Nahal Gidron Gully: A walk through the Central Arava

A view beside Hatzeva. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik
A view beside Hatzeva. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik

The Arava region resembles an enclave of African territory that has poked its way into Israel.

  • How to get there

    Our route begins at Ein Hatzeva Junction, where the Arava Highway (Route no. 90) meets the road that ascends to Maaleh Akrabim (Route no. 227).

    In the wake of the Adopt an Acacia campaign- which is designed to restore acacia trees to the perimeters of fields and communities in the Northern Arava - a number of local residents are going out of their way to save rare plants in their area, too. KKL-JNF is helping them with this project, the results of which have provided us with a new hiking route along Nahal Gidron.
  • Please note

    Accessible toilet facilities are now available in Sapir Park.
  • Geographic location-

    Arava and Eilat highlands,Arava region
  • Area-

  • Target audience-

  • Track length-

    2 km
  • Track type-

    Walking path
  • Difficulty-

  • Circular route-

  • Season-

  • Duration-

    1-2 hours
  • Features-

    Views and Landscapes
  • Interest-

    Hiking and Walking Tracks
Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

The Arava

The Arava region resembles an enclave of African territory that has poked its way into Israel. The acacia trees so closely identified with the African savannas feel at home here, and remain utterly unimpressed by the summer’s heat: they know it all too well from back home. The Arava has its own way of compensating trees for the tiny amount of rain that falls annually, as the long, narrow valley that accommodates it collects rainwater that flows down from the Negev and the Mountains of Edom. As this water accumulates near the surface, it provides moisture for the trees.

To travelers to Eilat unfamiliar with the region, the Arava appears endless, but this is by no means the case: local communities are expanding and new farmland is eating up ever larger areas of the landscape. But more than just land is in short supply here. Farming in the Arava requires huge quantities of water, and this ever-growing demand necessitates the creation of new water drilling sites that reduce groundwater levels and leave extensive areas of prairieland gasping from thirst. The acacia trees and the rest of nature sustain serious damage.

In order to remedy this to some extent, KKL-JNF, working in conjunction with Arava communities, has launched the Adopt an Acacia campaign, which is being funded by JNF Australia and the Central Arava Regional Council. This campaign is designed to restore acacia trees to their former position in the landscape along the edges of farmland and around the periphery of local communities (though not, however, on the prairies themselves).

Acacia seeds gathered from the areas nearby the central Arava communities have been germinated at KKL-JNF’s Gilat plant nursery and over two thousand saplings have already been planted, each in the area close to where its original seed was collected.

Acacia trees carry an enormous ecological burden: they provide cover for wildfowl, and numerous species of wildlife feed upon their leaves and fruit. The acacias, however, are not the whole picture, as the Arava supports a wide variety of plant species. Some of these are common in East Africa, and are referred to as “Sudanese plants.” In Israel, however, they are rare, and it is important to conserve them.

Hila and Itzik Elbaz of Hatzeva have taken the Adopt an Acacia campaign one step further by caring for trees deeper into the prairie and fostering the growth of rare local varieties, mainly in the area of Nahal Gidron, which passes to the north of Hatzeva.

A large part of the ecological damage is the result of a lack of awareness, and it is often possible to locate new farmland in an area where the vegetation is less sensitive.

Although the plants in this region are not as well known as, for example, cyclamen or the Gilboa iris, plants such as Cocculus pendulus, Pentatropis nivalis, desert date (Balanites aegyptiaca), Zygophyllum album and Lycium depressum are no less vitally important to local nature and biodiversity.

One good way to increase awareness is to signpost sites where important plants grow.

KKL-JNF Southern Region Community and Forests Director Talila Livschitz has enlisted to help. Botanist Mimi Ron supplies the information, Neta Or of Ein Yahav writes the text and KKL-JNF provides the signs and positions them at the relevant sites. Signposting is not yet complete, but the general public is already welcome to tour the area, discover these plants and take a stroll along a short footpath through the Nahal Gidron gully.

First stop: The Ein Hatzeva jujube tree

From Ein Hatzeva Junction we drive for 400 meters or so along Route no. 227 before turning southwards (left) towards Ir Ovot. We continue for about half a kilometer and turn left into the Hatzeva Fortress parking lot before we reach the huts there. With all due respect to the fortress, we have not come here to see it but to perform a pilgrimage to the giant jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi), one of the most famous trees in all Israel. Its renown is fully justified: this giant tree, which drew its strength from the spring that once flowed here, has been an Arava landmark since time out of mind. In the middle of the 20th century, the spring was still active and its waters created a veritable swamp at the site. This has long since disappeared, and only the aged tree remains. It has survived largely thanks to the irrigation system that KKL-JNF has installed to slake its thirst.

The tree is truly magnificent. Its trunk is unsurpassably thick – slightly over six meters in circumference. One branch rears up to a height of twelve meters, while another giant bough bends earthwards beneath the burden of time and its own weight.

The Ein Hatzeva jujube is one of those trees that cause passers-by to wonder just how old it can be. This, unfortunately, may be something that we shall never know, and all those who throw out possible dates have no reasonable grounds for their guess.

