Last Updated on May 22, 2023
The Israel National Trail, Part I:
The Negev Desert and the South
Sweat was running down my forehand, my legs, my stomach, sweat was dripping down my elbow, and I felt like I was going to pass out. I was in the middle of the Negev Desert, and I had another day and a half of walking through the burning sun ahead of me, nowhere a shadow. I felt like I was going to collapse, but I kept putting one step in front of the other, trying not to tumble on one of the rocks that were covering the sandy and gravelly desert ground.It was around 100°F/37°C, and the sun had reached its zenith. I turned around and looked how far we had gotten yet – it seemed like we had walked forever since the minibus had dropped our group of hikers in the middle of nowhere earlier that morning. The breathtaking desertscape behind me made up for all the sweat and exhaustion, and reminded me that the strenuous hike was worthwhile.In actual fact we were not in the middle of nowhere, we were in the middle of a small crater, also known as makhtesh in Hebrew, a special kind of crater that is unique to the Negev Desert. Instead of being created by a meteor impact, a makhtesh is created through erosion. Later that day, when we would finally scramble up the rocky and steep side of the crater, I would turn around and ask myself how it was possible for nature to create a crater so round an even that it looked just like a meteor crater without being one.That first day in the desert was the hardest part of the entire trek. The scorching hot sun was burning on my face, the extreme heat made walking even harder, and the last part of the hike being the steep and winding trail up the crater wall. All that exhausted me so much that I fell asleep on the thin mattress on our improvised campground before dinner was served.I had set off to hike segments of the Israel National Trail, a 1,000 kilometer / 620 miles long hiking trail that crosses the country from south to north, beginning at the Red Sea near the Jordanian border in the south and finishing near the Lebanese border in the north.
For anyone who is into multi-day trekking, anyone who finds treks like the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail in the U.S. or the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal appealing, this is a hike of epic dimensions. While the trail has already been praised by National Geographic and other reputable travel magazines, it has so far been mainly walked by Israelis who want to get to know their country in a very special and intimate way.The trail itself is far from being as famous as the Camino or the Lycian Way in Turkey, but it is also far from being as old as those trails, even though it passes a myriad of historically significant places. Not only does it pass places of historical and biblical significance, but it also shows off the diversity of this tiny country: from the Negev Desert in the south to the rolling hills around Jerusalem, the coastline of Tel Aviv and the mountains near the Sea Of Galilee, until finally reaching the ancient city of Dan, Israel’s northernmost settlement.Compared to the Camino de Santiago, which has been walked since the Middle Ages, this path is still a baby, inaugurated only 20 years ago, in 1994. Walking the entire trail takes between six and eight weeks, but we hiked only some parts of it: some of the Negev Desert in the South, the mountains around Jerusalem, and the Lower Galilee in the north of Israel. Since we only had eight days, we got only a sample of each region through which the INT passes, and in the end, we were all left with the desire to walk more of it.
For me, it was the perfect introduction to Israel, as I started my month-long exploration of the country with the trail, and it made me appreciate my surroundings more when later on I returned to places I’d gotten to known during the trek – like the Negev. Once you’ve actually spent time out there, in the vast nothingness that is the desert, walked for hours through the barren landscape that has barely any life in it, you see it in a completely different light than if you were just driving through.On the first day, we rarely passed a tree, and other than a few dusty bushes there was no sign of life whatsoever. Often it was even hard to make out any trail at all. However, there were rocks painted with the colors that mark the National Trail in regular intervals, showing you that you were still on track when nothing else indicated that.That night, most of us slept under the stars, and seeing the wide open desert sky above you is an unforgettable experience. Tents were optional, and why would I obstruct this magnificent view: millions of stars brightening the night sky. After a hearty dinner, for which I luckily woke up, we gathered around a campfire to get to know each other better, but the announcement of a 6am wake-up call made me crawl into my sleeping bag not long after.The desertscape we traversed on our second day in the Negev was quite different from the first one. We passed more trees and bushes, as we walked along dry riverbeds through which flash floods would rush during the few days the country gets rain in the winter, allowing for plants to grow in this otherwise infertile area.Even though the hike felt less exhausting than on the first day (which is I believe only because our bodies got used to walking in the extreme heat), it was still very challenging. At one point, we scrambled up a mountainside so steep that we needed the help of hooks and handrails to get up there.Yet the views and the scenery always made up for the toughest parts of the hike, and I loved the sense of achievement I felt when I made it through a particularly arduous stretch of the trail. A trek like this is about the journey itself after all, not about getting to the final destination.After a picnic lunch in a spot where countless travelers had stopped for water and shelter for thousands of years before us, we tackled our last desert adventure: the Big Fin, or as I saw it: the very steep wall of the Big Crater, the biggest of the makhteshs in the Negev.Knowing that this would be the last big challenge of the day, I pushed through and scrambled up the rocky mountainside, braving the relentless sun and pushing my boundaries. Up on top, once again the magnificent vistas made up for the hike that tested our abilities. We had to make our way back down, and most of us were on the last sips of water in our bottles by then. Knowing that we had to ration our water supplies reminded me once again that we were far away from any settlements and that this is a really rough trek if you plan to do it by yourself.Luckily, trekkers are not completely on their own on the hike, and one extremely helpful support network are the Trail Angels – people that allow hikers to sleep in their houses, take a shower or simply replenish their water supplies.Instead of spending another night under the stars, we hopped into a minibus that was waiting for us and drove to Sede Boker, where we met some of said Trail Angels. All of us were taken in by incredibly welcoming and warm families, and that first shower after two days in the desert sure felt glorious. We knew that this would be our last night in the dry Israeli desert – the next day, we would drive north to hike in the mountains around Jerusalem.Continue here with Part II of my Israel National Trail hiking adventure, plus some practical information on how to hike this Trail independently.