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Hermon: Hazori to Hula

Golan: Devora &  Gilbon

Golan: Nahal Meitzar

Galilee: Nahal Kziv

Galilee: Nahal Amud

Galilee: Nahal Rosh Pina

Galilee: Ramat Adamit

Coast: Dor to Caesarea

Judean Hills: Ela Valley

Judean Desert: Masada

Judean Desert: Peres

Negev: Mount Zaror

Negev: Hatira Coxcomb

Negev: Ramon Ridge

Negev: Hatzra Ascent

Negev: Nekarot Hike

Negev: Ada Canyon

Arava: Barak Canyon

Arava: Maok & Nekarot

Eilat: Israel Trail Finale

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The Colors of the Negev

A 20-kilometer hike for good walkers on the Negev's Hatzra Ridge, which takes you across the Small Makhtesh, up the Hatzra Ascend, and down the riverbed of Nahal Mazar.

It is doubtful that in a country of reasonable size, anyone would bother to give the Yamin Plain a name. But Israeli geography books tell of a 70-square-kilometer sandy plain with its own identity that covers the concave area between two ridges – Hatira and Hatzera. By the time we had driven on this plain for five minutes, it was already behind us, leaving us on a paved road in the riverbed of Nahal Ma’aleh, which leads up to the watershed line of the Hatzera Ridge.

When we reached the top, we turned left. The only signs of civilization were a dirt road marked in red and a very basic campsite (consisting simply of an area where visitors are permitted to pitch a tent and stay overnight). We followed the red road for about a kilometer and then left the car and started our hike. At that point, too, we saw a campsite, which was along the lines of the earlier one.

The red road took us up a gentle slope, amid shrubs of bean-capers, to the top of the

Eli Ascent. When we visited in mid-January, about three days after a substantial rainfall, the white flowers of the bean-capers were just beginning to appear.

Spread out before us in all of its splendor

was the Small Makhtesh, one of those unique depressions in which thousands of years of geological history are exposed. It was still early in the morning and a bluish mist rose up above the only opening in the makhtesh, which is on its eastern side and was dug out by Nahal Hatzera, the only riverbed that drains the makhtesh.

Opposite us was the northern wall, and though it was some 6 kilometers away as the crow flies, in the clear desert air we could see every wrinkle in it. It was still too early to see the vultures that nest on the cliff – they were waiting for the air to warm up so they could soar on its currents.

The Eli Ascent is not an ancient thoroughfare: it was cleared by modern hikers in the 1950s. They named it Eli (Hebrew for pestle), because it leads down to a makhtesh (which literally means mortar, for its bowl-like shape). Designed for hikers rather than for the heavily laden camels that plied such ascents in days gone by, it covers the 400-meter height differential via a very steep route, eased by stakes and railings.

 We began to make our way down the Eli Ascent. After negotiating the limestone rock from the Cenomanian epoch (100 million years ago), we slid down a segment of sticky, muddy green clay, and reached the colorful layers of sandstone that occupy about two-thirds of the cross section of the makhtesh cliff.

On the makhtesh floor, the trail leading to the opening of the makhtesh is marked on a silt step a bit higher than the channels around it. Most hikers, however, prefer to walk in one of the channels parallel to the trail, where a greater amount of colored rock is exposed to the air. The many marks etched into the thin crust on the brittle sandstone attest to this practice.

The sandstone is coated with a thin patina that is usually light brown, a hue that is different from the color of the rock itself. Known as desert patina, desert lacquer, or desert rust, this coating is characteristic of exposed rock in the desert.

The color usually comes from ferric and manganese oxides, as well as other elements, such as copper and cobalt. It is generally thought that dew and rain seep into the rock and dissolve a few of its components. When the sun heats up the rock, the solutions rise to the surface. The water evaporates and leaves sediments that produce the desert patina.

Biological processes also play a part: beneath the desert patina are lichens, fungi, and algae that are capable of oxidizing elements such as oxygen and iron.

Over the ages, the patinas that coat the rocks became the billboards of the desert. Local inhabitants expressed their feelings in pictures carved into the patina, and simple inscriptions incised by pilgrims became historical testimony. But these ancient etchings do not justify such acts by modern schoolchildren, who deface the channels with their graffiti.

The channels are truly lovely. Their walls expose rock in spectacular colors: red, yellow, white, brown, and everything in between.

The colors of the sandstone were produced by iron oxides, born of the erosion of minerals brought here via riverbeds from the Arabo-Nubian Massif.

 The red trail meets up with Nahal Hatzera a bit before the opening of the makhtesh. We could tell we were nearing a riverbed by the presence of tamarisk trees, which grow in alluvial soil. We came to an earth embankment with a breach in it; it was erected in the riverbed to halt the floodwaters so that they would seep through the soil and add to the stores of underground water in the area.

The channel of Nahal Hatzera is broad enough to host several spiraled acacias, 4 meters in height. We lingered there for a few minutes in silence, observing the activity of a group of Arabian babblers that dwells in the area.

