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Horseback Riding in the Golan

In Golan, Israel on June 16, 2021 at 1:40 PM

Following two days in the snowy Golan back in February, our third and final day began with packing up our belongings at our rental tzimmer in Ein Zivan. It was sad leaving such a cool place, but we had exciting plans to wrap up our trip before embarking on the long drive back home. Our first order of business was to go horseback riding at a ranch just outside of Moshav Ramot, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Reservoir in the Golan

We made such good time in the morning that we were running early to our booking, and decided to look for something small to do on the way. Whilst driving along Road 888 we saw a sign for Ein Almin, a spring-turned-“officer’s pool” built by the Syrian army for privileged R&R. Naturally, we turned onto the access road to check it out but eventually realised that the going was a bit too rough, even for the rugged Dacia. Alas, we turned around and kept driving, when we spotted another interesting body of water – Matash Tzor’s reservoir. Following great successes at other reservoirs (see Matash Ayalon and Hulda Reservoir), I decided that this easily-accessed location deserves a quick look. It proved to be a good call, as I saw at least two greater spotted eagles, marsh harriers, shovelers, teals and even a small flock of tufted ducks bobbing in the rich blue water.

Bracha sporting a riding helmet

Time ticked away and before we knew it we were back on the road making a beeline to the ranch. Once there, we did all the necessary procedures involving money, helmets and waivers, and then we were introduced to our rides. Neither of us have ever been proper horseback riding, so this was to be an exciting first that we would likely never forget. Being 6’2″, I was given one of the largest horses, a chestnut steed by the name of Kfo (if I understood correctly). Bracha was given an off-white mare with a name that has since been forgotten.

Such fantastic scenery

After receiving our handling instructions, our guides took us and another family that joined us out on our hour-long ride. It began with a simple walk up the paved road, and then merged onto an uphill dirt path. There was something quite exciting about riding the large beast, and even if he did get distracted now and again with delicious grasses, I found him relatively easy to manage. So much so, that I felt comfortable taking plenty of pictures and videos to properly document the adventure (as Bracha held on for dear life).

Entering the plateau

We rode further up the slope, until we reached a bit of a plateau where a gorgeous open area of lush grass dotted with small trees greeted us. The view was breathtaking as we reached the far side of the plateau, overlooking the valley of Nachal Samach and the opposing mountain. As exciting as it was with all the snow, there’s something equally charming about the lush green vistas of the Golan in the winter. Our guide called for our attention just as a few mountain gazelles dashed for cover, nimbly avoiding my camera’s inquisitive lens. Sure enough, more gazelles were to be seen further down the slope, too far to get any decent photos.

Our guide pointing out some fleeing mountain gazelle

On the plateau we allowed our horses to roam around a bit freely. Bracha’s mare seemed to have a mind of her own as she ambled off in search for succulent herbage, and I urged my steed after her. This wasn’t a difficult task as both of our horses just happened to be close friends, and naturally enjoyed each other’s company. This made our experience all the more charming, as our rides took us on a merry walk through the thick grass.

Riding westward

The next part proved to actually be a bit challenging, as our resumed route took a quick turn back down the mountain. This segment was a narrow and delicate descent full of inconvenient rocks that required our horses to navigate carefully. I had to slow my steed down several times as he attempted to just dash his way down, which was borderline frightening considering the fact that I didn’t have any real way of stopping him. Thankfully, these are tame and trained horses, and with a few kind words and gentle lead tugs, we made it down safe and sound.

Riding back down the slope

Once back on level ground, we rode the final leg back to the stable-yard and dismounted our trusty horses. It felt funny walking on our own two legs, similar to disembarking a sea craft, but life returned to its normal self and we wrapped up our visit there. In terms of experiences, this was most definitely one well-worth it, especially considering the breathtaking pastoral Golan scenery. We got back into the car and headed for Qatsrin, where we got lunch – a mouthwateringly tasty pizza from Pizza Margarita.

Bazelet HaGolan Winery

There was just one more place to visit before heading back, and that was the Bazelet HaGolan Winery located in nearby Kidmat Tzvi. Arriving, we began our visit with the visitor centre where we happened to bump into Yechiel Luterman, a long term employee who recently embarked on an exciting new venture producing his very own Edre’i whiskey – which he allowed us to taste! Yechiel and I had taken a MATI business course together back in 2011 and had both shared interest in the idea of brewing beer. I ended up with my Arx Meles hobby-project, and he went the route of wine and then whiskey. With his help, we watched the video about the winery and then tasted a handful of their offerings, a combination of white and red wines. Bazelet HaGolan grows mostly cabernet sauvignon, but they cleverly use the grapes at different levels of ripeness in order to create different tasting wines.

