Craters Trek, Northern Negev, Feb. 2014

One of my favorite treks through the region, this four-day route headed up from the depths of the Dead Sea, where the Abraham Path veers by the area associated with Sodom and Gomorrah, into the weird geological formations called "craters," though they are not. The trek became the Craters Region, a name we debated quite a bit. As this was the only section of the path to date which includes no communities, there was no natural municipal name to extend to the trail around. The most salient feature was the makhteshim. And though "Craters" rankled as being geologically improper, "Makhteshim" wouldn't suit, as a mouthful of a foreign word that would surely turn off the casual observer.

Documentation of the rainy desert hike below:

Day 1

Starting at a highway junction south of the Dead Sea (and the dystopian-looking, smoke-vomiting Dead Sea Works), the trail headed up a narrow slit though the rock, featuring plenty of the staple-climbing I enjoy so much

The installation of these staples is double-edged. They enable routes that would otherwise only be possible as one-way canyon hikes, requiring ropes and technical skill, to be traversed by regular hikers in either direction. Opinions vary on whether that's a good thing or not

Soon, it was up into more typical Negev scenery: layers, collapsed scree slopes, deep gorges invisible until you reach them

Up Wadi Tzafit, through the boulders

Past the dry waterfalls you get in these limestone watercourses - the first of many

The rain came too late for us to witness a flood here. Too bad!

We didn't do this hike in wimp mode - no support trucks carrying the gear! We did have water caches each night, and a resupply of food after the second of four days. I managed with a 34-liter pack, while these hardy Alaskans, midway through a round-the-world trekking and mountaineering trip, had only their massive 90-liter bags! The bulk and weight didn't seem to hold them back.

Ein Tzafit. Never until now have I seen truly black water. Luckily, we had a water cache up the hill... Tamar Fort, unofficial night camp beside Highway 25

Hardly the most bucolic surroundings. Trash heaps were everywhere. One slab was fashioned into a shelter. I think a Sinai Bedouin might have been proud of the resourcefulness, though equally appalled at the ugliness of the site

Day 2

Back down to the trail junction at Tzafit Springs, to traverse some highland monotony, before reaching...

...the Small Makhtesh. This is the one that looks the most like a crater - round, and at first glance appearing to have been formed by a meteorite. Then, you notice the massive notch in its northwest side, formed by the wadi that flows in, and the collapsed outlet at its southeast (seen in the left of this shot)

Within, eons of history are revealed in the rock

The ground is positively littered with fossils! Shells, prehistoric creepy-crawlies, carapaced beasts, all imprinted in the marine rock

Bursts of colored sandstone shine from the Negev-tan canvas

Nothing compares to a partly-cloudy day in the desert

Just past the outlet of the makhtesh, called "Satan's Mouth." Israelis have a bit of a fondness for naming geology after the body parts of the Evil One. Satan's Head is down in Sinai, near a balmy beach resort

Up toward the path out. Easy going for now

The climb in our immediate future comes into view, flitting up a ridge

Halfway up the battering "Ascent of Eli." That's not the prophet; like most places in Israel named after a person, it's named after someone in modern history. I can't seem to remember whom, in this case. In the background, the wadi draining the makhtesh, and outing it as not a crater, is unmistakable

Day 3

A rainy night made getting up quite a challenge. Luckily, the downpour abated for morning - but the eerie cloud cover remained, shrinking the normally-massive desert to a small, quiet bubble

Below the cloudline is the blimp that usually hangs in the air, scanning the radar frequencies for low-flying aircraft that could be heading toward the nearby site where Israel's nuclear arsenal is kept. Many delightful conspiracy theories are available, regarding other things it might also be doing up there

Once again, the rolling terrain ceases to fade together in the mind when a sheer drop appears beneath the feet

This time, it's Nahal Hatira, one of my favorite spots in the desert

Be surefooted on the descents...

And watch for the incoming rainstorm

No photos from the preceding climb, because it started to rain just as we reached it. A talus slope leads partway up the sheer walls of the canyon; then a ladder bolted to the cliffs takes you the rest of the way. That's followed by a via-ferrata-style line to hold as you traverse a narrow path above the drop, to the dry waterfall where the group stands. It only lasts ten minutes or less, but it's one of my favorite bits of trail anywhere

We arrived too late to see this dry waterfall flow from the last storm, and too soon to see it flow from this one. One day...

As the rain continued, we sheltered under a little overhang. When we emerged, the canyon glowed in a way I've only seen in the desert after rain

Down in Yorkeam Spring, we met Israelis who treated us to the customary greeting: first, checking that we had enough water and, as if we didn't look like experienced desert badasses, stressing the importance of staying hydrated. Then, cautioning us of the danger of flash floods. Lastly, explaining to us what a makhtesh is and how it was formed. After that, we were free to hear their knowledge of beautiful hidden spots throughout the desert.

I found it amusing that the adults, who warned us repeatedly to stay away from flash flood danger zones in wet weather, had an entourage of kids who ran happily around a severe flash flood danger zone, just after a rain shower.

Up and away from Nahal Hatira, toward the Large Makhtesh

Its rims are not looming, sheer barriers, but spiky, diagonal slabs that protrude like jagged fangs. This one is the "Shark's Fin." No matter how in shape you are, the crazy angle of the climb up it will leave your muscles burning, because you don't use those muscles for any other activity

Oblong and much bigger than its nearby little brother, this makhtesh has walls that vanish into the rainy distance

Down below is Colored Sands Night Camp, named for an outcrop whose size puts to shame the little blossoms found in the Small Makhtesh

Colored Sands is also a popular attraction. This group of schoolgirls roamed the cliffs above it as we arrived...

...and their painfully slow exit, forced through a bottlenecked scramble, compelled us to take a detour

I have as my desktop photo a shot of a sunset on Mars, taken by Curiosity. It doesn't really look like this. But I like to imagine it would

Day 4

Exiting the makhtesh through its outlet, Nahal Hatira (much less dramatic here than the ladder section we'd climb yesterday), we left its weird, angled rim mountains behind

We headed up the recently-flooded Nahal Mamshit, into a much blander landscape, with only one dinky little dry waterfall

The wadi had recently flooded

As we continued up, we began to encounter signs of ancient agriculture (not pictured). Surely some of it was the descendant of that practiced by the Nabateans, who built the city of Mamshit, for which we were headed

Unfortunately, I got no good pictures of the ruins of Mamshit. They're mostly Byzantine, not Nabatean, but they've been restored in a way few other sites have, showing off the layout of mansions, basilicas, marketplaces, and other long-empty works of man. This was hardly the most impressive finish to an otherwise-epic hike, but welcome sunshine to dry our condensation-soaked tents and some ice cream bars made up for that