Tourist Tip #381 / Don’t Mess With Flash Floods

Sudden torrents of water foaming through the desert is gorgeous. And mortally dangerous.

It’s hard to outrun nature.

The power of flood waters is right up there among the most awesome of the planet’s violent manifestations. The enormous tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 remains one of the biggest disasters ever recorded; but not a year goes by without land masses being lashed and islands engulfed by hurricanes and typhoons, rain-swollen rivers bursting their banks, and even the occasional ruptured dam pouring its wrath downstream.

Flash floods, typical of desert areas, are a different phenomenon. In extreme circumstances, you could be hiking in a canyon under a blue, cloudless sky – near the Dead Sea, for example – and yet be in unsuspected danger.

The process can begin with a remote cloudburst on the high slopes of the mountains to the west. Rocky stream-beds absorb little of the rushing run-off. Wadi flows into wadi, the radical drop in elevation gives it surge, and a torrent can emerge at the mouth of the canyon as a churning wave of water and stone. The concrete bridge over Ein Gedi’s Nahal Arugot was knocked out a few years ago by just such a flood.

The challenge of driving in flood conditions was borne out in the flooding of the Negev Desert in January 2010. The rains were unusually heavy and the flooding amazing. Spectacular video footage of miraculous waterfalls and rushing rivers in normally dry creeks was an irresistible attraction and an armada of nature-lovers and thrill-seekers crowded the highways to the south. Cautious drivers stopped early, when further progress was blocked by flooded roads.

The less cautious, mesmerized by the phenomenon perhaps, pushed further into the wet. Some, confident in their 4-wheel-drive off-road vehicles, lived to regret it. Air Force helicopters lifted most of the stranded motorists and hikers to safety - but one died in the flood-waters when her go-anywhere vehicle did.

There are too many unknowns when you try to drive down a flooded road (let alone wade it on foot):

How deep is the water? You may be driving or wading into a life-threatening situation.

How strong is the flow? The flow-force is notoriously unpredictable.

What is the condition of the road surface under the water? Potholes may develop as the asphalt crumbles under the assault of flood-driven rocks, creating an invisible trap.

Are there warnings about further, possibly very sudden, floods?

And if you go off-road, onto wet and constantly eroding mud-banks, the terrain becomes significantly more treacherous.

And for hikers in desert creeks and canyons, here are some bits of sage advice:

Listen to the local weather reports (have a friend translate the Hebrew if necessary). Rain predictions are sometimes followed by flood warnings for the Judean Desert and the Negev. Take them seriously.

Do not hike alone, and make sure others at home know where you are intending to hike. Be well-prepared with maps, detailed instructions, and/or (best of all) a companion who actually knows the route.

Make sure you have lots of water, some nutrition, a hat and good shoes.

Check the weather conditions with on-site experts who are responsible for nature reserves or run tours in the area.

In the Dead Sea area:

The Nature and Parks Authority at Ein Gedi: 08-658-4285

Ein Gedi Field School (SPNI): 08-658-4288

In the Negev:

The Nature and Parks Authority at Ein Avdat: 08-655-5684, 08-655-4418

Har Hanegev Field School (SPNI) at Mitzpe Ramon: 08-658-8615/6

Sometimes, though, the sudden appearance of water in the desert can be a blessing. In a biblical tale (2 Kings 3), the Kings of Israel, Judah and Edom march through the desert on the way to confronting Israel’s rebellious vassal, the King of Moab. They’re out of water and facing catastrophe, but the Prophet Elisha saves the day. A minstrel was brought to him, and “the power of the Lord” came upon the minstrel, who prophesied saying: “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will make this dry stream-bed full of pools… You shall not see wind or rain, but that stream-bed shall be filled with water.’” And so it was. Rivers in the desert. A biblical flash flood.

Ofer Vaknin
Itzik Ben Malki