Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Northern Golan

In Golan, Israel on June 24, 2018 at 7:26 AM

A week after my two-day trip to the Golan, Bet Shean Valley and Agamon Hefer I took yet another university trip to the Golan. With so many Golan posts coming out in relative succession, it can be slightly confusing as to which is which. This post is the counterpart to the Southern Golan post, a further look at the geology and topography of the Golan as a region. Our guide was Mr Moty Rubinstein, an octogenarian lecturer in my department, and together we set out in the morning from the Bar Ilan University campus.

Group photo

We took a brief stop along Road 6, where members of our party sampled from the fruits of a ficus tree, inspiring an Indian tourist to follow suit much to our amusement. As we progressed further north, we began to see interesting birds from the tour bus windows. The frequently-mentioned Adam was present, so I had who to bird-talk with as we pointed out white storks and kestrels. Climbing into the Golan, via Road 91 towards the old customs house, we noticed several buzzards sitting on the boulders that dot the grassy land.

Otniel Shamir Memorial

Pulling into the tourist area of Katzrin, the so-called capital of the Golan, we learned about the basalt formations in nearby Nachal Meshushim, where hexagonal pillars of rock line a nicely sized pool – a popular destination for hikers. From there we drove a few minutes away to a memorial site outside of Moshav Kidmat Tzvi, dedicated to the memory of Captain Otniel Shamir, a fighter pilot who was shot down by the Syrians during the Six Day War.

Grasshopper on a lupine pod

After spending some time at the memorial, and learning more about the story behind it, we moved on, passing the ruins of Nafakh, and pulled over on the side of the road near the access road to Quneitra, a border city in the UNDOF Zone between Israel and Syria. These interesting roads are familiar to me from when I was a Safaron driver in the army; those were very interesting times. We disembarked at the side of the golden grassland and examined our topographical surroundings.

Golan landscape

From there we drove down Road 98 for a few minutes just to look at the giant wind turbines atop Mount Bnei Rasan, the object of contention between green energy activists and those focusing on the countless avian deaths caused by the spinning blades. Our guide pointed out the small hills dotting the relatively flat landscape, with several large ones making quite the change in topography.

Golan Volcanic Park

Turning back around, we headed up north a wee bit and stopped off at the Golan Volcanic Park at the foot of Mount Avital. There, we immediately saw some European rollers, their bright blue and orange plumage making them unmistakeable as they flew back and forth in front of us. Within minutes we realised that they are nesting in tunnels carved out of the porous volcanic rock walls. As we toured the site, examining the different types of volcanic rock and learning more about volcanic activity and its role in shaping the land around us, I got slightly distracted with the birds. First, some kestrels lured me away from my group and then a very vocal common whitethroat, a type of warbler, entranced me with his melodious song as he flew from bush to bush. Then, satisfied with my whitethroat experience, I noticed a pair of woodchat shrikes perched on a nearby fence, chasing away anything that approached, including a surprised Eurasian jay which made quite a hasty escape.

Mount Avital

When we finished with the park we drove up to Mount Avital and parked at a spot where we could get out and see the volcanic crater caused when the extinct volcano erupted ages ago. The green slopes were dotted with small trees and shrubs and the basin was occupied by a vineyard, whose story was related to us by our knowledgeable guide. The distinct call of the corn bunting filled our ears and another roller passed by overhead, nearly allowing me to get a decent photo.

View of Mount Avital from Mount Bental

Getting back into the bus we drove over to the neighbouring mountain to the north, Mount Bental. Famous for its bunkers, observation points and uniquely-named cafe, the mountain draws a large amount of tourists, so much so that there are actually signs on the peak written in Chinese. We stood at a nice vantage point next to the parking lot, looking out at Mount Avital and a destroyed rusty tank down below. After briefly looking out over the western side we made out way to the summit, 1165 metres above sea level. I bypassed the famous Coffee Anan, named after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and made my way to the observation point where tourists were gathered looking out over Syria.

Within the military bunkers

Having seen this sight a number of times over the past few years, I moved onto into the underground bunker complex, hoping in the offchance that there was an interesting bat or two not scared off by the visitors. All I found was a fly, but I took its picture as if it was the coolest thing in the world. Reemerging into daylight I found myself looking at two blue-capped UN officers. Recalling my times in the army, I decided it’d be fun to strike up a conversation.

UN observation post

The two officers, one Irish and one Australian, told me all about their service and their origins, enriching my knowledge. Adam joined me, grilled the officers with some of his own questions, and then we moved on. Our group was heading back down the mountain to the next site: the Big Joba.

View of Syria

Located in the Odom Forest just several kilometres north of Mount Bental, the Big Joba is the largest of a series of local geological features in the form of a concave dome. Hard to capture photographically, unless photographed aerially, the pit is 250 metres across and sixty metres deep. We walked a short paved trail through the trees until we reached the joba.

Looking at the Big Joba

Again, I had hoped to find some wildlife, but birding in the woods in quite challenging with all the trees and leaves, so I was prepared to give up after seeing just one interesting lizard. But then, as we were sitting at the edge of the joba, Adam motioned to me to look at the treeline above the crater. Sure enough, a steppe buzzard was wheeling his way upwards into the thermals and we were fortunate to catch him before he disappeared.

Birkat Ram

Getting back into our tour bus, we drove further north until we arrived at the Druze village of Mas’ade (not to be confused with the ruins of Masada) and Birkat Ram, a crater lake fed by an underwater spring and rainwater. We stood in a parking lot overlooking the nice blue lake and then something special caught my eye. Among the barn swallows perched on the nearby power lines were a handful of house martins – my first time seeing them!

House martin (photo Adam Ota)

Ending the trip on that high, at the foot of Mount Hermon, we got back into our bus for the long drive back to the university tired but happy and looking forward to the next adventurous trip.

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