Saturday, 2 April 2016


Yoni Garry and I have a Whattsapp group that is named "the shvil pensioners". Besides the self-deprecating name and insight into the centrality the shvil has\had to our friendship, we now indeed are shvil pensioners. But as we all know, life doesn't end with becoming a pensioner. We have no shortage of plans. We definitely won't be taking on any more grandiose 7 year walking projects, but 120 km shvil Golan, shvil HaMa'ayanot around Beit She'an, walking through villages in the Galilee and regular excursions will definitely continue. More meals together goes without saying. We have seeing Bruce Springsteen in Rome, jaunts to Europe, big boys' reunions and much more to do together. I'm sure stuff will come up that we haven't even remotely thought of. I'll try to blog as much of it as I can. I enjoy the writing it up almost as much as the actual doing it (almost).
The shvil has given us so much, both as individuals and as friends. Thank you to Yoni and Garry for putting up with me and sharing this journey with me, as well, of course, for steering me/us in the right direction when my sense of direction and left-right dyslexia would have gotten us even more lost than we regularly did. The shvil has strengthened our friendship in so many ways. We had some semi-permanent guests, namely Tracey and Mark, who were fantastic companions and many one up guests who fleetingly shared our shvil experience. Each and every one who walked with us added to the sum total of our overall shvil adventure.
I am humbled by the positive response and support my blog has received from many people. I wish to thank anyone who has bothered to put up with my long-windedness and occasional bombasity to read even one blog post from beginning to end, let alone those that have read all the posts. 
I feel the need to thank one person in particular, who never actually walked the shvil with us but without him, we probably would never had even gotten to the starting point. About 12 years ago our friend Phil came on a visit to Israel. Yoni, Garry and I hadn't fallen out but between young families and careers, didn't see each other as often as we should have. Phil organized for us to walk together in the Golan Heights. The die was set when on that hike  we missed a turn off and got lost. And we had fun. We also realized that we loved walking together and had too much in common not to see each other regularly. I don't wish to sound melodramatic, but that day changed the course of our lives. I owe Phil a debt that I will never be able to repay.
 A final word. Garry, Yoni and I are not athletes (well Yoni and I, at least) and not particularly fit (ditto). When I was younger and fitter (not convinced I was ever actually fitter) I would never have dreamed that I would ever complete a one thousand km hike through Israel. Maybe it's a bit of a cliché, but we proved to ourselves that there really is nothing you can't achieve if you put your mind to it. I would encourage anyone who regards our amazing journey as special, to go out and do their own amazing journey.  It's worth the effort.

58th Day (The End)

On 14 February 2009 we set out from kibbutz Dan on Israel's Northern border, unsure of what lay ahead, thinking that we would be finished in 4 years. And here we were, 22 March 2016, on our way to the last leg of our journey. This gives the term "fashionably late" a new meaning. I had been jittery all week with the excitement of finishing the shvil. Yoni and Garry seemed more relaxed and Mark has other, more important endings (and beginnings) to worry about. Shimon, our regular Eilat driver for the past 3 trips had put his taxi into the panelbeater's, so he organized Dudu to drive us to the starting point. We didn't want our last day on the shvil to start late because of an unknown taxi driver, but we needn't have worried. It seems that Eilat taxi drivers never sleep, as Dudu was at the apartment 15 minutes early, at 4.45, explaining that Tuesday is party night in Eilat, when revelers hit the clubs. If only we'd known earlier, we could have gone out raging. In any case, we arrived to the starting point at 5.15. Just as Dudu was finishing his night shift, the full moon was finishing its, and the sky was changing from the shadowy grey of moon lit nights to the undefined half-light of morning.

