About a week into our time in Israel, it was time for Ariel and I to get away to one of my favorite places in the world, the Israeli desert, or Negev. Originally, this was supposed to be a night for just the two of us, but since Jacob got sick on the plane, and although he was basically back to normal, we decided to bring him with us instead of leaving him with his grandparents.
This was a little risky, just because we had never taken him on a drive that was longer than an hour, and was our only adventure travel portion of our time in Israel, featuring several stops and drives of over 2 hours. In practice, this would be Jacob’s introduction to our road trip protocol, at just over one year old. Determined not to miss out on anything we had planned, we brought him with us.
After loading up our rental and navigating the not-insignificant challenge of escaping southern Tel Aviv by car, we hit the highway. Jacob was pretty good on this portion as we left behind the hustle and bustle of Central Israel for the open road of the south. Once you get out out of the middle portion the country really in either direction (but especially heading south), driving in Israel is a lot of fun. The landscape changes extremely rapidly, almost as if you are driving from San Francisco into Utah…in just about an hour. You go from big cities, to forests, to open farmland, to the brush of the Judean desert, and finally, the barren rocks of the Negev.
My love affair with this part of the world goes back to my youth, but has held a special place in my heart since my very first solo adventure, when I was 22 years old. That trip, a quest to understand my family roots, is worthy of its own blog series, but at one point, I found myself, alone and stranded in the Negev, with a choice between making a 10 mile hike, mostly in darkness or sleeping out in the rocks and waiting until morning. Getting through that, became a major source of strength that I would draw upon several times in the future when my plans (both in travel and in life) would collapse.
I try to return to the scene of this experience as often as I can. In fact, when I made my big decision to blow my life up up in 2009, on my last day of work, I went straight to the airport to come back to this incredibly magical place.
So it was no small thing for me to come here with Jacob (I had already been here with Ariel back in 2012), my son, although it was not something I had intended on this trip.
Our first stop was Sde Boker, which is famous for being the final resting place of Israel’s first Prime Minster, David Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion’s dream was to settle the Negev, as in the early days of Jewish settlement, the Negev was the vast majority of the territory they controlled. Thankfully this did not happen, and much of the Negev remains wild desert. Ben Gurion may not have realized his dream for the country, but when he died, his body was brought to the kibbutz (communal farm) that he founded as a model for what desert living could be.
You don’t need to be interested in Israeli history though for Sde Boker to be on your list of places to see. The grave site itself is near the edge of a cliff that features a commanding view of one of the most pristine desert landscapes in Israel. It’s easily accessible via car, and the walk from the parking lot to the overlook is short but through a eucalyptus grove that is really enchanting in late afternoon. Even better, the area is often frequented by Israeli gazelles, or ibexes, that are straight out of bibilical legend, with their giant curved horns. True to Ben Gurion’s desires (despite his hope of settling the desert, he, like many early Zionists was a serious conservationist), the area surrounding the kibbutz is a nature preserve with hiking trails down into the sand and rocks.
It’s a great option for a break from the road with a baby, since the walk from the parking lot is very stroller friendly (I can’t speak for the hiking trails) and the overlook offers a great opportunity for a dramatic family picture. Facilities in the area are a bit sparse though, so don’t expect much in the way of food options…
…which is why our second stop on our journey was a McDonald’s restaurant just a few miles down the road. However, in classic Israeli fashion, you can’t even walk into a McDonald’s without being close to some kind of historic site. In this case, after a lunch of Big Macs, and McNuggets, our little traveling party went up a hill (literally behind the parking lot of the restaurant!) to some incredible ancient Nabatean ruins in Avdat.
One thing that makes Israel so unique is that it is truly the crossroads of every major empire in the eastern hemisphere. In the same day (sometimes in the same hour!) you can come across ruins dating back to the Egyptian, Judean, Greek, Roman, Arabian, Crusader, and Ottoman empires. This is an addition to literally dozens of other civilizations that at one point or another called this land home. Tolkien readers who love reading about fallen kingdoms will feel right at home here.
The thing is, that most of these sites are swarming with tourists. It’s hard to get lost in the magic of the place, when you are sharing your space with hundreds (or thousands) of people posing for the perfect Instagram shot. This is a perpetual problem in places like Jerusalem, which is obviously a must-visit for anyone going to Israel, but much harder to really connect to with all the ruckus.
Not so in Avdat, and in fact many such sites in the Negev.
Unlike most of the more popular places in Israel, the Negev does not feature many holy sites, or even much in the way of remnants from major civilizations.
What the Negev does have (aside from Judean and Canaanite sites), are remnants of the Nabatean civilization. The Nabateans, unlike the Greeks or Romans or Babylonians or Crusaders, never really sought to dominate the Middle East or establish a worldwide empire. The Nabateans began as a nomadic culture, who established trade routes all across Israel, Jordan, Syria, Arabia, and really all over the Middle East. Eventually they solidified these trade routes and built permanent settlements as waypoints. You may be familiar with their architecture, as the Nabatean ruins in Petra, Jordan form the exterior shots of “Alexandretta” where Indiana Jones found the holy grail. Israel, like Jordan and Syria is littered with sites like this, that because they aren’t as well known, are far less tourist-infested than the famous sites in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius and elsewhere.
And this site in Avdat was amazing. Aside from a few other visitors, we managed to be alone as we explored ancient structures, archways, columns, and corridors. Here we were, Ariel, Jacob, and me, exploring the millennia old ruins like we were in an Indiana Jones film. I’ve been to ancient sites like this dozens of times in my life, and every time it is worth doing. But being there with Jacob, felt like a real milestone for our family. Even at just a year and few weeks, he was officially an adventurer.
From Avdat, we continued to our final destination. The Beresheet hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon. But we’ll talk more about that in the second part of this series on the Negev.