Magical Mystery Tour: Twelve Hours in Israel's Sahara Desert

Summertime and the living is easy in the hottest part of the country, as long as you pick the right hour to explore the dunes.

The only way to survive this terribly hot season is to take trips in the evening, during the hours when the sun is no longer beating down, or by moonlight. There is a good two to three hours around sunset the best part of the day. There’s also a good window between 6 and 9 A.M., and that also holds true for the Arava, one of the hottest regions in Israel.

At 6:30 P.M., a cool, pleasant breeze picks up unexpectedly. Udi Pinsk of Kibbutz Elifaz near Timna drives slowly between long lines of date palms and solar panels east of the Arava highway. “The date palms are the hit right now and bring in revenue. Solar panels for producing electricity are the future,” Udi tells me. “Every date palm brings in NIS 3,000 per year to the people who raise it.” Even before I manage to multiply the number of trees by the price of date palms, we reach the perfect Sands of Samar, and all trifles are completely forgotten.

The Sands of Samar are the last significant sand dunes left in the southern Arava. Almost all the other dunes, which were created by the erosion of sandstone in the Timna Valley and the carrying of the sand to the center of the Arava, have already been dug out and used, and are gone. The public fight to save the Sands of Samar failed. I admit that at the time, 300 kilometers north of here, it sounded distant and less critical than other struggles. A contractor from Eilat, with encouragement from the Israel Lands Administration, wants to dig sand in the Arava. What can we do? When we reached the Sands of Samar one evening last week, I realized how stupid that train of thought had been.

At 10 meters, the long dune is not particularly high, though it is beautiful, smooth as a baby’s skin, with round, pleasant shapes. A few bushes poking up from the sands give it an interesting look. The evening turns the colors a muted shade of orange and create a feeling of serenity. The idea of digging up this sand and transporting it to a construction site in Eilat sounds unrealistic and idiotic. In the section we visited, near the entrance to Timna, no signs of digging can be seen. Udi Pinsk says that it is happening very slowly, in small amounts to the south. Perhaps that’s meant to calm me down, but once I’ve fallen in love with the dune, any harm to it sounds to me like an act of senseless violence.

The sun sets, and we cross the Arava highway and enter Timna Park. It’s a bit strange to visit this geological park in the evening. Darkness falls, and what can be seen is no longer up to us, but up to whomever planned the lighting in the park. As is natural and expected, the main attractions are the ones that are lit up. Solomon’s Pillars are dramatically lit, making them look more fascinating and mysterious in appearance than they do during the bright noon hours. The shrine of Hathor to the right of the pillars is also well lit. It feels eerie as silhouettes of figures, projected on the nearby rock walls, lend the drama even more power. Enormous silhouettes of human and animal figures hover and move upon the mountains. While they are connected to the story of this place, the fine boundary between good lighting of geologic formations (at Solomon’s Pillars) and a kind of Disneyland is crossed when the light artist invents figures and stories that are not part of the area.

Assaf Holzer of Kibbutz Samar picks me up from Ketura at 6:00 A.M. on the dot. The sun comes up a few minutes above the mountains of Edom a few minutes later. We drive north to the lookout point at the summit of Har Ayit (“eagle mountain”). This isn’t the right time because the sun is glaring right into our eyes, but from the top of the mountain, 350 meters above everything else, we can see the large expanses of the Arava, the remaining few sand dunes in front of us, and on the Jordanian side, the Shayarot Cliffs nature reserve which stretches right up to the border . It’s easy to reach the top of Har Ayit, and from here you can see the entire area. Coming from the west, with the sun at your back, will give you an excellent introduction to the Arava.

Among Israel’s top ten

Nothing has prepared me for my encounter with the Kasui sand dunes. I’ve never been here before, and Holzer smiles when he sees how surprised I am. The Kasui sand dunes alone are worth the trip to the Arava, and now they have a place of honor on my list of Israel’s 10 most beautiful places. This is a large sand dune, about 40 meters high, with fine, soft sand that is white and yellowish. This is exactly what photographs of the Sahara Desert look like (not that I’ve been there, either). We climb to the top of the dune, panting with the effort, and smiling happily at the view. It’s 7:00 AM, not yet hot, and the gorgeous view does our hearts good.

The Kasui sand dunes are made up of “internal sand” that comes from nearby. The rocks are eroded in the annual floods that wash the area. The sand is later picked up by the winds that concentrate it in the eastern Uvda Valley. From the top of the dune, we make our way down the slope in giant leaps, waving our hands like little kids. Grains of sand from the dune stayed with me all day, peeking out of the folds of my clothing, my shoes, my hair. Right after we descended, I looked behind me and saw that the dune was completely smooth. The tracks we’d left had vanished. The local wind had already ironed the sand smooth. Near the dune is a camping site where people can spend the night (for free).

The researchers, headed by Dr. Uzi Avner, claim that the Leopard Temple is a remnant of the culture that existed here roughly 7,000 years ago. Even if we set that amazing number aside, the site is still fascinating. It has a square of stones with 17 small stone monuments, and inside a larger square are six round altars. From the east, the stones create the appearance of animals, most of them leopards. The site has generated a good deal of curiosity. Who could survive in the difficult conditions here? What they did they live on, and what did they do here?

From here we continued on to Ma’aleh Shaharut, which once boasted a wonderful caravanserai that they have been promising to rebuild for some years now. This week, we saw some work being done and a construction crane, but no caravanserai just yet.

A regional lookout

By now it’s pretty hot, and we choose the short path — about 15 minutes of walking from the car to the heart of the Red Canyon. Holzer tells me that this is Nubian sandstone, and that the red color comes from iron oxide. The great advantage of this path (marked in green) is that the high walls of the canyon, into which we’re descending, provide shade and a pleasant coolness right into the late morning. On one curve, we meet two young people from Eilat who are training in rock-climbing. Just after we arrive, they say it’s already too hot and they’re tired, and they start packing up.

We travel south on Route 12 to Mount Yoash. When we stand at the summit, 700 meters above sea level, we get a wonderful view of the mountains of Eilat and the Egyptian side of the border. In the past, this spot was known as “The Four Countries,” since Jordan and Saudi Arabia can also be seen from here, but in the haze before noon there is no sense in developing such high expectations. The last surprise of the morning comes a little later, at the southern part of Nahal Shlomo, whose channel leads to Eilat. A large family of ibexes looks at us wonderingly, bite off a few more leaves from the acacia tree and leap down the slope to the streambed.

Moshe Gilad