Monthly Archives: February 2016

Together at the Dead Sea 

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Jen and I decided that we would recuperate together at the Dead Sea. Her knee and my Achilles tendon are both not in great shape. From Arad, she got a lift from the guesthouse with a friend of Michaela’s. I slowly made my way back south having traveled quite a ways north. My hike back, combined with a variety of lifts, took the better part of the day but we finally connected and hobbled towards each other for a joyful reunion.
 

 We are camped on an empty beach facing the Jordanian mountains. The shore is an amazing landscape of white crystallized salt that looks like a northern ice flow. The Dead Sea is the saltiest place on earth and is 400 meters below sea level (my salt shaker container is 3 times the size of my sunscreen container so as you can imagine, I am in heaven. But Jen has forbidden me to suck on the salt). Floating in the heavy water feels like lolling around in a gigantic pool of expensive skin exfoliating bath oil. The amount of salt in the water makes sinking impossible and it leaves an oily residue on the skin that is impossible to dry, but at the same time, softens the skin. The salt also makes us acutely aware of every little abrasion on our battle worn bodies.

Our journey of 1000 km has become a journey of 1000 feet. We look at the water from our tent and gear up for the trip to the shore (it’s only a few hundred feet). We pack our lunch, take everything we need for the day, because, God forbid, we don’t want to make the journey twice. With my stilted waddle and Jen’s limp, both of us relying heavily on our poles, we hobble along like a couple of tired old donkeys. When we reach the water, we build a makeshift sun shelter by tying my large scarf to our poles and then collapse for the day in the hard salt sparkled sand. When the sun is low in the sky, we start the long journey back to the tent. How far the mighty have fallen.

 

 We will stay here for another day of rest, immersing ourselves in the waters of the Dead Sea in the hope that it’s unique minerals will work magic on our broken down bits. So far, it hasn’t had much effect. Jennifer’s knee shows little sign of improvement and is discouraging for her. My ankles are not faring much better. It’s a unique situation for both of us, as Jen has never had a knee issue, nor I a weak Achilles. We don’t know how or why it happened and that it happened to both at the same time is bizarre.

Also this week my daughter, Sabrina, slipped on ice while running to work and broke her ankle to the point where she needs surgery. What crazy forces are at work here?

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What a day!

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  The house in Sansanna sat alone at the end of a long stone tree-lined walkway. It had a veranda overlooking a green valley. Outside the door was a picture of a boy and a write up.

I arrived at the little sanctuary in the pouring rain and was met by two young Danish boys were also there, also hiking the shvil. They were not long out of high school and were very sweet. It was fun to talk to someone else who was hiking the trail and I wished that Jennifer could have met them. She would have enjoyed it. They told me that the house was maintained by the family of a boy who was hiking the shvil and died when he fell into a river.

The next morning was finally sunny again. I was eating a breakfast of oranges and dates on the veranda, looking out over the valley and thinking what a wonderful way the family had chosen to honour their son – to provide shelter (in my case, shelter from the storm) to other hikers. I thought about all the losses we have to endure that are part and parcel of living and how we get through them.

  
I packed up and as I walked up the the stone pathway heading out, a light breeze was blowing the blossoms off the trees, and again it hit me how fragile life is and how precious and beautiful. With a silent prayer of thanks, I said goodbye to the little house and began the days hike. And what a day it was!

The scenery was a real mix. It began with the mud flats where 5 days of rain had washed the trail out. I opted to wade through the thigh deep thorn bushes rather than be swallowed by the soft mud, which measured half a pole deep. As the day progressed, the scenery changed to rolling, grassy hills with wild yellow flowers and vibrant red poppy-like flowers that made me think of wearing a frock and singing about the hills being alive. And then it was the forest…where I was almost attacked by a dog.