Wines at Bazelet HaGolan Winery

We sampled from their basic cab, as well as their higher-tiered 188 cab. To balance those out, we sipped from some fresh chardonnay as well as a rich 2008 merlot which I found to be quite enjoyable. Between tastings, Yechiel filled our brains with fascinating behind-the-scenes information regarding wine varietals, oak aging and more. Needless to say, it behooved us to buy a bottle as a keepsake of our fun three-day vacation, so we did just that and bid farewell to Yechiel. We got back into the car and headed back home, bringing our exciting trip to a gradual close.

Mount Hermon

In Golan, 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.

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.

University Trip: Golan & Bet Shean Valley

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on June 10, 2018 at 8:50 AM

A month ago, shortly after my trip to Mount Arbel, I went on yet another two-day trip to the north of the country. Offered by my department at Bar Ilan University, this trip was led by Dr Moshe Natan and specialised in wildlife habitats. We departed from Givat Shmuel in the morning, headed north in our tour bus, eager to begin the exciting day. Indeed, excitement was forthcoming; at a rest stop near Bet Shean we saw a booted eagle being mobbed by two crows.

Nesting colony outside Kibbutz Degania

Our first real stop of the day was the expansive nesting grounds on the banks of the Kinneret (or, Sea of Galilee) just outside of Kibbutz Degania. There, species such as night herons, cattle egrets, little egrets, glossy ibises and pygmy cormorants share the thickly-foliaged trees in a joint effort to hatch and raise the next generation. We found a nice spot in the grass that overlooked a handful of the colony’s nests and began to watch. Each species has a different approach in rearing their young, and it was interesting to compare the relatively calm feeding habits of the glossy ibis with those of the violent cattle egret.

Night heron nest

While we watched, a juvenile marsh harrier ventured into the scene, scaring some of the colony’s inhabitants as it soared by. On the banks of the Kinneret down below I was able to make out, with the aid of 7×50 binoculars, a pair of purple herons – my very first time seeing them. An hour or so later we bid farewell to the hundreds of breeding birds and got back into our bus.

View from the Beit Saida Lookout

We were headed for the Golan, with a few stops planned out, the first being the Beit Saida Lookout. In addition to the sweeping view of the Kinneret area, two species of animals brought us to the piles of basalt stones at the lookout: the Levante fan-fingered gecko and the rock hyrax.

Levante fan-fingered gecko

Venturing onwards after some bonding with the lizards, we found ourselves disembarking in a small parking lot at the edge of Daliyot Woods. There, we followed a trail towards the peaks and valleys that neighbour the iconic Gamla ridge, where I had visited just one month prior. Enjoying the lovely weather with its sprinkling of raindrops, we crossed a tiny stream and rounded a mountain ridge, treated to a great view. A short-toed eagle passed by us, giving us a few moments of excitement. It was nearly noon when we reached a certain point on the trail that made our guide stop and scan the cliffside with the spotting scope.

Walking in the Nachal Daliyot nature reserve

When Dr Natan found what he was looking for he shared it with the rest of us: an Egyptian vulture nest with one of the parents roosting. Nearly impossible to detect to the non-discerning eye, the nest and bird were nearly perfectly camouflaged. We watched the nest while we learned more about Egyptian vultures, the sharp barks of the rock hyraxes interrupting from time to time. When we were finished with the vulture we headed back, via the same slope trail that we had taken earlier.

Spying on the Egyptian vulture nest

Back in the bus, we then drove over to Nov, a moshav in southern Golan, to look at the nests of white storks. We pulled up alongside one, where one of the parents was sitting, and gazed upon the huge stack of sticks in wonder. Although white storks are plentiful during a fair part of the year, only a handful of them breed in Israel, and the nests are therefore well-known amongst naturalists. Before long the roosting stork’s partner came by to take over the shift, and we watched the first stork fly off to the nearby field to hunt. While we were obsessing over the stork I noticed a black kite and a short-toed eagle in the thermals, mere specks in the blue skies. Before we left we took a quick look at another nearby stork nest, and then headed our way to the Bet Shean Valley.

White stork landing on the nest

We were to be spending the night at Kibbutz Kfar Rupin, at the “Stork’s Bill” Bird Watching Centre’s country dwelling accommodations. Disembarking, we received keys to our rooms and were updated with the evening plans, of which there were many. First, after some rest, I joined Dr Natan and a few others in setting out traps for rodents in a nearby field. Then, joining the rest of our group, we heard a short talk about the centre and birds in the region.

