On the first day of Passover, a group of friends and I went on a hike. Our plan was to start just outside of Jerusalem in an Israeli National Park and end up in the Palestinian town of Jericho. We figured it would take us about six hours, because some ultra-fit friends said they ran this route in about three hours. (These are friends that tightrope walk and climb rocks for fun, just to give you an idea).
We drove to the Nahal Prat Reserve, from where you can access Wadi Qelt, a valley that stretches from Jerusalem to Jericho (where, when its carrying water, it empties into the Dead Sea). To get to the entrance of the park, we had to enter a settlement called Almon. It was my first time in a Israeli settlement and I was struck by how, other than the military presence (Israeli Defense Forces soldiers with machine guns) it seemed like any suburb I’ve ever been in. Tidy, sleepy, and safe.
After we drove through and out of the settlement and to the entrance of the park, an Israeli park ranger warned us we were starting the hike pretty late to go all the way to Jericho. I assured my group that park rangers always try to talk hikers out of going too hard, that we’d be totally fine, and should aim to end in Jericho where a delicious spread of Arabic salads, and, hopefully, some ice cold beers would be waiting for us. We’d then take a cab from Jericho back to our car — which we parked outside the park gate — and make it back to Jerusalem later in the evening.
And we were off, hiking down into a deep valley of Wadi Qelt, which was dotted with beautiful man-made pools and lots of Israeli hikers. And mountain caves, and rungs bolted into the sides of mountains to help you not die, and steep cliff faces, and little grottos and streams that you had to balance on rocks to cross. (How in the world did our friends run this route!?) The best stop of the day was at a pool where I sat for fifteen minutes as small fish nibbled at my dangling feet. Free pedicure.
After several hours, we saw fewer and fewer people. We’d started our hike in an Israeli National Park located squarely in the West Bank and we’d finish the hike in the Palestinian town of Jericho. We wondered if we’d pass something – a sign, a border, or if the hikers would suddenly all be speaking Arabic instead of Hebrew – that would indicate we’d crossed over into land that is, at least, less disputed. We didn’t. I’m realizing that’s par for the course here: I am very often wondering “Is this Israel or Palestine and how can I tell?” It’s never clear and if you ask, you’ll get more answers than there are hiking trails in the whole of the Middle East.
After nearly five hours of hiking and trying to place ourselves on our Hebrew map, we emerged at a natural spring/Israeli National Park called Ein Mab’ua, at which both Muslims and Jewish families were separately having picnics. We decided to call it. The park was shutting down, and the road that led to it was fairly deserted. Our taxi app showed us the nearest cab was an hour away. Our car was much, much further than than.
Our group of four approached a Jewish family that was getting in to their car. With their gaggle of small kids and the woman’s colorful scarf wrapped up high around her head, I assumed they were settlers and maybe heading back to where our car was. They said they’d have driven one of us, but every seat in their car was accounted for.
Meanwhile, two different Arab tour bus drivers were waiting to take their passengers to Jericho, about thirty minutes away, and the drivers said they’d take us if it was okay with the passengers. We were all set to do that, when two young guys in a truck drove up, the bus driver asked if they could take us to Jericho, they said sure, and we hopped in. We had enough Arabic among us (absolutely no thanks to me) to convince these young guys to drive us to the our car instead. After about 20 minutes they approached the settlement entrance. “This is a settlement, isn’t it?” one asked. I could just imagine how this looked to the Israeli soldiers posted at the entrance of the settlement, seeing a truck, driven by Arab guys approaching. “Drop us back here,” we said, a long ways from the gate, not wanting to get anyone into a dangerous situation. They dropped us, refused the money we offered, but I insisted. “You really, really helped us out.” The Israeli soldiers meanwhile, looked seriously confused as we climbed down from this truck, but we just smiled and said “Shalom! We parked our car in here!”
After another forty minute walk through and out of the settlement, we were finally back at our car. We didn’t make it to Jericho, we didn’t even see the cool monastery built into the cliff face or the ancient aqueduct. Maybe we will another day.
Instead we had a strange adventure that took us to a settlement, to a park where Jews and Arabs were picnicking, in the cab of an Arab delivery truck, back to the Jewish settlement to our car with Diplomatic license plates, through Arab East Jerusalem with its headscarves and shawarma and call to prayer, thorough an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish pocket where men in white shirts and strings and side curls walk reading the Torah, to our West Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood with moms in below-the-knee skirts push babies in double strollers.
This place has everything. That everything hardly ever overlaps.
To hikes that don’t turn out how you expect,
Em in Jerusalem