I am hiking along when a lady and her dog come down a hill in front of me. The dog runs up to me and starts to bark. Being a dog lover, I put my hand down for him to smell. Some kind of pointer/pit bull mix, he starts to growl and bare his teeth. I immediately put up my pole in defence. The lady is trying to call the dog off but he is ignoring her. Speaking to me in broken English with a strong Ukrainian accent she indicates for me to calm down and lower my pole…that I am scaring the dog. “Scaring the dog”, I say incredulously. Meanwhile, the dog and I are facing off, circling each other, me with my pole up and him with teeth bared. Very cautiously I lower my pole slightly, thinking that maybe she is right, maybe maybe my aggressive stance is making the dog aggressive. The dog lunges at me and tried to bite me again. My pole immediately goes up again, this time I’m steeling for fight mode. She says she is sorry, the dog only listens to her husband. “Then get your damn husband here fast”, I say. She’s frantically calling for him. Finally, (it was probably only a couple of minutes but felt like much longer) an older man walks up taking his sweet time. Without so much as a glance at me, he barks an order to the dog in Ukrainian and the dog backs down. They get in their car and a moment later I see them drive past, with the woman in the back seat and the dog in the front with the husband. The wrong pack order if you ask me. I wasn’t amused.

Shortly after, I was avoiding yet another mud flat and wading through tall grass when I scared up some kind of fowl right beside me. I nearly jumped right out of my skin. I cursed the old man and the dog again.

The trail was hard to follow. There were lots of turns and it was poorly marked. And as it happened, I hiked right past the camp where I was planning to stop because it wasn’t marked. According to the trail guide o hiked 33 kilometres. My Achilles’ tendons were (are) very swollen and sore, my legs scratched, and I was done for the day. I found a well hidden spot to make camp. Safely ensconced in my tent, I collapsed into my sleeping bag for the night after a bowl of warm oatmeal gruel for dinner.

Going it alone (for a little bit)

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We woke up well before light in our little cave after a wonderful, warm sleep. We choked down some barely moistened oatmeal (water and fuel were low) and were on the trail by dawn. Jen’s knee was causing her a lot of pain. But with no option except to walk out of the boulder strewn wadi, she got it through it with grit and chutzpah and emerged victorious on the up side. She has not had much experience hiking, making what she has accomplished that much more impressive. The strenuous desert terrain was far more challenging than either of us anticipated. When one thinks  of deser, they don’t think of mountains. 

When we reached Arad, we flagged down a young couple to ask directions and they drove us to the “Desert Bird” guesthouse. It’s a lovely home with an equally lovely host, named Michaela. Among other acts of generosity, she drove Jen to the clinic to see about her knee. The diagnosis – acute tendinitis. Doctors recommendation – rest for a week to 10 days. Jennifer is totally bummed about it, but she can barely walk, let alone carry a pack. After two nights at the guesthouse I left yesterday, with conflicting emotions, to continue north. Hopefully, by Jerusalem, we can be trekking together again. 

On my way to Har Amasa, a couple stopped and said it was dangerous to hike up the steep remainder of the trail due to the amount of rain fall and that higher up it might be snow. Mount Amasa is 850 m high and the weather is unpredictable. Arad is the dividing line with the dry desert on one side and the Yatir Forest on the other. The couple said that they were headed to Amasa if I wanted a lift. I excepted their offer and we soon arrived at the little kibbutz. I was promptly shown to a grimy little room reserved for Shvil hikers. That grimy little room was much appreciated as, by then, a bone chilling rain was slamming the green mountainside.

Later that night I was invited for dinner to the home of a humanitarian couple, both with PhD’s in philosophy. Their perspective was that the Bedouins had been treated badly by the is Israelis. This is a complicated multi-dimensioned society with many different points of view. Like everywhere, I suppose. It was a lovely evening and I slept well in their “safe room”. In Israel it is required by law that every house built have a “safe room” – a concrete room with reinforced windows and door in case of bombing. 

I left in the quiet, early morning fog before they were any stirrings of life. Once on the , realizing I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me, I turned around. I didn’t know where the little dirt road went (it was marked as a red trail) but wherever it was going, it would be better than sliding into a flooded gully or getting lost because I couldn’t see the trail markers.

I wondered how Jen was doing. I felt like I was missing a limb. About half an hour later, I realized that I actually was; I didn’t have my hiking poles! I hurried back, crept into the silent house, got my poles, accidentally woke up the dog, who then tried to follow me. (How do you say go home in Hebrew?)