Our country dwelling in Kfar Rupin

Following that, Dr Natan gave us a class on bats and echolocation, promising to show us Kuhl’s pipistrelles on our forthcoming night tour. Armed with all sorts of gadgetry, including devices that read, record and amplify bat calls, we set out for the tour. Almost immediately we could hear the distinct calls of the scops owl, the smallest owl in Israel. Choosing to remain focused on the bats, we were then treated to a fascinating display from the pipistrelles, illuminated in flight by the powerful flashlights and headlamps we were using.

Night touring

Leaving the residential area of the kibbutz, we moved on over to the cowsheds, constantly scanning the ground and skies for interesting nocturnal wildlife. Our walk took us out of the kibbutz and into the collection of fish ponds, where the insects are more than plentiful. Shining the powerful flashlight cemented in the fact that we were most definitely surrounded by millions if not billions of flying insects, mostly mosquitoes I presume.

Beam of light illuminating the horror of insects

We saw a hedgehog at the water’s edge, fish leaping out of the water sporadically, and the occasional Kuhl’s pipistrelle flying by and activating the electronic sensors. We continued through the insect swarm, avoiding opening our mouths for fear for ingesting winged creatures. The lights of neighbouring Jordan provided a sense of direction for us as we walked the gravel paths between the ponds, constantly seeking out interesting lifeforms. Even looking directly down at the insect and spider-covered ground was a hearty adventure.

Walking along the fish ponds

Our attention soon turned towards the frogs and toads that we could hear calling from the water’s edge. Before long we had captured several fine specimens of both the green toad and the Middle East tree frog. When I was taking the photo of this male tree frog, I hadn’t noticed the mosquito sitting on its head enjoying some sips of amphibian blood.

Middle East tree frog with a mosquito on his head

Making a full loop of the ponds, we eventually reached the cowsheds that we had initially passed on our way out. Taking a slightly different route, we followed the kibbutz’s fence towards our dwelling complex. On the way I played scops owl calls from my Collins Bird Guide phone application, hoping to attract a scops owl. Then, when I was standing in front of a tree, my headlamp illuminating a fair portion of the foliage, I saw a small fluttering shape land on a branch.

Scops owl hiding in the tree

It took my mind a moment to register that it was a scops owl, and I frantically called for my peers to come see the owl once I had established its identity. With the aid of others, I was able to take its picture (mostly, at least) hiding in tree’s foliage. Being that I’ve been wanting to see a scops owl for years, this moment was most rewarding, and I was able to retire to bed feeling quite satisfied. Little did I know that the very next day I’d be seeing another long-awaited bird species just a few kilometres away…

Gamla II

In Golan, Israel on May 6, 2018 at 9:03 AM

Leaving Nachal Metzar and Ein Pik, my friend Adam and I drove along Roads 98 and 808 until we reached the access road to the next stop on our list: Gamla. As we approached we noticed several large birds of prey in the skies above us, and tried our best to identify them with maintaining the necessary safety to survive the experience mid-drive. At last, after identifying at least one short-toed eagle we pulled into Gamla National Park and parked the car. To my surprise, just in front of the car, perched on a rock, was my very first ortolan bunting just waiting for us to take its picture.

Ortolan bunting (photo Adam Ota)

Already filled with excitement, we headed straight for the Vulture Lookout where we knew there’d be interesting sightings. Perched at the eastern side of the deep ravine accentuated by Nachal Gamla, the cliff sides have been the nesting sites for many species for years. When I had visited last, on a trip with my father to both Gilgal Refa’im and Gamla, we had spent a few minutes at the lookout and then headed towards the dolmen and the Gamla Waterfall.

View from the Vulture Lookout

This time Adam and I were dedicated to the birding potential and so we decided to dedicate as much time as possible to spot as many interesting species as possible. With that mindset we planted ourselves at the lookout’s edge and began to watch. Nearly immediately, a few of the park’s iconic Griffon vultures soared out from the sanctuary of the cliff edges, provided us with satisfaction.

Griffon vulture patrolling the slopes (photo Adam Ota)

But there wasn’t just the immense Griffon vultures to be seen, more short-toed eagles and a lesser spotted eagle soared over from the west. We stood there patiently, watching as the large birds of prey passed by, entranced by the richness of the region. Next up, a Bonelli’s eagle emerged from the cliffs, its rounded wings and pale abdomen giving away its identity. I was excited to see my first-ever Bonelli’s eagle, but there was no time to waste because more birds were emerging.

