Friday, March 16, 2012
The following article was published in Haaretz on 17.2.2012 and includes a tour of Nahal Shikma.
New Routes: A Tour on the Nahal Shikma Scenic Road
GREEN FIELDS AND LUSH WILDFLOWERS – ANCIENT MOUNDS AND A FORTRESS FROM THE DAYS OF KING REHAVAM – WINTER IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT THIS NEW SCENIC ROAD IN THE NORTHWESTERN NEGEV
The Nahal Shikma road, a new scenic road in the northwestern Negev, is the most interesting news of this wonderful, wet winter, and, because of it, the area between Kibbutz Dvir and Kibbutz Zikim, or between Highway 40 and the sea coast, is likely to receive a very high rating on the weekend outing map. The road facilitates familiarity with a large, extraordinary expanse, which until now was almost never included in the exclusive list of the most beautiful scenic roads.
Anemones in Nahal Shikma - They haven't looked this good in years. Photo: Moshe Gilad
For obvious reasons, there are no magnificent waterfalls and no dense forests here. There is nothing dramatic, just soft, supple landscapes. However, in late winter, when the anemones are in full bloom, there is no more beautiful place in Israel. The new road is well paved for the most part and is suitable for any car. Even this week, on these especially muddy, winter days, it was in good condition. It is 60 kilometers long. Not all of its segments are marked properly, and its signpost project has been delayed due to vague reasons (money) for three years already, perhaps longer. The road is there, however, and it is worth getting to know and adding it to the list of your favorite trips to take, especially in February and March.
One can only hope that if many people come here it will encourage the authorities to complete the pavement, the signposting, and the road’s suitability for comfortable touring. We once tried to get to the Pura Nature Reserve, which is on the eastern end of the Nahal Shikma road, when it was not wildflower season, and it was quite depressing, mainly because we remembered how the place looked in high season in all its splendor, with its beautiful rolling hills and small channels.
Now is the peak season. There are millions of scarlet anemones all over the area of Nahal Shikma these days. There are other flowers growing near them with strange names like Pink Sun-rose and Prickly Alkanet, but the anemones are the life of the party. In order to accentuate their beauty, the fields are very green these days, more like Ireland than the northern Negev. This wonder lasts for a very short time, and it is much prettier than the crowded and slightly snowy slopes of Mount Hermon.
We were not surprised not to see a long queue at the entrance to the Shikma Road the day we traveled it. Elisha Mizrahi, KKL JNF Northern Negev Region Director, who took us in his car all along the length of the Nahal Shikma Scenic Road said several times along the way that it has been many years since there were this many flowers.
The anemones were covering the green meadows from horizon to horizon. Mizrahi should know. He has had this job for the past sixteen years, and he has seen more than a few anemone seasons in Nahal Shikma. According to his professional opinion, if there are one or two more rainfalls this winter, this year's magnificent flowering will last at least until the middle of March, maybe even longer.
The professional term Mizrahi uses for this region is partial open space conservation. What this means is that although large sections of the area are agricultural areas, and they have not been marked or declared a nature reserve, there is an understanding at present, between KKL JNF, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and the farmers who live in the region, to conserve the landscape and refrain from inappropriate development that could mar it. This delicate balance, an agreement which is not easy to achieve and is not to be taken for granted, allows visitors on the Nahal Shikma road to enjoy several worlds—the channels lined with blooms, the cultivated fields green and lush with wheat stalks that encompass them and the trees looking very satisfied with all the rain they have been getting. The road creates a contiguous ecological corridor, almost devoid of any interference all the way to the Shikma Reservoir near Kibbutz Zikim and the sea coast.
The Pura Nature Reserve
Turkish Railroad Bridge in the Pura Nature Reserve at the western end of the Nahal Shikma scenic road. Photo: Moshe Gilad
The eastern end of the Nahal Shikma road is called the Pura Nature Reserve. Getting there is quite simple. From Highway 40 you go west following the signs from Plugot Junction (Kiryat Gat) to Beit Kama. Nahal Pura is a tributary of Nahal Shikma. The Arabic name, from which the name Pura was derived, is Khirbet al-Pura, named after the ruins at the western end of the nature reserve. The uniqueness of the site is that the ground is not covered with loess, as most of the region is, but with exposed rocks.
The road along the length of Nahal Shikma is marked in blue. A footpath, which is not too long and traverses the nature reserve, is marked in black. After driving in the Pura Reserve about one kilometer westward you get to an embankment that functions as a dam. Behind it there is a small lake these days. Hikers can walk from there on a trail marked in green for about two kilometers and see the Turkish railroad bridge. Those driving on the Nahal Shikma road can proceed farther south (following the signs marked in blue), make a pretty big detour, and arrive at the Turkish bridge farther west on the road.
The bridge, which was once a great feat of engineering, is in bad condition. Weather, floods and looters of building stones have not left much of it. In 1916 the Turks saw it as one of the hopes for preventing the British troops from entering the country. The bridge was part of a major railroad project to Beersheba and the Sinai, in order to transport supplies to the Ottoman army that was stationed there. The railroad was in use until 1927. The bridge, apparently because of stone theft, collapsed in a flood in 1970.