So this was it. The last accommodation booking. Last taxi ride. Just to give you an idea…this last jaunt would have us drive for 11 hours, sleep 6 hours, walk 7 hours = 24 hours. It's the last time we would have to do this insanity. The word "logistics" could finally be used as a safe, no hassle word that refers to the process where factories deliver their products to market and not the hassle of getting us to, in and out of impossibly far flung places.
Typically for us, we almost got the start all wrong, as we sped up a path that seemed logical, but would have taken us to the local border army base. Imagine what the guard at the gate would have thought if he'd been surprised by 4 lost vagabonds who had rocked up to a sensitive border army base, stammering sheepishly, " which way to Eilat by foot?"  Was this ISIS, who are active in the Sinai, trying a new ploy for infiltration into Israel? Luckily we discovered our mistake quickly and found the correct path without too many hassles and having to test the army's alertness. The 15 minute drive from Eilat, which is, of course, at sea level, rose to the starting point at almost 700 metres, on route 12, which runs along the border of Israel and Egypt. From the outset we could clearly see the border security fence at the bottom of the valley to our right, meaning that the massif directly opposite us was Egypt. Given that we were so high up, after a few hundred metres walking, we could also clearly see the Red Sea. For most of the day we would alternate between glimpses and full panoramas of both the border and the Red Sea.

The end of the shvil was obviously on our minds and we each had different ways to show it. Almost as soon as we started walking, Yoni asked us to nominate the 5 best legs. It quickly became apparent that naming the 5 best walks was almost impossible, given that there were so many great ones, but the conversation focused around the many memorable experiences of these past 7 shvil years. We had no problem, however, identifying the 5 worst, given that there were so few bad ones.
After a couple of kilometres the path led us down into Nachal Gishron. The descent was quite steep, but nothing we hadn't negotiated in the past. However, there were metal railings and foot holds to help us get to the bottom. We had so often passed terrain where we had sworn at the shvil elders for being too tight fisted to put some sort of safety devices into the rock to assist in maneuvering through, yet here there was an overkill of banisters and rungs to help us get down a path that was of medium difficulty. Go figure. That's not to say that we didn't take the help offered, as unnecessary as it was. A little further on, the chasm dropped 50 metres straight down. Here, the metal ladders were 100% indispensable (and 100% scary). Not far beyond our ladder descent, the shvil asked us to drop about 5 metres, without any sort of aid. Garry, being nimble and unflinching, jumped straight down. Mark is characteristically more cautious and found a way to maneuver down. I'm uncoordinated but stupid, so I jumped too. And Yoni, well, let's just say that he got down, safely but in a somewhat ungraceful manner. There's a video of the shenigans, that I have been forbidden to upload, but for a price, am willing to release it to the highest bidder. It makes great comedy.
Given that we'd driven from sea level to an altitude of 700 metres, it was our aim today to get back down to Eilat and sea level. Over the first 6 km, we'd been walking downhill; sometimes steeply, sometimes vertically and sometimes moderately, but the variety of colours, mountains and sea views ahead of us made it as interesting as any leg we had done to date. Where else in Israel can you see 4 countries at once? But the shvil elders weren't going to allow our last day to consist of a gentle drop of 700 metres over 14 km. No sir. Payback time had arrived. We learnt long ago that if we encounter any geographical feature that was called "ma'aleh" something-or-other, we were in trouble. So after encountering the various gradients of Nachal Gishron, we now had to tackle Ma'aleh Gishron. Upon leaving the valley in order to start the ascent, we missed the correct path (of course), continuing along an unmarked path that came to a dead end that even the shvil masters on their cruelest day couldn't make us climb. We backtracked, found the correct path and almost immediately wished we hadn't. It was a doozy. You can blame it on my A.D.D., but I've never been known for my patience and so far today exemplified it perfectly. I always love walking the shvil. I love the outdoors, the challenge, the camaraderie, the escape from day-to-day life and much more. However, the jitters that I'd been feeling all week quickly gave way to impatience. I think for the first time ever, I wasn't enjoying it. It's not rocket science when I say that overcoming the physical challenges of the shvil is 80% in your mind. So when my mind wasn't in to it, the ascent up Ma'aleh Gishron was that much harder. As I've said somewhere else, I'm too shvil old and grumpy for this shit. Just let me finish. If my impatience made the walking more difficult for me, Yoni had it even harder. On this, the last day of shvil, he was suffering from light-headedness and dizziness. This is not the way he wanted to finish the journey.
In any case, dizziness, difficulty or whatever, we got to the top and as always, the views make it all worthwhile. Each climb and its own view from the top. From there, the path continued on; it dropped a bit, rose a bit, rose a lot, we panted and complained and after almost 4 hours of walking, it was time for a break. We were about to have our last breakfast on the shvil. This is no paltry thing. Yes. Yes, I know, we're obsessed with food - Guilty as charged. But breakfast isn't just about the food. In fact, over time, our on-shvil food has become simpler. We used to make elaborate gourmet sandwiches, but over time we realized that we didn't need the fancy stuff. Tomatoes, cucumbers, cheap rolls and bought salads all taste so much better on the shvil, with your closets friends, in pristine air and in a spectacular location. Shvil breakfasts had an intangible quality that went far beyond the simple produce, vitamin replenishment and renewing energy. My last shvil breakfast and the thought of the last few kilometers ahead lifted my spirits and enthusiasm.
Over the course of our time on the shvil, we have come across many weird and random sights, so why not a few more today? In bygone years, people used message walls to leave graffiti or information to those coming after. Today we passed a chewing gum wall. I'm not quite sure what message was being sent here, but archeologists will have a field day in the future trying to understand why a wall in this lonely desert canyon had hundreds of pieces of chewed gum stuck to it.
Not too long after breakfast, the path crossed a very new looking, paved bitumen road, in the middle of no-where. Where it went, where it came from and why it is there, I have no idea. Like most of today's route, this road was very close to the security wall that delineates the border with Egypt. The weird and totally inexplicable part of the story is that a silver Toyota Corolla, with its driver sitting inside, was sitting stationary at the exact place where the shvil crosses the road. It was almost as if Mr Shvil Painter, or his bosses, the Shvil Elders, had sent him there to wait for us, making sure that we were safe. (As if). Or that he was a drugs\weapons\Russian prostitute dealer waiting for a shipment to come up through the Sinai and cross into Israel. I honestly don't know, but it was as random a sight that you could ever imagine. And speaking of roads, there was some final road walking waiting for us, when further along, the path went along a different stretch of bitumen for about 400 metres. We have consistently and steadfastly refused to walk on roads, ever since we hitched a ride to the end of the very first day because it would have us walk along a road for 4 km. Now, in the middle of this leg, we had no choice but to walk along this road. The irony was not lost on us.