Bonelli’s eagle (photo Adam Ota)

Overhead, we managed to spot a large number of specks in the sky and, with the aid of our zoom lenses, we identified them as a flock of white storks. Mixed in with the storks, but at a slightly different altitude, we spotted a dozen or so black kites. Returning to the cliffs, an Egyptian vulture made an appearance, followed by another Griffon vulture. Together they soared, patrolling the cliff-sides as we watched and took pictures.

Mount Hermon in the distance (photo Adam Ota)

We couldn’t tire of watching these large birds of prey from such a short distance, but there were other birds also capturing our attention. Tons of little swifts zipped by overhead, eating airborne insects, and male blue rock thrushes in their brilliant summer plumage called noisily from the rocks, trying to attract mates.

Blue rock thrush (photo Adam Ota)

We enjoyed lunch while we birdwatched, and exchanged words with the other visitors to the lookout, but eventually it was time to move on. We headed over to the Gamla Lookout, passing by some of the basalt ruins of Deir Qeruh, and took a moment to enjoy the view of the ruined city below.

Ruins of Deir Qeruh

Ancient Gamla was built on a triangular rock wedge that juts out between two streams far below, and is thereby a greatly strategic location for an ancient walled city. First occupied in the Early Bronze Age, the site became most famous for its time as a Jewish city under Roman siege. As described by Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius, the city was attacked by Roman forces first under Agrippa II and then under Vespasian, the latter succeeding in conquering the city despite heavy losses.

Gamla (photo Adam Ota)

We made our way down the winding path towards the entrance of the city, walking gingerly over the stone steps as we continued our search for new and interesting birds. Towards the bottom we spotted a sparrowhawk passing quickly overhead, always a nice addition to a day’s birding.

Ancient city of Gamla

Outside the entrance of the city we found a reconstructed Roman weapons of siege, and then we passed through the breach in the wall where we found the ruins of residential structures and a synagogue. Because Gamla was never rebuilt after the destruction, the remains have largely been left as is, other than disturbances by natural causes.

Gamla’s ancient synagogue

We decided to take the long trail, even though the sun was relentlessly beating down on us, and continued along the slope towards the peak, reaching the oil press and flour mill at the end of the trail. Along the way we spotted a couple of interesting birds, including chukars and a common nightingale. In addition, Adam spotted and caught a bright yellow jewel beetle of the Julodis rothi species.

Julodis rothi jewel beetle

We climbed up from the western quarter, as it is called, and made our way to the peak. Just below the massive rock piling, we sat in the shade of a small tree and surveyed our surroundings. Adam scanned the neighbouring slope with his monocular and I became distracted by the calls of a male common cuckoo, so very distinct that even a clock was designed and named after it.

Atop the peak

I made my way over to the northern slope, pulled up a video of cuckoo calls on YouTube and tried to lure it into my point of view. However, this cuckoo was a wily one; every time I’d appear anywhere near where he’d be, he’d hush up and I would have to slink away to try again. No matter how sneaky I tried to be, he’d always see me coming and I was left disappointed, failing in catching a glimpse of this amazing bird.

Within the Round Tower

After a good while on the peak, we at last picked ourselves up and made our way back through the ancient ruined city, this time from the ridge trail. At the end, we found the Round Tower and stood in it looking out over the surrounding land as one of the defending soldiers would have done some two thousand years ago.

Egyptian vulture passing by

As we were in the tower we were following one of the Egyptian vultures who, curiously enough, landed on the access road where we crossed into the city ruins. When it took flight, Adam snapped a few pictures of it and we saw that it had food in its mouth, which it seemed to have taken back to its nest.

Only the head visible…

That filled us with curiosity so we made our way out of the city and watched as it returned, landing in the same place just out of sight. Seeing us, the vulture took off and we were able to see that there was a dead chicken carcass on the road. Hoping to see some feeding, we settled under a nearby tree, where we’d have an okay vantage point, and waited.

Swarm of white storks in the thermals (photo Adam Ota)

The vulture circled again and again, yet refused to land. Blue rock thrushes, chukars and rock hyraxes provided entertainment in the interim, each engaged in their own pursuit of happiness. Birds of prey overhead also brought us joy, especially a lesser spotted eagle and a juvenile short-toed eagle. But the vulture refused to land.

Short-toed eagle

As always with nature, unexpected surprises are just waiting to happen. We were lounging under the tree when suddenly the vulture landed on a boulder some 15-20 metres from us, and began to drink from a hidden puddle. We watched, nearly slack-jawed, as it drank calmly, allowing Adam to film it.

