The UK Walkathon in the Negev

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 10:14 AM

Walkathon delegations from England, France and Australia come to Israel three times a year. After enlisting sponsors in their home countries to donate to KKL-JNF, the participants come to tour Israel and get to know the country better. 


A delegation from UK is visiting Israel and spending a week hiking in the Negev and the Arava. Under the banner “Walk for Water” its members have adopted two major KKL-JNF projects: the establishment of water reservoirs at Negba and Masuot Yitzhak, which together will place an additional 600 thousand cubic meters at the disposal of farmers in Kibbutz Negba and the surrounding area. These reservoirs collect both rainwater and reclaimed water from sewage purification plants and recycle it for the irrigation of thousands of dunam of crops in the Negev, such as avocados and persimmons.


Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive


Masuot Yitzhak reservoir was among the sites on the delegation members’ itinerary. Rami Harel, KKL-JNF England’s Projects Director, explained that it is important for the participants to see for themselves just how vital their contribution is.


Shlomo Ben Haim of KKL-JNF’s Tourism Department adds that the best way for Diaspora Jews to connect with Israel is through their feet. “Close acquaintance with the landscape and history of the country strengthens their connection to both Israel and KKL-JNF, and helps them to act as our ambassadors within their own communities,” he said.


The English delegation hiked along challenging trails that led them to some of the most splendid sites the Negev has to offer, including the Little Crater, Nahal Tzin, Nahal Peres, Nahal Tamar, Nahal Tzofit, Ein Yark`am and Ein Akrabim. The magnificent desert landscapes left a profound impression on the visitors.


“These are the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world,” said 80-year-old Leon Collins, from Leeds, who is participating in the delegation for the twelfth time. “Last year my previous record was broken when a 79-year-old man took part, so I decided I’d better come back this year to reclaim my title,” he explained with a broad smile. His companions told us that his age does not hold him back and that he is the first to rise to every challenge, be it scrambling up a steep hill, climbing a ladder, sliding down a rope or traveling a bumpy road by jeep.


Seventy-three-year-old Peter Barnett of London holds another record: This is the 16th Walkathon delegation he has taken part in, out of a total of 17 that have been held since the idea first came up in 1994. “My family and friends think I’m nuts,” said Barnett, “but I just love Israel. As soon as one trip’s over I start looking forward to the next one.”   


As he makes his way up a steep hill overlooking the Dead Sea, holding on to outcrops of rock as he ascends, Barnett tells us that he’s actually afraid of heights. “At home I don’t even climb a ladder,” he says. “But it’s a challenge, and if you can’t rise to a challenge you’ll never achieve anything.”


Most of those taking part have already visited Israel many times, but the delegation has given them a special opportunity to meet people and visit places they would not otherwise have been able to see. Tracy Lee of London says, “It’s very different from spending a holiday in a hotel in Herzliya. This way we see the real Israel and learn a great deal about it.”


However, it is not just the breathtaking views that make the experience so special: the close relationships that the delegation members have formed with one another are the truly memorable aspect of the trip. To an onlooker, they appear to be the closest-knit group ever to embark on an expedition. They know when to laugh together for sheer enjoyment, and when to extend a helping hand to anyone who might need a bit of assistance to get through an exhausting trip.


“I’ve met a lot of interesting people here,” says Jessica Rustin, 24, from London. “This is the first time that I’ve taken part in a Walkathon delegation, and I’ve never traveled round the Negev before. The landscape here is completely the opposite of what you would find in the English countryside.”


For several days the English visitors were joined by members of the Gvahim organization – young immigrants from different parts of the world, including France, Spain and the USA. Gvahim representative Carine Kroitorou told us that meetings like this between people from different countries are an enriching experience for all concerned.


US immigrant Joe Straus has been living in Israel for just over a year, but has not yet had the chance to spend much time touring the Negev. For him this is “an unforgettable experience and an opportunity to acquire an intimate knowledge of a very special corner of Israel.”


And if anyone is concerned regarding the next generation of Walkathon delegates, 10-year-old Gabriella Greenhouse is here to allay our anxieties. “My dad has been taking part in the delegation for years now, and for the last three years I’ve come along with him. I like spending time with my dad, and I know he’s proud of me,” she says.


After their exhausting hikes in the Negev, all members of the delegation will spend a relaxing weekend in Eilat. When they return to England they will take home memories that will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives.