Israel's Good Name

Mount Hermon

In Israel on June 7, 2021 at 8:42 AM

Continuing with our three-day vacation to the snowy Golan this past February, Bracha and I started our second day at our rental tzimmer in Ein Zivan. Our main plan for the day was the glorious Mount Hermon, covered in thick snow and more inviting than ever. After a cursory breakfast we got into the car and began driving north, taking in the wide open vistas of snowy orchards and vineyards.

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Before we approached the mighty mountain, I decided that it’d be fun to have a quick look at Birket Ram – a volcanic crater lake located just outside of the Druze village of Mas’ada, not to be confused with the desert mountain top ruins of Masada. A beautiful body of water, Birket Ram always appears as a dark blue eye in the green and brown landscape around it, staring unblinking into the equally enchanting heavens above. However, much to my surprise, the melting snow runoff muddied the usually clear waters and thus we were presented with a large brown lake – slightly less inspiring. We spent a few minutes overlooking the water, noticing a handful of birds including some chaffinches, goldfinches and a handful of gulls.

Approaching the snowy peak

Approaching the snowy peak

Returning to our original plan, we drove back out towards Mas’ada and then headed for Mount Hermon. We passed through Majdal Shams, another Druze village and the highest locality in Israel, as we began our way up the majestic mountain. Needless to say, at this elevation, snow covered everywhere but the plowed roads. It was a glorious site and we marvelled at the raw natural beauty. Unlike most of the rest of the Golan, Mount Hermon is composed of limestone and shale bedrock, and not the typical dark grey basalt so common in the region.

Map of the Mount Hermon park

Map of the Mount Hermon park

We parked in a large staging lot and boarded a shuttle bus with dozens of other excited vacationers. It was a nice ride going ever-higher up the mountain and then we were deposited at the attraction entrance, the lower half of the park. It was slightly overwhelming at first, mostly due to the fact that we weren’t quite sure what there was to do, nor did we know how much time to allocate to each section.

From the bottom looking up

From the bottom looking up

It wasn’t long before we realised that there really wasn’t much to do at the lower half of the park – unless one was a child, or had purchased the ski package. We fit under neither category so we made our way through the throngs of coated merrymakers to the cable car installation. We presented our tickets and climbed into one of the lime green cars, which we had to ourselves, and began the ascent to the peak.

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Some cable cars are too short (like Rosh HaNikra) and some are just right (like Haifa) but this one at Mount Hermon was almost too long. We were surprised at the length of the journey as we climbed higher and higher, looking down at the skiers racing below us on the tree-dotted slope. It was a glorious ride, and when we arrived safe and sound at the peak, we disembarked into the strong, cold wind that greeted us with its strong bite.

The upper area of Mount Hermon

The upper area of Mount Hermon

Our first order of business was to examine our surroundings, so we followed the fellow cable car passengers to the large bowl-like depression where a safe slope was made. There, children were playing in the snow, shrieking as they tumbled down and lobbed snowballs at each other. Due to some unusual rule made by the Ministry of Health, we were unable to go sledding with actual sleds and so we tried scooting down on plastic bags – like many others there – with very limited success yet lots of laughter.

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

We took a walk around the upper confines of the park, which ultimately proved to be relatively small. Most of the park is dedicated to the ski slopes, which look quite impressive to one who has never skied before. All that’s left for us is a large gently sloped summit defined on two sides by a drop-off, a third side formed by another slope and the last side blocked by a symbolic gate and a pair of soldiers. This last side is the direction of the many military outposts on the Israeli side of the mountain, and while I had actually gone up to the second-highest one while I was an active-duty soldier, Bracha and I stayed put on the civilian side of the gate.

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

We lobbed some snowballs around and decided to have some lunch – bagels and cheese/cream cheese that we had packed in the morning. It was indescribably picturesque as we sat on a concrete block overlooking the snowed landscape stretching out to the far beyond. It was also unbelievably cold with the thin mountain air biting us with each gust. We ate and then began our next snowy activity – building a snowman, a quite ritualistic activity which must be done with each snowfall.