With that we surmised that it was time that we head on, as the park was closing shortly and we were the last visitors in the area. We climbed back up to the lookout and made our way to the park exit, bringing an end to a truly amazing day trip.

Woodchat shrike (photo Adam Ota)

By the time we returned to my house we were already scheming of more trips to take, because one can never take enough trips in this beautiful land of topographical variety. As to be expected, I took two interesting trips to the Judean Lowlands and Negev the very next week.

Nachal Metzar

In Golan, Israel on April 29, 2018 at 9:11 AM

When the first day of Pesach (Passover) ended it was time to take advantage of the vacation days and to go somewhere exciting. I had access to a car and was accompanied by frequent guest star Adam, so we decided on a day trip to the Golan. We had just been to the Golan on a university field trip so our appetites were properly whetted, allowing us to leave at an early 4:45am with much excitement. Our trip was geared towards birding and exploring, and, with so much content, will thereby be divided into two posts.

Early morning’s light over the Golan

We drove eastward from Ma’alot and began to see the day’s first light as we reached the valley area between the Galilee and the Golan. Entering the Golan on Road 87, we headed for the first intended site of the day: the mountaintop ruins of Susita. Unfortunately we found that the access road seen on the map is not actually accessible for vehicular traffic and therefore ditched Susita in favour for the next intended destination: Nachal Metzar.

Nachal Metzar

We drove through the very picturesque area of Road 789 – on which I have never been – as the sun began to shine light onto the gentle mountains, and spotted a golden jackal dashing across the road which started our sightings off great. We pulled over at a lookout stop on Road 98, and noticed how unexpectedly cold it was, before making our way to the Nachal Metzar trailhead.

Corn bunting (photo Adam Ota)

There wasn’t any intended hiking plan, we were just going to get out, walk around and see what there was to see. Armed with our cameras, monocular and a bird guide, we stepped into the nature wonderland ready to be impressed.

Black-eared wheatear

From the very beginning, there were white storks crossing the small valleys and corn buntings perched out in the open, singing loudly. We took pictures willy-nilly, not wanting to miss an birding identification or a great photographic opportunity. Progress along the blue-marked trail was very slow, as we turned in circles capturing the scene around us. The tall grasses, thistles and occasional bush provided cover for dozens of species of birds and insects and we wanted to see it all.

White stork passing by at the right moment

If the wildlife wasn’t enough, the view of the green slopes in morning’s light was absolutely stunning. And, as usual with the spring, the wildflowers made for great optical enjoyment. But it was the birds that captured our attention the most. We switched between keeping an eye on the songbirds to scanning the skies for soaring birds of prey. The first was a short-toed eagle, followed forty minutes later by a lesser spotted eagle who circled above us repeatedly.

Lesser spotted eagle

We made our way downhill towards the streambed, keeping an eye out for unsuspecting white storks on the ground. Another short-toed eagle made an appearance overhead, as well as a bunch of red-rumped swallows, and we reached the wooded streambed. Almost immediately we spotted a small warbler that looked a little different than the usual ones we see, and upon verification, was identified as our very first eastern Bonelli’s warbler.

Adam vs. the eastern Bonelli’s warbler

Ten minutes was all we needed along the dry streambed, as we didn’t see anything else of interest and there was still more places to visit. We made our way back up, passing a procession of caterpillars and an entertaining little squabble between a yellow-vented bulbul and a woodchat shrike (with the smaller shrike emerging as the victor). The white storks continued to accompany us, however some of them now on the ground, hunting for small living things to eat.

White storks (photo Adam Ota)

Casting our eyes to the skies, we spotted a lone black kite making its way northwest, and shortly thereafter, another short-toed eagle and then a booted eagle. We made it back up to the entrance and got into the car after some morning praying and food. Our next stop was Ein Pik, just a minute away to the northeast.

Hoopoe (photo Adam Ota)

Pik was originally the site of a Jewish village during the Roman times some 1,800 years ago, which possibly traces its name to the biblical site of Afek where the kingdoms of Aram and Israel fought a decisive battle to stem the Aramean invasion. Today, the ruins that can be seen, are remains of the Syrian village Pik which preserved the ancient name. Archaeological findings from the ancient Jewish village have been since carted off to sit in museum, such as the Golan Archaeological Museum that I had visited towards the end of my army service in 2015.