 
The little dirt road did go to Meitar, which was my next planned stop, but it took the long way around. Apparently, the scenery was stunning and the ruins noteworthy, none of which I could see. The fog didn’t let up for several hours and it also poured rain until evening. Eventually, A police car stopped beside me, asked where I was going and if I needed anything. I’m sure I looked a sight. I had a bag of oranges tied to my waist (while trying to dig out my raincoat from the bottom of my pack, they fell out and rolled down the road. I couldn’t fit them back in the pack in my haste to batten down). My broken water bottle was jammed in my waist belt and I was drenched. They looked dubious when I said I was fine. They moved the AK 47’s, opened the door and said they would take me the few remaining kilometres to Meitar. I hesitated for only a second before the lure of even momentary warmth won out. Once in Meitar I got a few groceries and decided to press on to a little shelter house for shvil hikers in the small 16 family community of Sansanna.

Night life Extremes 

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Thursday Feb 18th

Something eerie was in the air last night in Ein Yahov. Even the animals felt it. All night long, dogs were barking, sheep were blatting, roosters crowing. And to top it off, a pack of coyotes were growling and howling not twenty feet from our tents. They weren’t growling at us but we were a little spooked all the same. And then a car pulled in and sat there with the lights shining on us, and then left. It was just one of those weird nights. When morning finally came we were both tired and rattled and wanted to get back to the trail. 

We packed up and headed north on the little used road. I packed all of the road scavenged peppers, plus 2 eggplants, an avocado, the oranges, a grapefruit, the tomatoes, the onions and the cabbage. I know… totally nuts. (I sometimes wonder if I was a starving street urchin in some other life to account for my sometimes over the top “waste not, want not” philosophy).

Even though the little road was called “the peace route”, the scenery was uninspiring. We ditched the idea of walking back to the trail and caught a bus instead; now we are happily back hiking the Shvil. Within minutes, we were totally immersed again in quiet  isolation. We have enough water for three days so we are good.

This area is completely uninhabited. We have not come across any thru-hikers (yet on the trip so far) and we have not even seen a day-hiker for ages. We did pass a herd of camels. We thought they were wild until we saw a couple of surly looking young Bedouin boys ride over the hill on their donkeys. When they hopped off not far from us and started cruelly beating one of the donkeys, I was horrified and wanted to go over and say something. But I didn’t. I figured they could see that we were two old ladies on the shvil and I was acutely aware that we could be easily findable later if they chose. I didn’t want to give them any reason to want to find us. We just left. I don’t know if I was being cowardly or smart. I felt very bad for the donkey and kind of disappointed in myself. It made me remember that while we feel  

  

  

 completely safe and all the Israelis we met have been wonderful, we are in an area surrounded by conflict and people with very different values. It’s easy to forget here in this beautiful land. I was happy to be far away from those mean boys by night time. We are settled in for the night somewhere in the desert. It is peaceful and quiet and I am breathing easy.

Friday Feb 19th

It was an 11 hour hiking day. Tomorrow we will push the last 18 kilometres to Arad as we don’t have enough water to make another day. Jennifer’s toes and back are better but her knee has really been giving her a lot of pain. It’s slow going with a bum knee but she soldiers on.

At one point, in the heat of the day, she was resting under a rock ledge. I was sitting across the wadi writing in my journal when 4 wild dogs crossed right in front on me, leaped up to the ledge close to where Jen was resting and trotted on their way. They didn’t notice or bother with either of us, though it did get my heart beating a little faster, regardless. 

The terrain is changing. There is more green scrub and the rolling landscape in this area actually has the feel of the Scottish highlands. For several hours we picked our way through kilometres of a rock strewn wadi in gale force winds, our eyes scanning the wide expanse as we searched for a trail marker. They are easy to miss and a couple of times today we lost it and had to rely on the compass. I never thought seeing a little orange, blue, and white strip of paint would make me so happy.   

When Jen’s knee could go no further and darkness was imminent, we happened upon a cave. At first Jen was nervous as she had read that one tenth of the caves in Israel are infected with some sort of bat transmitted spores that cause a lung disease but there was no evidence of bats and no suitable place to pitch a tent. We decided to hunker down for the night. It is a small cave with a big opening at the front. As we cooked our supper, cozy and warm, with the wind blowing stuff all around outside, we began to love our little cave.

