There are literally hundreds of hikes that crisscross Israel, but the standout is the descent into Nahal Yehudia which is in the Golan Heights, not too far from the Lebanese border.
The full-day walk takes in an ancient Syrian village, plunging ladder descents, scales a few rock faces and has the constant respite of water.
As we’re driving past the Sea of Galilee, to where the hike starts, I find it hard to believe that this is the place where Jesus is said to have walked on water and turned a few measly fish into enough food to feed an army.
I also find out that the sea is actually a lake, incidentally the lowest in the world, and also Israel’s main source of drinking water.
About 20 minutes later we pull off Highway 87 and follow a trail with red and white arrows painted into the rock to mark the start of the Nahal Yehudia (in English, the Yehudia Valley).
Less than 100 metres later a deserted Syrian village of basalt fieldstones rises out of the rubble. Here history is done on a grand scale.
This village has been built upon the remains of an earlier Jewish town from the Roman-Byzantine period. Calm and serene, it’s hard to imagine the Golan Heights has had such a tumultuous history — since Biblical times it has been settled by the ancient Israelites, the Itureans (an Arab or Aramaic people), Arabs, the Ottoman Empire, the French, Syria and then most recently it was recaptured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967.
In every corner of this land, there has been some major religious or historical event.
Walking in Jerusalem’s Old City it’s almost comical to pass an unobtrusive little sign saying, “Mary’s house” (as in the Virgin Mary and where baby Jesus miraculously arrived); to visit the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven; and around the corner to step into the most holy place for Jewish people — the Western Wall.
Not too far after the ancient ruins at the start of the Nahal Yehudia trek, parched and rocky dry terrain gives way to greenness, as we descend into the wadi (valley).
Once the path meets the nasal (stream) it’s like we are in a different world. All of a sudden we are immersed in the shade of soaring date palms and bright pink oleander flowers.
The stream is a welcome escape from the blistering heat above. Here, summer temperatures (June to August) climb well into the 40s.
Just past a wall of pentagonal and hexagonal basalt pillars Yehudia Falls tumbles down from 20m above. It’s a surprising sight and hard to imagine so much water can be hidden here, when just a few hundred metres above, at the rim of the valley, the land is almost desert-like.
If there aren’t too many hikers jostling for space in the cool falls, this is a great place to take a dip. Either way, it’s worth stopping to change into shoes that can get wet as the rest of the hike (until the ascent is made out of the wadi) is along the stream.
There are also a number of places ahead where walkers need to hop from rock to rock or wade through shallow water.
Once at the second waterfall, which has to be scaled to get down, the real adventure begins. U-shaped handholds, which are wedged into the rock, help trekkers navigate along the slippery boulders.
The daredevils in my party leap off the top of the rocks into the pool below — just behind their double-bagged-up belongings, which are serendipitously tossed into the water as they jump. It’s worth noting, while this jump is a big feature of the hike, the Israel Tourism Office doesn’t recommended jumping off the rock face anymore as there have been several accidents.
I heard about a particularly unfortunate one when a teenage Israeli Defence Forces soldier drowned in the rock pool after jumping in with his M16 gun strapped to his back. Not taking any chances, I opt for a slow descent down the 8m ladder with my valuables slung over my shoulder in a garbage bag.
At the bottom there is no choice but to jump off the bottom rung and swim across the cool pool. It’s all slightly nerve-racking, but powering across the refreshing water, it’s impossible not to feel exhilarated.
Then there is another 4m descent over boulders, with only handholds for support, followed by another pool which can be waded or swum across depending on how much rain there has been.
At the next junction hikers can follow the green trail back up through the steep wadi or continue along to a final pool and waterfall. The whole track takes four to five hours to walk; the shortened version takes just under four hours, depending on much time is spent swimming in the pools.
Today the trek is du jour for Israeli school kids with laden backpacks and Teva-Naot sandals.
If you end up behind a large group of these students make sure to mutter slicha, slicha (excuse me) and try your best to get around them as the path is mostly walked single file and getting stuck behind a big group can seriously extend your walking time.
Also in true Israeli-style these student groups are very loud and can spoil the peaceful atmosphere if you’re hiking behind them for too long.
As soon as you step out of the lush valley and start the ascent back up the wadi walls, Middle Eastern date palms, myrtle figs and grapevines give way to the steep basalt slope and parched shrubs and rocks notorious in Israel.
Back on Highway 87, with a khamsin (dry dusty winds blowing from North Africa) muting the scenery, the lush Nahal Yehudia valley feels like a faraway oasis.
Israel’s other great hikes
Israel is renowned for its diverse and interesting walks, taking in desert oasis and biblical sights. Here are the best of the pick:
• Israel Trail
Stretching 930km, this is one of the most famous and certainly the longest hikes in the country (interestingly Israel is only 424km long from north to south and 114km wide at it’s widest — the thinnest part is just 15km wide). The trek starts in the northern Galilee and winds its way south until it reaches the tip of Eilat, in the very south, passing through Nazareth, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
• Ein Gedi Nature Reserve
Situated in the Judaean Desert there are some fantastic hikes around Ein Gedi Kibbutz, where King David took refuge when pursued by King Saul. Nahal David and Nahal I Arugot have water flowing through them year-round.
Rivers run through deep canyons surrounded by lush vegetation — a sharp contrast to the surrounding desert. I’ve even seen ibexes and other animals come to the rivers to drink here.
• Ein Akev
Even further down into the south of Israel, to the Negev Desert, this hike starts just near the grave of David Ben Gurion (Israel’s first Prime Minister and the founder of the country). The hike takes about 6-7 hours and is difficult if you can’t handle the heat. There are a lot of steep paths to climb, but the views are well worth it and the natural oasis pool, a surprising, but very welcome, highlight.
You can fly Qantas to Hong Kong and then El Al to Tel Aviv.
Ein Gev Holiday Resort, on the banks of Sea of Galilee offers modern apartments, family rooms and hotel style accommodation. Rooms start at NIS 647 ($200). +972 04 665 9800.
Cnaan Village Boutique Hotel and Spa is a bit further away from the Sea of Galilee but more up-market. It’s set in the small village of Had Nes, but you still get winning views of the lake. Rooms from NIS 1250 ($350). +972 04 682 2128.
More information at www.goisrael.com.