Weirdness, however, wasn't restricted to other people. We had our own weirdness, in the form of some very strange conversations. Atop one of the day's many cliffs, we passed an engraved metal rod driven into the ground, painted with the blue white and orange shvil colors. This was a memorial for a shviller who had slipped and fallen to his death here. Putting the solemnity of the location aside, we started to fantasize about how the headlines would read if we were to die on the shvil, working in our own personalities and physical and character traits into the fictional descriptions. A psychologist may read our impending completion of the shvil as much a trigger for the conversation as the stern reminder that the shvil can indeed be dangerous, but I've never been one for pop psychology, so I'll let the reader make up his own mind. I'm curious whether a further conversation about which female members of parliament we found attractive would be classed as weird, sick or demented or sort of normal for 4 middle aged male friends.  Again, the reader can make up his mind.

Upon completing the climb up Ma'aleh Gishron, I thought we had finished our steep climbs on the shvil. As usual, the shvil elders had other ideas. In the middle of no-where, there was a sign, pointing in the direction of the path we were on, towards Mt.Tzfatot. A path up a mountain is almost as bad as a path up a Ma'aleh (ascent). In reality, it was difficult without being murderous. And the shvil's final grand view from the top was truly astonishing. We were a steep 3 km descent from the end. Just like our estimation how long it would take us to complete the whole Israel National Trail, we had gotten our timing all wrong. We thought we'd cover today's 14 km in four to five hours and it was taking us closer to seven hours. This final leg of shvil yisrael had succeeded in going out with a bang - borders, stunning views, scary descents and gut busting ascents.
And that was it. The path leads to the locked back fence of the Eilat field school, the tri-coloured shvil markings disappear and you're finished. One of the great hikes of the world ends without a plaque, without any official signs, nothing. If it was America there would be a giant neon sign, fast food joint and a factory outlet. Europe would have a tasteful but large inscription with lots of flowery language and platitudes. Yet here in Israel, which is so often noisy and emotional, just a hand painted sign in lieu of any formal recognition from the Nature Protection Society which is responsible for the shvil. I guess it doesn't matter, because we'd done it.

