A Desert Adventure Along the Oil Pipeline That Was Once Meant to Link Israel and Iran

We took a trip along the route of the pipeline built decades ago with our one-time Iranian friends, surrounded by beautiful, untamed trails in the land of craters

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
A southern stretch of the pipeline route, near Mitzpeh Ramon, under Mount Ardon.
A southern stretch of the pipeline route, near Mitzpeh Ramon, under Mount Ardon.
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

An unmissable series of yellow signs accompanies us from dawn to sunset. Over two meters high, they read, “Warning – fuel lines belt.” We’re a group of four, trying to follow the oil pipeline route in a rugged section of about 40 kilometers (25 miles) in the Negev Mountains between the Ramon Crater and Kibbutz Sde Boker. During the day we’ve driven places I’ve never seen, which are accessible only by agile four-wheel-drive vehicles with highly skilled drivers. We’ve passed through immense desert expanses of spectacular beauty that make a mockery of all the talk about how crowded Israel is.

The dramatic landscape is brown, yellow and – this year – also green. This past winter the Negev enjoyed rainfall three times greater the annual average. During a regular year, 70 millimeters (less than 2.8 inches) of rain fall here; this year it was 210 mm. It’s something that becomes obvious just by looking around. Even in mid-June, the retama and orache bushes are flowering, looking happier than ever. In two places along the way, we saw gazelles; we looked at them and they peered back at us. At another spot we encountered ibexes. In the heart of the Ramon Crater, we saw an Athene, a predatory night owl, which seemed as dazzled as we were by the sun.

If only oil were to be discovered in the Negev, everything would be different here. Israel as an oil principality would definitely know how to seize such an opportunity. There were a few moments in the past when that seemed possible, when people with active imaginations could envision a jet of black liquid bursting forth from the earth near one of the craters here. Actually, the only place where oil has been discovered in Israel is quite a distance away, at Heletz southeast of Ashkelon. A small oil field was discovered there in 1955 and was operational for about 50 years. About 18 million barrels of oil were extracted from it all together, a mere fraction of Israel’s needs.

No oil in Yeruham

Our journey in the wake of Israeli oil starts at Mount Avnon, which overlooks Hatira Crater (the Big Crater) near the town of Yeruham, southeast of Be’er Sheva. The hillside shows few traces of the oil prospectors’ camp established here in 1941 by the London-based Iraq Petroleum Company. The structures we see today were built for the workers who searched for oil deposits in the crater. To access the drill site the British Mandatory authorities built a road from the Negev Junction, which crossed the crater and was known as the Oil Road.

The view from Mount Avnon, which overlooks Hatira Crater (the Big Crater).
The view from Mount Avnon, which overlooks Hatira Crater (the Big Crater).Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It’s from here that salvation was supposed to come, Yoash Limon, tourism director of the Mitzpeh Ramon local council, explains as we stand in the center of Hatira, two kilometers south of the road heading out of Yeruham. Next to us is a concrete platform on which a drilling rig was to have gone up. Tumbleweed skitters around us, like in a Western. This is what an 80-year-old failure looks like. Outside the crater, on Mount Avnon, the petroleum company built a northern camp of six structures to house the crew, and there was a southern camp of two structures close to the cliff.

After a few unsuccessful searches, the British abandoned the camp. Israeli companies later drilled at the site in the 1950s, but also found nothing. Which is why we didn’t become a major oil principality.

At present, Yeruham is working on a plan to build a new tourism site on Mount Avnon that will offer camping sites and a hotel. It’s all still confined to the drawing board, but Liat Avieli, who’s in charge of developing tourism in the town, talks optimistically about building a khan for visitors; the proposed project would employ local people and, with its light desert construction, would not mar the landscape. Tourism, she believes, will be Yeruham’s oil.

Openings in the cliffs

This is only the beginning of the story. To become acquainted with the history of oil in the country we need to leap a few decades forward and go 50 kilometers south – to the pipeline that was built in 1968 jointly with the Iranians, who were Israel’s good friends at the time. The idea was that it would facilitate easy and convenient commercial ties for them with Europe. The Iranian crude flowed north from a terminal in Eilat to Ashkelon, thus bypassing the Suez Canal, and could be shipped to the west. But here the plot thickens.

