trees which hold water, and much more.

The technology used in the desert does not stop here. If you are interested in solar energy, you can see several types of solar power stations including the newest one with the highest solar tower in the world.

The desert is a special place with a very unique atmosphere. You can feel here a distinct strenght, the power of Nature in its full intensity, which has a relaxing effect to the soul. The Negev is especially suitable for meditation and contemplation, and therefore it attracts spiritual seekers of different religious background.

Desert tourism is different from visiting well-known popular places. It has its own specific characteristics. When travelling to the desert, you do not get stuck in a traffic jam and you will easily find a parking place which adds to a pleasant tourist experience. But one can easily get lost when trying to find the beginning of a trail and most places are not accesible without a car. Except for a few towns, there is no place where to buy food or water so you should bring your own refreshments. But you will not wait in a line to enter a natural park though during a holiday many places are full of Israelis. In contrast, on the weekdays the desert is empty so you can enjoy the solitude and majesty of the desert.

velbloudi karavana poust Izrael Negev_edited.jpg
Mamshit

In all Israel, for most of the year except winter, the sun is very strong and you have to drink a lot, put on sunscreen and wear a hat. In the desert, you must be especially careful because the temperatures there are higher and there is a risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, especially if you get lost in the middle of nowhere. Tourists from Europe, visiting for the first time, usually do not expect the sun to be so sharp and arrive in unsuitable clothing, without a hat and without enough water.

For all those reasons, in the Negev desert it is advisable to get a tour guide not only to tell you the history of the place but also to get you there and take care of your health. The professional guide will upgrade your tourist experience and makes your stay as pleasant as possible.

The Negev desert is worth the effort. The mightiness and power of it is overwhelming. The beauty is unexpectable. The diversity of life in the desert is fascinating. The calming effect of the stillness on the soul is unbelievable. Most people fall in love with the place immediately. And even if they, after the holiday in the Negev, happily return to their hectic life in a European city, they will probably never forget the desert experience.

The article was first published in November 2019 in the collection of articles by Linda Stucbartova "Czech-Israeli Relations".