Chris Day embarked on an epic trail across Israel in November 2012. Here she shares her thoughts on this relatively unexplored country and how viewing it from horseback offered an interesting insight into some of the country’s culture and history…
As I left Tel Aviv airport building the sound of the birds hit me. There are two trees either side of the doors and they were full of little sparrows, all tweeting like mad! What a lovely welcome to this country!
As we drove north to the lower Galilee, our guide Yair was happy to answer all our questions. He is very knowledgeable about the history of his country and very interesting to listen to. After stopping for dinner at an Arab restaurant, we arrived at Moshov Shorona, settled into our rooms, enjoyed a glass of wine and then headed to bed to prepare for the first day of riding.
After breakfast we went to the stables in Shedmoat Devora and became acquainted with our horses, I met my ride, who was a lovely bay Quarter Horse called Jameson. Together we rode onto the beautiful Sirin Heights, which was lush and green after recent rains had triggered new growth. The terrain was undulating and we had some lovely canters whilst taking in the wonderful views of Mount Tabor. After a delicious lunch we ascended up Mount Tabor to the Church of Transfiguration where we were met by far reaching views across the vast landscape.
From Mount Tabor we drove to Nazareth to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation (where the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary) and the Church of St Joseph, which is apparently on the site of Joseph’s house and workshop and where Jesus was raised.
This morning we rode into the Jordan Valley with Judah guiding us. The going was good and again we had some nice long canters. Our first view of the Sea of Galilee was awesome! Not just beautiful, but also highly evocative. Riding down into the valley we passed a grove of ancient acacia trees, reputedly 3 – 4,000 years old. This is the Yaela Grove, the site where Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, killed Sisera. We rode alongside the River Jordan, where our horses took a well-earned drink, to the site of the first ever kibbutz, Kibbutz Degania, and on to Yair’s brother’s farm.
Today we rode different horses from the stables at Kibbutz HaZorea with Uri as our guide. I had a lovely horse called ‘Dawn’ who gave me some great canters. We rode through woods and on hillsides through the Ramot Menashe National Park. The hills were covered in wild thyme, which gave off a wonderful scent as we rode. In the afternoon we visited Tel Mageddo – the site of Armageddon to you and me! A fascinating place which has been occupied since about 7,000 BC.
Tonight we stayed in cabins at Kibbutz Dalia; they are really nice with the luxury of a bath too! We had dinner with a local lady called Aviv, and her friend Eran. What a feast she prepared for us! It was lovely to spend time with them and they were very happy to answer all our questions about life on a kibbutz.
Today we were joined on the ride by Yair’s Arab friend Omar, and two other friends (Uri and Chaz). Yair brought his new Arab stallion, Dubai, and Omar and Uri also had their own horses. It was a lovely day and we rode for about 1 ½ hours to a picnic spot where we shared wine, coffee, almonds, fruit and croissant. Even though Omar doesn’t speak any English (other than ‘welcome’) we were a happy group. Chaz commented how good it was to be riding with four Jews, one Arab and two Christians!
We continued riding up Mt Carmel and had some nice canters where the ground allowed. We stopped in an olive grove just below the monastery and tied the horses to the trees in the shade. A friend of Yair’s arrived with table, chairs and warm food and salads. Lovely! After lunch we went up to look at the Carmelite Monastery. This is the site where the Prophet Elijah supposedly slaughtered the prophets of Baal.
Today was our non-riding day and we set off for Jerusalem at about 9am. When we arrived in the city we went straight to the Mt of Olives. What a view of Old Jerusalem, it was spectacular! We went to Gethsemane and visited the Russian Church of Mary Magdalene; the Byzantine Church (in a beautiful ancient grove of olive trees); Mary’s Tomb in the Greek Orthodox church, next to which is a grotto marking the spot where Jesus was betrayed by Judas.
From here we went into the old town itself, following the Via Delarosa, the route that Jesus walked to his crucifixion, carrying his cross. We visited the Dome of the Rock, which houses the sepulchre, and the Western Wall (‘wailing wall’). Finally we went up to a rooftop and had the most incredible views over the old town – it was quite an experience!
As we drove south from Jerusalem towards the Judea Desert we stopped at the site where David slew Goliath. There were ‘story telling’ stones along the route we walked and it was good to re-live this childhood tale again where it happened.
I had a new horse today, Neils, who was Jameson’s older brother. After about 1 ¾ hours we stopped on top of a hill, tied the horses to some rocks and then dropped over the edge to shelter in a niche in the cliff. Yair made coffee and again we ate cake, sausages, fruit and other delicacies. We climbed back to the horses and as we came off the top we saw a Bedouin shepherd on his donkey, with his sheep and dogs – a different way of life altogether. Then the heavens opened! Lightning was flashing all around us and it was spectacular.
Back at camp we had a nice warming lunch of shakshouka (eggs poached in a tomato and pepper sauce), with humus and pitta of course. By the time we had finished lunch the skies had cleared and we set off on a walk through the desert to see the sunset. We walked to a high point between two canyons, where we could see an amazing waterfall (Tze’elim falls) at the Tzfira Pool, which was filled by flash floods from the recent rains. Apparently Yair has never seen water in this river before and the flow will only last for about six hours or so! It was an amazing sight!
The morning brought with it a mist in the valley, which hugged the tent. Very atmospheric! We rode out by 09:00 and the mist soon cleared to give some spectacular views as we looked down into the Tselim Canyon. The desert was very stony and so we walked pretty much all the way, with the very occasional canter when the tracks allowed. I found it surprising how quickly we seemed to cover distances in the desert, even when we were only walking!
We sadly handed our horses over to Judah, said our farewells, and made our way to Messada, a rugged natural fortress, fortified by King Herod over 2,000 years ago. It was an incredible site and again Yair was an interesting guide and explained the history well. The history of the site was amazing and evocative.
After leaving Messada we drove to the Dead Sea, south of Messada. We had a quick lunch in the hotel café and then changed into our costumes. It wasn’t too cold on the beach, but the sea was chilly – ok once you were in though. And what a strange experience! You really do float in the shallowest of water. Swimming is incredibly difficult and you end up doing more of a doggy paddle!
After our dip in the sea we headed north to Tel Aviv, along the shore of the Dead Sea, looking at Jordan on the opposite bank, on arrival we had a nice dinner, said farewell to Yair and sat for a while in the hotel bar, recounting our wonderful adventures in Israel.
What an amazing week – the scenery was spectacular and the riding great, but most of all, our wonderful guide Yair helped us understand and appreciate the amazing history of this country, every step of the way.