Latest Wrinkle in Israeli Tourism: Bat-spotting

Cool caves in hot summer are the perfect venue to admire the charms of these unique flying mammals

I can hear the flap of small wings a few inches above my head. I think I see some bats, but I'm not sure. No doubt I heard them earlier. Hundreds of them, making noises in a pitch black cave.

The Twins Cave, not far from Beit Shemesh, is home to many bats - but they are not easily seen in the darkness. You can hear their voices, the flutter of wings in the air, and it leaves no doubt that this is the home of hundreds of the creatures, equipped by nature to be heard and not seen.

Bats have a bad reputation. They are commonly thought of as causing damage, and as scary animals from which you should to keep a distance. But a brief discussion, held under the shade of the trees at Ein Hemed National Park, with Dr. Noam Lidar, chief ecologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, puts this haunting view of bats in perspective, and his words stimulate my desire to actually see these creatures.

He argues that bats contribute more positively to their surroundings than most other animals, and that we display a lack of gratitude toward them - in fact, humans have put bats on the brink of extinction. There are 33 types of bats in Israel, Lidar says, and they constitute a third of all small mammals to be found in the country today. Almost all types of bats face the danger of extinction. Megabats, which eat fruit and are also known as fruit bats, are responsible for the creatures' bad reputation.

The other 32 types feed on insects, and we have a strong interest in protecting them. A bat that weighs five grams can eat a thousand mosquitoes in a single night of culinary delight. Ridding ourselves of mosquitoes by this natural process is better than using expensive, damaging insecticide sprays.

The reason that bats face extinction stems from a mistaken approach deployed in the 1960s, when efforts were made to exterminate the bat population by using sprays, and smoking them out of caves, Lidar explains. The fact that bats are mammals just as we are is thought provoking. Lidar enthusiastically supplies a list of other intriguing bat facts: They are the only flying mammals in the world (there is a kind of squirrel that knows how to glide in the air, but not to actually fly ); most bats are the size of a matchbox; they have a stunning ability to navigate by using sonar, overcoming their poor vision (Lidar insists that bats are not blind ); and, Lidar claims, bats have soft fur that is pleasant to stroke.

Roosting on trees

A group of religious Jewish girls and a class of Arab-speaking youngsters are paddling in water and rambling about on the grass. The proximity of the Ein Hemed National Park to Route 1 - one of Israel's noisiest thoroughfares - is remarkable.

One minute after pulling off this busy road you can sit in the shade of a huge maple tree. There used to be much more water at this site. There is water in Ein Hemed's main pool - the pool that gives the park the Latin name by which it is also known, Aqua Bella, but it is no longer natural spring water.

Three years ago, the last well at the site dried up. Since then, workers from the Nature and Parks Authority have been bringing water to the site's pools via artificial means. Yoav Greenberg, the park's director, explains that staff operate a pump that brings water from a reservoir of rainwater, as well as water from springs in the outlying area.

It's worth taking a stroll through this small park, to reach its lowest point. The maple trees that grow here, on the ridge of the stream, are quite large. They provide shade and also draw the eye to the large Crusader structure that has been standing here since the 13th century.

Unlike other sites in Israel, this is not a Crusader fortress. Ein Hemed is a low site, built up around the Kislon Stream - not the sort of place in which the Crusaders found cause to build a fortress. The two-story structure served to protect a farm area. A decorated gate leads to a central courtyard, alongside which stand two large halls that remain cool even on hot summer days. Ein Hemed is home to quite a few bats. In the past, bat roosts could even be seen on trees at the site. Lidar concurs that anyone who wants to see Israel's largest concentrations of bats needs to go to caves, but as an ecologist he is loathe to recommend excursions to bat colonies (these cave colonies are closed off during winter months, when the bats hibernate, and were opened just a few weeks ago ).

The park is reached by leaving Route 1 (the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road ) at the Hemed junction, between the Shoresh and Mevaseret Zion junctions. After a few dozens meters, turn south. The park is 10 minutes from Jerusalem. On a day when traffic actually flows, you can reach it after a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv.

Descending into the cave

At the entry to the Twins Cave I am reminded of Lidar's remark that Israel is heaven for people who like bats. The noisy din caused by these flying mammals destroys the reputation bats have as being retiring animals that hide themselves away. They have a lot to say and, somewhat surprisingly, they manage to overcome the cries and squeals made by children who are descending into the cave ahead of me.

The cave's name derives from a legend about an infertile woman who descended into it and drank water from a well at its bottom, and nine months later gave birth to twins. There are also tales about ghosts and spirits in the cave. Descending inside you can see a few stalagmites and stalactites, and when your eyes adjust to the darkness you can identify the bats. They hang from the ceiling and from ledges in the cave walls. Most are tiny and pleasing in appearance.

They seem a little dazed by the visitors who have dropped by without giving any advance notice. The Twins Cave is located two kilometers east of Moshav Zanoah. Travel on Route 38. At the north entrance to Beit Shemesh, turn in the direction of the town's industrial zone and continue for a mile along Yigal Allon Boulevard. Turn right, and continue two miles until you see a brown sign pointing to the left. A dirt road continues a quarter mile, and reaches a parking lot. From the lot, you'll see a route marked in red. The half-mile walk takes about 15 minutes.

A green sign points to the cave and you have to climb a few stairs to reach it. The cave is closed to visitors between November and April. Bring a small flashlight - the cave is pitch black. Where else to go Lidar explains that the Nature and Parks Authority has collaborated with the Defense Ministry to classify a number of deserted Israel Defense Forces bases in the Jordan Valley as bat sanctuaries.

Tel Aviv University researchers discovered that the bases have hosted large bat populations in recent years, with no less than 12 kinds of bats dwelling in them. Until these former IDF bases become properly converted bat ranches, you can find bat populations at a number of caves around the country.

The Twins Cave hosts one of the largest bat colonies in Israel, but bats can be found at a number of other caves. The Alma Cave, in the Galilee, is one of the deepest in the country, and hosts thousands of bats. The cave is hard to reach, and a visit is recommended primarily for adventurers who enjoy trekking to remote and inaccessible sites. Travel on Route 85 (the Acre-Safed road ) up to the Hananya junction. Turn onto Route 866 and continue toward Safed and Kiryat Shmona.

When you reach the Rihaniya village, turn right (the village is to your left ), and follow the red markers for a mile. To reach the cave, walk about three quarters of a mile. The Sarakh Cave is a small cave in the western Galilee. The tour along the Sarakh River lasts about four hours, and the visit to the cave lasts half an hour. Travel north on Route 70 and turn left and then right at the Ahihud junction. Around Shlomi, the road becomes Route 899. After you pass Moshav Goren, turn left and follow the Sarakh River before reaching a parking area.

The Berenice Cave, in the Berenice Cliffs reserve, is located southwest of the old cemetery in the city of Tiberias. There are 80 rooms carved into the rock of the cave, which stretches for 500 meters. The Oranit Cave, on the Carmel, is an accessible, pleasant cave. Travel on Route 4 (the old Haifa-Tel Aviv road ) to the southern entrance of Tirat Carmel. Continue half a mile up to the third traffic circle, and turn right and then left. After the police station, stop at a designated parking area.

Moshe Gilad