Thursday, October 13, 2005
a 2 day desert hike SEEMED like a good idea at the time..
Let me just tell ya a little something about the desert… it’s HOT. Yeah, I know, that seems like an obvious statement but it needs to be said. I doubt there was much that could have prepared me for the 2 day hike we had in the Judean desert on Monday and Tuesday. Our destination? Ein Gedi. (as a sidenote, be sure to click on the thumbnail there and get a load of that picture I took and tell me that's not one of the best I've ever taken!!)

Day One. We headed out early in the morning from Tzfat, loading ALL our luggage onto the bus (something that takes a VERY long time to do because there is a lot of luggage for 30 people (at least 2-3 pieces each) and the bus was a long walk from the campus. We were sweating our asses off before we had even begun the hike. Our luggage was to go on to the Jerusalem campus while we went to the desert.

Along the three hour bus ride we stopped at a little pitstop along the way, ate some food, had some drinks and enjoyed the view of the Dead Sea. We also got to smell a really stinky camel who was tied up right by our bus. Ah yes, the full Middle Eastern experience!

Finally we arrived at our destination, had a quick lunch and a powwow before we began our descent. Our guide told us the plan and what to expect, and that if anyone had doubts about being able to finish NOW was the time to speak up. One of the guys who wasn’t feeling at all well took the bus back to campus; if you are not feeling well, taking a stroll in the desert is clearly not a good plan. After a firm talk about taking lots of water and making sure you drink along the way, we set off up the mountain.

I learned one thing very quickly while hiking up a mountain in heat like that; it is entirely possible to sweat more than you drink. I mean, I thought I knew how wet with sweat I could get during our three day hike (from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea) but that was nothing compared to the amount of sweat I generated in the first 5 minutes of this hike. It was simply unreal. Sweat behind my ears, running down the front and back of my neck, down the back of my knees, on my stomach… it was *everywhere *. I was quickly seeing why we were made to bring so much water, as one has to be extremely vigilant about replacing lost liquids, something that happens at a phenomenal speed in the desert (let alone climbing up a mountain!). Yes, you can even see the sweat on my shirt if you click on that picture and take a close look. Sexy!

Eventually (I believe it took 4-5 hours) we reached the top of the mountain (after many breaks along the way to cool off and drink water) and we stopped to watch the sun set behind the mountains around us. It was simply breathtaking. We snapped pics, nibbled on some food and sipped some water. As it began to get dark we set off again in order to find our campsite before it got too late. As the night crept it the air was cooler and the hiking more comfortable. We were now walking along the top of the mountain on a fairly flat plateau and the moon and stars were lighting our way. (see the black line running along the edge of the Dead Sea? That's the road we drove on to get to this hike! just a note to help give perspective to the picture)

When we arrived at our campsite I finally made a point of finding some privacy in order to go to the bathroom. While we are a group well acquainted with going in the great outdoors by now, going in the desert presents whole new problems. On the prior hike there was plenty of cover for resting in the shade and cooling off, as well as for finding a little private time to do your business. Such is NOT the case in the desert. There is very little in the way of shade so resting is not usually the cooling experience you’d like it to be. And if you need to relieve yourself you are going to have to hike a fair distance away from the group to go over a hill in order to do your business (and be sure no one has done so just before you or you’ll be catching him/her, pants down). Once we got to the campsite it was quite dark and all I needed to do was get far enough away from the group so that the cover of dark worked in my favour.

We had a very nice chap meet us in the desert in his jeep which was filled with tents, sleeping bags, food, supplies and our overnight bags with a change of clothes. We set up a rug on the ground so we could all sit as a group while others set up a table and light, and set about making dinner. Along with the usual pita, hummus and veggies a soup was prepared in a big pot on a gas stove plate. Sadly the soup was not ready in time for dinner but it later served as a great warm up food before bed.

