Day 16: Witches and Water Buffalo
Trip Start May 19, 2009
30Trip End Jun 16, 2009
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We traveled north to the Hula Nature Reserve, 800 acres of swampland saved from the 15,000 acres drained by Israel in the 1950s to make farmland. Keeping some distance between us and a group of noisy kids, we walked the short loop path (way too hot to do a longer bicycle trip) through the high papyrus reeds and across bridges, spotting water buffalo eating, turtles sunning on rocks, giant catfish in the bright green swamp water, nutria (like otters) just at the water's surface, and a variety of birds from the long blind on a lake (alas, not the thousands that stop here during migration season). From the observation deck, we could see the extent of the reserve in the hot valley between the Israeli hills and the Golan Heights, not to mention the noisy kids, so we made for the exit, picking up the first of our umpteen waters, sodas, and popsicles of the day on the way
It was clear that climbing into the Golan Heights was not going to spare us the heat, unfortunately. Even though our next stop was the Banias waterfalls, one of the sources of the Jordan River, we could not go in, even if we wanted to and had been prepared to. Nonetheless, the powerful waters and the shade of the foliage around the area were a relief. We encountered the same mix of organized groups of Arab teenagers, tourists like us, and religious and secular Jews as we found at Ein Gedi and other popular sites. We opted not to hike the 45 mins. to the Banias springs, but drove the kilometer instead, and walked around the nearby ruins of the temple to the god Pan (whence the name Banias). At this point, we had been to Israel's southernmost national park (Coral Beach, Eilat) and its northernmost (Banias).
For lunch, we decided to try a cool-sounding place called the Witch and the Milkman. As it turns out, it was way, way, way up in the Golan Heights, 1125 meters (3700 feet) to be exact, so far up that we were sure we passed it, but in fact, hadn't got close yet. It was far, far above the Byzantine fortress we were going to visit, the one that was high above us at one point. Finally, we found it in the most remote mountain settlement, empty but open.
We drove back down, down, down, to the Nimrod fortress ruins (still very high up, at 2600 feet), amazing views of the hills and northern Israel below us making the meandering and switchback roads even more dangerous. Thank goodness we could drive right up to the fortress, but we did end up hiking over the grounds, down into the cool cistern and other stone structures, and up to the highest points for breathtaking panoramic views, from which we could see as far as Lebanon in the distance. (From the Golan, it's very clear how vulnerable the Galilee (northern Israel) was to Syrian shelling before the Heights were taken by Israel at great cost in 1967. If and when a treaty is signed, they will go back to Syria, bringing the border back to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but technology and war have changed such that the massive ridge is not the danger it once was.)
Did I mention it was hot out? We were drenched from the hike around the fortress, so it was back to the Kinneret in our air conditioned car, but taking the long way, along the eastern edge of the Golan Heights
We wanted nothing more than to jump into the Kinneret and cool off, which we did, sort of. We went into the lake for a little bit, but as hot as we were, it was pretty cold. Instead we sat in a bowl-like warm spring among the rocks on the shore, looking out onto the huge lake and the near-sunset colors on the Heights on the opposite shore, watching a boat here and there in the distance. The pool bubbled a little bit from the water emerging from beneath us; in fact, any disturbing of rocks on the bottom brought out dozens of bubbles. Refreshed, we set off for dinner on the deck of a nearby Chinese restaurant (it's been too long without!), where we watched the light fade on the lake and the pleasure boats pulsate with music.