When you think of Israel, what comes to mind: the Kotel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, pita falafel, hiking? Yes, hiking? There are about 9,000 kilometres of marked trails maintained, ready and waiting for your sensibly clad feet. There are so many trails to choose from, however, if you really want to get Israel into your bones, choose Shvil Yisrael – the Israel National Trail. There are actually two trails: Israel End to End for bikers and Shvil Yisrael for hikers.
For 1,000 kilometres you can follow the orange, blue and white trail marks leading you from Kibbutz Dan in the North to Eilat in the south. It’s a challenge and a dream that that only four out of ten people who start it actually manage to finish.
First lets visit the bike trail. Kalmi Vilner is 72. He used to love running but, as an acknowledgement to his increasing years, he now cycles. Kalmi joined a group who take on the challenge of the Israel End to End trail once a month choosing a different 35-45 kilometre section each time. They bus out to the starting point and meet the bus again at the end of their route making sure that they get back home in time for Shabbos. Kalmi is the granddaddy of the group, most of members have jobs and are only free on Fridays, Israel’s day off.
Here is how Kalmi explained his fascination to me:
“You see lots of areas of Israel that you would never normally see. Our guide gives the background of the places we visit. One member of the group is an expert in Tanach. Even the non-religious members of the group are interested in his explanations.
“The trail takes us past many archaeological sites. I recall one site which showed how they used to make honey. One time we cycled in the Beit Shaan area. I always thought of it as so very dry. Yet we saw spring after spring all along the trail.
“I enjoy seeing so many things I have never seen before. Israel is such a beautiful country. On these rides I have learnt to appreciate how many different climates there are – from the dry red sea area to the lush green north. We see the different vegetation and meet up with the local wild life.
“Bike riding is a good active sport, full of challenges. Our group has become a strong social unit. We help each other out. We have lawyers, lecturers, company managers, teachers. We all want the challenge, but even more, our bikes can take us to places where even the hikers can’t reach.”
I meet up with Shvil Yisrael every time my husband and I decide to take a day off to enjoy our land. Somehow wherever we stop I find the little orange, blue and white striped marking on one of the rocks.
“Oh, Shvil Yisrael again? Surprise, surprise.”
Around Pesach time, Ori, my nineteen-year-old grandson who had finished yeshiva felt he wanted to get a better connection with Eretz Yisrael. Here is his take on the experience of walking the whole Shvil.
“Every step in Eretz Yisrael means something. Even getting a splinter shows that you have given something of yourself to your land. The only way to really connect with the land is to feel Eretz Yisrael with your body and mind. So, I walked from one end to the other, passing all the different landscapes from desert to lush green and experiencing so many types of climate.
“I spent a week reading all about the Shvil and asked for advice from all my friends who had already walked it. I wondered what I would need to bring, as I would be carrying it all on my back for two months. 40%-45% of the Shvil is in the Negev, a desert where there are no shops to refill supplies.
“Where should I start? The walking in the North is easier. That would give my muscles time to get used to walking for when I reached the harder terrain. I was starting in Springtime when Northern Israel is full of beautiful wild flowers. However, the South, the Negev, the desert is dangerous. In the winter there are flash floods and, in the summer, the extreme heat can kill. If I would start my walk in the North, I would reach the South just as it was reaching the summer temperatures. My friends advised me to start in the South. Eilat, here I come.”
A little commentary: The Negev makes up almost half of the whole Shvil. Flash floods, thirst and communication (most of the Negev has no mobile phone reception) are some of the dangers facing the hiker. Water is essential; many hikers bury water or pay someone to bury water in camping sites along the trail before they start. The whole Shvil is split into fifty almost twenty-kilometre sections with a camping site. In the Negev, these sites often consist of a sign by a piece of fairly flat land. In the northern parts of the Shvil, the sites have many more facilities.
Back to my grandson: “I decided to carry the water on my back. The most I carried was twelve litres. I bought a very comfortable back-pack, it was a bit heavy, but didn’t hurt my back. It was able to hold my food, cooking utensils, bedding and two spare sets of clothes.
Very important were the good shoes I bought and the two pairs of socks I wore each day. The socks made it warm, but they kept my foot tightly in the shoe. I only had two blisters during the whole hike. My fellow walkers would take off their boots at the end of the day and find huge blisters.
“I needed to decide on a menu. Good food keeps your morale up and an apple or an energy bar can give you a boost along the way. My grandfather joined me one day and handed me a cherry tomato. That was so uplifting and made me smile.
“When there was water, I would wash my clothes and dry them on my back pack. You really stink but you don’t notice it.
“As a rule, I try not to take anything for granted, and on this walk I learned how much the small things can make such a difference: Someone saying “Hi”; a good lunch; finding a piece of shade (that was a wow moment); someone starting to sing. Then there was the air; the view; the rocks; the fossils – you feel as if you are a part of the nature. The expanse of the desert, the sky, the breeze makes you feel small and a part of something bigger.
“Every step you take, every drop of sweat shows your appreciation for Eretz Yisrael, for where your ancestors fought, for what they died to protect and preserve.
