A desert natural park and a lush bird sanctuary — both in a small strip of land known as Israel — seemed an unlikely combination, but the Mashkesh Ramon Nature Reserve in the Negev desert and the International Birding and Research Centre at the mouth of the Red Sea in Eilat serve to present a contrast in locales. Both stand tall in preserving flora and fauna.
Israel is mostly composed of desert but the innovative drip irrigation system created by its agricultural scientists has greened many areas, creating man-made oases where kibbutzes thrive. These kibbutzes, a unique Israeli institution, are community-living centres that follow a mantra of self-sufficiency and sustainability. In many desert-prone areas, as in our very own Rajasthan, collaborative efforts using this irrigation technique have shown good results.
The Mashkesh Ramon Nature Reserve is Israel’s largest nature park and to get there we started from the small town of Mitzpe Ramon, an hour from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. As expert driver-cum-guide Gilad Cartoon made progress with a Land Rover Defender, it seemed we were in for trouble as there was practically no road; it looked more like moonscape. But the jeep and the guide proved us wrong.
A makhtesh is unique to the Negev desert. It is a geological formation, also seen in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. It has steep walls of resistant rock surrounding a deep, closed valley that is usually drained by a single wadi or spring. The Ramon, the largest natural crater in the world, is 500 metres deep. Although commonly referred to as "craters", these formations are "erosion cirques" or box canyons. Craters are usually formed by the impact of meteors or volcanic eruption.
Mashkesh Ramon is a geologists’ paradise, with layers of rock formation in many colours laid out dramatically. Rub a bit of yellow-coloured soft rock, mix a little water, and, voila — a sandalwood kind of paste appears! Millions of years ago, the Negev was actually covered by an ocean, as was evident from a fossil of a sea centipede we saw stuck on a stone. The water body started receding northwards, leaving behind a hump-shaped hill.
Approximately five million years ago, the Arava Rift Valley, part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches all the way to Africa, was formed by shifting tectonic plates. Rivers changed their courses, chipping away softer rock and leaving the hard rock intact. The crater bottom continued to deepen and more layers of ancient rock were exposed; the rocks at the bottom are estimated to be 200 million years old.
The valley is drained by the Nahal Ramon and Nahal Ardon rivers. Amazingly, this arid zone can experience flashfloods too, the water going up to the height of hillocks. We saw tell-tale signs of a recent flood; but it also helps to wake up desert plant seeds that lie dormant. The lovely yellow flowers that speckle some patches are witness to nature’s wonderful chemistry. This area, in fact, was home to many Bedouin tribes in the past. It was also on the spice trade route of the Nabataens, who built the famed Petra caravan city in Jordan.
Today, the makhtesh is also a field of research into traditional knowledge of the roaming tribes and showcases how they learnt to use the natural plants to their advantage. Gilad showed us a plant that kept fleas away from camels and humans, another that, when rubbed with a bit of water, creates soap-like suds, and yet another that produces a substance like a wheat dough. There were also aromatic plants that can be used to spice up dishes.
In recent years, some animals mentioned in "biblical times" have been reintroduced to the eco system. The onager, the smallest of the wild horse species, looks more like a donkey and ibex, the extremely resilient mountain goat with huge horns, thrives here. We came across a hyrax, a furry rabbit, and believe it or not its closest relative is the elephant, which would here thousands of years ago.
The International Birding and Research Centre in Hula Valley is completely different terrain. It is near Eilat, which is more of a resort town, but few know, except for enthusiastic birdwatchers and ornithologists perhaps, that for eons this valley has been one of the most important spots for migratory birds. It is the only land bridge between Eurasia and Africa and millions of birds use the salty marshland as a resting place and to store food before or after crossing the 3,000-km migratory path in the vast Sahara desert during the spring and autumn.
Established in the 1990s by the government, the IBRC was once an industrial waste site, which is hard to believe today. Here researchers monitor the birds, "ring" them for the database, sometimes tag them with chips and then set them free. Noam Weiss, director of the centre and a passionate "birder", demonstrated how a bird’s wings can tell its age, how it keeps warm, or cool, and how the tiniest of birds manage to cross the desert.
With a pair of powerful binoculars, we could see pelicans, flamingos, ducks and many other species and I found myself regretting how a migration haven like Bharatpur in India has declined while here every effort is made to preserve this ancient migration route and help feed birds by planting the flowering trees they love.
As we were preparing to leave, a group of Belgian birdwatchers walked in and there was a flurry of activity. Weiss told us that an annual competition was due and the "Champion of Flyaway" would be selected for the maximum number of bird-species he or she spotted. Many international teams take part and even young students come calling for the hands-on experience.