Mr Snowman

Mr Snowman

It took a bit of time, but at last we had our icy idol formed into the iconic shape that we all love. Unfortunately, there were no spare carrots laying about, so we had to scrounge a frozen tree bud to suffice as facial features. When he was finished, we felt as though there was not much left to do on this freezing mountain – and, sadly, not a single bird was seen. We made one last circuit of the interesting area with a lookout and a memorial monument commemorating four fallen soldiers from the Golani special forces unit who had perished in battle against Syrian forces in 1973. According to the monument, the Syrian army has succeeded in capturing the Israeli side of the Hermon early on in the Yom Kippur War, so two attempts were made to recapture it – the second succeeding but resulting in unfortunate casualties.

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

We re-entered the cable car building and boarded a lime green car which took us the slow and gentle way back down to the lower half of the park. It was delightful seeing so much snow, let alone on Israel’s highest peak, but there was something sadly commercialised about it which left us feeling slightly unsatisfied with our experience. I wonder if purchasing the ski package would remedy that sour sensation. At any rate, back near the park entrance we got a pair of hot drinks at the busy kiosk and that’s when I noticed something that excited me. There were soldiers from the elite reservist alpinist unit, a form of special forces trained to excel in snowy, mountainous terrain. No doubt they were practicing their necessary ski skills, and it was thrilling to be able to see these otherwise-unknown characters come to life upon the falling of fresh snow.

The trusty Dacia Duster

The trusty Dacia Duster

Making our way out of the park and towards a shuttle, we saw more and more evidence of military activity, as it is the military who is tasked with snow-chores, including plowing the mighty mountain’s roads. Back in the car lot, we got into the Dacia and began the drive back down. I pulled over at a particularly scenic lookout to take a few pictures when I was approached by some teenage lads on foot. Oddly enough, they were familiar faces – lads from the school I worked at for several years. They were desperately looking for a ride up the mountain, as they had parked at the bottom entrance with the understanding that there was no more parking space up top. As was to be expected, we gave the thankful lads a lift up to the park entrance and bid them farewell.

Sa'ar Falls

Sa’ar Falls

Descending Mount Hermon, we decided to take a quick drive over to the nearby Sa’ar Falls, which I had hoped would be magnificent with the melting snow. Sure enough, we were not the only ones hoping to lay eyes on the locally-famous waterfall, so we parked a bit down the road, walked to the falls and enjoyed the view. I snapped a few pictures and we moved on to an adjacent field to befriend some grazing cows. Ultimately, they wanted nothing to do with us, so we admired them from a distance and befriended some wildflowers instead. Ready to move on, we headed back to our tzimmer to freshen up and then back out to Qatsrin for a much-desired dinner.

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Thus, after eating and perusing Qatsrin’s shopping plaza, we drove back to Ein Zivan bringing our second day to a close. We had exciting plans for our third, and final day, so resting up was imperative and that’s exactly what we did. To be continued…

Snow in the Golan

In Golan, Israel on May 30, 2021 at 9:26 AM

The Sunday morning after the adventure to the Northwest Negev, Bracha and I packed up the Dacia Duster with our belongings for a three-day vacation to the faraway Golan. Quite exciting for us, a substantial amount of snow had fallen just before the weekend and Alon, our AirBnB contact, sent us a nice video of the white goodness that was awaiting us. We had chosen to stay at a quaint cabin-like place, or tzimmer, in Ein Zivan, located quite near the Syrian border by Quneitra, rather ideal for those who appreciate snow. It had been years since either of us had seen proper snow, so we were both brimming over with excitement as we made the long drive up, hoping that the sun wasn’t working too fast at melting it all away.

The Golan white with snow

The Golan white with snow

We entered the Golan from the area of Capernaum and, even as we neared Qatsrin, the veritable capital of the region, we couldn’t see any traces of snow – save the snowy distant peaks of Mount Hermon, which is generally the case every winter. Being as though we had a good handful of activities planned out in our three-day itinerary, we masterfully scheduled a quick olive oil factory tour at Qatsrin as we made our way to Ein Zivan. I had been to the Olea Essence factory two or three times before, but my last visit was only in 2016 and I was excited for Bracha to get a chance to see it.

