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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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