After dinner we headed out for a night hike under the stars. The sky was filled with stars, a view many of us rarely get to enjoy because the city lights wash out the view. Many of us stood, mouths gaping, as we watched shooting stars go by. The night was cool but so beautiful and quiet. Our group leader took us to a spot where we all sat in a circle. We talked about the desert and the beauty of nothingness it offers. We were encouraged to take some time alone in the desert to reflect on our lives in whatever manner we saw fit, and then we all stood up, turned away from the circle and walked off to find a spot alone in the moonlit dark. For 20 minutes we got some alone time in a way most of us have never experienced, certainly not since we began the program a month ago and have been lived in shared space. I took my 20 minutes and sat alone, stared at the stars a bit, and then meditated. (about the picture.. if you look at the bottom of the mountain at the right you will see a light coloured line tracing around the edge of it, near the greenery; that is the footpath we would take the next day to get back to the start)

When the 20 minutes was up a hand drum was used to signal that it was time to return to the circle, and slowly but surely we made our way back. All of us, that is, but one girl who had fallen so deeply asleep after hiking in the day’s heat. It took 20 more minutes of searching and shouting until she finally woke up and joined us (I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least a little bit nerve wracking!). Once we came back together we shared our experiences and feelings with each other in a warm and non-judgmental environment. The range of feelings, stories and experiences was interesting as each person felt so differently about being alone in the dark and took the time to search their souls in various ways. When we had all finished sharing we stood up for one final exercise. We took the opportunity, miles away from any civilization, to let it all out. On the count of three we all let out the most primal of screams. It. Was. Amazing. Our throats were raw and we felt exhausted, but it was a fantastic release.

Arriving back at the campsite I was never so happy to have a styrofoam cup of soup in my life. Potatoes, carrots, onions and yams… oh, it was heavenly! (and so soothing for the throat!) I ate two cups and climbed into my tent to sleep. We were going to bed in the dark and would be waking in the dark….

Day Two. The wake up call came at 4:30am. “Boker Tov!” (Good Morning!) I immediately sprang out of my tent to be the first to the girl’s hill (aka: the bathroom) before it got too crowded. It was dark, I tripped a lot, but it was SO worth it. I went back to my tent (shivering! it got very cold during the night and now morning) and began to change my clothes, use baby wipes to clean up a bit and packed up my stuff. Breakfast was at 5am. After breakfast it was time to take down the tents, load the jeep and prepare to hike while it was still cool. We took a few moments to enjoy the sunrise, the most beautiful thing ever in the desert (little did I know that by 8am I would be praying for the shade of a tree). Finally we headed out just before 7am.

We made a few early stops along the way to talk about wildlife in the desert. The ibyx is a deer/gazelle-like animal that lives in the desert (which we saw the day before, above us on the mountain ledge) and survives on very little. I was fairly sure they were alive and well given the amount of poop they left all over the desert. We also stopped to look for a black widow amongst some tiny dried up bushes but only found her old web and nest where she had her young. We also saw a vulture circling us at one point which didn't make me feel altogether good about our chances of finshing the trip. A gecko was spotted early on as well and hijinx ensued as it leapt off the rock at one of the guys and then when he jumped back (screaming like a little girl) it then leapt onto the girl beside him and proceeded to make it’s way up the back of her leg and up towards the opening of her shorts. All was well as we rounded it up and took some amazing pictures of it. *Sigh* Oh how I love lizards! I also saw another type of lizard (which is always too fast for me to snap a pic of!) and we even saw a mouse (the leader said it’s a spiny mouse. I had no prayer of getting a pic of it, sorry). Ibyx and lizards and mice, OH MY!

The first part of the morning was spent making our way along the mountain top to the spot from which we were to descend. The heat of the sun comes a blazin’ very early in the day and I soon found that I was absolutely melting. Canadian + desert sun = whining. One of the biggest challenges is that you have to carry even more water with you than usual, so your backpack is just THAT much heavier while hiking through and area in which you haven’t a prayer of finding shade to cool off. Eventually, just as I believed I truly was going to become a human puddle, we reached the spot at the top of the mountain where we would make our way down. Once again we were given a lesson by our leader about the path we were about to take as it was a footpath built over 2,000 years ago by the Romans (who were laying siege at the time on the Jews). It was mind boggling to imagine how they built this winding path along this mountain with whatever equipment they had and under these hot conditions. Impressive.

