Day 1: Red Sea to Har Shlomo

Day 1: Red Sea to Har Shlomo

Day 1, Feb 28: Only 14k but insanely hard. Woke up before dawn but more or less awake all day. Up and down a million mountains. Old man blasting nips. Sunglasses and headlamp broke. Camp: Har Shlomo

Once we started hiking, my tiredness - and frustration with all the logistical confusion - vanished. The desert landscape was incredible - jagged red and brown mountains everywhere, and no more signs of life than if it were Mars or the moon. I soon discovered the large group we'd joined was organized by a couple whose son had died in a military training accident, and it was dedicated to remembering lost family members. There were stops for talks and reflections by different people, some of which I had translators for - interesting things about geology and history, for the most part.

A distinct memory: Although I had spent a fair amount of my time in Israel around orthodox Jews, including Jerusalem's high religious population, I still remember the odd feeling of waking up and seeing a large group of guys pulling out white and blue shawls, wrapping leather contraptions onto their arms and head, bringing out the little prayer books, and rocking back and forth at morning prayers. I really felt like I was in a different world - the kind of feeling you get at the beginning of a trip, rather than after you've been living in a place for a while. These prayers of course became a routine sight. I learned it's bad manners to walk in front of anybody who's praying - seems kind of obvious in retrospect, I guess. Luckily I was just told this rather than doing it and then being scolded.

There was a group discussion session in the middle of the day, another perk of the organized hike; luckily there was an English-language group. The topic was various aspects of the kibbutz movement which I've forgotten, but it was good conversation.

We reached our camp after dark and a hard climb up a mountain, after we thought we had reached the end of the hike - there turned out to be another mile or two! I also realized I didn't have enough money to last until the next ATM (tiny desert villages don't have them) and entrusted an older lady with my debit card and PIN number so she could get some shekels for me while in Eilat for the night. I don't think that kind of trust would have happened in a group like this one in America. Similar to how I'll readily hitchhike anywhere in Israel but would be really reluctant to do it here.

The view from the beginning of the hike, out onto the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba

The initial climb up from the seashore was harsh, but everyone was fresh and ready for it, and

the weather was perfect - early March in the Negev boasts perfect daytime temperatures, although

with them can come cold, windy nights

Israelites crossing the wilderness in the Eilat Mountains. If an exodus from Egypt actually happened in

history (which it almost certainly didn't), this stretch of land might not have been too far off the route

the plodding Hebrews took on their way to Moab and then Jericho

Our initial climb brought us to over 600m above sea level, and an hour or two into the hike, we

could already look down on the Red Sea far below. Our last glimpse of it would be a few days later

"Rehoboam's Hill" at right, showing the colors of the desert

Down in wadis where water occasionally flows, a few scrubby trees manage to survive

Looking across the barren border with Egypt, somebody yelled a congratulation. This was just after

Mubarak had resigned and the Egyptian revolution was in full swing. The Israeli media, left and

right, was pessimistic about the Arab Spring, and universally assumed that all the revolutions

would result in hostile Iran-like regimes, so it was nice to hear somebody expressing a more

cheerful view. As of now, the pessimists have turned out to be wrong about the rise of an

Islamist dictatorship, but right about the failure of the democratic movement. Egypt

is now back where it started before Mubarak fell.

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