View from Ein Pik (photo Adam Ota)

We examined the small basalt ruins, and enjoyed the lookout over the valley below, with the famous site of Susita (Hippos) dead centre, backdropped by the Kinneret. Seeking the spring that contributes the “ein” to the name, we made our way down the slope below us where we found a concrete trough filled with spring water.

Ein Pik

Typical of mountain springs, a hardy fig tree was growing on-site and small, unripe figs had met their end landing in the water. Quite unexpectedly, I noticed that there were tadpoles of different sizes feasting on the bobbing figs. A full-grown frog watched us from the end of the trough, kept company by a large river crab.

Tadpoles feasting on an unripe fig

Several steps away we found the main source of the spring, captured in modernity by a large concrete tub which entices hot, sweaty hikers. We stood for a few minutes in the shade, the trickling water sounds mixing with the chirping of the great tits and sparrows.

Silene oxyodonta flower

When we left, climbing back up to the ruins, we were surprised by a black kite that flew right over our heads. With that excitement we got back into the car to drive over to the next location on our list, Gamla, which will be covered in the next blog post.

University Trip: Southern Golan

In Golan, Israel on April 15, 2018 at 10:17 AM

Returning to the academic field trips offered by Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, I signed up for a fun trip focusing on geography to the southern half of the Golan. I was joined by my friend Adam Ota, a member of the class, and together we joined the other tour members and the guide, Mr Moty Rubinstein, at the entrance of the campus. Our minibus set off on its course, taking us along the long ride to our first stop, which happened to be in the Galilee.

Hod Lookout

We disembarked at the Hod Lookout, a site that I had visited during the department’s two-day trip around the Kinneret two years ago. There we looked out over the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) and the rise of the Golan’s plateau. From a geographical standpoint, it’s easy to understand the rift in tectonic plates between the Galilee and the Golan. But we weren’t just enthralled by slowly shifting land masses, a short-toed eagle soared right overhead, impressing us all with its size.

Lookout over the bridge

From there we made our way down to the Golan, taking the scenic route through the old settlements which I had seen on a previous field trip (HERE). We crossed over the Jordan River and made our way through the picturesque green and yellow slopes towards the Yarmouk River, the border between Israel and Jordan. Our destination was the El Hama Bridge Lookout with its view of the broken El Hama Bridge over the Yarmouk. The bridge was destroyed, along with nine others, in a nighttime sabotage operation by the Palmach in 1946.

The broken El Hama Bridge

The view from the lookout was incredible overall, with the old military trenches, nice birding (including my first woodchat shrike for the season) and impressive wildflowers. We could have spent the entire day there, but there was more to see so we climbed back into our minibus and continued along Road 98 until we reached the next destination, HaShalom Lookout.

Just a house sparrow…

With its view to the west, this lookout provided a different scene than the two previous ones, and at last we were seeing the high concentrations of volcanic basalt rock that the Golan is famous for. We looked out over the Kinneret and enjoyed the view, whilst keeping an eye on possible birds of prey soaring below. Adam’s sharp eyes picked up on a small flock of black storks spiraling in the heat thermals, joined by two buzzards.

View from HaShalom Lookout (photo Adam Ota)

We joined others in going down to the nearby spring, a ten minute hike downhill, seeing a few songbirds on the way. There were an abundance of wildflowers as well, such as mallow, wild mustard and the interestingly named musk deadnettle. The spring that we found was a rectangular concrete pool with a small amount of fresh mountain water trickling in.

Lupine blossom

Back up at the lookout we had lunch and prayed mincha (the afternoon prayer) with a group of Hasidic lads who were also enjoying the beauty of the Golan. Getting back into our bus, we took a short detour to a field where a sign declared it to be the Nov Grant-Duff’s Iris Nature Reserve. We didn’t find any irises, as we had hoped, but we did see some distinct-looking yellow asphodels as well as a handful of corn buntings singing their hearts out.

Mr Moty Rubenstein at the volcanic crater

Continuing on Road 98, we made our way eastward towards the Israel-Syria border. We were to see the natural volcanic crater of Mount Peres (or Tel Fares), one of the most southern extinct volcanoes in a line of sixteen that dot the eastern Golan. We passed the basalt khan (caravanserai) of Juchader, which I had visited at the end of my army service several years ago, and turned right onto the access road to the small mountain.

Volcanic rock

It was slightly surprising to see that part of the mountain was cut away, which we learned was actually the “harvesting” of tuff and scoria, types of volcanic ash rock used in construction, landscaping and more. Atop the mountain, we pulled over at the side of the road and got out to admire the grassy crater. Just across us was an IDF outpost, and together we enjoyed the view and the spring blossoms.

