Israel’s southernmost Eilot region begins at the Egyptian border and gateway to the Sinai, a short way south and extending west outside the Red Sea coast and holiday/port city of Eilat. Practically walking distance to the east is the Jordanian border. Nestled against the Red Sea and the striking, majestic Edom Mountains is the neighboring city of Aqaba, a city made immemorial by David Lean in his epic film Lawrence of Arabia. Drive a bit farther south along the western fringe of the Red Sea and you come to the Saudi Arabian border.
Heading north from Eilat, Eilot stretches more than 100 kilometers to the capital of Beer Sheva. The road north along the Arava Valley is framed by the Eilat and Ketura Mountains and the Negev desert plateau to the west and Jordan’s Edom Mountains to the east.
The area, like many places, is a mix of striking similarities and stark contrasts. Sharing the same rugged coastal mountain, desert and acacia scrub geography and climate, it is not only one of the few places where Arab and Israeli/Hebrew cultures and people reside in relative peace and close proximity. An arid desert climate (with 10 millimeters or less of rainfall on average per year) modulated by the Red Sea is both harsh and gentle – and a challenge in terms of making the most out of precious natural resources and adapting technologies to the climate and geography without damaging what is at one and the same time a rugged yet fragile ecosystem.
Still sparsely populated, relatively speaking, the Arava Valley is nonetheless a center of agriculture, as well as eco-consciousness and entrepreneurial spirit. The former is thanks to a substantial underground aquifer and practical human farming skills and know-how. The latter is also a result of the people that have settled in the Valley, which is dotted with kibbutz communities that exhibit an intriguing mix of participatory, democratic, communal living and market-driven, entrepreneurial spirit.
Israel’s southernmost region, the Negev desert plateau and the Arava Valley comprise some 60% of the country’s land area. Just about at its southern tip, Eilat lies astride land’s end and the Red Sea’s northern shore. Popular with water sports lovers, sun worshipers and tourists in general, to the east Eilat melds with the Jordanian city of Aqaba, which thanks to nearby attractions such as Petra and Wadi Rum, as well as the establishment of an international duty free port and economic development zone, is now also courting the international tourist. Further south along the Red Sea coast is the Egyptian border and the SCUBA diving mecca of Sharm al Sheik.
I arrive in Amman at 3:30 in the morning, have a coffee and a smoke, change some dollars for dinars and catch one of the government authorized taxis for a three-hour or so ride straightaway south through the night to Aqaba. High, steep and jagged red rock cliffs appear nearby to the east, with smaller, more rolling but no less harsh looking sandstone dominated rolling hills and dunes on our western side. The empty highway cuts through small rock and sand strewn valleys and plains.
Heading south we pass turnoffs for Wadi Rum and Petra. With sunrise we arrive in Aqaba, a historic Red Sea port which for me always brings to mind that great scene from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence and the Arab sheikhs he brought together during WWI make the unheard of decision to cross the desert, swoop down and overrun the port city, which at the time was of critical significance to the Ottoman Turks.
Aqaba today appears to be a very scenic, pleasant and still relatively small city in the midst of a growth spurt – one that, thankfully, is still off the main tourist track and not yet stung by overdependence on tourists and the crowds of hawkers and touts looking to make a fast buck, euro, dinar or shekel, as the case may be.
Valley of the Sun?
A bus ride north out of Eilat takes you along a straight well-paved highway into the Arava Valley. A short distance away, the Eilat and Ketura mountains rise up and into the Negev desert plateau. The Jordanian border is never far to the east, despite the northerly winds that intermittently sweep down and obliterate views of the Edom Mountains across the border.
The sand and gravel wadis – ancient riverbeds – and coastal plain on the Israeli side of the Valley is dotted with drip irrigated palm, vegetable and fruit tree plantations, dairy and livestock farms. Cultivating date palms – the prized medjool variety in particular – accounts for roughly 50% of the region’s income, according to Yosef Abramowitz, former president of a Boston-based media company, who with his wife and children gave up life in the big city and the U.S. about a year and a half ago for the calmer, communal rural desert lifestyle of Israel’s Kibbutz Ketura.
I cross the Jordan-Israeli from Aqaba in short order and with relative ease early Sunday morning. I’m en route to Kibbutz Lotan – about an hour’s bus ride north of Eilat and a two-day bird watching tour.
There’s a lot of interest in renewable energy among the Arava Valley’s Kibbutz communities, or kibbutzim as they’re called in Hebrew, and given the valley averages about 350 days of sunshine each year and substantial amounts of marginal, unused land, solar energy in particular.
