The Canyon of Mishmar – the challenge for the Gevult Trekkers

“You do understand, we want hikes that will be sufficiently challenging that we have to exert ourselves, but certainly not beyond our capabilities and definitely not involving climbing down ladders and swimming across pools of freezing cold water like we experienced last year.”

The Gevult Trekkers had returned to Israel to explore a number of popular yet challenging treks on a 10-day hiking tour.

Gevult can be defined as anything from “oh my God,” “woe is me” or “enough already!”

The group was a camaraderie of seven middle-aged men – if 120 is the desirable age to aspire, according to Jewish standards. They would also be contesting for the Gevult Trekker of the Year award – prestigious amongst a select few and entitling the successor to keep the t-shirt for one year.

Day 3 of the tour was to be the big challenge: Nahal Mishmar.

Nahal (canyon) Mishmar, located between Ein Gedi and Masada, is a relatively short canyon in the Judean Hills, along the western edge of the Dead Sea. The canyon is characterized by the diversity of its natural rock formations and rugged setting. It is surrounded by a pantheon of massive perforated limestone cliffs, which have the appearance of  a gigantic suspended palace carved out of stone with a dramatic palate set in  shades of ochre. Looking eastward, the azure colored Dead Sea shimmered against a mauve backdrop – the mountains of Moab in Jordan.

The previous evening we had enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner at Kibbutz Ein Gedi Guesthouse and the accommodation arrangements for sleeping partners had been appointed on the basis of decibel levels of snoring. The evening had been warm and balmy with a pleasant breeze.

An early start to the day was required as we anticipated increasingly warm weather as the day progressed. A level of apprehension temporarily quavered through the group, when I informed them that the hike would involve considerable challenges and an assistant would be required to help negotiate some of the dry waterfall descents.

After breakfast, the group was introduced to my assistant Arik, a member of the local search and rescue squad, who had come prepared with an assortment of ropes, harnesses, and helmets.

We drove toward Masada and then branched off along a dirt track and reached an informal parking lot that was guarded by an old Bedouin. We divided the weight of the food supplies among the group and began hiking the dry riverbed, stopping briefly for a group portrait beside an attractive, solitary acacia tree.

Steadily we began our climb, and followed a passage through the rocky pathway. Ascending the ridge of this mountainous trail revealed outstanding viewpoints of the steadily upward constricting stream bed with its dry waterfalls and exposing the difficulties that would lie ahead in the descending trail.

The imposing sheer cliffs curved around and surrounded the narrow canyon. The vegetation was scarce amid the boulders and sculptured rock formations. Our winding path crisscrossed an upper dry stream bed and then we entered a large enclosed valley, walled in by an impregnable fortress-like barrier.

After hiking and climbing for nearly three hours, and with the sun reaching its zenith, we approached the highest point of the trail. We stopped under a rocky ledge and consumed a meal, ravaged with gusto, while admiring a spring that spouted from the base of the cliff, trickling down a rock wall and creating a large crystal clear pool of refreshing water – Ein (spring) Mishmar –  a meditative respite for our journey.

Whilst looking around and enjoying the magnificent panorama, I pointed towards a large cave located some 10 meters from the top of the 150 meter cliff-face above us. This isolated cave, set high up on the cliff was explored in the early 1960’s and revealed a major archaeological find — a treasure trove of beautifully sculptured copper objects used for Canaanite religious practice, dating from some 5,500 years ago and now finding their abode at the Israel Museum.

These ritual items of worship — numbering over 450 objects — included ornamented scepters, crowns adorned with ibex and eagle heads, candlestick-shaped maces and spherical globes that decorated ceremonial staves. This was an extraordinary discovery that had fired the imagination of the world of archaeology. It was a dazzling display from a lost art form of metallurgy produced by ancient alchemists who had somehow converted rock into ornamental metallic ritual art. To this day it has puzzled researchers as to how the treasure found its way to this isolated cave, though it has been speculated that it was used in ceremonies in the ancient Canaanite temple discovered nearby at Ein Gedi.

The discovery was made by Pesach Bar Adon, a maverick-type archaeologist who came from a colorful background. He had been a yeshiva student, a pre-state pioneer, joined a Bedouin tribe, was later a member of the Hagana (the pre-State of Israel army), assisted in the clandestine maritime immigration and finally received recognition as a celebrated archaeologist/philosopher. He was as enigmatic as the discovery he had made and the questions he had left behind.

Our descent diverged from the original trail through the narrow canyon of the stream bed. Initially we were confronted with scrambling over rocks and around boulders and sliding down the smoothly sculptured surfaces of dry waterfalls dropping varying heights. Our first large drop required Arik to prepare a rope and harness and to parasail/climb down the waterfall face. Our group quickly learned the technique, something which would be useful later on as we carefully progressed down these narrow passageways.

There were a number of pools of water at the bottom of these waterfalls and we used sealed plastic bags to safely keep our valuables dry as we crossed the pools.

The careful descent was challenging and required a great deal of teamwork to assist one another in hand and foot placement. Steel rungs had been embedded by the Parks Authority in the more difficult sections.

The afternoon progressed. At one stage the gorge opened and became wider and more level, but then the passage narrowed and there was another moderate descent that required ropes until we approached the final challenge.

When I informed the group of our last major obstacle, there was a commotion and ominous foreboding – expressing itself in dissension. This required firm leadership and resolute decision-making since we had no alternative other than to complete this final descent.

The waterfall dropped 15 meters over two sections that had to be negotiated as one descent with ropes and harness. Some members of the group were discernibly unhappy about this precarious prospect, especially as it landed in a pool of water after a slide through a long narrow chute.

Arik prepared the equipment, and as group leader, I descended first. The first section was a little nerve-racking, but the rope certainly aided my confidence climbing down the steel rungs along the surface of the waterfall. The intermediate landing required me to relocate the steel footings and then begin the descent to the pool below. However, some of the rungs were missing – destroyed by boulders in a previous flash flood. Now there were only narrow steps and handgrips carved into a confined vertical  groove to assist in the slide until the drop into the pool of water below – which was fortunately only waist deep, but very refreshing.

The members of the group progressively descended with the accompanying assistance. As they were being individually lowered down, I asked them to face the camera below as I clicked away – the expressions on their faces were priceless: transformed vacant expressions of terror, oblivion and then surprise and accomplishment, as they dropped into the pool below and emerged beaming with pride of achievement.

The sense of satisfaction after completing this assault was great and well worth the anxiety and initial trepidation.

The next part of the hike traversed through a narrow gorge of extremely large boulders that presented a lengthy process of negotiating and finding passageways as we walked through the riverbed towards the vehicle.

Sunset was rapidly approaching. The surface of the Dead Sea had smoothed to a glass mirror complexion and reflected the crimson colored images of the radiant Mountains of Moab in the distance.

We had experienced a great day as expressed by the satisfied commotion inside our vehicle as we drove northwards along the Jordan River Valley in the enveloping darkness. We enjoyed a lusty meal of good food and wine, at a local restaurant, and rested in comfortable accommodation at the Beth Shean Guesthouse.

And all members of the Gevult trekkers were too tired and at peace with themselves to contemplate the challenges of the coming day.