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Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem: A home away from home

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When I arrived at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, it took me about ten minutes to know I’d be feeling completely at home here during my stay. ‘Would you like to participate in our Shabbat dinner tonight?’, I was asked during the quick and smooth check-in, to which I excitedly said ‘Of course, yes!’. I had been invited to my first ever family Shabbat dinner the Friday before, and eight days after my first introduction to this wonderful Jewish tradition of an extensive and festive family dinner, I still found myself daydreaming about all the good food I had gotten to try at my friend’s mom’s house, so taking part in the one at the hostel was a no-brainer for me. I put my stuff down in my room and headed straight to the communal lounge to do some writing before the Shabbat dinner. Happy Hour had just started and I ordered myself a glass of the excellent local Israeli wine and took in the atmosphere around me.abraham hostel jerusalem signPeople were sitting around lounge tables in small groups, laughing and talking, the bar was just starting to get busy, the hostel staff were mingling with the guests, and the volunteer staff were chopping away in the kitchen to get dinner ready in time. The music playing in the background was wonderfully relaxing, not the noisy dance music you get in some other hostels that have a bar. I knew that I’d be feeling right at home here for the next six nights.Jerusalem Abraham HostelAnother indication that this wasn’t your typical party hostel: the guests were of all ages, ranging from couples in their 50s, solo travelers in their 30s to girlfriends in their 20s. There was a TV room just off the lounge, so if you were not in the mood to mingle, you could retire to the TV room, but if you were looking to meet people, there were plenty of opportunities to do so. The rooftop terrace with its comfy lounge sofas was another great spot to meet other travelers, or just sitting at the bar was an easy way to get chatting fellow travelers.abraham hostel jerusalem roof terraceWhen I, prior to my arrival, had read that the hostel had 250 beds, I was a bit apprehensive, because I usually find those big hostel too impersonal, too loud, or too chaotic. My concerns were unfounded though – at Abraham’s, I never felt that there were that many people (and I later learned that there were even 260 beds), even though the hostel is near full capacity almost all the time.abraham hostel jerusalem private roomInstead I found a hostel where I could have my privacy in my spacious en-suite single room on the third floor whenever I wanted, but I could also go mingle in the lounge or, after 6pm, at the bar, preferably during the great-value happy hour of course, or take the social aspect one step further by joining one of the nightly activities where you can get to know other travelers – perfect for solo travelers like me. There is the weekly Pub Crawl, a Mexican Taco night, movie nights, a weekly open-mic night or the already mentioned Shabbat dinner on Fridays.abraham hostel jerusalem chillout areaThe dinner the volunteers at the hostel put together was almost as good as the home-cooked food I had had the Friday before. The options for vegetarians were plentiful and everything I tried was delicious – and seeing how many people went for second helpings, I was not the only one who felt that way. The price tag for the Shabbat dinner, ILS30 (US$7.70), is also extremely affordable, especially considering the amount of food you get and compared to the pricey restaurants of Jerusalem. While the lounge was fairly busy during the dinner with around 50 people in attendance it still had an intimate feel to it, thanks to the guests being grouped around smaller tables, which also had the advantage that you could get to know one another.Shabbat Dinner Abraham HostelEven though I preferred the seclusion and quietness in my private room which came with a desk (perfect for the writing I needed to catch up on) and a small kitchenette with a full-size fridge, I was impressed with the four-bed female dorms when I peeked inside one of them one day. Not only was the room spacious and each bed had its own reading lamp and socket, but a make-up table had been added just so that the girls could get ready in front of a full size mirror and spread out their make-up and toiletries. There was even a hair dryer! Abraham HostelThe dorm also has a kitchenette, which is basically just a cupboard with a fridge; the shared main kitchen is where you really find anything you need to make yourself a meal is downstairs right by the communal lounge, but it is nice to be able to store something in the room. With two stoves and ovens in the main hostel kitchen I never saw anybody having to wait to cook, and found the kitchen to be very clean. Plus: there is free tea and coffee in the kitchen all day long.abraham hostel jerusalem shabbat dinnerThe mornings were the best part though – that’s when a fancy espresso machine magically appeared and allowed guests to wake up with a proper espresso or cappuccino instead of a simple Turkish coffee. I might have gone over-the-top with my morning espresso intake a couple of times during my stay at Abraham’s..

In addition to the perfect coffee, breakfast consisting of bread, Nutella, cheese, hard boiled eggs and cereal – and of course the for Israeli breakfasts essential cucumber and tomatoes, both of which were served in a big bowls. (Side note: salad for breakfast might just be the best Israeli invention.) All of this is offered self-service style and is included in the room rates.abraham hostel jerusalem dining room1A great addition to the hostel itself is the tour company, Abraham Tours, in the reception area. Hostel guests get a discount on the tours offered, and if you can get several people to join a tour, there is an additional group discount. The list of tours is so long that I had difficulties deciding which ones I wanted to join. Abraham Tours basically offers tours to all of Israel’s main sights such as the Dead Sea, Haifa, Nazareth, and Masada, but you can even venture as far as Jordan, on a 3-day trip to Jerash, Petra and Wadi Rum, or Egypt on a 2-day tour from Eilat.

