Under the Stars in the South

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The ERETZ Staff interviews Gilad Gabbai, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Southern Region.

“In the last few years, major changes have been taking place in the big nature reserves of the south, especially in how the relationship between visitors to the parks and park rangers is understood,” says Gilad Gabbai, director of the southern region of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). “The southern region of the INPA comprises nearly two million acres of nature reserves, about a quarter of the area of the State of Israel. This huge area is managed by only 10 regional park rangers, making it obvious that they cannot be everywhere at all times. Between accompanying a night-time military exercise, to make sure that the tanks and half-tracks comply with the rules of nature conservation, making sure that the visitors to the park keep it clean, saving a few hikers who get caught in a desert canyon, and dispensing information on sites and places to visit, we have a huge task to accomplish, one that is nearly impossible.”
The numbers of visitors to the Negev nature reserves is increasing annually. Two decades ago, only a few hardcore desert aficionados traveled the paths of the southern nature reserves. They read maps, knew the paths, and slept in a sleeping bag under a rock or on a flat piece of hill that was defined as a camping site. Today the visitors to the Negev reserves are a much larger population and much more varied. There are families and individuals seeking the open spaces of the desert and looking for the freedom that the expanses of nature provide. They do not climb a mountain simply because it is there or hike along a specific riverbed only because they have never done so before. Most visitors today simply want to enjoy the experience of camping, picnicking, swimming in a nice desert pool, or taking in the view of a deep canyon. A new concept of nature conservation had to be developed to accommodate this change in population.
“We needed to find a way for the public to be a partner in preservation and conservation and to be able to enjoy what the reserves have to offer without endangering the fragile desert environment,” Gabbai explains. “The only way to do so, with the limited number of rangers at our disposal, was by physical means – directing the visitor to the reserves and parks in such a way that the visitor would want to be part of the preservation efforts. For example, Israelis like to camp next to their vehicles, as close as possible. There is no way they will they leave their car in a parking lot and schlep their belongings to the camping area. One approach was to fight this tendency with fines, inspections for violations, and so on. The other approach is to find a way to make it possible for visitors to camp next to their cars and at the same time allow them to feel alone in the desert. Therefore new kinds of camping sites were developed in which parking areas for vehicles are scattered around the camping site, with a few low walls around each parking site or a low dugout. In such a way, each individual group can park its car right next to its tent in a small intimate enclosure that allows it to feel alone in the desert.”
In order to manage camping sites of this kind in the reserves, the site has to be a base from which circular trails of different levels, from easy to difficult, emanate. This facilitates an extended stay in the camp and helps visitors attain a better understanding of the desert environment and the need to preserve it.
One of the prime examples of getting the public to help in nature conservation is the issue of toilets.
“Lately we have introduced movable ecological toilets into the camping sites. These are not the smelly chemical toilets or a hole dug in the earth with a few tarps around it. The ecological toilet is clean, it has a supply of toilet paper, and it doesn’t smell,” Gabbai says.
“I knew that this was a success,” he continues, “when I passed by a row of toilets in one of our camping sites and there was a line of people waiting to use them. Nobody headed off to find a tree or a rock. In the places where we put these kind of toilets, the trail of toilet paper hanging from trees and bushes, or swirling in the wind, was gone. Toilet paper is one of the messiest ecological disasters in the desert. Apart from spoiling the landscape, it is eaten by birds and animals creating additional problems.”
In order to serve the visitors better, “trip areas” were defined. Each one is a center for setting out on trips, camping, and exploring the desert. Each area has attractions that appeal to different audiences and a variety of circular paths, from short and long hikes for families with kids all the way to challenging trails for hardcore hikers. The nature reserves that were defined as areas like this are designated “open reserves that accommodate the public” in which camping sites were created and reservations systems were set up to cope with the fact that during holidays, reserves throughout Israel are inundated with visitors.
