The Dark, Muddy World of Israel's Extreme Cavers

I figured it would be a gentlemanly outing, where you casually discover buried treasure or a cool skull, without messing up your hair. So I joined a group of Israeli cavers for a day. Boy, was I wrong

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The entrance to the Ein Tzabarin cave.
The entrance to the Ein Tzabarin cave. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Cavers in Israel are a small group. A few dozen fanatics who devote time, usually voluntarily, to exploring a dark and weird world. But the achievements of the caving community are in inverse proportion to its size. For example, last year the Israel Cave Explorers Club participated in an international expedition, led by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which mapped the Malham Cave near Mount Sodom at the Dead Sea. They discovered that Malham is the longest salt cave in the world, extending 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). The media lapped all this up, because before that the No. 1 cave was in Iran. Our cavers can also be credited with discovering certain archaeological treasures, which survived for thousands of years thanks to the wondrous preservative qualities of caves.

Convinced that I would find buried treasure, or at least a cool skull, I joined the monthly outing of the explorers club, some of whose members two weeks ago wormed their way into a subterranean Roman-period tunnel that carried water to the Caesarea aqueduct. In many senses it wasn’t a typical cavers’ excursion, because this wasn’t a natural cave. Still, the trip allowed me to meet some affable spelunkers and to become acquainted with an underground world that I had to date neglected in my global forays.

I somehow missed a glaring warning sign that indicated that I wasn’t suited for this adventure: Being at the meeting point – an obscure intersection next to Moshav Aviel near Zichron Yaakov – at the prescribed time of 6:30 A.M., meant getting up at 5. Certain that this inhuman hour was some sort of a fiction, I allowed myself to be 10 minutes late. But so eager are the cavers to get down to it that they all showed up early. I was the last to arrive. Still, none of the 20 participants (each of whom paid 150 shekels, or about $45 for a half-day trip) reproached me. Possessing the ability to spend long hours in dark subterranean spaces, these are pretty patient folks.

From the meeting point to the first stop on our outing I rode along with Yoav Rofe, 45, who developed the Israeli interactive hiking-map app Amud Anan and calls himself a “cave rat,” and with the organizer of the outing and founder of the club, Yoav Negev. Negev, 42, is also one of the leading lights of the organization (one of two such groups in the country), whose members assist with research and other activities (the goal, says the club’s English website, is “to take responsibility and lead projects for the benefit of the community such as cave cleaning, route marking and other cave-related educational activities”). He is also a member of Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center.

Like the Israeli left, the world of caves doesn’t encompass a lot of people but offers lots of organizations to choose from. From time to time, Rofe came over and gave me various tips. For example, he suggested that I ask about the ticks that carry the cave fever bacterium. He also raised the issue of the secrecy that characterizes the world of spelunkers.

Members of the Israel Cave Explorers Club, taking a break. "There's no substitute for the quiet you get when you’re down below for five-six hours,” says Ravitzky.
Members of the Israel Cave Explorers Club, taking a break. "There's no substitute for the quiet you get when you’re down below for five-six hours,” says Ravitzky.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“There are outings,” he said, “in which we are requested not to post the cave’s location on the Amud Anan app, for reasons of nature preservation. It’s not from egoism, but due to the fear of damaging the caves. One time I saw someone who destroyed a stalactite. He photographed it and afterward broke it by accident. I didn’t say a word.”

Another surprising caver I made friends with is Miki Gardosh, a 62-year-old geologist who heads the geophysical unit in the Ministry of Energy. Gardosh is also the son of the late great cartoonist Dosh (Kariel Gardosh), creator of the iconic Srulik character. His father, Gardosh said, was by no means a lover of caves, but rather a “nerd from Budapest.”

So caves are your rebellion against Dad?

Gardosh: “Something like that. For me it’s a world of mystery. Above, everything is well known to people, so all that’s left is below. It’s a return to the womb, to a secure place. On the other hand, in the dark everything is unknown. You don’t know what you will discover just meters ahead.”

Our first stop was the Ein Tzabarin springs, adjacent to the abandoned Palestinian village of Sabbarin, south of Haifa, which had a population of 2,000 before 1948. Below the Roman well, on the southern side, was a small opening, which was blocked by roots and looked impassable. Opposite it was an opening 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) high where you could walk in, hunched over. I waited for some of the group to enter the northern entrance and come out alive before plucking up the courage to enter.

