For a few brief, fleeting weeks each year in Israel, you could be forgiven for forgetting this little country is mostly desert.
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- Autumn flowers bloom in the Negev, water or not
In that very short season between Tu Bishvat, the Jewish equivalent of Arbor Day, and Passover (depending, of course, on what time of year the holiday happens to fall), the desert does something spectacular. It blooms.
It’s that period between early February and late March, when the usually dry soil has soaked up enough rainwater to begin sprouting some of the most beautiful wildflowers imaginable, so that while driving on Israel’s back roads, from a distance, it often appears as though large swaths of the countryside are covered in carpets of bright red, purple, pink, lavender and yellow. What with the Negev the hottest and driest part of the country, it is in this southern stretch where the wildflower season typically kicks off and where the annual Darom Adom (Hebrew for “Red South”) Festival – featuring cultural, culinary and sporting activities each weekend in February – is held.
For lack of a better term, we’ll call it “flower-watching” – that quintessential national pastime that gets Israelis out in droves this time of year to admire these spectacular bursts of color and to breathe in the fragrant air. Some prefer to do it on foot, some prefer to go by bike, and the lazy ones – who love their air-conditioning – simply cruise by in their cars.
But here’s the rub: No matter how they travel, everyone wants to do it. Which in a small country, with only one official day off a week, can create not only major congestion on the roads but also lots of human traffic out in the fields and on the trails, often spoiling the fun of spending a day out in nature.
Our plan to beat the masses involved starting early. We woke up and headed straight down to the Beeri Forest in the Besor region of the Western Negev, right near Kibbutz Beeri, which we were told was the best place this time of year to catch sight of massive beds of red anemones. Known as kalaniyot in Hebrew, from the Hebrew word kalah, meaning bride, these delicate blooms are not to be confused with the ubiquitous red poppies that begin budding slightly later in the season.
The two-hour drive was rather painless, allowing us to delude ourselves into thinking that perhaps our fellow countrymen had preferred to sleep in and catch the flowers later, beautiful as they may be. But then we arrived at the kibbutz parking lot, where it was quite clear that at least half the country had woken up with same brilliant idea.
We had decided in advance that rather than hike we’d bike through the nearby trails. Our big mistake, though, was not that we opted for biking but that we left our own bikes at home, and instead decided to rent some at a nearby shop. We don't have a bike rack for our car, but considering that each bike at the shop cost us NIS 70 to rent, in retrospect, we realized it would have made more sense to invest in a bike rack. The bikes we rented were also in pretty lousy shape, one even breaking down in the middle of our excursion. (The phone number we were given to call in case of such problems was constantly busy, so we ended up having to fix it on our own.)
The staff at the bike shop provided us with a map with three different routes and advised us, as we set out on our way, to avoid one in particular, the orange route, as it might be overly challenging for children. And so, we headed out, waiting to catch our first sight of the much anticipated anemone fields. When after about 30 minutes, all we had seen were fields of wheat and jojoba bushes – lovely, indeed, but nothing even remotely resembling the color red – the sense of disappointment among our group was already palpable. It was then that we decided to stop a young couple approaching us on a parallel route.
“Have you spotted any anemones?” we inquired of them.
“Yes, there are lots of them over there,” they said, pointing to an area way off our path. “You’ve got to get on the orange route.”
“But we were told not to.”
“Yes, so were we.”
So off we went, veering off the recommended route and onto the forbidden orange one. “What the heck,” the kids aptly pointed out. “Everyone breaks the rules in Israel.”
And it's good thing that we did. Within minutes of riding on what turned out to be not an especially difficult route, we came in full sight of the stunning anemone fields spread out before us. We immediately got off our bikes for the obligatory photos and closer views of these gorgeous flowers, being extremely careful not to step on any or give in to even the slightest temptation to pick one. (Israelis may be notorious for breaking every other rule but not the sacred rule that prohibits picking wild flowers.)
Not only were we finally able to feast our eyes on this bright red wonderland, but suddenly, we also found ourselves pretty much on our own – not forced to share this gorgeous scenery with anyone else (for a change, some people in this country must have been following the rules, and therefore, never made their way off the beaten track). Combined with the weather at this time of year in the Negev, which is nothing short of perfect, riding through those fields of anemones was absolutely exhilarating. Even for the kids – one of whom earlier in the day had wondered why we bothered taking the long drive, as it would have been so much easier looking at photos of the anemones on the Internet.
A few hours later, after we had returned the bikes and made our way back to the car, it was just that much easier to take in stride the latest news reports about heavy traffic jams on all roads leading north.
Check with the Habsor region website to find out the best places for flower-watching and related activities in the Western Negev: www.habsor.co.il
At the parking lot at the entrance to Beeri, you’ll find many food stands along with picnic tables where you can take a break before or after your hiking or biking activities.