Golan iris

With that we were nearly done with the trip, there was just one more stop, and it was strictly for pleasure. We were going to see the Golan irises blooming at a random junction along Road 87, and this time we were not disappointed. The irises were in bloom and it made a lovely last stop in the beautiful Golan. Getting back into our minibus, we then began the long drive back to Givat Shmuel, bringing the end to yet another amazing field trip.

A video of this trip, which I made for the department’s YouTube channel, can be found HERE.

Nachal Hermon & Ein Tina

In Galilee, Golan, Israel on June 28, 2017 at 8:37 AM

We woke up the morning after our hike through Nachal El Al in our country lodging room in Moshav Keshet. I was joined by fellow school instructors, and the lads were camping outside. We had a leisurely morning routine, packing sandwiches for lunch later that day. A heat wave had hit the Golan and so our plans were altered to accommodate. It was decided that we’d hike a portion of Nachal Hermon, also known as Banias – but not the famous part with the picturesque falls and the Greek temple complex. It was a bit of a drive from Keshet to our hike and along the way I saw some fine looking white storks perched on rock cairns/walls in the rocky fields.

Hiking at Nachal Hermon

We began at the trail-head outside of Kibbutz Snir, our tour guide explaining how the Jordan River is fed by the waters of three streams: Dan, Snir and Hermon. Descending into the ravine, we had a very short walk before we encountered water – where the youth decided to go swimming. Due to the heat the birding was poor and I found myself perched on a rock with another instructor as we watched the rushing water, when I noticed something peculiar. Nearly fully obscured by a mass of teenage bodies, there was an overturned Syrian tank laying at the water’s edge, remnants of past wars. I waited for everyone to clear the area then took a few photos before bringing up the rear on the continuation of the hike.

Overturned Syrian tank

Having climbed back out of the ravine, we walked exposed to the roasting sun, admiring the likable Golan landscape. We switched between the red and black trails as we alternated between hillside and streambed hiking – the lads pausing to splash about in the cold mountain water at every given moment.

Nachal Hermon

Along the way I spotted a relatively common bird species, but perhaps my first of the year, the collared dove. Shortly thereafter, while taking a brief break under the welcome shade of a tree, I saw a macabre sight of ants dismantling a flesh-pink katydid. Next, after passing a citrus grove we took another long break at the banks of the Hermon. A can of peanuts was produced, reminding me of my time in the army, and then a tour guide came over to offer us some freshly made kolo, a traditional Ethiopian snack made of toasted grain.

Beware of mines

From this final water break it was just a short walk to the end where the buses were to meet us, and we rested at shaded picnic tables until we were ready to leave for the next destination of the day. Located at the foot of the Golan, beside the Hula Valley, is the mountainside spring of Ein Tina with its continual discharge of cold mountain water. From the very start of the short trail there was water to bypass, unless one was walking with water-friendly footwear. To the left, at the base of the mountains, great swathes of dead milk thistle covered the land, a sanctuary for songbirds. To the right, dodder – a parasitic plant that looks like spaghetti – covering both fence and vegetation in its messy tangles.

Greenfinch in a sea of dead milk thistle

We reached the first pool of water and Chanan, a fellow instructor, asked me if I’d like to climb up to the top of the stream. Not one to turn down adventurous opportunities, I said yes and gestured for him to lead the way. We walked uphill, atop a bed of sun-baked grey stones that covered the flow of spring water.

Ein Tina

Shortly we broke through to the tree line and climbed among reeds and trees, stepping gingerly to avoid the flowing water. At last we reached the top, where the water burst from a cement wall via two open pipes (I’m not sure why the water source has been manipulated by man, perhaps it was used for something or perhaps to regulate flow). I sat beneath a fig tree and enjoyed the view, letting the cold droplets splash me from time to time.

View from Ein Tina

A perfect vantage point, nearly invisible to those below, I was prepared to spend hours there. However, all good things must come to an end and we had yet a full evening schedule. And so we hiked back down the hill, passed the pool and down the path – where I found this little crab hiding in a small pool in the stream.


We boarded the buses and were driven down alongside the Kinneret towards the site of our night accommodations, Tzemach Beach at the southern tip of the sea/lake. Along the way, when I was distracted with text-messaging a friend, our bus hit a medium-sized bird on the long country – the driver claiming it to be a chukar. We reached the beach where we had dinner and found sleeping arrangements under a canopy of stars, fruit bats and mosquitoes. But before we retired, some of us instructors stole away to the beachfront where the schoolchildren were not allowed. There we had a leisurely night swim in the placid lake, only cutting our poor feet once or twice on sharp rocks hidden in the depths. The night passed and we awoke the next morning for yet more adventure!

