Driving along Road 40 in the Negev Desert, the main north-south road from the city of Beer Sheva about 90 minutes south of Tel Aviv, to Eilat, Israel’s window onto the Red Sea, and the expanse of rocky desert is mind-blowing. The Negev which cover over 50% of Israel’s total area is unexpectedly remote and barren considering the small size of Israel is roughly that of New Jersey. Yet what’s more surprising is what lies amid that landscape, and that is why we have selected The Negev as the best place to visit in Israel for 2013, and why Lonely Planet named it as one of their top 10 destinations for 2013.
Driving south from Tel Aviv, passing Beer Sheva towards the sleepy town of Mitzpe Ramon, and the landscape changes gradually from urban to agricultural, and then somewhat confusingly to desert, back to green, and then eventually to 100% desert. The Negev is confusing, and full of surprises!
Mitzpe Ramon is a community with the potential to be one of the worlds hottest tourist towns thanks to its unique setting on the cliffs of the mighty Ramon Crater – a geological wonder created by the work of water when this area was covers by ocean millions of years ago. The Ramon Crater is shaped like a heart, 40km in length and surrounded by dramatic cliffs. The crater has its own micro-climate and ecosystem with, considering the desert’s harshness, a huge range of plant and animal life including leopards. In fact it’s so rich In nature that it is forbidden to hike here alone after dark.
Perhaps it is the uniqueness of the Negev’s landscape combined with the inspiring resilience of those who call it home, and the Israeli ingenuity and creativity which means that this area of desert leads the world in so many ways. In contrast to the global trend, where desertification is increasing the proportion of land considered to be desert, Israeli efforts have rehabilitated parts of the Northern Negev for agricultural purposes (explaining the confusion encountered as you drive south) and meant that Israel is the only country to have less desert now than 100 years ago.
Agriculture in the Negev flourishes – drip irrigation was created here, as were crop species such as the cherry tomato which have become staples of the Western diet, whilst other crops are being grown here with success beyond even hospitable climates. Farmers from around the world come here to learn techniques, and agriculture is a surprisingly large part of the local economy. Recently this has stretched into boutique agricultural products such as wines, cheeses, quality oils and alcoholic beverages have been produced by a group of unique farms dubbed the Negev Wine Route, with touristic attraction. set up by the local regional council
Agriculture is just at the surface of what the Negev had to offer, however. History is rich – this is Israel after all, and a series of Nabatean cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – among these is Shivta, which was never destroyed throughout history. Likewise, culture is rich, and somewhat even more surprising villages such as Ezuz, a tiny remote community which draws many of Israel’s top musicians to perform, and the Adama Dance Company, a global troupe who relocated from Tel Aviv to the middle of the desert, and draw thousands of fans every fall for their international festival.
But the desert has active draws and that is perhaps what the Negev will become best known for. Expansive hiking trails, as across most of Israel, are accessible and well marked, however it’s the biking trails in the Negev which now stretch over 300km, which are even more interesting. ‘Normal’ desert experiences such as jeep rides and ATV rides, horseback riding, caving and rappelling, and sand surfing, just scratch the surface of what’s available here.
Mitzpe Ramon might today remain a sleepy town but that’s fast changing – two years ago it received both its first backpackers hostel and first luxury hotel, bringing a diverse spectrum of new visitors, and perhaps it will be they who in 20 years look back and say “I saw it before it was big”.