What impressed me the most though were the various tours to the West Bank that were thrown in the mix of classic Israel highlights. In my opinion, people who visit Israel should also visit the West Bank to get a better understanding of the ongoing Israel – Palestine conflict, but not everyone is comfortable to explore the Palestinian territories by themselves, so these tours are a great way to experience the West Bank with a qualified guide, also guaranteeing that you learn about the West Bank firsthand rather than just going there. I ended up going on three West Bank tours with Abraham (which I will write about separately) and these three days were among the most eye-opening in educating myself on the entire situation and to learn more about life in Palestine.West Bank Tour Abraham HostelI also took a cooking class with Abraham which I loved and can’t stop raving about. I didn’t have a single bad meal during my month in Israel, and the dinner we prepared during this class was among the most memorable ones.Cooking Class Abraham HostelOverall, I felt right at home at Abraham and am already looking forward to returning to Jerusalem were I know I have a home away from home.

Standout feature: Friendly staff

The staff can make or break a hostel, and Abraham is doing it just right when selecting their staff: every single person who was working at the hostel during my stay was always approachable, friendly and making sure that the guests were having everything they needed. There are even staff insider tips for Jerusalem on the Abraham website, but you can walk up to anyone at any time and get an answer to any question you might have.abraham hostel jerusalem lobby

Standout feature: The social activities and the tour desk

As I’ve already said: the tour desk offers a fantastic range of activities all over Israel, and what could be better than sightseeing with new friends from the hostel while having a knowledgeable guide with you? On every single one of the tours I took I felt well looked after and that the guides knew what they were talking about. Plus: If you stay at the hostel, you get a discount on any tour!

abraham hostel jerusalem message board
There is even a message board to connect travelers.

The social activities like the pub crawl or the Shabbat dinner were nights when I felt like I could really get to know my fellow travelers at the hostel without having to try hard. I recommend taking part in at least one social activity, but if you hang out at the hostel bar, you also won’t have any problems meeting new people.

Room for improvement

I have to admit that I found it really hard to find a flaw in this seemingly perfect hostel. I was trying hard to find something that was missing, but with the cozy lounge, the power outlets and reading lamps at every bed, free lockers, the bar with its great Happy Hour, the generous breakfast spread, the tours, a computer room with PCs to use for those who don’t travel with a laptop, a laundry room, the wonderful rooftop terrace, and the clean, spacious rooms, I didn’t miss anything during my stay.

Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem
I loved the signs and decoration throughout the hostel

The only thing I could pick on was that if you joined breakfast later in the morning, the tables were usually sticky and a bit dirty. While the staff was always on top of refilling the buffet, I thought that they could be more on top of cleaning the messy spots on the tables.

Details

Location: 67 Hanevi’im Street, Davidka Square, Jerusalem, 94702
Price: Dorms start at ILS85 (US$22), private singles start at ILS270 (US$69), private doubles start at ILS360 (US$92), triples start at ILS420 (US$107)
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Digital Nomad Friendly:
Yes (high speed internet, desks in the rooms)
Amenities: Complimentary breakfast, free WiFi, free lockers, communal lounge, communal kitchen, laundry room, TV room, roof terrace, tour desk,
Website: http://abrahamhostels.com
Facebook: AbrahamHostelsabraham hostel jerusalem bedroom

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Mud, salt and tears: A day at the Dead Sea

