Israel is not exactly the first country that springs to mind when one thinks of 4×4 destinations. But you’d be surprised by the wonderful 4×4 opportunities that the country offers. Israel not only has many historical sites and beautiful landscapes, but is also dotted with hundreds of 4×4 tracks. Dutch couple Andrea Dijkstra and Jeroen van Loon decided to explore this fascinating region
Text: Andrea Dijkstra
Photography: Jeroen van Loon
Driving through the Negev Desert, our eyes gaze across the astonishing, ever-changing, landscape: the Tsjiya mountains with what appear to be white painted triangular patterns, the sharp ochre-tinted Afriff Cliff against the cloudless blue sky, and the 38km-long Ramon Crater, with its grey and purple edges, to which the white, brown and jet-black mountains inside form a bizarre contrast.
We fold open our roof-top tent in the mysterious Ein Zik Oasis, full of rugged palm trees, where the sunset colours the surrounding mountains softly pink.
Enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal and a glass of wine, we enjoy the full moon, which gives the palms and mountain peaks a golden glow. We never knew that Israel was criss-crossed by hundreds of 4×4 tracks, or that it offered so many beautiful sights. The Negev Desert in the south of the country was just the start of it all…
Things that scare off many overlanders considering a trip to Israel are the much dreaded “stamp” that is required when you enter, and the notorious border check. “Please unpack your whole car” was indeed the request of the friendly but serious Israeli teenager in a uniform, ready with a row of trolleys to start inspecting our car. As other travellers had fortunately warned us of what to expect, we had packed with this process in mind, and quickly started to unload into the trolleys. Everything had to pass through a metal detector and “suspect goods”, such as our compressor and large camera flash, required further investigation with all kinds of brushes and powders.
Although our Arabic to English dictionary led to a couple of suspicious looks, the passport official didn’t seem to have any problem with the fact that we had crossed Syria and Jordan. After two men had thoroughly investigated our vehicle, we could finally load it up again. Three hours after leaving Jordan, we found ourselves driving into the “Promised Land”.
The next morning, a soft rustle woke us. Trying not to make a sound, Jeroen zipped the tent open, stuck his head out, and suddenly cried: “A wolf!”
Curious to see, I also peeked through the tent opening and was astonished to see the grey animal carrying one of Jeroen’s sandals in its mouth. Quickly, Jeroen scrambled out of the tent, grabbed a knife, and in his boxer shorts, chased the wolf that was making off with one of his favourite shoes! Luckily, after 50m the animal dropped the sandal.
“Chewed up and full of slime,” Jeroen complained wheezily upon his return. However, it was still fine to use, and turned out to be a welcome piece of evidence to corroborate our story!
Welcome to Jericho
Through deep canyons and over narrow tracks we slowly descended to the Dead Sea. At more than 400m below sea level, it is the lowest lake on earth. It’s a surreal picture of crystal white salt beaches, bright blue water, shifting salt rocks and, in the background, terracotta-coloured mountains. Swimming here was a hilarious experience. Absolutely everything floated – your legs, knees and feet, making swimming surprisingly tough.
From the Dead See we headed to Jericho. It is a Palestinian city with a large Palestinian population, but has been occupied by Israel for years. We were a bit nervous about entering the city.
To get from the Dead Sea to Jericho, we had to pass a Palestinian roadblock. The soldiers at the checkpoint walked around our car suspiciously. “It’s a Dutch car,” said Jeroen. “Look, NL licence plate, not Israeli IL.” Jeroen pointed at the country acronym on our yellow plates.
“But the Israeli army also has yellow number plates,” said one of the guards. “And they also drive these cars. People might think you are Israeli soldiers.”
This was a rather alarming bit of information, so to make sure that we wouldn’t be mistaken for an Israeli patrol, we tied small Dutch flags to both sides of our Land Rover. After some phone calls, the soldiers suddenly announced: ”You can go now. It’s now very safe for you.”
After fulfilling their only request – taking their picture with the Land Rover – we were waved through with a big smile. We passed chaotic Arab shops and a statue of a key with the inscription: “We will return.”
Though some people seemed hostile when they first spotted us, their attitudes changed the moment they saw our Dutch flags. They put up their thumbs, and some even shouted: “Welcome to Jericho!”
After enjoying some fresh bread and sweet tea, we filled our fuel tanks, since diesel was a bit cheaper there than in the rest of Israel.