After the history lesson I was the second in line to hurry towards the descent. I was hot and cranky and was promised a hidden waterfall when I got to the bottom. I headed down the long LONG winding path with no stops along the way for resting. The descent was extremely hard on the legs and knees and my thighs turned to jelly 30 minutes into the hike down. It proved to be much harder than I expected, and much hotter. Several times I considered taking one of the water bottles out of my backpack and leaving it on the path for one of the guys because the weight of it was killing me. However, fear of dehydration made me hold onto it (something I realized later I didn’t need to do) and I pressed on. There was enough space between me and the next person behind me that I could even pull over for a moment for a washroom break.

Over an hour later I was near the end and I could see the riverbed I was to reach and follow down to the waterfall. It was at this point that my brain checked out of the scenario (as happens often when your body goes on autopilot in order to get through something physically challenging) and I promptly found myself lost right near the finish line. At first I wasn’t too concerned because I knew approximately where I was and where I needed to be. I even found the stream that lead to the waterfalls, but it was soon clear that I was no longer on the right path. It wasn’t long before my knee was shredded and bleeding from thorns (because I was off “the beaten path”) and I began to get a little panicked. I needed to get back on the path but there were 12 foot boulders between me and said path. I took my backpack off and assessed the situation. Could I climb the rocks? Probably I normally could, but weak from the heat and with all that water on my back it seemed unlikely. I crouched down and found a gap where the boulders met. Could I squeeze under there? For sure, if I didn’t mind crawling on my stomach and getting my fresh cuts full of sand. And with that I shoved my backpack through and crawled under the boulders. When I came out the other side my knee was stinging and I wasn’t all that sure I was that much farther ahead. It still didn’t look like I was on the right path and I couldn’t hear anyone. Panic was really starting to set in. I climbed a hill in front of me, huffing and puffing from the weight of my water and adrenaline pumping through my veins and just when I thought the heat and stress would overcome me.. I arrived at the top and found the path. I dropped my pack on the ground, stood with my hands on my knees while I caught my breath and drank some water. Ha! I just took a shortcut, that’s all! *wink*

I followed the path along until I got to the waterfall and found my other group mate who was ahead of me for most of my descent (amusingly I found out he had taken the same wrong turn!). He was splashing and swimming in the pool below the waterfall and cheered for me when he saw me. I dropped all my stuff, kicked off my socks and hiking boots and jumped into the water. The cool water was heavenly after spending the last 4 hours in the blistering heat. Eventually the rest of the group trickled in and joined us and I stayed at the waterfalls for almost 2 hours before it was time for us to leave; we still had another hour+ ahead of us before we reached the finish line.

The rest of the hike was tough, but knowing we were so close made it a little more bearable. I was surprised when we rounded this one corner of the mountain like had a hundred times before, and saw the gates of the park ahead. I bought an ice cream bar and relaxed as we waited for the rest of the group. When they all arrived we got on a bus and headed to the Dead Sea for lunch. There we dined, saw several F-15s (?) soar closely overhead (very unnerving and loud) and then loaded back up to go to the Jerusalem campus.

We didn’t have long to settle in as we had to prepare for Yom Kippur. Cleaning and cooking over the next 24 hours was the plan and then we spent last night and today fasting. Being prone to migraines made me weary about trying to go 25 hours without food but I had decided to give it a try. 17 hours into the fast I simply had to eat a couple of rice cakes and take some Tylenol, but other than that I made it (more or less). Never have you seen such a ravenous group as those looking to break the fast when the time was up. We ate yogurt, pudding, cake, pretzels, fruit salad and juice as we waited for dinner to be set up. And of course we stuffed ourselves to the point of near sickness when we finally did get to eat properly. Oh, and yes, I dressed up all nice again and no I am not posting such pictures anymore. Sorry.

From all that craziness we head right into a free weekend and I am heading to Rehovot in the morning to see my good friend Mulder. It’s been over a year since I got to see him last and I am very excited to spend the weekend with him. I called him up after dinner and proposed that I land on his doorstep tomorrow morning and he was more than accommodating. Such a sweet lad!

So that’s the plan. I have more to say about a few other Livnot issues I’m having but it will have to wait until I return, I don’t really feel like getting into it now.

For my Canadian readers, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving on Monday. To my Jewish readers, I hope you had a meaningful and easy fast. To everyone, I wish you all a great weekend!