Farther west on the road is Tel Nagila, to the east of the Nahal Shikma channel. At the top of the mound there is a lone tamarisk tree, which can be seen from far away. When you climb to the top of the hill there is usually a vast panoramic view, but the day we were there the visibility was poor. The air was full of dust. However, from Tel Nagila it is easy to see, even in poor visibility, other ancient mounds – Hasi and Keshet to the north, and Malha to the west. These hills, all of them along Nahal Shikma, indicate communities that utilized the spring water that flowed there in the past and the wells.
Remains of a community more than five thousand years old were discovered at Tel Nagila, as well as an inn from the Middle Ages and remnants of a Bedouin community. At the foot of the hill, Mizrahi told me that the greatest danger posing a threat to the beautiful tamarisk tree on top of the hill was from the digging done by treasure hunters. According to a Bedouin legend the Turkish army buried a treasure of coins there. He said that the emergency treatment administered in recent years has strengthened the roots of the tree, and if the treasure hunters leave the tree alone for a while, it will continue to adorn that hill.
Wheat field along Nahal Shikma. Photo: Moshe Gilad
A road marked in red turns off the Nahal Shikma road near Tel Nagila and goes south for 1.5 kilometers to the Ruhama Badlands Reserve and on to Kibbutz Ruhama. The hills of Ruhama are the remains of the easternmost limestone ridge on the plains of the western Negev. Badlands are formed when floodwater collapses the loess soil on the channel banks and erode the earth. The view is excellent, since there is a great combination of colors this time of year, with the earth colors of the soil and the verdure.
Ruthie Goltz, second generation in Kibbutz Ruhama, took me to see the remains of the pioneer homesteads at the southern end of the kibbutz. It is now exactly one hundred years since the establishment of Kibbutz Ruhama, the first Jewish settlement in the Negev. The site is comprised of a concrete house that served as a guard post and a large stone well. Goltz, who invests great efforts in the preservation of the site, said that it is important to tell its story, some of which even the residents of the kibbutz do not know. “This is the most important historical site in Shikma Park,” she explained, “and we can turn it into a tourist attraction.” From 1912 to 1917 it was a farm run by Jews from Russia. The well at the pioneering site in Ruhama is a remnant from that community. The later pioneers of Kibbutz Ruhama arrived in 1944.
The Ruhama Badlands. Photo: Moshe Gilad
From Ruhama you may return north and west to the Nahal Shikma road or exit to the kibbutz access road and from there to Highway 334, which is called the Badlands Road, drive about one kilometer west and visit Khirbet Gamama (Gamam means much water in Arabic). In the sixth century there was a Byzantine community there and a monastery, and until 1948 there was an Arab village by that name located there.
Tel Hasi and the Marshan Ruins
About five kilometers north of Ruhama there is a channel of Nahal Shikma near Tel Hasi, a site associated with the cradle of Israeli archeology. This is where the British scientist Sir Flinders Petrie began, in 1890, to excavate with modern archeological methods for the first time in Israel. Petrie determined the chronology of the periods of each layer according to the shards that were discovered. At the top of the mound a fortress was discovered from the Israelite period, and some people surmise that it was built by King Rehavam. About six kilometers farther west are the Marshan ruins (2 kilometers southeast of Kibbutz Bror Hayil).
Mural in Kibbutz Or Haner Dining Hall. Photo: Moshe Gilad
After passing Bror Hayil, the paved Nahal Shikma road ends. However, it is well worth continuing along the streambed as it continues west. The next noteworthy station, about 4 kilometers west of Bror Hayil, is Kibbutz Or Haner. There is a splendid display of anemones blooming in the vicinity (follow the signs posted by the Scarlet South Festival), but visiting the kibbutz itself is also interesting.
In the last five years nine monumental murals were created in Or Haner. The project was wholly on the initiative of kibbutz member Moso Zepeniuk, who brought two artisans from Argentina four years ago, Daniela Almeida and José Kura. In the course of three intensive weeks the two of them created engraved murals, and you can see them on tours at Or Haner guided by Zepeniuk or simply by going to the kibbutz dining hall and then taking a short walk along the lkibbutz paths. The murals are large, noticeable and easy to find (for details visit www.arteria.co.il
The Shikma Reservoir
In a perfect world the Shikma Reservoir would be the culmination of this route. Unfortunately, however, the situation is not ideal, and the road segment from Or Haner to the west is not yet finished. It is quite easy, however, to drive close to the channel on Highway 34 to Yad Mordechai Junction and from there a little farther north until the junction at the entrance to Kibbutz Carmia and Kibbutz Zikim (3411). Just south of the entrance to Kibbutz Zikim, and a few hundred meters before the Nahal Shikma estuary to the sea, is the easily accessed Shikma Reservoir, which was constructed by Mekorot in the late 1950s in order to harvest the water that flowed in the streambed.
Shikma Reservoir in the Pura Nature Reserve at the eastern end of the Nahal Shikma Road.
Photo: Moshe Gilad
KKL-JNF's Elisha Mizrahi said that there are many plans for developing the reservoir in order to turn it into a place that is enjoyable for leisure activity but in the last few years, particularly because of sand mining in the area, the reservoir has sustained damages. The mining in the area is preventing the reservoir from filling up, and the beautiful and wondrous view of the full reservoir, with trees in it and water flowing over the dam, a view that could be enjoyed in rainy years in the past, has disappeared. Nevertheless, there are beautiful wildflowers that bloom here, and if proper effort is invested in the future it could become a perfect endpoint for the ride on the Nahal Shikma road.