A city of walls
Our next stop was Jerusalem. Because it is not exactly a car-friendly city, we left our Land Rover in a guarded parking area, and walked to the Old City. In the maze of alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, we came upon an Orthodox boys’ school where pupils were playing tag while keeping their black yarmulkes in place with one hand. It was a pleasant and peaceful sight. After passing through a metal detector, we entered the square in front of the Western Wall, where men in black suits, crisp white shirts and tall hats stood facing the holy wall. To their right, whispering women in long skirts and wigs held their prayer books against their mouths. Others kept the palms of their hands against the wall for minutes at a time or, after putting little notes between the grooves, walked backwards as they left in order not to turn their backs to the wall out of respect for God’s presence.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we felt a bit overwhelmed by the hundreds of crying pilgrims who were repeatedly kissing a large stone. This is said to be the place where Jesus’s body was placed after he was taken down from the cross. Dozens of Nigerians were pushing and shoving on a narrow stairway in order to touch the stone.
The next day, it seemed as if the buses full of Nigerians had followed us through the checkpoints to Bethlehem. In the Church of Nativity, they again desperately pressed and shoved, this time to reach the spot where Jesus’s crib reportedly once stood. We were upset by the story of Claire Anastas, a Christian woman we met in the city. Her house and souvenir shop in downtown Bethlehem is now surrounded by the twisting separation barrier that the Israeli government is constructing on the West Bank. She once lived on the busiest street in the city, but since 2003 it is no more than a blind alley because of the new wall. As a result, Claire has lost her customers. Still feeling angry about the difficult situation the residents in Bethlehem were in, we drove to the mountain village of Taybeh, which houses the only brewery on the West Bank. While we enjoyed the dark beer, owner Nadim Khoury, who had personally developed the five different flavours of Taybeh Beer, gave us an extensive tour, and told us about the challenges he faced every day.
He sold beer in Jerusalem, which is only 35km from his brewery. However, the law demanded that his beer kegs first be sent hundreds of kilometres to a checkpoint where they could be scanned, before being sent to Jerusalem. Despite many obstacles, however, the brewery has managed to gain a foothold in a surprising number of countries. The beer is sold in several European countries, and even Japan.
On the trail
We now drove north to explore one of the specially marked 4×4 tracks on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee. The trail appeared to be designed for advanced drivers. Our traction control system worked overtime, and our hands became sweaty when, hanging onto the hillside with tyres slipping, we just managed to ascend the hill to the top of the trail. Finally on the top, still pumped with adrenaline, we enjoyed a superb view over the mountains and the enormous lake. A cold beer tasted very good. When hundreds of small lights turned on along the shores, we decided that this was the perfect place to camp.
Next day we travelled to the Golan Heights, where long-haired cows and green mountains reminded us of Switzerland. This changed, though, when we passed a few overgrown ruins, and an uneasy feeling came over us.
We didn’t even want to imagine what horrors had occurred when the inhabitants of these houses were expelled. While we had already passed a few corroded military vehicles in the Negev Desert, in this disputed area it seemed as if we passed a military training area every few kilometres. Israeli teenagers learning how to manoeuvre a tank through the mud was a common sight. The hundreds of Israelis in 4x4s that we encountered seemed stunned when we told them that we had come all the way from the Netherlands. “Impossible!” they shouted, “Oh no, impossible for us.”
Of course, it was impossible for them because they were not welcome in most of their neighbouring countries – a sad situation to be in.
Time to go
When we stopped in Tel Aviv on the way back south, we marvelled at the similarities this city had with Amsterdam. Youngsters in trendy clothes drank cappuccinos or sipped on glasses of wine. Everywhere cyclists were riding in designated cycling lanes. After a beer in the picturesque old Jaffa, where you can still catch a glimpse of what the city was like before the state Israel was founded, we drove back into the Negev Desert where we would cross the border from Eilat into Egypt. The next morning, however, we were again awoken by a strange sound. This was clearly not a wolf, however. A deafening roar emanated from just outside our tent.
We opened the tent and carefully looked out. Less than five metres away, a helicopter was landing! A policeman jumped out, and shouted that we needed to leave immediately.
“The army is going to do something,” was his cryptic explanation. We quickly packed our Land Rover. The helicopter took off, and passed over us twice. Each time the policeman pointed at his watch, indicating that he wanted us to hurry up. Fifteen minutes later, we were escorted out of the area by the helicopter. When we were back at the highway, the helicopter again landed. The policeman was now much friendlier and more relaxed. He even offered us his packed lunch.
“Sorry that you had to leave so suddenly,” he said. “But the army was going to bomb the area in a few minutes.”
Perhaps, we concluded, we should leave Israel sooner rather than later. It had been a wonderful experience, but it was clearly time to move on!