In order to test the new concept, two pilot reserves were defined. The first is located in the western side of the Zin Riverbed – the area around Ein Avdat, Ein Akev, and Ein Zik. The second is in the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh) and is a larger area that also has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The western side of the Zin Riverbed includes a number of special desert attractions, first and foremost, a series of springs and water sources. However, only a limited number of people can enjoy them at once. The canyon of Ein Avdat, with its abundance of water, can accommodate large groups or crowds, but the smaller and much more beautiful springs of Ein Akev and Ein Zik are actually just small water holes. For a small group, hiking to the spring and discovering this deep water hole with a small waterfall splashing into it is a fun way to enjoy a beautiful site. However, if a few hundred people are standing around the water hole, it loses its appeal.
The water sources of the desert are also drinking holes for animals, who come to drink in the early hours of the morning and at dusk. This is why parks close for the night one hour before sunset and open one hour after sunrise. The reason for this has to be explained again and again, and it is not – as people think – because of the working hours of the park rangers, Gabbai emphasizes.
One way to control the amount of people visiting a site is by the quality of the road. The road to the Ein Avdat canyon is paved and passable for all vehicles, while to get to Ein Akev, one needs a jeep or must hike to the spring. In order to prevent a row of jeeps from parking directly over the small canyon of Ein Akev, the parking lot is about 400 yards from the spring, with a clear and easy path leading from the parking area to the spring. This makes the short walk a desert experience, encouraging jeep owners to park at the designated place at the beginning of the path.
The most intensive nature conservation efforts are taking place in the Ramon Crater. Following two government decisions in the 1990s, mining and quarrying operations in the makhtesh came to an end and a massive landscape renovation program was launched. The gypsum quarry on the western side of the road through the makhtesh was dismantled and the mining pits filled in and rehabilitated. Today there is no sign whatsoever that the plant and its quarrying activities ever existed. On the eastern side of the road, the kaolin clay quarry also was filled in and the only memento left of the mine that once stood there are a few heaps of kaolin and the huge rusty furnace that was left behind to serve as a kind of sculpture in the desert.
“It is a long process,” Gabbai explains, “dismantling machinery, taking down electricity lines, and carefully repaving the road to Eilat that runs through the makhtesh – but all these operations have rehabilitated the landscape, returning it to its pristine condition.”
One issue that must be dealt with in a desert environment that attracts a mass of visitors is drinking water. The Israel Trail that cuts through the Negev is a good example. There are no settlements, kiosks, or restaurants along the southern part of the trail, which presents a problem for the thousands of people who hike the trail every year. For the last decade, before setting out, hikers have deposited water bottles along the trail, usually putting them into a hole dug in the ground and filled over. Many times these water reserves are not used – or only partially used – and so the desert slowly is filling up with plastic water bottles.
“We are trying to solve this problem by bringing water to the campsites along the way, for the Israel Trail hikers and for the campers themselves. This is not an easy issue. On top of the Small Makhtesh we have persuaded the army to place a tanker that is filled daily from the nearby military base. But in other places, we have to solve this in another way. Water cannot be left in a water tank in the desert, it becomes un-potable very quickly, so we need a way to be able to replenish the supply daily.”
Due to the new approach, campsites in the nature reserves have now been defined on three levels. The top level is a campsite with all the services, from tents to sleep in to facilities such as showers, toilets, and even a small grocery shop.
“We have five camps like this in the Negev: at the Eshkol park in the western Negev; at the ancient Nabatean town of Mamshit; at Tel Arad; at the western side of Masada; and at the Be’erot campsite in the Ramon Crater,” Gabbai says.
The second kind are the more private campsites. These are places to park a car in a little bivouac and feel alone in the desert. Quite a few of these exist and in the last few years, they have become so popular that on the holidays one needs to reserve a space in advance.
The last type of campsite is the area that has nothing on it – a small patch of desert on the bank of a desert riverbed. The only indication that it is a campsite is the small sign reading, “campsite.” This is for the real desert hiker – access is almost always by foot and only sometimes by jeep. No advance reservations are needed. The desert is all around and when night falls, the only light to be seen is from the millions of stars shining bright in the desert night.

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