For seven years we dreamt of our families joining us for the last hundred metres, continuing on with a dip in the Red Sea and a celebratory meal. Unfortunately, our families couldn't make it and the beaches are all private and fenced off, so no dip. We had a long journey ahead of us, so no celebratory meal either. Rather than a grand celebration, with marching bands and pom-pom girls, we found ourselves, 10 minutes after the last white blue and orange marking had disappeared, in a taxi, heading back to the apartment.  Half an hour after that we had showered and were in the car, farewelling Eilat and the shvil forever. Talk about an anti-climax. And yet, maybe this was a lesson in humility. Many thousands of people had completed the shvil before us and countless more will after us, and maybe we shouldn't make such a big thing of it. But when it comes down to it, yes, I am proud that I've walked from Dan in the North to Eilat in the South. It's taken us seven years and has been a physical and mental challenge that none of us would have ever imagined that we would ever face. The three of us have overcome doubts, personal and family complications and physical issues along the way and yet we made it. It is a once in a lifetime achievement that we couldn't have done without each other. It was a life experience that I feel privileged to have been a part of.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

57th day (One Last Reverse)

When planning this trip, I looked at the map and saw that whilst we'd only be covering 24 km in these two days of walking, it would have been too hard to do in one day. In fairness, Garry thought we would succeed in getting through the 24 km in one day, and I'm sure HE could indeed have done it. Mark, whilst not as tough as our resident mountain goat, is a public servant, who has ample time to work out in the gym and keep himself fit. Yoni and I may well have succeeded in completing the 24 km in one day, but we wouldn't have enjoyed it. But we're doing the shvil in order to enjoy it, not to prove to anybody that we still have enough testosterone to hike more than 20 km in a day. So if we did 13 yesterday (not counting the added 4 before we officially started), that leaves 11 today. No problem, even if it is mostly uphill the whole way.
Now is the time when I admit to the fact that I can sometimes be a bit thick. Yoni took one look at the book and the maps and instantly declared that walking South to North, or down from 700 metres above sea level to 200 metres above sea level, is far more logical than continuing from where we finished the day before, in a North to South direction, which would have us climb from 200 metres up to 700 metres. Even though we have switched directions many times in the past in order to have an easier walk, I didn't think to do it now. Thankfully Yoni convinced us of the logic and for one last time, we switched walking direction.
This trip and the previous one, where we stayed at Elifaz, have had easy, hassle free logistics, reliable transport and accommodation in one place for two nights, which, not withstanding the walking, gave it an almost holiday feel. It's a distant memory from other times when starting to walk would be delayed by 3 hours by logistical difficulties. Given that today was a Friday, we were eager to get going early so we could finish and get back home in the North in time for Shabbath. In order to facilitate this, we arranged for Shimon to pick us up at 5.00 so we would be walking at sunlight. No coffee stops, no muckin' around, straight to the starting point. Shimon is super reliable and doesn't seem to sleep, as no matter how early we ask him to pick us up, he's there 15 minutes early. So at 4.55 we were in his taxi already, for the short drive to the starting point on Route 12, adjacent to the border with Egypt. Trouble is, first light is about 5.40. So there we were, seeing Shimon's tail lights disappear down the road and over the mountain, in pitch black. The trail looked wide and obvious, so we decided to set off in the dark, hoping this was the right way. The book did warn us that the trail, being so close to the Egyptian border, passed through a mine field on either side. So that about sums it up; we were walking on a path through a mine field, in the dark, not being absolutely certain that we were on the right track. At 55 years old, you'd think we'd show a bit more responsibility, maturity and judgement, especially so close to the end.