A bit before the opening of the makhtesh, the red trail meets up with a trail marked in blue. A clear sign directs visitors to the Hatzera Ascent, which leads up from the makhtesh on its northern wall. Also at this spot is a small, fenced-in structure housing a pump that draws water from a well, hence the dam we saw earlier. The water is piped to a pool on Mt. Tzafit and from there to the factories on the Rotem Plain.

The blue trail leads through a shallow channel that drains the northern part of the makhtesh. After a short time, the trail leaves the channel and leads up a dirt road.

In the distance, we could discern the large spur of rock along which the Hatzera Ascent negotiates the makhtesh cliff. A bit further away from it, we saw an extremely steep dirt road, which accompanies the pipe extending from the well to the top of the makhtesh.

Our dirt road, on the other hand, was an easy one – a little break before the Hatzera Ascent. The view from the trail gave us a real sense of the perfection of the makhtesh’s shape. After the trail crossed a channel, a large section of orange, red, white, and yellow sandstone revealed itself to us. We took a deep breath to get some air

into our lungs and began our trek up the ascent.

 The cleared rocks and the gentleness of the curves indicate the ascent’s antiquity. This is a real camel pass, part of the road that led to the makhtesh and the Arava from the Tamar Fortress, situated to the north.

After a difficult climb, the trail turns westward, atop the vertical Cenomanian limestone cliff that surrounds the entire makhtesh. At the bend in the trail, the Hatzera Ascent unites with the steep dirt road that accompanies the water pipe. Soon we would reach a blockade comprising pipes, which is meant to prevent uninvited jeeps from going any further. The steep road is too dangerous for all-terrain vehicles.

At the top of the ascent is a stone monument to a young man who died of dehydration at that spot – a chilling reminder to make sure to take plenty of water to drink on this route. It’s a desert area, after all.

Now we changed our direction and climbed eastward on the trail marked in green, which leads straight up to the top of the slope. Here, on the crest of the hill at the edge of the makhtesh, we found a fabulous lookout point.

On one side, we could see the makhtesh in

its entirety; on the other, we could see the grooved expanses of marl in the Dead Sea Valley, the oasis of a-Safi, and the Jordanian potash plant, as well as Nahal Zered, which separates the mountains of Edom from the mountains of Moab.

All that remained was to walk on the easy green trail at the top of the cliff that surrounds the makhtesh and view the magnificent scenery. It is one of the most beautiful trails in the Negev.

We walked about 2 kilometers up to the top of Nahal Mazar, which begins as a shallow, stony channel. From time to time, we frightened some resting sand partridges, causing them to fly from one bank of the channel to the other. The little pits were full of water.

About 100 meters before an impassable waterfall, the trail turns left in order to circumvent it. We continued in the direction of the waterfall, because on the right bank of the channel there is a stone shelf that affords a lovely view of the waterfall and the enormous rock cubes that lie at its foot. It’s a wonderful place for a little rest. According to Dani Gaspar, coordinator of the Israel Trails Committee, the way to the waterfall will eventually be marked.

 We returned to the trail, circumvented the waterfall, and went back down to the riverbed, which is so broad at this point that little acacias grow in it. The floor of the riverbed gradually takes on the sharp incline of the steep hogbacks of the eastern slope of the Hatzera Ridge. The closer you get to the exit of the riverbed, the more inclined the layers.

Suddenly, the riverbed makes a heroic dive into the “crust” of the Hatzera Ridge, which is very steep here, creating a series of waterfalls and pits. We took a few minutes to marvel at the sight.

The trail makes a steep descent to the right and reaches the exit of the riverbed. Another

150 meters to the left and we were on the road leading to the Small Makhtesh, the end point of the hike. 



Useful Information: 

Map: Hiking and Trail Map No. 14, for the Northern Arava and Eastern Negev, 1:50,000 scale, published by the Israel Trails Committee and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. (Hebrew only).

Difficulty: For good hikers. Descent of approx. 400 meters down the Eli Ascent and ascent of approx. 400 meters up the Hatzera Ascent.

Length: Approx. 20 km.

Duration: 9-10 hours.

Start: Eli Ascent. Access is from the Ma’aleh Akrabim Road (No. 227).

End: The exit of Nahal Mazar. Access is from the road to the Small Makhtesh branching off from the Dimona-Sdom Road (Road No. 25).

Logistics: Arrange to have a car waiting for you at the end of the route. Access and pickup roads are suitable for all vehicles.

Shorter options:

1. Six-hour hike: Walk from the Tamar Fortress to Ein Tzafit in Nahal Tzafit, go to the top of the Hatzera Ascent, and continue on the green trail to Nahal Mazar. Arrange to be picked up at the end of Nahal Mazar.

2. Four-hour hike: Walk from the top of the Eli Ascent to the opening of the Small Makhtesh.

Arrange to be picked up at the opening of the Small Makhtesh.

For map click here






© ERETZ Magazine 2016