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Living in the desert: Incredible survival mechanisms of desert plants in Israel

by Itai Harary on 07/27/14

Extreme heat, lack of rain, salty earth, drastic temperature differences, strong sun radiation, flash floods, irregular rain distribution - these are just some of the challenges that a typical plant in the Israeli desert has to face day after day…

The amazing fact is that the desert in Israel is abundant with various plant species! How could this be explained?!  The answer lies in sophisticated survival mechanisms developed by the plants of the desert over ages of evolution.

To demonstrate these ingenious techniques we picked five fascinating plant species. Naturally, each of them has to struggle with most of the desert difficulties, but because going over them all would fill up a week's seminar, we decided that for each of the five plants, we'll highlight one mechanism for tackling one challenge….

1. Tamarisk (Tamarix), in Hebrew: Eshel . Challenge: Salty earth.

Tamarisk in the Israeli desert

The Tamarisk is an inspiration for turning difficulty into strength in its way of dealing with the salty desert earth.  Excess salt is harmful for plants as it is for humans, or any other living creature, but if you're a plant in the desert, salty earth is part of the deal. For this reason, the Tamarisk has developed a mechanism for separating the salt from the fluids it absorbs from the earth and exuding it out through its leaves. But after this is done, another problem arises - the Tamarisk's tiny leaves become coated with a thin, white, salt-coating which blocks the sunlight from reaching the leaves, meaning little or no photosynthesis! So now what?? Pay attention - this is quite amazing... The desert in Israel has about 150 nights with heavy dew (which is an important source of water for many plants, birds and insects).  When the dewfall occurs, the salt accumulated on the Tamarisk's leaves, stems and branches is washed off completely, and drips down to the ground with the condensed dew-water. After a heavy dew night, a Tamarisk would look as if it's been washed with a hose, literally dripping with water. But that isn't the end of it. Over time, having absorbed a huge amount of salt that has been washed off the Tamarisk, the earth around it becomes so salty that no other plant-seed can sprout and survive, consequently eliminating competition over resources for the Tamarisk. The huge challenge of living off salty earth has become the Tamarisk's best guard against competitors!


2. Rose of Jericho, in Hebrew: Shoshanat Yericho . Challenge: Irregular rain distribution.

Rose of Jericho



To be continued….

Multiple day Trekking: Find your Way and Manage Your Water in the Israeli Negev Desert

by Itai Harary on 06/26/14

Carrying a heavy pack and water that has to last for at least two days does not leave you a big wondering around margin. Your navigation skills and your ability to spot and follow the trail blazing on the rocks have an even bigger significance when you're trekking in the desert...

Israel desert trekking pack

A 50 Pound (25 Kg) pack, packed for a 3 day trek, overlooking the Small Crater.

Having that said, finding your way around the Negev Desert (which is a rocky desert - not a sandy one!) shouldn't be that complicated. The Negev, which comprises approximately 60% of the land of Israel, has plenty of well marked trails which are a part of the national trail-marking project. Each marked trail is also marked on a map of that area fit to a 1:50,000 scale. 

 Israel hiking map of the Negev

A topographical hiking-map. Blue and black trail-marks are visible in the center of the map.

According to the rule of thumb that guides the trail blazers, a hiker should be able to easily spot the next blaze from the one he's/she's standing on, so theoretically speaking, navigation ability isn't a must. But like I said, that's in theory... Practically, what would you do if for some reason you just can't find the next blaze on the trail!?

Trail mark of the Israeli national trail in the Ramon crater snow 2008

Trail-Blazes can disappear! A trail-blaze of the Israeli national trail on a partially snow-covered rock on the rim of the Ramon Crater, during the 2008 snow storm in Mitzpe Ramon. 

You may be thinking "well, I'll just follow the beaten path and it'll probably lead me to where I'm headed". That would be the right and simple answer when trekking in a lush, forested area where the trail stands out from its green surroundings. But in the Negev Desert, recognizing the path won't be that simple. Yeah, after some experience, your awareness will be tuned-in to notice the small differences on the rocky desert surface and you'll be able to find your way even through short gaps without a blaze, but developing this expertise takes time. For this reason, basic navigation skills, a topographical map of the trail and a descent compass are a must for the amateur trekker in this type of terrain. When these are in your tool box, you will easily find your way and won't have to waste extra sweat and muscle on wrong turns. Keep in mind that because the desert is low on vegetation and trees, the view is always open and the topography is easy to follow.