The Israel National Trail travels alongside the oil pipeline in the Ramon Crater.
The Israel National Trail travels alongside the oil pipeline in the Ramon Crater.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

After observing the Ramon Crater for a moment from the heights of a new but not yet dedicated observation point in memory of two soldier-brothers, Barak and Amichai Itkis, along the Ma’aleh Ha’atzma’ut road – we descended into the crater and drove east, passing the Ramon Crater National Park toward the Makhmal valley. It’s easy to find the oil pipeline here: It stands out in the landscape and is well marked with signs. A little more than a meter in diameter, it is embedded 1.5 meters below ground, but its route is clearly marked to ensure that the expensive asset is not damaged.

When we reach the top of the steep Noah’s Ascent, from which the Ramon Crater looks like a handsome carpet unrolled at the foot of Mount Ardon, Limon explains that “the oil pipeline route provides us with a genuine desert adventure deep inside Israel. In the section north of here the route is actually a scar in the landscape, but it’s also an asset. An important tourism opportunity has been created here, which has not been exploited until now. The route is hard to traverse, it’s true, but if we follow it, we can get to places we wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. The Israel Trail passes over this section, parallel to the pipeline route. On one side [to the west] is a nature reserve that used as an army firing range, on the other side there’s a nature reserve without a firing range.”

Limon is cautious about what he says. Until recently, there was little demand for hiking in the area, but things are changing, he explains. In his view, the time has come to plan and develp infrastructure in the area that will make hiking possible. Passage is difficult, he emphasizes; only 4x4 vehicles with expert drivers can navigate the obstacles found along the route, but even so the temptation is great and the landscapes are striking and alluring. Vistas like these, where one can breathe everything in so deeply, are rare in Israel.

“There are a series of ancient ascents here, such as Makhmal, Sharav, Nahash Tzameh [Thirsty Snake] and Zik,” says Limon enthusiastically. “They all served the area’s residents in the post-Nabatean period [post-5th century C.E.]. There are remnants here of an ancient settlement, springs and oases. From here you can see the land of craters in all its glory.”

The advantage of the pipeline route, he adds, is that all the parts we are traveling along were carved out for the purpose of creating infrastructure for the oil pipeline – that is, not for hikers. They already exist in any case; no trails had to be forged expressly for hikers and that pleases Limon. Of course he is also cognizant of the fact that this beauty can easily be destroyed and reiterates that the whole area requires cautious and carefully thought-out development.

A damaged part of the pipeline near the Zin Valley Nature Reserve, in 2011.
A damaged part of the pipeline near the Zin Valley Nature Reserve, in 2011.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

From the top of Noah’s Ascent, to the crater’s northeast, we travel three kilometers west, cross the Israel Trail and connect with the oil route (which climbs and leaves the Ramon Crater near a steep wall at the Makhmal Ascent). We pass the Hava Creek channel, observe the Hatira strata from afar and arrive excitedly at a clearing that overlooks the entire Zin Valley. Opposite us are two openings in the cliff, among the main reasons we traveled this excruciating route: the so-called Thirsty Snake Reservoirs, named after the trail that climbs up from valley.

EAPC’s disasters

This is the right moment to introduce EAPC. Once that was the acronym for the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, but since 2017 the letters have stood for the Europe Asia Pipeline Company. It’s hard to believe, but until three years ago this company was legally still under joint Iranian-Israeli ownership. International mediation proceedings over billions of dollars in compensation, which we will apparently have to pay the Iranians, continue in Switzerland, but the company’s latest iteration is wholly Israeli – a private firm under government ownership. EAPC even has a well-designed website (in Hebrew, English, Russian and Chinese), which explains that it operates three pipelines for crude oil and another for refined petroleum products.

We are traveling along a central section of the 254 km.-long line. Built in 1968, it runs between Eilat on the Red Sea and Ashkelon on the Mediterranean. The larger pipeline, slightly more than a meter in diameter (42 inches), carries the crude; another pipeline, 36 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter, transports the petroleum products. Both are buried in the ground parallel to the route we traveled, and are noticeable only thanks to mounds of dirt and the yellow signs. Following the completion of EAPC’s Reverse Flow Project in 2003, oil can also be pumped from north to south, thereby doubling its capacity.

The company’s activities are deemed highly sensitive today and classified as top-secret. Nonetheless, in the wake of a High Court of Justice petition filed by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense following a 2014 oil spill from the EAPC pipeline, some details relating to its business license, environment quality provisions, and planning and construction were declassified.

