Israel, Days 6 – 7: Negev Desert

Anyone considering a move to Israel should put the South (Negev Desert) at the very top of their list.  Even Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa who wouldn’t dream of moving to the South to live in the desert are snapping up newly-built apartments as an investment.

The Negev desert makes up more than half of Israel’s land mass, but only 8% of the population currently lives there.

That is about to change.  More than any other place in Israel, in the next ten years, the Negev will be expanding at warp speed.

Later this year, over 10,000 troops will move from army bases in land-pricey greater Tel Aviv to a $650 million dollar training base now under construction 30 miles south of Be’er Sheva.  By the end of the decade, half of the bases in Israel’s center will move South.  Two- to three hundred career officers and their families will also be making the move, and require the housing to go with it.

But not only will the army be bringing their families to settle in the desert.

 

International hi-tech corporations such as EMC, IBM, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, RSA and Deutsche Telekom are opening R&D (research and development) labs in a new technology park in Be’er Sheva. (You can see photos of Be’er Sheva from my 2011 trip here.)

Be’er Sheva is host to a renowned university (Ben Gurion University) and hospital (Soroka); its own symphony and shopping malls; its concert hall and cultural center attracts internationally recognized artists.  Everywhere you look, giant cranes assist in the construction of luxurious hi-rise apartment buildings, along with villas-in-progress on the outskirts of town.

Even formerly backwater towns such as Dimona and Yerucham – – once upon a time crime-ridden places filled with unemployed men loitering on the streets with too much time on their hands – – are feeling the effects of this metamorphosis-in-progress.  In the old days, you practically couldn’t pay someone to live in these places.  Today, it’s not uncommon to see luxury apartments and private homes in the $450K – $600K range.

I am blessed to have a wonderful friend – – one of Israel’s top entomologists and scientific researchers – – who has lived in Midreshet Ben Gurion/Sde Boker in the Negev for the past decade.  She was kind enough to let us use her house as a base to explore the Negev.  I wrote extensively about Midreshet Ben Gurion on a previous trip to Israel, and you can read about that here (and don’t forget to look at the stunning photos of the Zin wilderness).  We drove 30 minutes south of our friend’s house until we reached the funky town of Mitzpe Ramon.

There we met with a pioneering couple around our age, the Rappeports, who are attempting, quite literally, to make the desert bloom.  They have 80 dunam (20 acres of sand and scrub) just outside of Mitzpe Ramon, where they are planting Argan trees.  Argan oil extracted from this tree is used in shampoos and other cosmetics.

 

Watering an experimental vegetable garden

Watering an experimental vegetable garden. In the background is a neighboring “farm,” in which someone is successfully growing grapes in a vineyard of sand and dust with drip irrigation. I don’t know how the grapes survive the searing temperatures and sandstorms and whipping wind, but they do.

Aragon tree seedlings await planting

Argan tree seedlings await planting

An argan tree seedling, next to some drip irrigation

An argan tree seedling, next to some drip irrigation

Imagine the courage, determination and faith it takes to look at this vast, searingly hot and dusty, sandy expanse and dare to dream that it will bloom one day.  Ben Gurion believed it.  The Rappeports believe it.  And G-d has promised it to the Jewish people.  Israel is full of wide-open, living miracles that one can experience on nearly a daily basis.

Imagine the courage, determination and faith it takes to look at this vast, searingly hot and dusty, sandy expanse and dare to dream that it will bloom one day. Ben Gurion believed it. The Rappeports believe it. And G-d has promised it to the Jewish people. Israel is full of wide-open, living miracles that one can experience on nearly a daily basis.

 

Alas, it was not a good day for planting the 200 seedlings they had hoped to put into the ground!  We found ourselves in the middle of a raging sandstorm, with winds whipping the fine grains of sand into every pore of our being.  (I would taste grit for several hours afterwards.)  We took shelter inside a storage shed, hoping to wait out the storm, but there was no let-up.  Admitting defeat, the Rappeports instead invited us to their home for a cold drink (it’s hot in the desert!), where they told us a little about Mitzpe Ramon.

The town of Mitzpe Ramon sits along the edge of an unusual geological formation similar to a crater, known as Makhtesh Ramon.  It’s Israel’s wannabe Grand Canyon, with its steep desert cliffs changing color based on the time of day.  It is also home to many different zimmers, as well as a new-ish luxury hotel spa called Beresheet.  Mitzpe Ramon is surrounded by national parks, including an oasis with a stream bed and palm trees.  The hills are dotted with mountain goats called ibex.  It’s also a center of ecotourism and mountain biking, artists and musicians; a wannabe Burning Man festival, lots of dance and alternative music festivals (with plenty of hippies to make it feel more authentic).  There’s also a yeshiva there (men’s religious seminary).  Think of Mitzpe Ramon as a much smaller, indie version of Palm Springs, minus the golf courses.

There is bus service every 30 minutes – 1 hour to Be’er Sheva and there are also buses that go from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat.  And because it is considered “high desert” (elevation 2,800 feet), the night, after a hellish-hot day, can get downright chilly.  On a clear day, dramatic views of the desert and its many colors and contours, mysteries and wonders delight.

But: it’s hot.  True, it’s not humid like Tel Aviv, Ra’anana or Rehovot.

But it’s still hot.

Hellish hot.

It’s the hot flash that never goes away, for about 10 months out of 12.

And those pesky, several-times-a-year sandstorms!   The thought of constant sweeping and dusting (one woman told me she has the air filter on her car changed at twice the normal interval, due to all the sand) made me re-think any fantasies of pioneering in the Negev.

 

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