“What you get from the Shvil depends on how you approach it. Some do it just for a challenge, some, like me do it for love of land. I wanted to spend time with myself, to listen to myself and decide what I really want and need. Some might say that every day is the same, but to me every day had a different feeling.
“I wrote down a few things I saw or did every day. It was good to do that. You can’t really digest everything that happened on the hike, so keeping a record helped me process what I learned that could take into my life. The values and conclusions that I could put into practice.
“That first day of climbing was one of the hardest. I had to climb really steep mountains with a weight on my back. I needed to learn how to organise my stuff in the bag. I was thinking what a privilege I have that I can walk in Eretz Yisrael of my own free will, when so many people have longed to come here and have died for this land. As I felt my aching muscles and my bruises, I felt I was earning my right to the land. I could feel it, sweat for it. I didn’t just get off a tour bus and look at places to try and connect with the land.
“There is so much to see in Eilat. The black granite hills and the chalk hills covered with flints, volcanic rocks and fossils. All day we climbed, sometimes going to rivers with banks full of beautifully coloured sand. But it was hard. Every time I wanted to stop, I needed to find a way to get the energy and motivation to go on. I had to climb 1,000 meters that day. It was hard, the backpack was heavy, but I decided that I wanted to enjoy every moment of the walk. So, I carried fruit and chocolate and fresh vegetables. When the walk was very hard, I took out my binoculars – what’s the point of walking if you don’t look at what there is to see.
“Some people travel very light and take with them the bare minimum. They even take just half a toothbrush. But I wanted to enjoy my walk and took the extras. I had my hot porridge on the cold mornings and chocolate spread on my sandwich.
“The next morning was good but I could hardly walk. My muscles were all hurting. I felt like I had aged fifty years. I learnt how not to focus on myself but to look at the surroundings: see the flowers and the landscape.
“The hikers in the desert section of the Shvil form a special connection with each other. Everybody sleeps in the same place. At nights you talk together and sing together. You don’t feel alone. You are part of something big. You all have a common goal and share a common adventure. The sunsets in the desert are amazing. Then, at night, you see all the stars and start to recognize them. I began to learn how to navigate. The Shvil is very well signposted in the Negev.”
Shvil Yisrael goes past and through many well known and not so well-known places of interest and great beauty. Ori visited these places.
“Timna, near Eilat has all different types of ground. I loved the quartz, I found eggs and many fossils of leaves and starfish. From the top of the mountain you can see the Red Sea. There were acacias trees, a rare site in Israel. At the Rammon crater, I looked down and saw all those different coloured layers. I tried to imagine myself living in the time of each layer. What would life have been like back then? Ein Akev, at the end of a hot day under the sun with no shade. Suddenly you see a huge spring. You jump into the cold water and you feel what it must be like for a frying pan when you put it into cold water straight from the fire. You wash yourself and your clothes. I met a group there who gave me warm food and water.
“The hardest climb was the “Cocks Comb,” a 15-kilometer slope rising more than 1 kilometer. I reached it on my third week so I was in good shape, but it was really hard. It was so difficult to grip the metal wedges fixed in the almost vertical wall. The climb was made of ridges and I climbed up and down, up and down those slippery ridges. My legs were burning and I couldn’t see the end of it. To keep myself going I looked around and noticed the beautiful fossils. Finally, I reached the top and looked down, it really did look like a cockerel’s comb. At the top, I could see into the big crater. I felt that I had really earned that view. It was not just my hardest, but my most beautiful day on the Shvil.
“In every settlement within two kilometres of the Shvil there are people called ‘Shvil Angels.’ You can call them two days in advance and ask them to host you for a night. We hikers carry a list of all the angels. They are so kind and welcoming. Some families have lots of kids, but open their homes for you. I did laundry, had a shower and slept in a warm soft bed. Sometimes they give you equipment and supplies – they ask for nothing in return. All sorts of people sign up to be Shvil angels. Some even let you stay for a whole Shabbos.
“After Be’er Sheva the hiking is different. The challenge of the dessert is gone. The campsites have better facilities. The camaraderie is less as people go their own way. Just yesterday, I saw nothing but desert and now I see a green forest and plains full of wheat fields. I spent a Shabbos in Jerusalem and then walked back to the sea. I walked along the sea’s edge passing rock pools, sitting and just listening to the waves. I saw all sorts of different seashells.
“Finally, after two months on the Shvil, I saw Mount Hermon in the distance. I realized that I had actually walked all the way from Eilat. My plan was to climb Mount Hermon, but after three stormy days, I decided just to finish my walk in Kibbutz Dan.
“That was it. There is nothing special about kibbutz Dan. No one came to congratulate me for finishing. It could have been a let down. But I remembered all the places I’d been and all the experiences I’d had and felt so grateful for this stunning land. I, a Jew in Israel, had walked along its whole length in mind and body and I want to share that feeling with the world. Sleeping at sunset, waking at sunrise, and now I’d finished in an ordinary little kibbutz.
“But I remember that it’s not the finish that’s important, it’s the journey.”