The entrance to the Ein Tzabarin cave. “A cave is a sensitive environment that does not tolerate the penetration of life. It's not an environment that is fond of visitors,” Yoav Negev says.
The entrance to the Ein Tzabarin cave. “A cave is a sensitive environment that does not tolerate the penetration of life. It's not an environment that is fond of visitors,” Yoav Negev says. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

It was delightful to splash about in the shallow water of a tunnel dug 1,900 years ago, during the reign of Hadrian, an emperor we are not overly fond of. I strolled calmly in the dark for a few dozen meters, feeling momentarily like a true caver. When the others who had reached the end started to return, I was able to scrunch up along the wall of the narrow passageway, let them pass and go on, but I decided that there was no real point in making it to the end. Everything looks the same in the dark. Roman, sure, but hey, it’s just a tunnel.

I went back outside into the pleasant sunlight with the group. I was surprised to find that some of them found it enjoyable to crawl into the low, narrow opening on the other side of the well, where you had to lie on your stomach in the mud to enter. I didn’t even consider entertaining that idea, but every caver who went in emerged with eyes shining.

‘I feel euphoric’

Only three women took part in the outing. One was Ukraine-born Irina Farhi, 62, whose surname comes from her Bulgarian ex. Farhi, who has been doing caves for 20 years, is a safety officer by profession.

“I have always been attracted by adventures,” she explained in an indifferent tone of voice. “At work, too, I’m used to being the only woman in every forum. I also do a lot of other crazy things – surfing, mountain biking, alpine climbing. I’m drawn to everything extreme and dangerous. I feel euphoric when I get back. It must involve the same biological materials as drugs and sex. I started it all after the age of 40 and find that it’s getting even more intense as I get older.”

Irina Farhi. "I feel euphoric when I get back."
Irina Farhi. "I feel euphoric when I get back."Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

How does that fit with your being a safety official?

Farhi: “There is a contradiction there – that’s the beauty of it.”

It was hinted to me that there’s an issue with ticks that carry cave fever.

“One time I was bitten really badly, but it’s not so awful. You get a prescription. I once came out of a cave bitten all over, and I was flying abroad the next day. I took a pill and left with no problem.”

What’s attractive about all this?

“The moment you are exposed to so many dangers, you forget the chaos of everyday life.”

From the ruins of the Sabbarin well we went on to explore a series of shafts at Snunit Creek, separated from one another by 40 meters, by means of which the accursed Roman geniuses dug their subterranean tunnels. Before entering the shafts we sat in the shade to listen to a talk by Shuka Ravek, who is 89. In the 1980s, Ravek, a living legend with abundant discoveries and an abundant mustache to his credit, was involved in discovering a large number of the shafts through which we would sidle in order to then crawl in the Roman water tunnel. He was happy to share with us stories about how the shafts were initially discovered and cleaned out, and afterward did not conceal his disappointment that the younger generation – i.e., us – wanted to continue on to the next tunnel instead of looking for more undiscovered shafts to cleanse.

Ravek was accompanied by his right-hand man, Ido Salhouv, who’s 17 and a half and totally gung-ho about his upcoming army service. While we drove he simply ran behind the car to work on his body building.

Ravek has lost the passion for crawling about in caves. “At my age I don’t go below ground anymore. I leave that for the kids,” he admitted.

A man in a bush.
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Of the original discovery of the shafts here, during summer vacations in the 1980s, Ravek told us, “We descended into shaft No. 1. I told the kids, ‘Go to the right and go to the left, and see where the tunnel goes.’ In the meantime, I went down into shaft No. 2 and shouted. They dug in the direction of my voice until I saw the hand of a scrawny kid coming out of the mud. It was like birthing a calf. We opened seven shafts like that, no one paid us for it.”

It was a pleasure listening to Ravek, who occasionally burst into gales of laughter, but the other cavers were apparently fed up with breathing fresh air, being in the sun and treading on dry land – they wanted to get down and dirty in the muddy caves. For his part, Ravek got hold of a mattress and lay down beneath a bush, poring over a map, while the rest of us continued.