Olea Essence olive oil factory in Qatsrin

Olea Essence olive oil factory in Qatsrin

It was interesting to see how the olive oils and olive-based beauty products are made, yet also sad to see that despite their recent breakthroughs into lucrative Asian markets, the coronavirus pandemic had wreaked havoc on the company’s financial situation. We toured their newly upgraded factory, the machinery unfortunately idle as the company simply couldn’t keep the production cogs turning. In the gift shop we felt the limitations of the pandemic even stronger, having to taste the oils with sterile plastic spoons instead of cubes of bread. We left feeling a little sad for the hard-working industry, but also joyous that we procured a tasty garlic-infused olive oil.

Fun way to start off our trip

Fun way to start off our trip

Back in the car, we continued towards Ein Zivan, passing many cars with symbolic snow mounds on their windshields. This snow became more and more apparent as shaded slopes of the gentle volcanic mountains were partially covered in blankets of white. Reaching one of the junctions before Ein Zivan on Road 91, I got slightly carried away by the snow everywhere and pulled over to admire the sight for a minute or two. Bracha convinced me that there must be even more snow where we were to be staying so we hopped back into the car and brought our long drive to a much-deserved end.

Our tzimmer in Ein Zivan

Our tzimmer in Ein Zivan

We arrived at the tzimmer just after 3pm, greeted by the bountiful snow that was still surprisingly deep and untouched in many places. Our host, Alon, pointed out the broken tree branches all around us and explained that the snowfall was so copious that the trees couldn’t possibly bear the weight and limbs were lost. He unlocked the tzimmer door and we fell in love with the quaint little cabin with its Jacuzzi, gas fireplace and cozy living quarters. Having just finished a long drive – plus the olive oil factory tour – we decided to rest a bit before heading back out.

Atop Mount Bental overlooking the snowy plateau

Atop Mount Bental overlooking the snowy plateau

Rested up, our next location on our itinerary was the nearby Mount Bental, which we imagined would be rather snowy. What we didn’t anticipate were the crowds, as all of Israel loves to frolic in the rare snow whenever it falls. Alas, we found that the crowds were winding down as it was approaching sunset which afforded such stunning views of the snow-dusted land below us painted in the pastel colours of evening. I’ve always loved the Golan, but there’s something extra special and loveable about seeing it white with snow.

Coffee Anan and the famous signpost

Coffee Anan and the famous signpost

Having parked partway up, we reached the summit by foot and to combat the bitter cold, popped into the celebrated and cleverly-named Coffee Anan (a play on words between Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Hebrew words for “Coffee Cloud”, referencing the mountaintop location of this particular lodge). We ordered a simple coffee and, interestingly enough, Bracha found this experience to be incredibly charming. She had always wanted to get a hot drink at a snowy lodge, and there we were doing just that, 1,165 metres above sea level.

Sunset from Mount Bental's summit

Sunset from Mount Bental’s summit

Back outside, in the crisp cold air, we turned our attention to the mountaintop bunkers and trenches and gingerly made a circuit of what we could. We enjoyed the view of the borderlands, and Syria beyond, and took in the beauty of our surroundings. Certainly, we took many photos and even had volunteers take some pictures of us as well. The sun slowly sank towards the western horizon, leaving an orange band between the clouds, and we began to plan our next course of action.

Dinner from HaBokrim restaurant

Dinner from HaBokrim restaurant

Dinner that night was to be from the nearby HaBokrim restaurant (Hebrew for “cowboys”), located at the foot of Mount Bental in Merom Golan, a kibbutz founded in 1967 after the Six Day War. Due to its popularity, there was a waiting line, and due to governmental pandemic restrictions, there were only takeaway options. We ordered and then left the beautiful wooden lodge-like building to explore the rest of the kibbutz, marveling in its geographical location within a volcanic crater. When our food was ready we picked it up and headed back to our tzimmer in Ein Zivan, still wowed by the beauty of the snowy Golan. The food was delicious – a burger, a pulled beef sandwich, fries and onion rings – and we decided to have a relaxing evening and night to rest up well for the following day’s plans on lofty Mount Hermon.