Second stop: The big toothbrush tree

We return to Ein Hatzeva Junction and drive southwards along Route no. 90 for about 1.1 kilometers before turning eastwards on to a dirt road towards a date plantation close to the highway. We stop at the edge of the plantation and approach the huge green mass growing between the date palms and the highway, about half a kilometer to the north of the Hatzeva gas station. This is the Ein Hatzeva toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica), which has spread out to create a vast tangle of branches about fifteen meters in diameter and eight meters in height. This species, which is somewhere between a tree and a bush, can be found in Israel all along the Syrian-African Great Rift Valley; however, as it requires a great deal of water, it is quite unusual to find one in the Arava, and massive specimens like this one are a rare sight indeed.

The toothbrush tree is easily recognizable by its distinctive smell, which may be related to the antiseptic properties with which it is endowed. In parts of the world where it grows in profusion, people commonly fray the ends of thin woody twigs and use them as toothbrushes.

Third stop: Upper Nahal Gidron

We return to the highway, drive a short distance southwards and turn eastwards on to the access road into Moshav Hatzeva. We pass Hatzeva Field School, and then, about 400 kilometers after the junction, leave the Hatzeva access road and turn northwards on to a dirt track with blue trail markings. Even though signposts to Nahal Gidron inform us that the track is designed for four-wheel-drive vehicles, the stretch we shall be traveling along is suitable for vehicles of all kinds. About half a kilometer away from the road we come to an old wooden sign to the right of our route that declares the presence of a research plot and tells us: “Ecological research is underway in this area. Please do not enter it, and do not touch the research equipment.” This sign is a form of irony that accurately illustrates what goes on in the Arava. Don’t bother to look for the research plot here: it was replaced by greenhouses long ago.

Five hundred meters further on, after we pass the Yair Agricultural Experimental Station on the left, we find ourselves in the broad gully of Nahal Gidron. Our route crosses the gully and continues along its northern bank for another 900 meters or so. At his point we abandon the blue-marked trail and cross the gully in a southerly direction to get to the Ras HaShita desert hospitality site. After crossing the site and continuing for about 200 meters to the east we can leave our vehicle in a proper parking lot close by a date palm plantation.

Now we set out on our walk. The parking lot overlooks two specimens of the desert date or Egyptian balsam tree (Balanites aegyptiaca), which in Israel grows in the oases of the Great Rift Valley, reaching as far north as Maoz Haim. As appropriate for a tree in the caltrop family of plants (Zygophyllaceae), the leaves are composed of pairs of leaflets, which are interspersed with long, sharp spines. The fruit resembles a date in appearance, and some people actually eat them despite the bitter aftertaste they are said to leave in the mouth. The Koran assures sinners that this is the food they will eat when they end up in hell.

We make our way down northwards towards the gully. About 200 meters further on it’s time to start looking for other small desert date bushes that manage to survive here despite the harsh conditions. Nahal Gidron would appear to be the only place in the Arava where these bushes can be found.

About 400 meters further downstream stands an acacia tree which is worth observing closely because of the climbing plant whose white stems are wound closely around its trunk. This climber is Cocculus pendulus, a plant rarely found in Israel, which climbs everything in its path. When it has absolutely no choice is sprawls along the ground, where it can create quite a large carpet. Like many other climbers, it bears round juicy fruit that attracts the birds, which eat them and later excrete the seeds as they stand on the branches of other trees. A Cocculus pendulus plant that germinates beside a tree will soon find a way to climb up it. The specimen we see here was transplanted from an area that was being prepared for farming. On the other side of the Cocculus pendulus is a dirt track that crosses the gully from north to south.

First alternative: The short route

We turn right, pass another parking lot and, after about 100 meters, arrive at another dirt road, which has blue trail markings. We turn right and continue to walk along this blue trail for about 350 meters, until it turns sharply to the left. Here, before we continue on our way, we should turn right on to a path indicated by curbstones that leads us to a small hill overlooking Nahal Gidron and the open spaces of the Arava. Note the young acacia saplings that have been planted here. After we’ve enjoyed the view, we can return to the blue-marked trail, which turns to the right alongside a date plantation and leads us swiftly back to our vehicle

Second alternative: The Gidron Canyon

We cross the trail. On the left-hand wall of the gully, a number of specimens of Pentatropis nivalis are growing. This very rare plant is a member of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), whose characteristic milky sap is poisonous and so protects them against being eaten by animals. It takes its name from its five (the Greek prefix penta means “five”) long petals. Like other plants in the same family, it produces seeds with feathery tails that can be carried long distances by the wind.

Nahal Gidron now quickly becomes a narrow canyon whose walls soar to a height of about four meters. In the not-too-distant past the waters of the Ein Gidron spring flowed through this ravine in a stream several hundred meters long. The skeleton of a palm tree that recalls happier times can be seen on the northern bank of the gully. About 400 meters from the trail, a good-sized clump of common reeds (Phragmites australis) inside the gully bears witness to the high level of the groundwater table. We make our way through the tangle of reeds and climb up to the right, to the southern bank of Nahal Gidron. Here, wonder of wonders, we meet up with the blue-marked trail. We turn right (westwards) and a several minutes’ walk brings us to an acacia tree that has been transplanted but has not thrived in its new site. A fine specimen of Pentatropis nivalis is growing all over it. After another 200 meters, we come to the meeting point with the trail arriving from the short version of the route, and from here we continue as described above in the first route alternative.