Day 29: Beit Guvrin to Tel Azeka
Day 29, March 28: Beit Guvrin in AM. Cool and ruins and very cool caves. Then short but still tiring hike with lots of ups and downs. End at Tel Azeka - David and Goliath lookout. Nice views and another spot to use the hammock. Jerusalem mountains in sight - about 2 days to go. Worried camera might take too long to fix, not to mention be expensive. If can't fix will send to Nazareth. Bummer but less weight. I have bad luck with cameras in the middle east. Can't wait to upload some pictures.
Near Bet Guvrin are the ruins of ancient Bet Guvrin/Maresha, a Judean city with some very well-preserved structures, mostly underground, including a hall of pigeonholes and some mansions. Cool stuff if you like archaeology.
We spent the end of the day in a big push for Tel Azeka, the ruins of a city that looks down on the Valley of Elah (or Valley of the Terebinth; "Nahal ha-Elah" in Hebrew) where David killed Goliath. The map seemed to always be telling me we were just one big climb away from reaching it, and then we would reach the top of that big climb and nope, we weren't there yet. It was pretty harsh. But on reaching the summit, we got a wonderful twilight view of the Judean mountains off in the east and the rolling hills and wadis leading up to them, plus the David and Goliath lookout with the relevant Bible passages in Hebrew, which I was pleased to be able to understand a fair bit of.
This was the coldest night of the trail so far. Idan's theory was that unlike the desert, here it was humid, and that made it seem colder. I have no idea if this is viable or not. Anyway, we all ate dinner shivering and hastening to get in our sleeping bags. I spent the early hours of the morning too cold to sleep, just rolling around in the hammock to stay warm. One drawback of hammocks is that it's a good deal tricker to keep warm; an ordinary sleeping pad is not wide enough to fully shelter you from the cold air below. Hammock-specific "underquilts" have been developed to solve this, but they're pricy.
I used the hammock setup for as much of the northern section of the trail as I could. I'd discovered hammock camping the previous summer and on my short backpacking trips, it revolutionized camping for me. Two trees the right distance apart provide the support for the hammock, and as long as you can find those, you can sleep in comfort rather than spending fitful nights on the rocky ground. Hammock Forums was my main resource for learning about the ins and outs of using a hammock to camp. I have a Grand Trunk hammock, and modified it with a pair of whoopie slings to make setup easier and shave precious ounces from my pack weight.
The middle east not being known for its abundance of trees, you might wonder if the Israel Trail is really the place to be trying to use a hammock. I did pretty well for myself from Arad north, with a handful of nights spent on the ground because I couldn't find the right trees - but this was before upgrading to whoopie slings, and if I'd had those at the time, I would have never had to "go to ground." There are enough groves and forests in Israel that if you plan carefully, you could hammock for the whole northern two-thirds of the trail.
My camping setup in the Negev was a lot simpler - just a mat on the ground, with a tarp rigged over me (using my hiking stick as a support) facing toward the wind to keep as much of it as possible off me. The Negev nights get very cold and the wind seems to blow nonstop, so a wind shelter is needed, but there aren't really any biting insects, so a bug net is a waste of weight.
The apse of a Crusader church at Bet Guvrin (Maresha)
Joyce, Idan and I after the hard push up to Tel Azeka. Behind us, the Valley of Elah and the
My hammock, ready for bedtime, on Tel Azeka
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