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The first thing I noticed was the silence. It was eerily quiet it when we walked down towards the water. All you could hear was the crunching sound of the pebble stones under our feet, and some laughter in the distance, a reminder that we were not the only ones here, but we moved away from the small area where people were gathering to take a dip in one of the world’s saltiest inland lakes.the dead seaWe knew exactly where we wanted to go: a small patch filled with mud that a local had pointed out to us, a bit further down the shore. The mud of the Dead Sea is known for being rich in minerals and I had two goals for the day: giving myself a Dead Sea mud facial and floating in the salty water.the dead sea salt rocksI could already see the salt through the clear water, covering rocks in the Sea, but also outside of the water, where white salt crystals were slowly crumbling off the big rocks it covered, twinkling in the afternoon sun.the dead seaThe Dead Sea definitely lives up to its name: there is no sign of life anywhere around the water. No trees, no bushes, no animals. It was one of the most barren places I have ever visited; the only other place somewhat similar I’d ever been to was Lake Powell on the border of Arizona and Utah, a lake surrounded by white chalk cliffs (however, that one is a fresh water lake).the dead seaThe Hebrew name of the Dead Sea, Yam Hamelakh, is very fitting as well, translating to The Salt Sea. The salinity of it is 34 per cent – ten times higher than in the ocean, and more than double of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.dead sea rocksAs soon as we reached the mud hole, I stripped down to my bikini and ran into the water, excited about a refreshing dip. But the moment my feet touched the water I realized that this would be anything but refreshing – the water was almost bathtub warm. The water has the same temperature all year around, by the way, at about 72 °F (22 °C). The high level of salinity was visible right away, making the water look almost oily, similar to the trace suntan lotion leaves on the water surface, just tenfold.dead sea floating coupleI walked further away from the shore into the deep blue water… and then I floated. It felt bizarre that I couldn’t stand on the ground but as hard as I tried, my feet wouldn’t touch it. With a depth of 1,237 feet (377 meters), I felt more comfortable that way though, since I prefer waters where I can see the ground.dead sea rock with saltIts deep waters combined with the fact that the Dead Sea is already the lowest place on earth, 1,401 feet (427m) below sea level, the quietness surrounding it and the literally dead environment make this one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to.dead sea reflection israelWhile it seemed tempting to just float for a while, I felt the salt that evaporates from the water burn in my eyes and couldn’t resist the urge to rub my eye. With my salty fingers. A bad idea, as it turned out: a stream of tears was running down my face immediately, and the stinging pain in my red, inflamed eye reminded me of the incident all day long. Once I had cleaned my eye with some drinking water, it was time for my mud treatment!dead sea dani floatingThe minerals you find not only in the salts but also the mud of the Dead Sea are known for their healing powers, especially for skin diseases but also sicknesses like arthritis and osteoporosis. On the southern shores, there are several big hotels both in Jordan and in Israel that offer special Dead Sea treatments for their guests, and many people come here just for this reason.dead sea mudI ignored the sulfur smell of the mud and spread it all over my body, gave me a nice facial and waited for it to dry. After I washed it off, my skin felt amazingly soft and I wished I’d live somewhere nearby so that I could come here for a weekly skin treatment 🙂dead sea daniWe decided to leave the beach and to keep driving along the Dead Sea, which stretches for 34 miles (55 km) from south to north. Its narrow width of only 11 miles (18 km), made me almost want to attempt to swim over to Jordan, whose reddish mountains were in my view the entire time across the water.the dead sea with jordan mountainsBoth Jordan and Israel have contributed to the fact that the Dead Sea is shrinking rapidly by using it industrially – this photo, taken from space, shows the shocking difference of the size of the Dead Sea in 1972, 1989 and 2011. The northern part and the southern part are not even connected any more! Asher, my tour guide on the Israel National Trail hike, put it like this: ‘We became too greedy. And now we’re paying for it.’dead sea israelIn 2012, it was reported that it had shrunk a record 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) within the span of 12 months. Fifty years ago, the length of the Dead Sea was still 47 miles (75 kilometers), which is a drastic difference to the current length of 34 miles. Following this dramatic decline, Jordan, Palestine and Israel signed an agreement to pump water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea in order to stop the rapid shrinking. The project is, however, quite questionable and controversial.the dead seaAs we drove down Highway 90, which follows the entire length of the Dead Sea on the Israeli side, I couldn’t get enough of the breathtaking views over the dark blue water and the desert landscape around it. Because it is impossible for any life to thrive around there, there is barely any life around it, except for some industrial sites and hotels in the south.road trip in israelOne exception is Ein Gedi, a little oasis in the desert, right off the Highway. It was bizarre to be surrounded by lush vegetation all of a sudden, after spending the day along the desolate shores of the Dead Sea. There is a hike that starts at the bottom of the mountain and leads all the way to its top, offering spectacular views over the Dead Sea, and refreshing breaks along the way, which come in the form of several waterfalls.Ein Gedi IsraelConsidering that temperatures in this area are high throughout the year (86°F / 30° C during the winter and up to 104°F /40° C during the summer), it was a glorious feeling to step into the cool pools of the waterfalls and let the water run down to my back – it was the perfect ending to an unforgettable day – and it got me excited about my 4.00 am (!) start the next morning, when I would climb a mountain to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea.. read all about my road trip to Masada and Timna Valley here!dead sea salt rock israel

How to visit the Dead Sea

If you are traveling in Israel with a rental car, it is very easy to visit the Dead Sea. It is only 24 miles (39km) from Jerusalem and easy to get there via Highway 1 and Highway 90. The drive takes about 90 minutes and you can easily fit in the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi or the Masada in a one-day trip. dead sea jerusalemIf you don’t have a car, Abraham Tours in Jerusalem offers two different kinds of tours to the Dead Sea:

  1. The Dead Sea Chill Out Tour – NIS150 (US$39)
  2. The Dead Sea, Ein Gedi and Masada Tour – NIS275 (US$71)
  3. The Masada sunrise, Ein Gedi and Dead Sea Tour – NIS275 (US$71)

(Note: If you’re staying at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, you’ll get these tours at discounted rates)dead sea warning signThe beach I visited, just south of Ein Gedi, is free, but there are other beaches (some of which charge admission.) You can find a list of Dead Sea beaches here.

