The south of Israel, between Mitzpe Ramon and Eilat, is one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the Middle East. Just a five or six hour drive south of Jerusalem’s rolling hills and Tel Aviv’s white sandy beaches is a whole other world of red desert. The entire landscape that you see on the drive south was at one time completely submerged under the ocean. Over time this area of land dried out leaving behind interesting and whimsical rock formations, caverns, and caves. Aside from the beautiful geography this happens to have been one of the more frequently populated areas in the history of the Levant. Some of Israel’s most complex and intricate archaeological sites and artifacts have been uncovered in the desert. It is also the birthplace of the kibbutz movement, and many of these communities are still hosting families today.
Eilat, Israel’s Most Southern City
Israel’s most southern city, Eilat, offers a touchstone of urbanization in the vast red landscape of Israel’s south. Resting right on the edge of the Red Sea this is definitely one of the best places in Israel to relax and lounge on the beach. In the background are the red mountains of Eilat. During sunsets when the light catches the mountains they appear to be on fire. It feels more like you are on Mars instead of planet Earth. Just a twenty-minute car ride outside of the city are several hiking trails that allow you to explore these ancient formations in greater depth.
Just north of Eilat is one of the staple national parks to visit, Timna Park. During the 12th and 14th centuries (BCE) when Timna was under the control of the Egyptian empire the region was mined for copper. Today there are still a great deal of natural resources within the valley of Timna. Visitors can schedule guided tours of the caverns and even partake in a bit of rock climbing. As mentioned these formations were sculpted underwater, giving the entire park a surreal appearance. Despite the intense temperatures there is also plenty of flora and fauna to be seen. The region hosts its own community of specialized desert dwellers from the Israeli ibex herds to foxes, hyenas, birds, as well as a few lizards. Park visitors are not encouraged to approach or feed any of the animals as all patrons of the park are guests in this wild environment.
Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve
While we are on the subject of wildlife, just 30 km north of Eilat is the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve and breeding grounds. The reserve’s mission is to rebuild populations of specific species on the brink of extinction, mainly the Asian wild ass and the Arabian oryx. The entire park is located on the Yotvata salt flats, which hosts a wide variety of flora. This was one of the main reasons for the chosen location of the nature reserve, because it could feed multiple large herds. Desert life is a welcome refuge for both animals and people alike.
Kibbutz Neot Smadar
If you were to keep driving a few miles north of Yotvata you would run into Kibbutz Neot Smadar, which you cannot pass without noticing the enormous cooling tower that stands out from the landscape. Cooling towers are an ancient form of air conditioning. They use the natural and ample power of desert winds to thermally cool several houses all interconnected by underground pipes. The tower serves a dual purpose in that it is also the arts and culture center for the community. Several Israeli artists and craftsmen call the kibbutz home and all sell their art from the boutique located inside the tower complex. The complex itself is a feast for the eyes with intricate carvings, pillars, and a very memorable color palette. Be sure to also ask for a tour of their local vineyards and winery. You may even be tempted to purchase a bottle or two for later in the evening.
Kibbutz Sde Boker
The other iconic kibbutz to visit on your road trip in the south is Sde Boker, located a few kilometers north of Mitzpe Ramon and about 187 kilometers from Eilat. Established in the early 1950s, this was one of the very first unofficial desert communities that later became a national landmark. It was this community that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, chose as his home and community. He was on a tour of the south of Israel and noticed the small collection of houses, vineyards, and open agricultural fields. Something drew Ben-Gurion to the community of pastoral peace and from that moment on, he considered the kibbutz his one true home. You can even pay a visit to the former PMs old hut residence where many of his original furniture and books still reside.
The south of Israel from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon is a hotspot of ancient geographical wonder. Mankind has never created any sort of art or structure that can rival the natural beauty of the desert. The region is in fact not a land of hot emptiness, but a cornucopia of opportunity for new life. It is another world where communities of all kinds, whether they are animal or human, can be embraced with loving arms.