Horizontal outings

Salhouv tied the rope that would hold us to a dubious-looking iron post in a nearby vineyard, and the group started to descend into the depths, with me right behind them. I was panic-stricken, because I hate rappelling. Morally, I have two problems with rappelling: 1, I am an advocate of horizontal as opposed to vertical outings – I find the latter unnatural, a perversion; and 2, I’m a coward. In caves you use one rope, not two, so the rappelling makes you even more uptight. When I capriciously suggested writing this article, I figured that spelunking was a sort of gentlemanly pursuit where you comfortably stumble upon some ancient vase, without getting your hair mussed or ruining your clothes. But I was wrong.

Still, I yielded to the cavers’ collective pressure – they promised me it would be really fun – and I descended via the ropes seven meters down to the floor of the shaft. But then it turned out that the plan was to crawl in the mud. When Negev mentioned the outing would involve "getting muddied," I thought that meant stepping lightly into some soft mud. But I now found that cavers don’t make do with just walking through mud, which is acceptable: They are driven to slither in it, with their chins mired in the muck. I had reached my limit.

I climbed down, grabbing the ropes, scared and panting, trying not to slip. Afterward I asked one of the cavers whether the mission is always this tough. She thought I was putting her on: “Yes, this is an excellent outing for beginners.”

Absolutely not, this is the most dangerous, scariest and dirtiest hike I’ve ever been on.

Woman: “Yes, it’s marvelous for kids. I think I’ll bring my two young children here.”

People in a muddy cave.
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Children mustn’t come here. It will be the end of them.

“Yes, fine activity for beginning cavers.”

Yoav Negev, a software engineer who lives in Moshav Srigim, south of Beit Shemesh, admitted that most Israelis would not want to be cavers. “Few people are engaged in it, but I think that when it comes to being out in the field, caving is the most intriguing thing. The most interesting archaeological discoveries were made in caves, and caves also have the most unique landscapes.”

Some people aren’t wild about crawling around in the mud. I represent a large public, I would say.

Negev: “In Europe, it’s a legitimate sporting activity. In Israel, people ask me what possesses me to do it.”

Good question.

“It’s hard for me to explain the whole range of things that I get from this. A cave is a time capsule, it’s a protective system. It’s not by chance that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a cave. People think that early humans lived in caves, but they didn’t live there; it’s just that the relics are found there.”

There were no cavemen?

“No. The situation is just that the paintings and the bones were preserved in caves, whereas they didn’t survive outside. We have multiple projects. We’re always working on things. There is the Khirbet Midras survey [a site southwest of Beit Shemesh], the Kidron Valley survey [in Jerusalem], and recently we discovered the longest marl [lime-rich mudstone] cave in the world. But that didn’t become a media item, because there was no competition with the Iranians.”

Two men in murky waters.
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Yet there are only a few dozen caving devotees.

“I don’t want more. A cave is not a grove or a hill. It’s a sensitive environment that does not tolerate the penetration of life: The stalactites, the archaeological finds and the fauna will be harmed. Every person leaves an imprint, whether it’s footprints in mud or disturbing the bats. Someone wants his picture taken, and on the way wrecks a stalactite hundreds of thousands of years old with his helmet. Some people also take stalactites home. A cave is not an environment that is fond of visitors.”

‘Shadow people’

The Israel Cave Explorers Club was founded in the summer of 2014 by Negev and Boaz Langford, 32, from Moshav Har Amasa, near Arad. Over the past 15 years Langford has gone from amateur caving addict to becoming an official cave researcher; he’s now completing his doctoral studies in geology at the Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center, researching sediments in caves from millions of years ago.

“When I entered the field I was certain that everyone loved caves, like everyone loves springs or seashores,” Langford said sadly. “It took me a few years to understand that it’s not really so.”

Not really.

Langford: “The real stars in this field, by the way, are Vladi Boslov and Yura Lisovich. They discovered half the caves we know about in Israel, they are the shadow people who bring us great honor. They discover between 40 and 60 caves a year, meaning a cave a week. I am only following in their footsteps.”

I’d be happy to interview them.

“There’s no point; they hang up on reporters, they don’t want exposure. Vladi says, ‘What do I need that headache for, I need the time to go on searching.’ When a caver documents something, he feels that it’s the most important thing he could do with his time. We feel that we are saving the world. In Israel it’s a pioneering and bottomless field, in more than one sense. There are enough caves to be discovered for a few generations down the line. Just this year we discovered the largest marl cave in the world,” just south of the Dead Sea in Neot Hakikar.