The Arava Power Co., whose main shareholders are the 135 members of Kibbutz Ketura, is a prime mover in an effort that aims to make the Valley a solar energy hub. APC is working on developing a grid-connected electrical solar energy system that it believes can scale up to 500 megawatt-hours and will include feed-in tariffs paid to local kibbutzim and other residents that can contribute power to it.
“It’s a high priority for the local population and local councils,” Daphna Abell, director of ecotourism at Kibbutz Lotan said.
Though locals are very ecologically conscious, ecological concerns haven’t been high up on the national government’s list of priorities, which isn’t surprising given Israel’s ongoing struggle to find the means to secure its survival and peace in the region.
Generally speaking, “‘ecology is a luxury we cannot really afford,’ has been the attitude of the Israeli national government up until about ten years ago,” Abell said. “On the other side, locals [in the Eilat region] consider ecology an element that contributes to the security of our future…” Israel’s environmental ministry has been growing in size and authority during the past ten years, Abell recounted, but it still lacks “enough authority and influence in government.”
Birding in the Arava Valley
The Arava Valley is the northern part of the Afro-Syrian Rift Valley, the East African Rift Valley being the southern portion. The route north from the Red Sea lies underneath that taken by hundreds of migratory bird species and literally hundreds of thousands of birds making their way back and forth in sync with seasonal changes between their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and wintering grounds throughout Africa.
This ornithological wonder is one of a number of things that makes the region special…one that attracts thousands of bird watchers and enthusiasts here on an annual basis. This week, the Isrotel Agamin Hotel on Eilat’s beachfront resort strip is hosting birders from around the world as part of the week-long Spring Migration Festival. They’ve come to hear and participate in lectures and presentations from prominent ornithological experts and researchers, and, of course, to get out, spot, identify and photograph as many species as they can.
Some 60 km north of Eilat, Kibbutz Lotan has set up an ecotourism center that specializes in giving guided bird watching tours. Led by Jonathan Meyrav, Birding Tour Leader extraordinaire, I spend the next two days with Jonathan and two married couples – one from the Nuremburg area and another from Wales – traveling to the numerous birding sites along the Valley floor, west and up a few hundred meters on the Negev plateau, along the Eilat beachfront and up in the Eilat mountains looking to spot and identify as possible, and have a good time doing it.
Heading north out of Africa with the onset of spring, the birds come in waves. The grounds of Lotan are weigh stations for a variety of migratory sparrows, swallows, larks, pipits, martins, redstarts, thrushes, warblers, wagtails, wheatears and others. Raptors are likewise making their way north. Looking to gain height on the rising thermals in the early mornings over valley floor and mountain ridge, we spot black kites, steppe buzzards, imperial, steppe and short-toed eagles. An Egyptian vulture rises on the rising hot air along with them.
Congregating around salt and sewage ponds, manmade reservoirs and irrigated fields, we’re treated to the sight of marsh and pallid harriers as they alternately rise and dive down low over vegetable fields in search of food. Barbary and peregrine falcons streak across our field of view. Near waterways and shorelines, beeaters, lapwings, plovers, stilts and a variety of ducks, gulls and terns dot the waterways joined by egrets, blue, grey, squacco and striated herons — their feathering making them difficult to spot when sitting still amidst the reeds and bushes dotting the shoreline. Kestrels land while high above an osprey flies into a northerly headwind from the open water of the Red Sea. It really is a wonder of nature and creation.
Partners in Flight
In addition to conducting birding tours for Kibbutz Lotan, Jonathan is also team leader of the Partners in Flight program, a joint effort between the Israeli Ornithological Center and the Israeli Air Force. Established in 1988 with the aim of preventing damage and fatalities to bird, human and aircraft alike, in-flight collisions have been virtually eliminated as a result.
As birds take different routes north and south, Jonathan’s 14-member team positions itself farther north from mid-August to mid-October. “It’s quite narrow in the north, and our team is deployed from the Mediterranean in the west to the Rift Valley in the east,” he explained.
Jonathan maintains regular, at times constant, contact with team members and a high-ranking Israeli Air Force dispatcher so that the IAF can respond immediately to the presence of migrating birds that may potentially get in the way of aircraft flight lanes. “Not only immediate, we avoid and prevent imminent threats… the IAF will modify flight patterns to the extent of having planes hanging around in the air,” until the birds have moved on, he told TriplePundit.
“The Air Force looks at Partners in Flight as a preventive program, but the Ornithological Center looks at it first and foremost from a scientific perspective.” Survey members identify and count species members and note their behavior, all of which is uploaded to the Israeli Ornithological Center’s web site, he continued. Collected year after year, the data is extremely valuable in terms of being able to conduct time series studies of species populations. “For some species, up to 90 percent of the world population passes through here…This data gives us a very good idea of bird populations and health.”