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is open from 8am to 5 pm (April to September) and 8am – 4pm (October to March). Admission is NIS29 (US$7.50) for adults, NIS15 (US$3.88) for children and NIS25 (US$6.47) for students.ein gedi view

Tips for visiting the Dead Sea

  • Make sure to bring drinking water to clean off salt should it get into your eyes or mouth.
  • Don’t forget your sunscreen – there is no shade and the sun is very strong in the desert.
  • You don’t want to shave the day before your visit – trust me, even the smallest cut burns like hell when the highly saline water touches it.

the dead sea

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Adventure Travel In Israel: Hiking the National Trail (Part II)

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You can read about the first part of the trek, my hike through the Negev Desert, here.

Part II: The Lower Galilee

When we started our hike on the third day, the scenery couldn’t have been more different from the first two days of desert trekking. Instead of the expansive, ocher colored landscapes of the Negev Desert, we found ourselves in the Judean Lowlands with lush green hills.
israel national trail near jerusalemPine trees were wrapping their surroundings in a mesmerizing scent, and birds were chirping. In the desert, there had been barely any sign of life. We hiked up Tel Azekah, a hill with wide open views over the the Mountains of Jerusalem and the Valley Of Elah where, according to the bible, David battled Goliath. The mound itself is known for its burial caves from various periods and secret tunnels from the days of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.israel valley of elahAfter a short introduction to the area and the events that led to David beating Goliath, we interrupted our nature hike to visit Jerusalem, Israel’s capital and most likely the most significant religious city in the world, but since I returned to the city for a whole week later in my trip, I will talk about Jerusalem in a separate post – and the city deserves a whole post in itself.

jerusalem viewpoint
Jerusalem from a viewpoint outside of the city. Can you spot the famous golden Dome Of Rock?

We then continued our trek on the National Trail in the Lower Galilee region in northern Israel and climbed Mount Tabor, also known as Mount Of Transfiguration. Mount Tabor is a stand-alone mountain, emerging majestically from the flatland area around it. It is famous for the Franciscan Church Of The Transfiguration that sits on its peak, and you’ve guessed it, for being the site of the transfiguration of Jesus.
israel national trail church of the transformation mount taborLooking at the green fields at the bottom of the mountain, it seemed surreal that I had just traipsed through the desert a couple of days ago. This is one thing I love about Israel though – despite being such a small country (8,522 sq mi – smaller than the U.S. state of Maine, or one sixteenth of the size of Germany), the landscape is more diverse than in any other country of comparable size that I’ve visited.israel national trail mount tabor monastery1israel national trail acornHiking the entire 620 mile (1,000km) National Trail is quite an undertaking, but it is possible to do it independently – as long as it planned right. The biggest and – in my opinion – most stunning part of the trail goes through the Negev Desert, where settlements are sparse and water is hard to come by. Most people either hide water rations in stashes that are commonly used by hikers or arrange for people to meet them and supply them with water and food. (See below for more information on how to prepare for a hike of the INT.)

big fin hike israel
The Negev Desert, where water is hard to come by

Our last big quest was to conquer Mount Arbel, where you can still see (and enter) dozens of caves that had been inhabited by Druze settlers three hundred years ago. These Cliff Dwellings reminded me a lot of the ones I visited in New Mexico last year and I was surprised about how similar life had been for the settlers in North America and here in Israel, thousands of miles and an ocean away from each other.israel national trail mount arbel cliffsmount arbel caves israelWhen we reached the peak of the mountain, we were rewarded with sweeping views over the Sea of Galilee, where many of Jesus’ miracles occurred, including him walking on water and him calming the storm. We enjoyed a coffee break right the rim of steep cliffs (1,250 ft / 380m high) – a coffee maker is something that is brought on every hike in Israel, I was told – while looking out over Arab villages, date palm orchards and avocado plantations of northern Israel. We could see as far as the mountains of the Golan Heights, which reach well into Syria, and I was once again surprised about the inherent natural diversity of this small country.

