The visitor center is located in a renewed building, which was built on the site of one of the buildings that stored the agave fibers produced in Gilat in the 1950s. The new building preserves the architectural characters of the former storehouses, which were Nissen huts that are constructed from sheets of corrugated steel bent into a half cylinder.
The center is air-conditioned and has a sophisticated conference room for seminars for small groups of people. The central hall has six square columns on which there is information relating to KKL-JNF activity in settlement, water, forestry and community development.
The center commemorates the life work of the late David Nahmias (1927-2000) who headed KKL-JNF’s southern region and later the KKL-JNF Land Development Authority. David Nahamias worked to roll back the desert and from 1995 to his death headed KKL-JNF’s “Action Plan: Negev” that opened new settlement horizons in the Negev.
At the entrance to the center is the “time dial” – an interactive process that illustrates the scope and variety of KKL-JNF activity in the Negev – built of three rotating rings. In order to “defeat” the time dial it is necessary to match the correct combination of actions and places.
The Tree Trail
One hundred and fifty species of trees and shrubs brought from the world over were planted in the acclimation plot at Gilat, to test their suitability for afforestation in the Negev. The trees were planted in groups of 15 of the same species, and were irrigated only during the first two years following planting. The experimental plot is now a forest tree garden with a path traversing it.
The 400-meters long path, begins at the small picnic area near the visitor center and is a circular paved, accessible path. Seventeen trees are marked with their names. Along the path are engraved bits of information on the Negev and the tree species at Gilat that enrich the walking experience. An old fire watchtower, once used by KKL-JNF fire spotters, completes the picture.
Visitors become acquainted with a number of eucalyptus species. There are more than 800 species of eucalyptus trees, which originate in Australia and other islands around it. Many of them are adapted to the conditions in the Negev. Quite a few of the eucalyptus groves that now cover the Negev slopes began their journey at Gilat.
Other tree species originating in Australia that grow along the path are Calitris propinqua, a conifer from the cypress family, Allocasuarina lehmenniana and Casuarina lepidophylla. These trees have characteristic minute scale-like leaves reminiscent of needles, although they are not. Casuarina boulevards are common in Israel since the days of the
Some of the tree species tested at the acclimation plot were rejected for afforestation in Israel, but still grow at Gilat, providing visitors with an opportunity to become acquainted with them. These include Acacia salicina, a small Australian tree and Prosopis juliflora, a species similar to our acacias that is extremely important ecologically and creates a beautiful avenue on both sides of the path.
The Agave Project
About 100 meters west of the Nahmias Center is an abandoned plant once used to produce fibers. At this stage, it can only be seen from the outside, as entering the building is unsafe.
The story of the building is fascinating. In the 1950s, many new immigrants (olim) settled in the Western Negev. Joseph Weitz, who headed KKL-JNF’s forestry division wanted to develop an agricultural project for the new settlers. Growing agaves seemed an excellent solution.
Agaves have green, succulent leaves. By means of a simple process, the leaves are dried and used to produce tough sisal fibers to make ropes and sackcloth, items that were very popular products in those days.
Producing the fibers and the cloth required working hands. Agaves that originate in Mexico, thrive in the dry Negev climate. The foresters at KKL-JNF were aware of this fact, because agaves had been grown plantations throughout the Negev
In his imagination, Weitz saw thousands of acres of agaves, but there were no saplings available. Attempts to purchase them in Kenya were unsuccessful as the Kenyas were afraid of competition and harm to their industry. In 1953, Ze’ev Meites, an agronomist at KKL-JNF, somehow succeeded in getting thousands of agave saplings out of Kenya. The story, however, did not end there. The customs officials at Eilat, upon seeing the strange plant, thought it was a shipment that had arrived by mistake and were about to dump them into the sea.
Luckily, at the last minute the saplings were saved.
The agaves grew and flourished. In 1957, KKL-JNF (20%) and Zionist businesspersons from Mexico established a sophisticated plant to process the fibers at Gilat. Hundreds of families from the town of Ofakim and moshavim in the region made their livings growing and processing agaves.
Although the beginning looked promising, success was short-lived. In the early 1960s, synthetic fibers, which were stronger and cheaper than sisal, were introduced. The plant at Gilat began operating at a loss and in 1966 was finally shut down.The Gilat Plant Nursery is KKL-JNF’s regional nursery. It produces hundreds of thousands of saplings every year, for planting throughout the Negev. The nursery offers a fascinating tour for visitors in which they learn how the saplings are produced, how to garden with water saving plants and enjoy a visit to the parent-stock plots where there are many exotic plants.
Some one thousand species from all parts of the globe grow in the parent-stock plots. This is a natural treasure, one of the richest gardens of plant species in Israel.