Sites in the Northwest Negev

In Israel, Negev on May 23, 2021 at 9:40 AM

In the middle of February, just over a month after starting work at Eshed, I had a random Thursday off. Capitalising on the adventure opportunity, I planned a nice trip with Adam to visit the northwest section of the Negev, which can be delightful in winter months – quite unlike the bombed and burnt version it is today following days of Gazan rockets and arson. Our main birding targets were imperial eagles and the various falcon species that can be found there, but we also just wanted to just get out and explore a bit. We set off in the morning, thankfully using my company car – a 2018 Dacia Duster compact crossover SUV – instead of the usual public transportation which would have made the trip nearly impossible. It was a long, uneventful – save occasional downpours – drive down towards peaceful Sderot, which is not only almost bordering Gaza, but also a figurative gateway into the northwest Negev region. Our first destination wasn’t too far away, just about 30 kilometres to the Re’im reservoir.

A crane in the fields

A crane in the fields

We turned off Road 234 onto a long agricultural road which took us into promising fields of sprinklers. Creeping along slowly, we scanned the outlying land from the car windows and found a handful of cranes foraging, as well as some songbirds. There was some more rain, which came down in meagre sprinklings, not enough to sour our trip but enough to keep us busy opening and closing our windows. At last, we arrived at the reservoir, located atop a small hill and providing a view of the surrounding area. Quite bleak, the large lined pool was devoid of any and all plant life, yet birds could be seen both in the water and along the edges. Methodical scanning and photography revealed that there was a single crane, grebes, loads of common ducks such as mallards, shovelers and teals – but also a new species for us, Eurasian wigeon!

Gazing into the bleak Re'im reservoir

Gazing into the bleak Re’im reservoir

Behind us was a small grouping of Bedouin huts, with a wandering herd of ragged-looking sheep and a handful of patrolling black kites getting us needlessly excited. There were none of the exciting raptor species that had been reported earlier in the season, but we stuck it out there until we felt ready to try the next site. Our drive back down garnered us a nice view of goldfinches drinking from tiny puddles in the gravel road. From there we continued on towards the famous Urim powerline area, a stretch of large pylons that host all sorts of exciting raptors.

Observation platform

Observation platform

Sure enough, we reached the impressive rows of pylons, yet there wasn’t really anywhere good to stop, what with the dirt roads all turned to threatening mud. Even a brief attempt to drive offroad failed as the Dacia slowly sank a bit too much into the gooey orange-brown mud. So, not seeing any exciting raptors, we kept driving and found another interesting site to visit – an observation platform just near Tze’alim Junction. This lookout provides a nice view of Nachal HaBesor, and is part of a string of lesser sites along the Besor Scenic Route, which is also a part of the ANZAC Trail.

Little green bee-eater

Little green bee-eater

Enjoying the interesting view of the loess badlands, basically a combination of desert and bushy scrubland, we saw more black kites and even a striking little green bee-eater which posed nicely after I stalked it into the bush. Getting back into the car, we continued along the scenic route, passing the picturesque hanging bridge – which we planned to visit on the way back. Our destination was a trio of reservoirs that I’d heard good things about over the past few years, and we were eager to lay eyes on them.

Nachal HeBesor

Nachal HeBesor

As with all adventures, there is always the element of the unknown, and what was unknown to us at the time was the accessibility of these reservoirs. Surprisingly, we could only really see one of them – the particular one that was set low down, lush with vegetation and Nachal HaBesor running sluggishly through it. But that wasn’t all, even the access was unusual with a grated walkway called the Pipe Bridge spanning the marshy waters instead of a prominent rise at the side from which to scan. So, we stood over the quagmire and tried our damnedest to find interesting – or, perhaps any – birds wherever they may be hiding.

The Pipe Bridge

The Pipe Bridge

It was an interesting place to visit, no doubt, but from a birder aspect it was somewhat a failure. What we did find redeeming was that these reservoirs were built in the 1990’s by Australian friends of KKL-JNF in tribute to the British-made reservoir that was made further downstream during WWI. Facing a lack of fresh water along their frontlines against the Ottoman Empire, the British had also constructed a 235-kilometre long pipeline that brought water from the distant Nile River. Visiting the site now, it is hard to fathom all that – but that’s often the case in Israel where history is living, and the past moves swiftly.

The marshy reservoir

The marshy reservoir

We made an attempt to visit smaller reservoirs further downstream but the gravel road turned into a rock road and eventually became unfriendly to our non-4×4 vehicle, so we turned back. Our next stop was the hanging bridge that we had passed earlier along the scenic route, and this time we got out to have a look-see. I quite enjoy bridges, and this one was one of the more enjoyable ones that I’ve been on as of late. It reminded me of the perilous bridge from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but thankfully there were no crocodiles lurking in the waters of Nachal HaBesor below.