israel national trail mount arbel dani
Coffee with a view

mount arbel viewsAlmost as much as the country is diverse in its landscapes, it is diverse in the religious communities that live here together – in some places more, in others less peaceful. The trail passes Arab and Jewish settlements, sometimes villages that are home to both, it passes Christians, people of the Bahá’í Faith and Druze, a small religious community we got to know in the Lower Galilee when we had the pleasure to be invited for dinner at a Druze family’s house, enjoying some of the best food I had in my entire time in Israel, while learning more about this little-known religion. It was fascinating to hear about their beliefs, traditions and history first-hand, and the people you meet along the INT are undoubtedly a vital part of the experience as a whole.israel national trail druze kunefeThis is what makes the Israel National Trail so special, compared to other long-distance hikes: the combination of historical and biblical places, magnificent and varied landscapes, urban experiences and a glimpse into Israeli life, plus the distinctly different people you meet along the way,  all of which add up to an incomparable experience.mount arbel mountaintopAfter this hike, we all felt like we had deserved our last stop of the trek: the Jordan River. It was here where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, but we had much less biblical things in mind when we got there. A cold beer, a refreshing dip, and a foot spa, which was available free of charge from the hundreds of little fish in the river that eagerly nibbled on the access skin of our feet while we were enjoying having slipped out of hiking shoes for the very last time was the perfect way to end our trek.jordan river fish spaJordan RiverWhile on the one hand, I was relieved that the strenuous hike was over and I’d get to enjoy Tel Aviv’s city life, I felt like I had so much more to explore on Israel’s National Trail. The parts I had walked were just a teaser of the full route, whetting my appetite for more, but I couldn’t have gotten a better introduction to Israel than the week on the INT. I hope I’ll get to go back and hike the path in its entirety one day.israel national trail mount arbel path

Practical information: How to hike the Israel National Trail

Guidebook

There is a comprehensive guidebook available in English, including detailed topographical as well as road maps, information on what you need to pack, where to set up camp and where to replenish your supply /cache water, and even contact details of people who offer water deliveries to the desert. This book also has information on the places you pass along the trail, detailed day-by-day treks and a list of Trail Angels. You can order the book on Amazon: Israel National Trail and the Jerusalem Trail (Hike the Land of Israel). It is also available in the Stiematzky book store at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv (outside the baggage claim).

Judith Galblum Pex wrote a book about her experience walking the National Trail, called Walk The Land. You can order it on Amazon here: Walk the Land : A Journey on Foot through Israelmount arbel hiking trailPhysical Preparation

I would suggest taking a long walk (and increasing the distance) for a couple of weeks prior to starting the trek. Do a couple of test hikes in your city/ a nearby forest with the backpack you’re planning to bring to see how long you’re able to walk with the weight. Five liters of water per day are necessary, and weigh more than you think. A couple of practice hikes with your backpack will allow you to get rid of some things should you realize your pack is too heavy. If you are an experienced hiker, you shouldn’t need too much preparation, provided you are in a good physical condition.northern israel mountainHow long does it take?

If you’re planning to hike the entire Trail, it will take you between six and eight weeks.

What to pack

The INT Forum on IsraelNationalTrail.com is a great resource for all gear and packing related questions.mount arbel treeWhen to go

Don’t even try to hike the INT during the summer months – it is just too hot, especially in the desert part – and 60 per cent of the country are desert.

September until November would be perfect, or any time between late February and May. The winters can get pretty cold, especially in the north.

North to south or south to north?

North to south – and Wikitravel has an excellent list of reasons why: Where should one start?israel national trail northern israel pathHow to get in touch with Trail Angels

There is a list of Trail Angels in English on the INT Wiki, listed by region. There is also a list of low cost accommodation along the trail.. In total, there are about 150 Trail Angels. All of them offer either hot showers, a bed, a hot meal or a place to refill your water bottles.

Make sure to call the Trail Angels before you head there- they might not be around or not have any availability that day.

It makes sense to pick up a SIM card with data for such calls, but also to have a map available and to be able to look something up online when you’re on the trail. This site has a good overview of prepaid SIM cards with data in Israel. Note that there is not everywhere a signal though.israel national trail northern israelIsrael national trail routeWhere can you find more information?

The above mentioned INT forum is a wealth of information for any trail-related queries and you can post your own question in the forum. The IsraelTrail.net website has a great Resources Page with links to other websites about the trail. They also have an FAQ Page that answers all of the major questions people have before setting off on their hike, plus links to other sources.

American Julian Bender hiked the INT a couple of years ago and kept a detailed diary on his experience, plus information on trip preparation, packing, etc.

Diana Barshaw also chronicled her INT treks on her website along for advice for novice hikers and packing lists – she hiked the trail in shorter segments, which is another option to do the trek: instead hiking all of the trail at once, many people hike shorter segments in weekend or week-long trips.

If hiking the trail by yourself isn’t for you, you can join the Walk About Love, an annual INT group hike that starts every spring in Eilat and finishes in Dan 81 days later. Anybody can sign up for it, and it is also possible to join for shorter segments, as long as you commit to at least 12 days.