Nachal El Al

In Golan, Israel on June 25, 2017 at 10:37 AM

This is the first of three posts that took place on three consecutive days in early June when I was fulfilling my capacity of instructor at a school where I work. A few other instructors and I were accompanying the 9th graders on their multi-day tiyul shnati (an annual trip), this time to the Golan and Upper Galilee. The first day started off with a long bus ride from Givat Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, to the first hike of the trip, Nachal El Al in the lower Golan. The buses took us to a staging ground behind the moshav of Avnei Eitan and we promptly began our hike along the red-marked trail, descending into the ravine.

Descending into Nachal El Al

From the very beginning both flora and fauna showed promise, as I photographed a crested lark, a red and black leaf beetle, globethistle, bugloss and oleander which grows plentifully along the streambed. It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the two waterfalls that this hike is famous for, the Black Waterfall. Named such because of the black basalt stones that are so typical of the Golan’s geology, the second fall is called the White Waterfall due to its white chalk setting.

The Black Waterfall

As I was looking over the edge of the cliff beside the pool drama hit. First there was the sound of rumbling and something falling, then confused shouts and through the gaps between the leaves I was witness to a terrible accident. A young schoolgirl from another group, also on her annual trip, was victim to a fallen rock which smashed her thigh, breaking the bone badly, and as she fell, her head hit rock. Their accompanying paramedics, as well as ours, rushed to her aid and the atmosphere was grim. She had lost consciousness and her thigh was bent unnaturally, swollen and discoloured. Climbing back up to regain cellular service, emergency calls were made and it was decided that they were going to wait for Unit 669, an elite IDF commando unit, to rescue her via helicopter.

Unit 669 helicopter to the rescue

We stayed for some time at the Black Waterfall, some of the students frolicking in the pool, and I spotted a Levant green frog escaping human presence. When we left the Black Waterfall the poor girl was still awaiting extraction and so we paused further ahead along the trail and prayed together for her health and well-being. As we continued southwest we heard the distinct noise of a chopper incoming, and we got to spectate the rescue until the adjacent hilltop obscured our view (she was since rescued successfully and taken to Rambam Hospital in Haifa).

Closer look at the helicopter

Hiking along, we passed a neat wildflower named annual pink as well as a handful of goldfinches flying amongst the waving reeds, with alpine swifts and a lone short-toed eagle patrolling the skies above us. I took care to photograph as many craggy cliff holes as I could, hoping that maybe I’d catch a little or eagle owl on my display screen – both of which have eluded me thus far – but with no success.

The kiss of goldfinches

We had passed a neat pool down below, with metal handles affixed in the rock wall to facilitate access to the continuation of the trail which was lined with thick reeds. Next we came upon an area where the water flow slowed down as it caressed the smooth white rock, reminding me of the natural waterworks at Nachal Kziv. This calm water would presently spill over the side of a cliff to form the White Waterfall, a 14-metre drop of cold mountain water. I waited for a while at the spillover spot, letting the sun progress over the adjacent mountain to give me more favourable lighting for photography.

The White Waterfall

It’s on the crest of that mountain to the west that ancient ruins can be found. Marked on the map as Qasr Bardwil, which, according to what I have found online, can either be an Arabic name giving tribute to Crusader king Baldwin who conquered the Golan area, or “bardwil” which may be Arabic for cattails. Either way, the site dates to the early Bronze Era and is composed of great walls of small stones at the edge of the cliff overlooking the stream. When the children were goaded out of the waterfall pool I made my pilgrimage down to properly document the falls, and then I continued on the trails.

Late afternoon over the Golan

From this point onward it was all dry, the trail running along the side of the eastern slope with only lone trees here and there to shield us from the scorching sun. But I found distraction in spotting a noisy katydid in the dead vegetation, a fan-fingered gecko and my very first woodchat shrike, also called a butcher bird for their barbaric feeding methodology.

Noisy katydid

At last, I reached the end of the trail and spotted a mother rock hyrax with two of her young on a nearby rock. Over the next half hour or so the entire class made their way to the end where the buses waited, and during this wait we watched the entertaining aeronautics of a kestrel avoiding a mobbing hooded crow. When the buses were loaded with our sweaty and tired bodies we were taken to Moshav Keshet where we, the staff, were introduced to our rooms and then had dinner in the dining room. The day had come to an end, but the trip was only one third of the way done…