Next to the word “remote” in the dictionary is probably a picture of Mitzpe Azuz, the tiny community in southwestern Negev. It’s so out of the way that, to get there, you'll pass through three categories of roads – the single-digit main highway (4), the two-digit regional road (40) and the three-digit pass (211) – to get to your destination. And take note: Your last chance to refuel will be at the Mashabim Junction gas station about 20 kilometers to the north.
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But what masquerades as a mere dot on the map at the literal end of the road has become one of Israel's premier ecotourism centers, a great place for at least a two-day tour of the pristine scenery and sites of the southwestern Negev.
You may be down to tertiary level road-numbering in modern Israel, but in ancient times this was the highway – the Incense Route, which brought the riches of Arabia across the Negev to Mediterranean ports (occasionally also referred to as the Spice Route). Later, the descendants of the Nabateans, who plied this route with their caravans, settled down and became farmers – in fact, they inspired David Ben-Gurion to urge people to move to the Negev, as he did himself, and make it bloom in an if-they-can-do-it-we-can-do-it kind of way.
The best-known of the ancient Nabatean cities (all of which, along with the Incense Route itself, is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites) are Avdat and Mamshit, further north. But the ones along road 211 – Shivta and Nitzana – are just as fascinating, revealing remains of churches, well-planned city streets and agricultural installations. Nitzana also has an ecological village, recycling center, solar energy park and an “outward-bound” type residential school.
You can visit these sites on your way down to Mitzpe Azuz and spend the night.
Eventually, you’ll come to the 14-family community of Mitzpe Azuz after passing the remains of the old Turkish railway station built to ease the German army’s way into Israel from Egypt. Consider a late afternoon respite in the shady eucalyptus grove at the Be’erotayim picnic area. Even if you’ve come without supplies, you can pick up what you need at the kiosk at the entrance, opt for a light meal at Eyal’s cafe, or purchase a jab of fresh labaneh, made with goat cheese, at Dror and Celia’s house. You’ll also find bed-and-breakfast accommodations at Mitzpe Azuz.
Be’erotayim means “two wells” and according to Bedouin legend, the two wells at this site were named after Moses and Aaron. The spies that Moses sent out from Kadesh Barnea (Deut. 1:22, Num. 32:8), now across the border in Egypt, near the end of the Israelites’ 40-year desert wander, must have passed this very spot, a good thought to hold onto at Passover time.
About 1.5 kilometers from the picnic grove is Khan Be'erotayim, a desert inn made of adobe to blend beautifully into the surroundings and serve the owners’ eco-friendly philosophy. Electricity is solar, and runs the lights and other basics (no air-conditioning).The khan has double and family rooms and a handicapped accessible room as well as outdoor camping. A campfire is kept ablaze all night long with tea and coffee always on hand. Khan Be’erotayim offers excursions on foot and by camel, donkey, jeep and bicycle to all the most interesting sites and scenery in the area.
Shivta National Park: 057-7762173
Hours: Summer: 8 A.M.–5 P.M.; Winter 8 A.M. – 4 P.M. Fridays and holiday eves site closes one hour earlier than the above; last entry one hour before closing.
Nitzana; no entrance fee to antiquities; ecological visits and educational community: 08-6561314/08-6561411
Mitzpe Azuz community offices: 08-6555788
Hours: Sunday–Thursday 9 A.M. to 4 P.M., Friday 9 A.M.–11 A.M.
Khan Be’erotayim: 08-6555788