Thirsty Snake Reservoirs southeast of Avdat.
Thirsty Snake Reservoirs southeast of Avdat.Credit: Adam Selah

EAPC has a long history of environmentally damaging oil spills in the country’s southern part. As early as 1975 there was a serious one near the Evrona Nature Reserve. In 2011, two similar incidents occurred in the Zin Valley, when the pipeline was damaged by a backhoe loader: Some 722,000 liters (191,000 U.S. liquid gallons) of jet fuel burst out of the pipeline at high velocity, contaminating the Zin Valley Nature Reserve and its hiking trails. Three years after that came the most famous spill, when five million liters of crude leaked out of the pipeline near the community of Be’er Ora in the southern Negev. The oil flowed into the adjacent Evrona reserve, causing massive damage to flora and fauna. It was one of Israel’s most serious environmental disasters of all time.

Smell of uranium

Before we hike into the Thirsty Snake Reservoirs above the Zin Valley, Limon warns that the site is not recommended for visitors because there is a danger of collapse. Nevertheless, the two openings that lead to the huge reservoirs can be accessed. Flashlights are needed, as both tunnels leading toward the reservoirs are completely dark.

The right tunnel, the smaller of the two, is built as a long corridor from which small spaces open up on both sides. Remnants of a heavy steel door embedded in concrete are visible at the entrance. Some of the side chambers also have steel doors. A pungent smell of petroleum hangs in the air.

The left tunnel is much higher – 50 meters high at its peak. It’s a vast, impressive space, 300 meters long, with no chambers leading off from the sides. At its end, two large, square spaces loom, each about 50x50x50 meters. Signs of quarrying are clearly visible on the white walls, which have not been treated with sealants or plastered. There is no smell of petroleum in this space.

The Makhmal Ascent that leads north through the Ramon Crater's cliff.
The Makhmal Ascent that leads north through the Ramon Crater's cliff.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The tunnels and reservoirs were originally dug into the limestone in the mid-1970s. The standard explanation is that the Israeli leadership decided to prepare for the energy crisis by storing oil that would arrive via the pipeline from Eilat. Another version is that this was another of the immense projects conceived by Shimon Peres in that period. Another of his projects is still in operation today, around 40 kilometers from here, near the Little Crater.

At any rate, according to the conventional explanation, the two reservoirs were intended to store oil, but the viscous black liquid didn’t cooperate – it leaked out through cracks in the rock and disappeared. So the gigantic spaces above the Zin Valley apparently never served the purpose for which they were created. The thirsty snake drank up the oil. Chalk up another spectacular snafu in the Israeli oil saga.

It’s said that during the Gulf War, the Israel Air Force used these cavernous spaces in training exercises preparing them to fire at Saddam Hussein’s bunkers in Iraq. That’s why the steel doors were breached. Another theory (which appears on the amudanan.co.il website and elsewhere) maintains that the reservoirs were not intended to store oil but to hold uranium that was seized as part of some secret operation, in an isolated location in the Negev.

Last week, the reservoirs looked completely empty, devoid of any signs of humanity or importance. I have no idea whether uranium has a smell but the view of the Zin Valley is incandescent and marvelous.

The pipeline route continues northward to the Zik Ascent, which is almost totally impassable, extremely steep and best avoided when descending, as well. To its west, along the Israel Trail route, lies Ein Shaviv and, a bit to its north, Ein Zik, two beautiful, green oases with palm trees and thick vegetation. To the east is an archaeological site also known as Ein Zik, former home of one of the largest settlements of the Middle Bronze Age in the Negev, dating to about 4,000 years ago. Ten kilometers northward, the route eventually reaches Sde Boker.

The oil pipeline doesn’t end here, of course. According to the map on the EAPC site, it proceeds north to Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, then to Be’er Sheva and from there westward to Ashkelon.

Asked to comment on the pipeline trail, an EAPC spokesperson made the following statement to Haaretz: “EAPC is committed to safeguarding the values of nature and the environment, and within this framework the company advocates and encourages the advancement and development of tourism and hiking in Israel. The company will be pleased if the route described in the article is developed and made accessible for the benefit of the Israeli public that hikes in the Negev.”

Is this what the coming of the Messianic age looks like?