AKUS’s postcard from Israel: The Negev, Part 1: Hobbits, Spas, Camels, and Red Indians

A guest post by AKUS

I planned to head south from the kibbutz to visit the Nabatean ruins at Avdat, which has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and found much more than I had expected to see and visit along the way.

There had been a kassam launched at Sderot from Gaza that morning, but by 9:00 am all seemed to be clear, so I stopped in to take some money from an ATM and grab a cup of coffee, then headed south towards Beersheva. Much of Israel seems to be covered in hothouses made of brown netting like these near Sderot. I was told that the farmers have found that the netting allows in enough sun for the crops to grow well, while trapping in a great deal of moisture that would otherwise evaporate. The netting reduces the amount of water needed for irrigation and damage by insects and birds.


Passing Beersheva, and heading south on Route 40, a road sign makes you realize that you really are in the Middle East! 


The camels that wander onto the roads come from the dozens of Bedouin encampments and “informal” – i.e., illegal – settlements that line Route 40 for miles south of Beersheva. These small slums are the “villages” and “towns” occupied by Bedouin whom Israel would like to have move into townships with proper services and utilities. Of course, as another plank in its battle to always show Israel in the worst possible light, the Guardian accuses Israel of wanting to uproot the Bedouin rather than accepting that this is a reasonable attempt to improve their quality of life. 


Look carefully at the ridge at the bottom picture below and you’ll see some of the camels that the road signs warn travelers to look out for:


Continuing south I stopped to fill up the car, and was intrigued by a sign that said “Neve Midbar” – “Oasis” in English. Following a short road to a T junction, I had to decide to turn right or left, and chose left. To my surprise, this is what began to emerge in the desert – a village made for Hobbits!


Coming closer, a sign announced in Hebrew that this is “Makman Dunes – Guesthouses made from Mud”.  The houses are made from natural materials such as mud and straw, with electricity supplied by solar panels. Hobbits would be comfortable with their rounded doors and curved interiors.


As so often to happens in Israel, where there seems to be only two degrees of separation between people, not six, it turned out I know the owners distantly.  This unusual set of guest houses was built by Rodney Hirsh, the son of old friends of mine, and his wife Tali. Their own house features a hobbit-appropriate bar for guests:


The location is at the bottom of a small ridge that still shows the signs of a British Army position from the days of Allenby’s campaign against the Ottomans.

Heading back to the main road, I noticed a building ahead and a parking lot full of cars. This was the real “Neve Midbar” – a spa set up in the middle of the Negev Desert. It was packed with visitors from Beersheva and nearby towns “taking the waters”. The mineral waters are pumped up from a depth of 900 meters at a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius and feed into a large poll inside the building:



Another surprise awaited just a few yards further down the road – the “Ship of the Desert” park which is run by local Bedouin who rent out traditional Bedouin tents and provide Bedouin food to their guests. Those willing to brave the smell of the “Ships of the Desert” can have a ride on what must be one of the world’s smelliest and ugliest beasts – a camel:


Leaving this eclectic collection of tourist attractions behind, I headed still further south, driving towards Avdat and Mitzpe Ramon. Before Sde Boker another unexpected tourist attraction appeared – the Wild West in the Negev? Wigwams or tepees for the traveler who really wants to get away from it all:


The camp is part of a small farm, which you can view on the Internet at The Desert Olive Farm”, established in 2002. Various desert crops are grown here and in a small neighboring farm. There are signs of Nabatean agriculture and a ruined Nabatean fortress that used to guard the spice route from Saudi Arabia to Europe some 2,000 years ago. As the Nabateans did, the farm collects as much rainwater as possible in the winter on some of the same terraces the Nabateans built.

Then it was time to start moving on towards Avdat before the mid-day sun made leaving the air-conditioned car almost impossible.

Next:  A winery in the Negev, the ruins at Avdat, and a brief glimpse of Mitzpe Ramon – the crater and the town.

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