To the South! This morning we got up and after an extended delay for Noah and Shany to get coffee, we were on our way. We decided to take 6, the toll road, as we heard it was a very good road. It is a very good road. Less traffic, no stoplights, just highway. And in Israel you do not stop to pay on the toll road, they take photos of your license plate and mail you the bill. You don't even have to slow down. We very smoothly traveled past Tel Aviv, through Beersheva, and to Mitzpe Ramon. Our first stop was the visitor's center on the edge of the makhtesh. The makhtesh is a crater/canyon like formation. It is 5 miles wide and 27 miles long. It is not a crater or canyon, however, it is called a makhtesh because of the unique way in which it was formed. A makhtesh is formed when a mountain with limestone as its upper layer and a very soft layer of sand underneath the limestone rose up from the earth. First the formation is an island, and then the water recedes. Upheaval in the earth tilts the mountain slightly, and then the top erodes. After penetrating the limestone, the erosion removes the sand underneath, effectively hollowing out the mountain. This is a makhtesh, and it is called a makhtesh in every language. There are only 7 in the world - 5 are in this area of Israel, and 2 are in the Sinai.
We had read that the visitors center has great exhibits about the nature in area, but what the guidebooks did not mention is that it is closed for large scale renovations. The renovations should be done soon, but as both Shany and our guide (more on this in a bit) told us, things tend to get forgotten outside of the central area of the country so who knows when it will really be done. For example, in 2000, the Israeli government decided to build an airport in Mitzpe Ramon; it is still not built yet. So we left the visitor's center and nosed down the hill (road under construction) to Bio Ramon, a small zoo of animals from the area (though the bunny they had there must have been someone's pet once, the desert does not seem like bunny terrain). We ate lunch in the shade, took a quick look at the animals, watched a movie about the formation of the makhtesh, and then drove across the traffic circle to the gas station to meet our guide for our jeep trip into the makhtesh. Our guide, Benny, piled us into the jeep and took us to the edge of the makhtesh, where we saw ibex up on a ledge. He then took us into the makhtesh for a three hour bumpy, twisting ride through unbelievable terrain. It felt like a roller coaster at times, and the kids loved it (though Eitan somehow keep banging his head against the side of the jeep). Things we learned from Benny -- the makhtesh has much animal life including lizards, birds, foxes ibex, wild asses, horses, hyenas, and wolves. Most of the creatures are only out at night, though we did see holes that some of them burrow into during the day. The wild asses were reintroduced to the area about 30 years ago with a group of 6, now they number 300. There are two man made watering holes; it was a very dry winter in the south and the animals are struggling as a result. We saw 2 mines, one for colors for pottery clay and the other for I don't remember. The sand in the makhtesh is a variety of colors, brown, red, green, some blue, black and is due to different iron compounds present. The black color is formed when the hot sun burns the earth! Throughout the makhtesh you can see the strata in the rocks, often the layers within an area will be several different colors. Benny showed us two plants with interesting adaptations to the salty desert conditions - the salt bush excretes salt from its leaves. We ate some and they are like potato chips, a good salty snack! He also showed us the soap plant which removes the salt from the water it takes in specific cells that contain oil. The oil separates the salt from the water, so the salt is removed and pure water is left for the plant. If you take the leaves and smash them between your hand and add a little water, it produces a soapy substance (for the chemists our there, soap is a mixture of water soluble and water insoluble substances, like water and oil). When we were driving here, Shany pointed out that there are lots of military bases in the Negev, and a major air force base is nearby. We saw several groups of F15's flying over the edge of the makhtesh. Benny told us that Ilana Ramon trained near here. He originally had a different last name, but Israel asks its pilots to take on a more Israeli name and Ilan chose Ramon after this area. The new visitors center will have an exhibit about the Columbia and will be dedicated to Ilan Ramon and his son Asaf, who died in a military plane crash. Also six formations in the makhtesh have been named after the other six astronauts on the Columbia.
After Benny returned us safely to the gas station, we had some ice cream to cool down, then drove to the next stop on the traffic circle to where the restaurants and the grocery store are. We picked up a couple of pizzas for dinner and then drove the 20 minutes North to Carmey Avdat, our home for the evening. On the car ride, Benny called to tell us that we left the camera in the jeep but no worries, he will bring it to us as he lives close by. Benny had told us that he used to live in Herzelyia and was a consultant, traveling constantly, but 7 months ago he and his wife left it all and moved down here with their two young boys. It is a refuge here, far from the traffic and frantic pace of the central cities.
It is hard to put into words how amazing Carmey Avdat is. You are driving through the desert, and you turn onto this little road off the highway, then turn again through a gate onto another dirt road, and you are in the middle of a lush, green vineyard nestled into a valley. The farm has a shed and some other structures around a small parking surrounded by beautiful landscaping, small pools, and a path learning up the hill to the 4 cabins. We will put photos on Facebook as it is indescribable. One of the sheds houses a workshop and the winery, another houses a small gallery, and the last structure is the home of the Izraeli's, the family that owns the farm. Our cabin is at the end of a footpath up the hill, it has a front porch with picnic tables and a hammock, shaded by a straw roof. Inside the floors are not really floors but a layer of rocks covered with a few small rugs with a small kitchen area, several beds, and a separate bedroom and bathroom. On the table in the room was a small bottle of the kosher wine made at the vineyard (only one of their wines is kosher, they send it to another farm to be processed with kosher certification). It is almost perfect here, it would be completely perfect if Mike was here with us, we will have to come back next trip with him! Naomi was extremely happy as we were greeted by several dogs. Two of them look like Camden but smaller and better behaved, and one of those dogs, Tuts, followed us around much of the time and slept outside our door. The kids and Shany could not resist the small pool by our cabin and they went for a dip after we ate dinner on our front porch. After changing clothes, we walked down to the parking lot to wait for Ira Machefsky, who came out to take us into the darkness for a star tour. We followed Ira and his son in law Donni several miles up a dirt road that leads from the farm to a very dark area, where we sat down on folding chairs and Ira told us all about the stars and constellations. We learned that all the stars in the night sky rotate around the North star, Polaris, in the northern hemisphere. We learned to locate polaris, the the star that was the north star when the Jews left mitzraim (the earth wobbles as it spins so the axis on which the earth rotates changes direction slightly). We also learned to find the stars Arcturis and Spica, and looked at several other constellation including Virgo, Scorpio, the little dipper, and the jewel box which is a grouping of many stars. Ira also showed us the huge expanse of the milky way. After about an hour and half, we took a break for tea and Ira set up the telescope. He then showed us Saturn ( you could also see it's rinds and it's moon Titan (very cool!), two stars close to each other that are different colors , one gold and one turquoise, we had also seen these through the wash u telescope, the jewel box which contains many stars, some of them reddish, and finally the moon rose at about 11:40 and we look at that and saw incredible detail, many craters and formations, those of us who were still awake and not sleeping in the car (that would be Ilana and Shany who were sleeping) were amazed. We drove back to the farm and trudged up the hill to bed. An amazing, day but we couldn't help but be a little sad as Mike would have loved it, and we would have loved to share it with him.