The red line in the picture above shows the route of the INT through all of Israel.

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Adventure travel in Israel: Hiking the National Trail

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Part I: The Negev Desert

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.makhtesh katan trail with hikersmakhtesh katan crater israelIt 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.makhtesh katan negev desertIn 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.israel national trail negev desert1makhtesh katan crater israel negev desertThat 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.climbing up the craterI 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.
makhtesh katan crater wall israelFor 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.israel national trail negev desertThe 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.negev desert hike israel national trail hikersCompared 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.dani negev desert hikeFor 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.negev desert hikenegev desertOn 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.negev desert hike israelThat 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.negev desert campfire israelThe 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.negev desert hike israel national trailEven 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.negev desert national israel trailYet 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.israel national trail hikersnegev desert hike israel national trailnegev desert canyonAfter 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.big fin hike israelbig fin israel national trailKnowing 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.big crater israel national trailLuckily, 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.negev desert hike israel national trailnegev desert hike israel national trailInstead 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.moon negev desert israelContinue here with Part II of my Israel National Trail hiking adventure, plus some practical information on how to hike this Trail independently.

For more photos of my hike through the Negev Desert, check out my Flickr gallery:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157648858153896″]

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Life lately and upcoming travels: September 2014 Edition

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I started these monthly updates to tell you about my current whereabouts, my most recent travels, what went well and what didn’t, plus a little sneak peek of what’s next for me.

Life Lately

I left New York at the beginning of September, and while I left the city in style with the fabulous chauffeur service provided by Blacklane.com (what a difference it makes to arrive at the airport in a completely relaxed state instead of sweaty and stressed out after struggling with public transportation and three carry-ons plus a severely overweight backpack – totally worth the splurge, especially before a long trains-Atlantic flight, IMHO), I also left with a heart so heavy in my chest that it was hard for me to hold the tears back all the way to the airport. I love this city so much, and I had such an amazing summer there; I left as a completely different person than I was when I arrived there broken into a million in pieces back in May.

New York City love
Love that city!

The only reason why I didn’t fall into depression after leaving: There was just no time, since I was heading straight to Israel (with a quick pit stop in Germany to cuddle my little nephew and spend a girlie day with my nieces, all of whom I had missed like crazy over the summer) and the excitement of getting to visit a new country took over quickly.

I’ve been traveling through Israel for more than three weeks now, and must say that I have been surprised about how much I like it. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Middle Eastern food though, and the way to the heart is through the stomach they say… well, I guess there is some truth to that! Trekking the National Trail was an unforgettable travel experience and I have met so many welcoming people here that it would be hard not to like the country. I wasn’t sure if I would regret not hiking the Camino, but right on the first day, while I was trudging through the desert at 100 F/37C, I knew I had made the right decision. Looking around me and taking in the incredible desert scenery was enough to reaffirm my decision for Israel, and looking back at the month that I had I wouldn’t change anything.

Israel
Israel: Amazing food and stunning scenery

I mentioned how apprehensive I was to visiting Israel, but the country itself has blown me away. It is difficult, however, to travel and enjoy the country 100 per cent when you can’t stop thinking about the Gaza conflict that looms over Israel like a big dark cloud, especially with the last war having ended just before my visit. I have been learning a lot during my time here, visited the West Bank several times, always trying to understand both sides, but the complicated political situation cannot be ignored (at least not by me, I met other travelers who seem much less concerned about the topic). I will write more about this when I share my experiences in Israel, since it would go way beyond the scope of this post.

separation wall west bankOverall, I feel like I have a much better understanding of both sides than I did before I came here, and like I said, the country itself is just incredibly beautiful. I loved road tripping around the entire country, spending time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, floating in the Dead Sea, exploring the ancient port cities of Acco and Jaffa, falling in love with beaches along the entire Mediterranean coastline, and of course the desert, through which I trekked for two days as part of the Israel National Trail hike. What made my experience here outstanding though is how warm I was welcomed everywhere I went – by strangers, by fellow trekkers, by the family of a good friend who invited me into their home for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Palestinians who were happy to chat with me about life in the West Bank, people I met along the way who became good friends. I am excited to share all my stories with you and am already planning my next trip to this region in my head.

Israel and the West BankWhat went well

Business! I’ve been working hard on improving and growing this website, and as a result I have been getting more and more interesting business offers and invitations for trips in my email inbox. I still decline most of them, and only accept the ones that I think are an excellent fit for both me and my audience, but it feels good to know that my efforts are paying off. Running the site by myself has been much harder than I could have ever foreseen, and I sacrifice a lot of my free time because I need to invest many more hours than I did when two people were running Globetrottergirls. Sadly, I am not getting around to reading a lot these days or watching movies, but there is one giant project that I am still discussing which would make all these long hours totally worthwhile (a little teaser on that in the ‘what’s next’ section).

