Discover Israel’s southern magic this winter

Touring Israel? Time to go south, and "go further". Israel's south is much more than just Eilat and Mitzpe Rimon.

Tags: Tourism
Rivka Orzech, INHF ,

Southern Israel
Southern Israel
Doron Nissim

Taking a trip down south from October to May is a chance to take in some southern magic in bearable temperatures. Go for the wild desert oases, the nature reserves and the early civilizations scattered all over the expanse to Eilat that haven’t told all their secrets…

Go further because, as Avihai Tsabari, CEO of Via Sabra tours says: “When most people think of going for a trip to southern Israel the locations that come to mind are Eilat and Mitzpe Rimon—but that’s only a small percentage of the fascinating sites in the region!”. Via Sabra tours is a tour group dedicated to taking tourists in Israel beyond the everyday sites.

That’s a sentiment shared by the Israel Nature and Heritage Foundation, a grassroots voluntary branch of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) to help in its task of protecting, conserving and raising the profile of Israel’s nature, landscape and heritage.

Their projects range from ancient synagogue restoration to sea turtle adoption. You can start maximizing your road trip southward by stopping at the 875-acre Eshkol National Park, home to Ein Habesor, a large spring fed by winter rains and fascinating archaeological sites. In particular there’s a new project underway that has a fascinating back story.

During the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917, a group of Australian signalers discovered a partially exposed mosaic. The Anzacs had found the remains of an Early Byzantine church floor dating back to AD 561-562. The troops removed the mosaic and took it back with them to Australia where it was displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Although mangled, the Shellal Mosaic, is thought to be one of the best examples of sixth century mosaic. The design is known as an inhabited vine trellis, and is a popular design of that period. The tiles are small, closely spaced and mostly of coloured but expensive marble that was seldom used for a church like the one at Shellal.

The exciting plan is to install a replica of the Shellal Mosaic on the route the ANZAC horsemen took when they conquered Beersheba. This will be a meaningful addition to the commemoration of the Charge of the Light Horse Brigade.

Further southwest is the enigmatic Tel Beer Sheba. Extensive excavation at the Tel uncovered fortified Israelite cities dating back to Kings David, King Saul and beyond. Of the 200 Tels in Israel, Beer Sheba had been concealing the most biblical-related artifacts. A noteworthy discovery was the four-horned altar mentioned in the Bible. It could have been dismantled as part of King Chizkiyahu’s religious reforms and then incorporated into a wall only to be discovered centuries later.

There’s still more for history lovers on this route, Mamshit National Park presents the vestiges of a Nabatean city. You can walk the reconstructed Nabatean Street and see signs of ancient engineering in the bathhouse and in the dams that collected life-giving water.

Talking of life-giving water, a firm favorite for nature lovers is the hike at Ein Ovdat canyon; Ovdat is the Negev’s largest wadi. Unspoilt yet ruggedly beautiful, its numerous springs empty into deep pools and then plunge further into mesmerizing waterfalls. Ovdat is part of the 120-kilometer riverbed that begins at the Ramon Crater, an awesome geological feature sitting 85 km south of Beer Sheba.

The massive crater known for its clay hills with its earthy, red and yellow hues is the world’s largest water-erosion crater. At its deepest point lies the Saharonim Spring, the crater’s only natural water source. That spring sustained the wildlife—ibexes, gazelles, hyenas and even Arabian leopards—native to the breath-taking crater for millennia.

The spectacular northern cliff of the Ramon crater is home to the Mitzpe Ramon Visitor Center. The center tells the crater’s fascinating geological tale and hosts the Ilan Ramon Memorial which tells the story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who died when the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

The crater is a fitting place to remember an Israeli hero. After all, if you want somewhere to contemplate endless possibilities like space; you go to the wilderness where you can see the stars.

40 km north of the Red Sea lies Yotvata, a historically strategic location, and the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve. Here, they’re hard at work at a fascinating initiative reintroducing the African and Asiatic wildlife native to the area and mentioned in the bible but not an actually presence in the Arava desert for centuries. This is no small task, as the reintroduction of animals that have disappeared from a particular area is reliant on many complicated and expensive factors. After breeding them in captivity, the animals are acclimatized in large enclosures near where they will be released and some are fitted with transmitters so data can be analysed and lessons learned.

There’s a primary source you might want to see just 15 km away in the Timna Valley Nature Reserve. Ancient rock drawings show gazelles, ibex and ostriches. Today, only the ostriches are missing.

Other rock drawings uncovered at Timna speak of long departed empires that controlled an area rich in natural resources. One resource being the copper ore mined there from the 5th millennium BCE until fairly recently. Perhaps King Solomon himself mined Timna’s assets for his Temple.

But Timna is perhaps best known for its breath-taking vistas that serve as dramatic backdrop for many an outdoor summer concert; specifically, the pillar formations and the beautiful multi-colored sand dunes. Timna Park itself encompasses natural reserve, panoramic walking trails, a visitors’ recreation area, a lake, and a true-to-scripture replica of the biblical tabernacle.

One cannot do the south justice by just describing the diversity of its flora and fauna; or the variety of its cultures, both ancient and modern, that settled its vastness and left us something to marvel at—one has to walk it.

You and your family can do just that and enjoy free access to all this grandeur with an Israel Pass card. Pledge your support for the protection of Israel’s history and nature by purchasing your Israel Pass here.

*One Israel Pass offers access to all Israel Nature and Parks Authority sites while in Israel, for one year to you and your immediate family (children up to age 18)