The peppers are all gone but I have to say, eating 20 peppers over the course of a couple of days does interesting things to your bowels. 

Swimming across the Trail

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A few days ago the trail led down into two enormous canyons. At the bottom of the first Canyon we came to a pool of water with the trail leading down into the water and out the far side. There were ropes above the water and tall canyon walls surrounding us. We looked at the walls, we looked at the water, we looked at each other. We tested the rope – definitely not strong enough to hold a person. There was only one way across. So without further ado, I attached my pack with a carabiner to the rope, stripped down to nothing, put my clothes and boots into a green plastic bag and also attached attached it to the rope. I stepped into the freezing, cold chest deep water and swam dragging my suspended pack by its straps behind me… until I hit the knot in the rope. I tried to shake the pack free, careful not to pull too hard and send it into the drink. Jen jiggled the rope from the edge, but the pack wouldn’t budge. So I dragged it back to the starting point, unclipped it, attached it to the other rope and in I went again. When I finally reached the other side, shivering and clinging to the straps, I hauled myself up the slippery slope. Then it was Jen’s turn. She doesn’t have the body insulation that I have and she went into the water with the gasp. After quickly fumbling with our clothes we got dressed in record time, then Jen tended to her toes and we were back in business.

A couple of hours later we came to the next Canyon. At the bottom was another pool. Fortunately, it was only knee/thigh deep so, to save the time redressing Jen’s damaged digits, I piggybacked her across the cold, slimy water. At the other end of the pool it was a steep ascent of ladders and handholds to the top.

The Israelis have been kind and generous all the way along, whether it is sharing water, giving a lift when you need it, sharing food, and even their home. A few days ago we took a bus for 30 km when the trail followed a road. On our way back to the trail we flagged down a car to ask directions. As we were in a military firing zone (so the sign said), we were wary of wandering too far off the road to camp for the night (we had  also been seeing fighter jets roar above the tents for the past couple of nights).

The couple in the car insisted that we spend the night at their house and they would drive us back to the trail in the morning. We were able to shower,wash our clothes, they treated us to pizza and even brought us water the following night to our camp. Such generosity. It was a real treat.

Yesterday was our tenth day on the trail and we reached our first village. Unfortunately, the little grocery store was closed, but because we were in dire need of toilet paper (I had taken to using the paper wrapper of the mornings oatmeal packet) and groceries, we caught a lift to a nearby moshav named Ein Yahov where we loaded up on fresh fruit, vegetables, olives, cheese, avocados and pita. We are now camping a few kilometers outside the little community where we have shade, wood (usually we have to scavenge from the desert scrub), and the luxury of a water tap. There  is a date grove on one side of us and long covered greenhouses on the other where produce is grown. We gathered 2 shopping bags full of sweet red and yellow peppers from the side of the road (a box must have fallen off a produce wagon).

We thought that it was only the first 7 days in the desert that required caching food and water and we have managed that. But it turns or that there are many more caches in the desert. And with only two people the cost is prohibitive. So, at this point the best available option is to take a bus to the next section.
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Re-entering civilization (both past and present)

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We are about to start our sixth day on the trail and the streets of Eilat feel long ago and far away. We have covered miles of remote desert, and while we know that civilization is close by (Israel is a small country) we have seen nothing of it except crossing the odd road here and there.IMG_0675

Until today.

We passed through Timna National Park and I stood in awe in front of the Solomon Pillars. They are tall pillars of eroded 500 million year old rock. You can see the seam where that rock meets with even older rock. Hard to wrap your head around. There are also the remnants of an Egyptian temple dating back to 4000 BC. This whole area was also mined for copper by King Solomon and is still mined.

The colours are breathtaking and I want to pick up every second rock I see as a keepsake. Alas some of the climbs are not so much “steep” (the tame descriptor used in the trail guide) but rather vertical paths toward the sky, hemmed by sheer 1000 foot drops. Trying to navigate getting the pack and ourselves down takes all of our  concentration, strength and stamina. I think carrying  extra rocks would be a mistake.

