Beyond Masada

Israel's Most Nerve-racking River Crossing Is Worth It

Don't let the 'welcome' sign frighten you. The 80-meter long bridge over the Besor River Valley is invigorating.

When you travel to the Negev lying westward of Be’er Sheva, you’re way off the beaten tourist track. But a day trip to these remote parts rewards in terms of ancient and modern history, as well as understanding Israel's world leadership in maximizing semi-desert conditions for agriculture.

Some two hours’ drive from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the typical entry point to the area is by Kibbutz Tze’elim, at the junction of Routes 222 and 234. Park, or disembark from Bus 30.

To the right is a structure that looks like a high-diving board. Step up to the top for a splendid view of the valley and course of the River Besor, which after heavy rains may include waterfowl and some oversized members of the crow family.

This is the start of the recently opened and fairly demanding mountain-bike route, which switchbacks 34 kilometers northward to Kibbutz Reim. Ahead, the small hill blocks the view of the bridge over the Besor River. The flowing water didn’t look drinkable at close quarters. Please bring a generous supply with you.

A 15-minute westward walk along the footpath emerges at the rope bridge over the deep-gorged Besor River. This is the high point of the visit – for the children, anyway.

From a distance, it looks like a very wide tightrope. On closer inspection, it turns into an 80-meter-long suspension bridge, held together with metal cables and floored with wooden planks. The pedestrian-only narrowness makes it seem a lot longer than it is. The children in particular will like the way the bridge gently sways as they run to and fro.

Those with vertigo are warned. Fear tends to set in only at about halfway, as the floor starts to move a little, beyond the point of no return. Strangely, the journey back seems more fearsome as the gorge’s depths open out in more spine-chilling fashion. Just look ahead and stride smartly to the bridge’s exit arch.

Besor Bridge seems to go from nowhere to nowhere. Built in 1995, it is not clear why the rope-suspension crossing was put up in the first place, other than to afford pleasure and photo opportunities to visitors.

Don't let that 'welcome' scare you

Its welcome notice is a little grim: “Use of the bridge is the sole responsibility of the user” and “Do not rock the bridge” hardly reassure when it is actually your weight that’s swaying the thing about.

If you have time, cycle or jeep northward along the wide track through the Eshkol National Park. Allow a comfortable three hours, and don’t be caught out in the dark. It comes out 20 kilometers later on route 241, near Kibbutz Urim.

This sometimes flat, sometimes rolling semi-desert expanse between Be'er Sheva and Gaza is a good candidate for the part of Israel that's least seen by tourists. Even our patriarchs Abraham and Isaac found themselves only in the area for a short time due to destructive conditions further east. Both successfully cultivated the area by successfully tapping underground sources, facing local jealous wrath (Genesis, 21:25-26; 27:14-22). This was also the training ground of King David in his defeat of the Amalekites, who had kidnapped members of his close family (Samuel I 30:9-10).

More recently, the physical geography of the Besor Valley made it possible for ANZAC-mounted troops (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) of the British Army to circle the region under cover and make a surprise and successful attack on the Ottoman stronghold of Tel Be'er Sheva from the least-expected southern direction, in the spring of 1917.

A short but rewarding detour signposted about halfway along the track leads to the Revuva Well, which indicates their likely drinking supply.

The Antipodean connection is maintained to this day. The covered route of their detour and their charge on Be'er Sheva is a still annually celebrated milestone in Australian military history. And today’s recently constructed Besor Reservoir – easily viewable from the track – has been made possible with substantial aid from the Jewish National Fund of Australia.

Cultivated for grain over the last five millennia, its harsh but thick brown-yellow loessial (desert dust-based) soils have more recently been applied to the growing of olives and citrus fruits, many of which flank the western side of the track.

Entry is strictly forbidden, reinforced by a well-arranged army of tall cacti standing at perpetual attention. Though orchards today are sustained with recycled water passing through red-painted pipes viewable on the route, they also rely on the underground water, which is distinctly saline.

Vineyards are also newcomers to the area. The scientific crossbreeding of several types of grapes have produced strains which are not only compatible with saltwater, but, paradoxically, taste all the sweeter because of the salt.

On the downside, the heavy utilization of soil needs to be balanced with fast replanting, as the current season’s high rainfall caused severe erosion of recently harvested areas that lacked plant roots to consolidate the earth.

You will notice this as you make the final detour at the end, to negotiate the badly eroded tributary valleys near Ein Habesor onto Route 241, turning right in completing your visit homeward-bound toward Ofakim and Be'er Sheva.

To get there: By road: the lookout post and start of the mountain-bike trail is close to the junction of routes 222 and 234. You may continue westward along 222 for a few hundred meters and follow the signpost to the Besor Bridge. By bus: Line 30 from Be'er Sheva Central Bus Station. If returning from Ein Habesor, turn right along route 241 and walk two kilometers for the return 35 bus to Be'er Sheva. Entry is free.

Jacob Solomon