Crossing the hanging bridge over Nachal HaBesor

Crossing the hanging bridge over Nachal HaBesor

From the rocking bridge we were able to do a bit of birding, which we were thankful for. Loads of swallows, martins and swifts were flying overhead, swooping endlessly as they gorged on the millions of small flying insects that rose unwittingly from the marsh below. In fact, one or more of the swifts were pallid swifts, a new species for the both of us. Likewise, birds could be both heard and seen below us, and we watched one particularly sociable bluethroat dart around the floating dead reeds in search for insects to eat.

Oh imperial eagles, where art thou

Oh imperial eagles, where art thou?

When we finished our exploration of both banks we got back into the car and returned to the pylons near Urim. This time we pulled over in a good spot and gave proper scans of the lofty metal towers, one by one. Sadly, no eagles and no falcons could be seen – yet, in an odd turn of events, when I was looking at my trip pictures back home I happened to notice a raptor-shaped blob on one of the pylons that we somehow missed when we were there. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good enough photo to discern what it is at all so it’ll remain an unidentified blob.

An unidentifiable blob

An unidentifiable blob

It was still a little early in the day and we had already finished exploring all the sites that we had intended to. I checked Google Maps really quickly and entered a new surprise destination for Adam, to help boost our morale after the relative failure vis-à-vis the raptors of the pylons. This destination was the famous Dudaim Landfill, where tens of thousands of black kites winter every year. If that isn’t enough, tens of thousands of starlings also winter there, and both species love to show off their flying skills to all who care to watch. As we got closer to the landfill, Adam began to get more and more excited at the rising numbers of black kites that were becoming visible from the car. A few kilometres away, he implored me to pull over, as there were scores of them perched not too far from the road. I feigned confusion, claiming that I couldn’t find a good place to pull over, and kept driving closer and closer to our destination. Thousands of black kites were visible in the skies; practically everywhere we looked we could see more than we could possibly count.

Black kites swarming over the landfill

Black kites swarming over the landfill

As we were standing beside the parked car, looking up at the soaring multitudes, we heard something hit the car roof with a loud bang. Startled, we looked around and saw a working Arab man standing beside a checkpoint hut laughing. We weren’t quite sure what to make of the situation, and wondered if and why he had pelted us with rubbish, when he pointed up and said that it came from above. That’s when our gaze was cast heavenward and we saw a truly disturbing sight. Chunks of garbage, mostly animal parts, were falling from the sky – dropped by the black kites. Piecing it all together, we watched as a black kite snatched a dangling bit of rubbish and took flight, immediately being chased by a handful of his brethren. An aerial dogfight ensued as the other kites attempted to rob him of his rotting morsel. We watched aghast as the flesh fell from his grip, plummeting to the ground not too far from us.

A discarded fish tail that fell from the sky

A discarded fish tail that fell from the sky

As the grisly bits rained down around us, and a passing garbage truck splashed us with revolting garbage water, we decided that it was time to call it a day. True, this site was fascinating, and arguably the highlight of our adventure, but there was only so much rubbish that one can endure on an ordinary Thursday afternoon. We shook ourselves off the best we could and got back into the car, almost reluctantly leaving this unworldly site as we drove back to the main road, passing absolutely absurd numbers of kites perched literally everywhere for at least a square kilometre or two.

Some black kites perched nearby

Some black kites perched nearby

The drive back was relaxed, although quite naturally we couldn’t stop talking about the ridiculousness of the Dudaim Landfill. Since pictures and words can only do so much justice, I have since taken the liberty of stitching together some of the video clips I took on-site into a rudimentary video that may help one visualise the intensity of the experience. Sadly, I didn’t manage to capture any of the garbage falling from the sky but, at any rate, the video can be found on my YouTube channel HERE.

Let us not forget the starlings

Let us not forget the starlings

Back in Givat Shmuel, I dropped Adam off at his apartment and headed back home where we were to pack for a three day vacation with Bracha to the Golan the following Sunday. Naturally, posts about that adventure will follow this one presently.