Eilat – from the desert to the reef
Esther, my camel, sees a spiky bush with white flowers. She stops and refuses to move on without taking a mouthful of the plant. She was fed at the camel ranch but this seems to be her favorite delicacy and she keeps looking for another bush.
The sun gently warms my face and I find myself dozing on the constantly swaying animal’s back, even though the dry scenery of endless sand and mountains turning red in the setting sunlight provide a stunning view. Before dark. we park our caravan in the desert, light a fire and sit around it. Our guide Or tells us stories about camels and the desert while kneading bread dough.
Did you know that a camel has 320-degree eyesight? It means that it always knows where it is walking – without the need for a rear-view mirror. And when there is water available, the camel will happily drink 20 liters, but it can also walk a fortnight without a single sip of water.
The landscape around us has welcomed caravans and travelers through the ages. Two thousand years ago, spices and incense were transported on the backs of camels along the Incense Route that passed through the Negev Desert.
‘I find myself dozing on the animal’s back’
Soon, the Bedouin flatbread is ready and the scent of herbal tea rises from steaming tea glasses. Watching the bright stars in the dark desert sky is a profoundly meditative experience.
The hotel breakfast the next morning is probably the biggest I have ever seen. The tables sag under the weight of cheese, spreads, olives, vegetables, fruit and salads. The only danger here is forgetting one’s limits and eating too much, especially as I’m about to go diving.
After a short introductory course, I enter the water with my instructor holding my hand. A clear blue world opens up in front of me, revealing wonders invisible from above the water – beautiful corals, thorny sea urchins and colorful fish flitting by in their silent world.
And here comes a playful quartet. Four beautiful creatures, residents of the Dolphin Reef, have decided to put on a spontaneous show for us. Divers aren’t allowed to approach or touch the dolphins but the instructors make an exception. Nana, a 21-year-old dolphin, approaches us and asks for her tummy to be tickled.
There’s an unobstructed exit to the sea and once in a while, the dolphins leave for a couple of hours to fish or ride the waves. But they always come back.
“This is their home, where they feel safe,” says Advat Gal, bending over to cuddle Nikita. Advat has been taking care of the dolphins for 22 years and knows each one’s character and behavior. She communicates with them using body language.
“They have names and they express joy and anger like we do. I love them all, but Nana and I are particularly close. We share the same character. She is a caretaker and if one of the others is in trouble, she’s always the first to help out.”
This is Eilat. Untouched nature is just a stone’s throw away from the modern coastal town. At the same time, there are fashionable shops selling both international and Israeli designer brands as well as modern hotels, stylish cafés and nightclubs.
Bordering Jordan to the east and with Egypt to the west, Eilat grew rapidly from an administrative town inhabited mainly by army officials, maritime employees and former prisoners in the 1950s to what it is today, thanks to its port.
The locals I talk to say the same thing – they love the vibe of the small but international town.
“We have less than 60,000 citizens but so many nationalities. I love the weather with zero humidity. We get less than five hours of rain every year. But most of all, I love the laid-back, stress-free lifestyle,” says Lior Mucznik, director of the Dan Eilat Hotel and the Eilat Hotel Association.
‘Most of all, I love the laid-back, stress-free lifestyle’
“While my friends in the Tel Aviv area spend hours and hours in traffic jams driving back and forth, here, my kids walk to school. And I can leave my house 10 minutes before I’m due for a meeting.”
Mucznik came to Eilat over two decades ago to work as a dish washer. Two weeks later, he was working as a security guide and after four and a half years in Eilat, he started running his first hotel.
“I love the nature and I spend my free time either on the beach or walking in the mountains. I assume that when God created the world, it must have looked like the desert around us here – rough and wild.”
Even more than the number of tourists – around 2.6 million every year – Eilat attracts huge numbers of migrating birds. When it’s summer in the Nordic countries, the first birds leave the tundra and head for Africa. Since Eilat is the crossroads between Europe and Africa, it’s a perfect place for birds to rest and get nourished before crossing the next obstacle – the Sahara desert.
Some birds stay in Eilat for only a few days, while some species such as the common chiffchaff stop for a week or two before continuing their long journey.
Noam Weiss, head ornithologist and director of the Eilat Birdwatching Center, will gladly advise visitors on which part of the park to explore and what species to look for.
Autumn, winter and spring are the best times to spot migrating birds. With over one billion birds crossing Eilat every year, there are always some species on their way. Nordic birdwatchers tend to be the biggest enthusiasts and during the last two seasons, the winning team of the bird watching competition has come from Finland.
And then there is the amazing food, garnished with exotic Middle Eastern flavors. Real Israeli cuisine is a mixture of Arab, Lebanese and Bedouin recipes and the cuisine that Jews have brought with them from all corners of the world. But what they do, they do with such a skillful dedication and innovation that the simple act of eating becomes a true celebration of tastes.
Text: Ninarose Maoz