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Celebrating a new business deal with a beer and a snorkeling trip in the Red Sea

What went wrong

-Work-Travel-Balance. Which was basically non-existent. I found myself glued to my laptop until 4am every night the week before I left for Israel, surviving on three hours sleep at most and two entirely sleepless nights before travel days. There were days when I felt like a zombie, but I had gotten an unexpected but well-paying workload that I couldn’t afford to decline after spending way too much money on new gear and gifts for my family in New York last month. My travel schedule was just too tight to be able to handle my workload at the same time. I felt like I was barely able to keep up with anything, and am still catching up with my email inbox which was overflowing while I was on the trek (if you emailed me in the past month and haven’t gotten a reply yet – I apologize and promise I will answer your email soon). I’ll have to slow down considerably next month to get back on track, or I will be burnt out by the end of the year.

Tel Aviv Office
I know I know.. I can hardly complain with a sea view office like this

-Travel tech. This was not a good month with regards to the travel gadgets I travel with – I ruined TWO of my lenses on the desert trek; I assume sand got in. This is really annoying because I had only picked up them earlier this year in New York (at every photographer’s paradise B&H) and the repair here in Israel was more than buying new lenses in the U.S. would be. That wasn’t my only tech mishap though – quite embarrassing, but I dropped my iPod Touch, which I had in the back pocket of my jeans, in the toilet. I am not sure how but it is still working! (Apple quality, my friends!) My reaction was lightning fast, I must have gotten it out within seconds and then tried the drying-the-wet-device-in-rice trick – which seems to work. That was the second near death of my iPod within a few weeks, after it was nearly washed into the ocean in the Rockaways, where it also only survived thanks to my super fast reaction time. After breaking its screen (and my iPhone screen – both within a week) earlier this summer, plus two broken lenses, I realize that I just shouldn’t buy myself any expensive travel tech.

dani ein gedi
Seriously… what would I do without my camera?!

-Health. I came down with a serious stomach bug last weekend (picture some projectile vomiting… or don’t.) and what it taught me: it sucks to be sick while traveling, but it sucks even more so if you’re solo traveling. My new Israeli friends made sure that I am well looked after though, so thanks for everyone who reached out to me and offered me help, medication or company!

-Fitness. I also felt slightly ‘off’ after running on a (nearly) daily basis for four months and not being able to run that much in Israel. Running has become for me what yoga is to others and I realize that I have to find a way to also integrate it in my daily routine while traveling for an overall better and more balanced feeling.

What’s next?

I’m heading to Oktoberfest! Instead of extending my stay in the Middle East and travel overland to Jordan from here (a place very high on my travel wish list), I decided to cut my trip short and leave that for my next trip to this region – there’s so much more to see here in Israel, too. Instead, I’ll be meeting a friend from New York in Munich to celebrate Oktoberfest together. I love the beer festival and have been five times, but I haven’t been there in half a decade. So I jumped at the chance to meet up with my friend who happens to be there for Oktoberfest and introduce her to the Bavarian beer culture and dirndls (we’ll both be wearing one – a first for me! I barely ever wear dresses.) So get ready for some hilarious photos.

Oktoberfest
My last Oktoberfest in 2009, five years ago

As for the rest of the month, I am still not sure about my travels – I am waiting for the flight confirmation for a rather spontaneous trip to a yet to be announced destination… as long as I don’t hold the plane tickets in my hands, I am not going to say anything just yet, but fingers crossed that my next update comes from that very destination.

The same goes for my November/December travel plans, which came together as a complete surprise this month, but since I still haven’t received my plane tickets for that trip either, I am going to have to hold off on telling you about it until the end of next month.

Last but not least, I have been discussing another big project which would be my first major on-camera experience if the campaign moves forward. Sadly, I can’t reveal any details yet, but let’s just say that if this really happens, it would involve a trip to one of my favorite countries in the world (can you guess? ;-)). Stay tuned for an exciting November!

tel aviv sunset with plane

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Polaroid of the week: Floating in the Dead Sea

