We spent the last three days of the Being Peace retreat at an eco-lodge at Almog Junction near Jericho. It felt like a more relaxing environment than the space in Deir Istiya and gave everyone in the group a chance to reflect on their experiences from the past week.
On one of these days, I headed off on my own for a walk in the desert. I took a day pack and dressed in trousers, a long-sleeve shirt and a hat. Not only would it protect me from the heat, but I was on Palestinian land, so I dressed according to their custom.
Just across the highway from the eco-lodge is a large service station/rest area where I picked up some snacks and extra water, giving me three litres in total. There were several tour buses at the station and lots of tourists hovering around, many dressed in short shorts and skimpy tops.
Topped up with supplies, I headed south, following a dirt track out into the Judean desert. I didn’t have a map or any real idea of where I was going, but headed in a direction that should at some point give me a glimpse of the northern edge of the Dead Sea.
The landscape was almost completely barren and the colour of sand. The sky was pale blue and cloudless and in the distance atmospheric haziness melded the two together. I realised I was actually walking at an elevation several hundred metres below sea level (the city of Jericho to my north was 258 metres below and the Dead Sea to my south, being the lowest point on earth, was 430 metres below. I was roughly in between them).
After walking for over an hour, I passed a concrete block on the side of the road. It had a sign in faded red font indicating the area was a military firing zone and that entrance required IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) approval. Because the sign was so faded and heavily graffitied, I chose to ignore it and continued on.
A short time later, I came across a quite dramatic change in the landscape. In front of me and extending off to my right was some kind of immense desert canyon. To my left I could see a small oasis made up of some buildings surrounded by vegetation, which I later discovered was Almog Kibbutz, basically another illegal settlement on Palestinian land. Beyond that and further south, I could just make out the northern shore of the Dead Sea.
The canyon looked really impressive and a great place to explore. As I was making my way down into it, I came across three hikers, all middle-aged Israeli men from Tel Aviv. I asked them where they had been and they described a canyon walk that could be done as a 2 hour circuit. They said there were several places where you had to climb escarpments using metal ladders. That got me even more interested so they offered to show me the starting point, near where their car was parked.
We got to talking. They were surprised I was on my own. One of them said he would like to go for walks on his own and feel comfortable enough to meet strangers but just didn’t feel safe doing it. I thought that was a bit sad, but another consequence I guess of living in a country focussed to the point of obsession on the concept of security.
When we reached the car park, not far from Almog Kibbutz, they asked me if I had enough water, then pointed me in the direction of the start of the walk. I descended into a gorge with a wide pebbled river bed and headed in a westerly direction. It was the lower portion of a canyon known as Wadi Og, and was quite a popular walk with Israelis.
The route was marked at different points in a similar fashion to other Israeli recreational trails. The Wadi or gorge was formed as part of a stream that carries water some 30 kilometres from hills like the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, all the way to the Dead Sea. Of course now it was bone dry, but it often floods in the winter, during times of heavy rain.
Soon the riverbed narrowed, and I entered a canyon that ran for 1.5 kilometres, gradually narrowing even further as one moves upwards. It consists of a series of dry waterfalls that are climbed using metal rungs acting as steps. The walls of the canyon reach high above on both sides and provide plenty of shade and respite from the heat.
The surfaces of the rocks and the canyon walls are covered in cracks and sharp cornered edges creating interesting and ancient patterns. There are small caves at various points along the walk and one in particular that could easily shelter a family from the elements. The landscape reminded me that not far away, only 5 km south, in the caves of a similar wadi called Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 by Bedouin shepherds.
About midway through the canyon I spotted two ibex on a ledge that ran along the canyon wall. They stood and stared at me as I took some pictures and then with with the speed and agility of mountain goats they disappeared around a rocky outcrop.
At the end of the canyon, most walkers will take a dirt road to the top and then circle back to the car park. I decided to continue on into the Upper Wadi Og which was broader and did not have as much shade. After some time I climbed out onto the surrounding hilltops to great views of the desert in every direction. While the Lower Wadi walk had a steady stream of visitors, there was now no one around for as far as I could see.
I walked up and down the hilltops and eventually joined a road that I followed until I had an even better view of the northern edge of the Dead Sea. It was less than five kilometres away but looked much more distant because of the haze which seemed to obscure its boundaries. The mountains on its eastern coast were almost indistinguishable from the sky.
Before I started to make my way back to the eco-lodge, I climbed a hilltop near the end of the Lower Wadi trail to get an even better view. It was a climb of just over a hundred vertical metres but it gave me a great perspective on where I was. I could see the city of Jericho to the north and the Dead Sea to the south-east as well as everywhere I had walked throughout the day. I climbed down through a steep cutting on the other side and walked back to the eco-lodge.
I’d been gone six hours, had walked almost the entire time and had consumed all three litres of water. It was a wonderfully peaceful and reflective experience. The desert, even during the heat of the day, possesses a unique beauty and a stillness and silence that is difficult to find anywhere else.