I couldn’t take another step. My feet were on fire, every agonizing stride an act of willpower. The situation was caused by an unexpectedly difficult stretch of the Israel Trail in the middle part of Nachal Amud. All the guide book said was, “continue on the black trail south in Nachal Amud for another 4 kilometers.” Maybe if you were a 21-year-old guy just out of army service from some elite unit, that would have been enough of a description. But that stretch had been the most challenging part of the trail we’d encountered to that point, and some advance warning would have been helpful. It went up and down the cliffs on both sides of the ravine. Several sections were narrow, high, and lacked the staples that are such a big help on difficult parts of the marked trails in Israel. The four kilometers took us four hours. Adding to our miseries, a sharav (eastern desert wind) started during the afternoon and the dry heat sucked all the moisture and energy out of us.

We had to climb up one side and then the other

It also didn’t help that I was 20 kilograms overweight. When my feet were killing me I would often think to myself that I was carrying twice as much weight in extra fat than I was in all the gear, food, and water that we needed for our camping trips. I have now lost the extra 20 kilograms and it’s been a long time since my feet hurt like they did that evening. I also suspect that that stretch of the trail would not seem so hard to us now, after some of the places we’ve traversed in the Negev.

The upper part of Nachal Amud

I felt that I couldn’t walk further, but as there was no place to camp where I was sitting (the trail was barely a foot wide with nary a flat area on either side), Don prodded me to go further. There was no choice, so after a ten-minute rest I limped ahead and finally we found a place. It wasn’t ideal as a camping ground; we ended up sleeping on the trail itself, but the spot was breathtakingly beautify. It was between cliffs and green underbrush. There, for the umpteenth time, I took off my hiking boots and waited for my feet to stop hurting.

Camping right on the path

As the sun set, the color of the yellow cliffs slowly changed until they were a flaming pink. Soon one by one the stars appeared and the moon rose. We cooked our camp dinner of Raman noodles and cheese and chatted softly before we lay down on our pads with our sleeping bags casually thrown over us because the July evening was so warm. I examined the sky as I waited until I was sleepy enough to fall asleep on the hard ground. The full moon went behind a tree and caused a ghostly silhouette, and then from the south I saw a light, bigger and brighter than any star, silently make its way across the sky. I pointed it out to Don and we both watched as it passed over our heads and finally disappeared behind the cliffs towards the north.

Moon silhouetting tree

At the time we dubbed it a UFO because we thought we’d never know what it was, but that turned out to be wrong. When we returned home Don searched the NASA websites and found they have a satellite tracker. What we had seen was the International Space Station, with the space shuttle docked to it, orbiting the earth. How cool is that?!

We woke before dawn the next morning, wanting to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures.  An hour and a half from where we’d camped we passed the place where the Israel Water Carrier comes down the cliffs and then back up the other side. It was an interesting spot and we rested there on the steep, long stairway. There was a hand-painted sign cleverly calling it “the stairway to heaven.” I watched a family of wild boars (sus scrofa) make its way on the other side. There was a female with four little ones who followed her every move. She didn’t seem to fear us even though our dog Taffy wanted to take chase.

The pillar (amud) that gives Nachal Amud its name

Not far from this place we started to see deep caves in the south side of the ravine. Soon we passed the rock pillar (amud in Hebrew) that gives Nachal Amud its name and the many nearby caves. There was what seemed to be a metal railing across one of them, and it was clear that work had been done up there.

I wish we had climbed up and looked around. It turns out that those caves are important prehistoric archaeological sites where Neanderthal man lived from about 70,000 years ago to about 50,000 years ago.

The skeletal remains (most of which consist of only a few bones) of 18 individual Neanderthals, twelve of them children or infants, were unearthed from the Amud Caves. There are complicated, ongoing controversies about the history of modern man and its relationship with Neanderthal man. The Amud 18 play a central role in these continuing debates.

Caves in Nachal Amud

What were they like, those people who lived in the Amud Caves before history? It is tantalizing to think that they could have stood near to where we did and examined the same stars. Could they have imagined that one day human beings, not too different from them, would reach those heavens and pass overhead in brilliant silence?

Hiking in Nachal Amud

The Nachal Amud ravine is about 25 kilometers long and goes from the base of Mount Meron (the second highest mountain in Israel at 1200 meters above sea level), to the Kinneret (which is approximately 200 meters below sea level).

The upper part of the ravine has a year-round running stream, and several lovely springs of very cold water in which to bath. There are many trails that connect to this area — check hiking map #2 available at Lametayel, Rikushet or the SPNI to plan a hike that suits you. In my opinion, however, the most dramatic way to experience this area in its entirety, is to do a two-day hike starting at the top of Mount Meron and ending at the Kinneret.

Start by taking a bus to the town of Meron and then a taxi to the top of the mountain. Find the tricolor Israel Trail blazes and follow them southward.   I suggest camping near Highway 85, which is directly after the difficult parts of this hike. This is a good area to camp for groups of four people or less. 

Remember to take out more than you bring in; don’t leave even a tissue of litter!

Then, on the next day, hike the lower part of the ravine, past the Neanderthal caves and the striking pillar (amud) that gives the ravine its name. Leave the ravine and stroll past verdant orchards of mangoes and lychee — these are some of the richest agricultural areas in Israel — and end at a beach on the Kinneret for a refreshing and well-deserved swim.  Then take a bus home.

Never hike without enough water, a hat, good shoes, and a 1:50,000 scale hiking mapFollow this link for more advise about hiking in Israel.

Links about prehistoric man in Israel:

1) TL Dates for the Neanderthal Site of the Amud Cave, Israel, 1999.  (full article online): This is primary literature about the age of the Neanderthals in the Amud Caves.

2) Neanderthals Meet Modern Humans, 2001: This is an entire volume of the Athena Journal with many review papers, all of which are available online.