Israel desert hiking - find the trail

A hiking trail in the Negev. It takes some time for the eye to notice and recognize the paths.

To sum up the above: a combination of the blazed trails&maps plus basic navigation skills will make trekking, hiking & backpacking in the Israeli desert a challenge that can be met.

So you've brought your compass, bought your trail map (around 80 Shekels) and planned your route. What more is there to know?? well, just a bit more - starting with how to manage your water supply!

We know that water = life. We know that desert = scarce water. So how do we hike or trek in the Negev and live to tell about it? Basically, we carry more on our backs... the calculation for your needed amount of water is about 5 liters (around 1.3 American gallons) per full day, per person - just for drinking (not taking in account cooking, washing etc'). Now If you're going on a two day trek, let's say in the Ramon-Crater area, carrying this amount of water is still practical, but if you're going deeper in to the desert, the amount of water you'll need would make your pack too heavy and turn it into a disturbing burden.

Natural spring drinking water in the desert in Israel

Water coming out of the rock at the source of the Ein-Akev spring near Sde-Boker

There are two ways, basically, to tackle this problem. The first one is to consult a local desert hiking guide for information on natural - permanent water sources (for example, Oded-Wells near the Ramon-Crater) and seasonal water holes and cisterns (like Gevi-Hava) in the area you plan to walk through (these water sources usually need simple purification like chlorine tablets). This will allow you to plan your trek so, that you'll reach a natural water source every other day along your trail, and carry water for no more than two consecutive days. The second solution is to have a local off-road tour operator stash water bottles for you at your planned night camp area. Then, you'll only have to carry water for one day.

How to find water in the desert - Negev, Israel

Tmille - a Bedouin word for a small hand-dug pit that reaches underground water good for drinking. You have to know where to dig...  

And most important of all - be happy, keep safe, and enjoy your desert Trekking!

For further guidance, help and information about hiking, trekking and other outdoor activities in the Israeli desert - contact us!

Hiking and trekking in Israel
A couple on a 2 day trek connecting between the Big Crater and the Small Crater 

Bedouin hospitality near Mitzpe Ramon

by Itai Harary on 06/19/14

Today I had the pleasure of taking a family from the U.S. to visit Salman - a good friend from a Bedouin village close to Mitzpe Ramon - in his tent. Salman, who has been living there for about 30 years and is the head of his village, offers an authentic experience in the tent where he lives with his family (8 children) - v-e-r-y different from the common "Bedouin hospitality" which most tourists encounter in Israel.

Salman welcomed us with a hot and very sweet cup of tea, and another one, and another one... while we were sipping, he told us a bit about his life in the desert as a child, he shared his thoughts about modern education in comparison to camel-herding "education", and told us about the conflicts between the Bedouin culture and the modern state.


  
While talking, Salaman was kneading a ball of dough which would soon be placed in the ashes of the fire that boiled our tea, on it's way to becoming our bread for lunch. Every few minutes Salman would cover the flat, circular piece of dough with some more ashes and bang on it. By the sound of the hardening dough Salman can tell when the bread is ready. A true master!



When the music's right, the bread (which the Bedouins call "libbe") is taken out of the ashes and is pounded on a hard, clean surface - a rock, or a tree trunk would do... this is done to remove the ashes off the thick, crispy crust of the libbe.



Like pitta bread, the Bedouins use the libbe as an edible eating utensil, so we did too, dipping it and scooping with it all of the amazing salads and dips Salman's wife (Chalima) prepared for us. The libbe really came out good this time. Salman knew it and was proud of the results. His smile says it all...

Visit to a Bedouin village in the Negev near Mitzpe Ramon

Lunch time is for everybody, even if you're a camel...

Authentic Bedouin hospitality Israel

The water in Ein Akev spring - just right!

by Itai Harary on 06/19/14

We are already used to the pattern: every winter, the water of the deep pool of the Ein Akev spring (+10 meters/30 ft.) cools down and stays that way for quite a long time, even through late spring, making the swim in the pool refreshing, but due to the cold - short... 

And then, at a time which could never be defined, something changes. The warmth of the sun beats the coolness of the night and the water temperature rises to a perfect balance making it the ultimate answer to summer in the Negev Desert. Now is that time!

 Getting to Ein Akev is quite easy and could be done either by a short, 2 hour hike from Ben-Gurion campus (just next to Sde-Boker), or by jeep on either a 2.5 hour tour to Ein-akev and back or a 4 hour tour which also covers the Ein Shaviv oasis and it's amazing poplar forest.

Ein Akev spring pool


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