A man climbs out from a cave.
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

No one is interested other than a few dozen cavers.

“You’re wrong. Interest is a function of public relations. The discovery is of tremendous importance. Phenomena associated with marl erosion are found on Mars, too. The implications are enormous. Some scientists are studying the cave we found to learn about Mars, with the aim of serving humanity, which is on a clear course to establishing a colony on Mars. We have planted a seed and we’ll see what comes up.”

Though Langford is a geologist, he made a chance archaeological discovery. “In 2009,” he recalled, “we passed by a shaft in the Teomim (Twins) Cave near Beit Shemesh. There was a report that it had a continuation. We crawled in with ropes and we saw something greenish. We pushed the mud aside and to our surprise we found treasures dating to the period of the Bar Kochba revolt [2nd century C.E.] including 124 gold coins and weapons, which had great research value.

“On another occasion we documented the Ashalim Cave [south of Be’er Sheva]. We worked for three days straight. On the last day people said that a small passageway remained. I stuck my head in and realized that I was holding a small goddess figurine in my hands. Usually one finds the head of a goddess made of copper; this time we found a complete body with a wooden pole. The head turned out to be made of lead. It’s the oldest lead object in the world – 8,000 years old.”

Did you get credit for it?

“It belongs to you as much as it does to me. We both share the same heritage.”

One of the best-known of the cavers is Udi Ravitzky, a 67-year old gas technician from Jerusalem. He has been injured while spelunking in 2016, but was rescued and has come back. He didn’t take part in our outing, because of an injury related to another hobby of his, cycling. I called him to ask why he’s drawn to caves. “It’s a world, a new world that exists on its own,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s history! It’s archaeology!”

How much does this hobby cost?

Ravitzky: “The outing and the insurance run to something like 400 shekels [$115] per trip. And you think that fuel is free? And you need special equipment. How are you going to go down into a cave that’s below the ground? You need ropes, all kinds of special anchor screws, and there are special courses to prepare you. You can’t descend a hundred meters just like that.”

A hundred meters? Sounds scary.

“It’s totally nerve-racking, ‘bro. It’s completely dark in the caves – not 100 percent dark but 110 percent dark, you don’t see a jot of light. I’ve been in several types of caves. For example, burial caves. The whole country is covered with Jewish burial caves. There are caves of refuge from Greek and Roman times, Bar-Kochba and so forth. There are caves with extensions…”

We walked in the water tunnels.

“I love natural caves, you go down very deep. There are stalactites there which you don’t see elsewhere. You need to be in good condition in order to climb up, climb down and turn over.”

Turn over!?

“Flexibility is important. Sometimes you enter a passageway, but on the way back you can’t get through it.”

One thing Ravitzky is proud of is a course in cave rescue that he took, which was organized by the cave club: “We’re the only ones in Israel who know how to rescue people from caves. Not even Unit 669 [the army’s heliborne combat search and rescue unit] knows how. But we are not recognized for it. It’s too bad the state doesn’t lend a hand to these things. No one pays attention to us. Like athletes, they call when you’ve done something respectable. When they need to put up money, they all run off. That’s Israel. But there is no substitute for the quiet you get when you’re down below for five-six hours.”

From the Snunit shafts we climb over a fence and proceed to the Aviel site, where we find the openings to four shafts; a fifth one is found along the dirt trail but can’t be opened. Ravek explained that there is another shaft on the other side of the path, behind a bush. Salhouv looks for it, but is unsuccessful. An argument breaks out about where it is. Shuka looks through the maps.

Mustering courage, I descend the shafts, holding the ropes but still slipping a little. All my internal organs remain intact. I decide to continue in the tunnel, but it turns out that more real crawling in the mud is in the cards. I curse the world of caving that toppled me into this pit. I could be sitting in a nice café now, completely dry. This isn’t for me. I crawl out and wait outside.

“Listen, caving is an itch,” Gardosh said. He went through most of the shafts this time but skipped the last one, access to which requires that you to lie on the ground with most of your face in the mud. “You’re constantly at war with yourself, how far to continue, how much to endanger yourself. I chickened out here. But now I’m tormenting myself somewhat for not doing it.”

Another caver, who navigated the last, dangerous shaft, summed up, “If my wife knew that I was going in and breathing by way of my only nostril that’s above the mud, she would never let me come here.”

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