We did notice, dark or not, that the path was going down very steeply. We were instantly glad that we were descending first thing in the morning and not ascending at the end of the walk. After 20 minutes or so, it was still dark, bit we could make out enough to see that we had gotten to a cliff. A very high cliff. Unanimously we decided to stop and wait to see where the path went and where the edge of the cliff was. Who says we're irresponsible?
As light came up we could see the grandeur of the surrounding mountains and the valley a long way below us. My companions stayed well back from the cliff's edge, but I wanted an adrenaline rush and a better view of the cliff face and the valley, so walked around the side, along an abutment on the edge. My heart did literally pound from the adrenaline and the views were even better than where my friends were standing. Hell, if we were rolling the dice this morning, then why not the whole way? 
Once we had enough light and decided to get moving again, we had a little trouble finding the continuation of the path. It seemed to have disappeared. This is actually quite correct, it sort of did disappear. Down a vertical hole in a rock. Was Mr. Shvil Painter serious, that we were to lower ourselves in to a hole that would be a tight fit for "regular" shvillers, let alone overweight 50 somethings? I'm not joking when I say that this fissure in the rock was less than a metre wide and in order to get in we had to remove our backpacks and wiggle into the space. Once in, we crouched down inside the middle of the rock, sat on a ledge and tried to find a way of getting legs down to unseen rungs. The adrenaline burst on top of the cliff was nothing compared to this. Each one of us found a different way of successfully lowering our bodies down. Once again, on the 2nd last leg of this long journey, when you think that you've seen everything on the shvil, you get something new, exciting, dangerous and FUN. The remainder of the descent down to the bottom of the cliff was steep but uneventful. Ein Netafim, the only spring in the area that has water all year round, is at the base of the cliff. We didn't stop to have a look, though from all reports, it's not exactly the sort of desert oasis that tempts you to hang around at for very long.

The path continued down nachal netafim, once again passing through Hollywood disaster movie sets of boulders strewn all over the place. Fortunately, the path wound around the boulders and we didn't have to drop any straight down. The descent down nachal netafim was quite steep, but after a few km leveled out. For the 2nd or 3rd or 4th time, we were thankful that my short-sightedness gave way to simple logic in reversing the walking direction.

 Today's walk, although relatively short, was as varied and as beautiful as any we had done on the shvil, principally because we passed many junctions and valleys. Each valley that we passed had a different view, angle and colour. Imagine walking down Main Street in your home town, at every intersection looking right or left and seeing a different neighborhood. Here, we would crest a hill, walk past deep canyons or wide valleys and each appeared different. After a few km, the flat-topped Mt, Schoret loomed in front of us. From experience, the Shvil Elders like to schlep us up flat-topped mountains, just for the fun of it. The book, however, made no mention of climbing Mt Schoret, so we assumed that this time we would skirt it around its base. The truth lay somewhere in the middle. As we approached the mountain ahead of us, the path rose. And continued to rise. We made quite a steep climb that scaled about 3/4 of the mountain. By the time the path reached its high-point we weren't so far beneath the mountain's summit. The descent over the other side into the basin below, surrounded by mountains in all directions, was stunning. Throughout the day's walk, the mountains and valleys were colored with varieties of red, yellow, white and black that made the views all the more striking.  At a 4 way path junction we turned right into Schoret canyon. Now the color ranges were up close as we walked the final kilometer and a half through the narrow canyon. A final bit of variety to end two days of almost perfect walking, which had everything from boring plains to mountain views, to cliffs, valleys and narrow canyons. The shvil was going out with a bang.
Just to put the cherry on the icing for everything that had gone right this trip, Danny the Jeep Man arrived to the agreed pickup point at exactly the same time as we exited the canyon. We'd finished the 10 km quickly and hadn't had our brekky. Whilst we always enjoy sitting on a ledge, or under a tree or on a mountain top to eat, there's something unaccustomedly civilized about eating breakfast at a table, on plates, in an apartment in Eilat.
The long boring drive back was made a little more bearable by a fun new game. Yoni the DJ took requests from the audience, which he would duly find on YouTube and play over the car's stereo. The hours passed listening to old songs from our youth. Just 4 old friends out on a drive. And an adventure.    

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