 

Jen is doing amazing and is getting more adapted to the trail and stronger every day. On a huge hike up she got to the top under her own steam covering terrain that had terrified her on the first day. She has huge blisters under her toenails but carries on regardless.
IMG_0677On the trail, life is simplified to the basics of survival. The food we brought is lasting well. We have been lucky with water as our first cashe lasted until we came across a school group camp out. They had an abundant supply and filled us up. And then we were able to refill again at Timna. Still, caring many liters a day is wearing on us. The solar charger is almost sufficient to keep our devices charged so we can write but often we don’t have Internet service.

The other day I was dying for something sweet. I looked down and there on the trail was a single green skittle. I couldn’t believe it. I generously offered to share it with Jen but she didn’t want to eat off the ground (imagine – like she’s the queen of England). I happily popped the nugget of deliciousness into my mouth without a second of hesitation (my veneer of civilized behaviour is much thinner than most people). I have found other assorted little gifts along the trail, including four tomatoes and a little piece of wire. I always take them as I feel they are the equivalent of the hunger games gifts from the sky.

Last night after a hard 10 hour day we were wiped out and veered off the trail looking for a place to camp that was flat and out of the wind. We were just about to turn around when we saw a car, and lo and behold there was a road just over the hill. And on that road was a building under construction. By some miracle the door was unlocked (someone’s oversight as it had ancient priceless antiquities in glass cabinets) and looked to be what will eventually be a visitor centre. So… we visited. It was a treat to spend the night indoors and we were grateful for our  good fortune.IMG_0665

We have seen some interesting wildlife. Some ibex, a bunch of huge desert rats scurrying around the mountain side and then some little ones that we hiked through, a bright blue little lizard of some sort, some  little prairie chicken lookalikes racing ahead of us. And a couple of nights ago we saw a scorpion skittering under one of our cups. A good lesson to stay diligent in keeping tents zipped.

Also my poles collapsed once on flat ground and sent me down into the rocks, that was another good, free lesson to remember – always check the poles are tight and secure. Having one loose in at the wrong time could be catastrophic.

First two days on trail yield challenges, laughs

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It was clear skies the day we left. We taxied from the Shelter Hostel to the trail  after an oatmeal breakfast. One would think we could walk the 7 k but we figured we better save our strength as the first day was supposed to be one of the hardest. And it was good that we did!

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Desert sands

The trail started with a view of the Eilat Inlet  off the Red Sea on one side and a steep 3000 meter ascent on the other. For hours it snaked up,  down and around mountains of multi- coloured sand  rock.  It was strenuous, beautiful, sometimes  treacherous but being in the quiet solitude of the desert was bliss. Especially after the airports, hotels and taxis.

The technical challenge of the trail is farther outside of Jen’s comfort zone than she anticipated and I often will hear muttered curses of “this is crazy” behind me as she digs into her deep well of strength and courage.  She’s a real trooper and is doing awesome. With some fairly extreme hiking behind me I am able to help her through some tough spots, but by the end of the day  we are both done in.

Shortly before dark on our first day we scrambled up the side of a wadi (a canyon that can flash flood during rainstorms; it wasn’t raining but better safe than sorry) and set up camp on a large rock shelf  overlooking the canyon with the Egyptian  border on the far side. It felt very remote. With the exception of seeing  some day hikers our first hour on the trail, we hadn’t seen a soul all day.

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My boots sticking out of the tent as the wind blows

We didn’t end up finishing the first days hike until the end of the second day and by then our water was gone and we were parched. When we finally arrived to the designated camp spot we couldn’t find our water cache. Turns out we were at the wrong place and had to hike an extra  4K to get it. Groan!

A crazy hard wind was blowing last night and we woke this morning to find our tents  wrapped around our bodies. Then trying to take my tent down, it was whipped from my hands  and into a thorny acacia tree. Unfortunately, it  ripped it in several places and tonight it is patched  with Band-Aids, as well as Jennifer’s blistered toes (check out her blog of the trip at jenniferwilliamson.ca ).

The nights are cold, the days are warm, the pack is heavy, the food is meagre, the trail is hard, the laughs are plentiful. So far, so good.