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polaroid of the week israel dead seaI spent most of the last week road tripping around Israel, crossing the country from the Lebanese border in the north to the far south, where I saw both the Egyptian and the Jordanian borders on my morning runs through Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort town. This road trip came with so many highlights – it was hard to pick one single moment for this week’s Polaroid! I loved the blue grottoes of Rosh Hanikra which are right on the border to Lebanon, the ancient fishing village of Akko and the spectacular  Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa. From there, my friend and I made our way south to the Dead Sea, where I hiked up the Masada, an ancient fortification located on top of an isolated rock plateau, with stunning views over the Dead Sea (I hiked up there at 5.30am to see the sunrise over the Dead Sea), climbed up to the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, a desert oasis, and finally returned to the Negev Desert where I hiked in Timna Park, a desert area with unusual red rock and stone formations that blew me away (and nearly killed me, thanks to the 100°F/37°C temperatures). I loved my time in Eilat, where I snorkeled on the coral reef that is closer to the beach than any other reef I’ve been to, and the many colorful fish I saw made me wish I’d bought the underwater camera I was eying with this past summer in New York. After that, the road trip came full circle when we drove back north via Mitzpe Ramon, where I got to see the giant crater (25 miles long and up to 6 miles wide) and stopped in Tel Aviv for a dose of big city life before returning to northern Israel for a typical Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) family dinner. I must have taken around 2,000 photos on the road trip alone and can’t wait to show you all of Israel’s natural beauty.

The most unusual stop on the road trip was without a doubt the Dead Sea, where the strange sensation of floating in the water was certainly an incredible and unforgettable experience. The Dead Sea, 1,401 ft/427m below sea level, is one of the most fascinating places in the world. I didn’t think I’d be floating that much, but I couldn’t get my feet on the ground at all! Which wasn’t a bad thing after all, because I learned that the Dead Sea is 1,004ft/306m deep, and deep bodies of water freak me out (which is why I don’t think I’ll ever try diving). With 34% salinity it isn’t just one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, it is also ten times saltier than the ocean. Tip: Don’t rub your eyes!! (I learned that the hard way.) It is impossible for anything, animal or plant, to survive there. The landscape around the Dead Sea is very barren as a result, but oddly beautiful. Even though nature is basically dead in and around the Dead Sea, it is filled with healing minerals and hugely popular for treatments of all kinds of sicknesses, ranging from skin diseases to osteoporosis and arthritis. My skin felt amazing after my bath in the Dead Sea and the mud mask I gave myself there. Sadly, the countries bordering the Dead Sea (Jordan and Israel) have caused a lot of environmental damage, causing it to shrink rapidly. There are plans to replenish it, an initiative especially driven by Jordan. I hope that both Israel and Jordan will work together on this project, to guarantee the conservation of this unique natural wonder for future generations.

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Polaroid of the week: Jerusalem’s Golden Glory

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polaroid of the week israel jerusalem golden dome of the rockLast week I got my first introduction to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital and the most significant religious city in the world. Even though Jerusalem is not part of the National Trail, (which I was hiking), we made the detour to get a brief tour of this important site for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The religious gravity of Jerusalem creates an aura that is hard to put into words. Orthodox Jews, devote Muslims and faithful Christians living together in such a small space is something you don’t find anywhere else in the world, and I was wowed by the different quarters of each religion, all of which are distinctly different from one another.

The Dome of the Rock with its golden cupola is the most recognizable structure in Jerusalem, towering on top of Temple Mount high above all the other buildings of the city, unmistakably sticking out of the skyline of the Old City. While some sights that you know well from posters and pictures can be a letdown when you finally get to see them with your own eyes, I found the Dome Of The Rocks to be just as breathtaking as you’d expect it to be. It is known to be one of the oldest buildings in Islamic architecture, but is significant for all three religions (I’ll spare you the historical details, but you can read more about it here). I will return to Jerusalem next week and am already looking forward to spending more time there – if you’ve been to Jerusalem and have any tips or recommendations for me, please share them in the comments below.

***In case you missed my post on Five Books That Inspired Me To Travel, I’d love for you to check it out and share with me which books inspired you to travel!***

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Polaroid of the week: Hiking in the Negev Desert

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polaroid of the week israel national trail negev desertI arrived in Israel last week and started my National Israel Trail trek pretty much right away – after one night in Tel Aviv, we drove down to the south of Israel, where we were dropped off in the middle of the Negev Desert, knowing we would be on our own for the next couple of days and probably not see another living soul during our desert hike.

The trek started off much more challenging than anticipated – the sun was high up in the sky already by the time we set off, and there was no shade, which meant that it was incredibly hot. I love the barren desert scenery though, and so I enjoyed traipsing through the ocher-colored desertscape, walking on sand and rocks, and not passing a tree or any other sign of life for hours.

On our first day, we crossed the Makhtesh Katan, a small crater that is not formed through a meteor impact, but by erosion. The makhtesh phenomenon is unique to the Negev Desert, where you find three larger ones of them which all look remarkably like meteor craters when you stand on the rim of them, and yet they have been created through erosive processes. The craters vary in size from 3 miles (5km) to 25 miles (40km) – luckily our trek only involved hiking the entire length of the small crater and parts of a larger one.

Instead of setting up tents at night, we slept right under the stars, which was an absolutely amazing experience – even for me, who is usually not a big fan of camping.

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