I’ve never before experienced a feeling quite like I did standing on the rim of a crater in the Negev desert this past weekend. I felt all at once the vastness of the desert, my own comparative insignificance, and how incredibly blessed I was to be able to witness such amazing beauty.
We started our trip by leaving campus at 5:00 A.M. on Friday morning. Driving south, we could see the diversity in Israel’s landscape as the lush green fields gave way to sand and rocks. After a drive of about six hours, our bus left us at a trailhead on the side of the road, and we set off on our 8 kilometer (about 5 mile) hike. We were about 75 students, plus 4 guides, two guards, and a medic. At first, the hike was relatively flat and easy, although it was surprising cold and windy, and huge dark clouds threatened to rain on us. Then we arrived at the edge of the Ramon crater. The view was beyond spectacular.
We then had to pick our way down the steep descent, through the crater, then climb out the other side. We all celebrated when we made it up the last stretch. But alas, our rejoicing was premature – the bus had not been able to make it down the road to meet us, and we were going to have to walk another two miles! At this point it was only our will that kept us going. But finally we made it to the bus just as it started to rain. We then drove to the center of another crater, to the Bedouin camp where we would be spending the night. We all pitched in and made a huge dinner of Israeli salad (chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions), stir fry and rice, hamburgers and hot dogs, and of course, lots of pita.
Sleeping in the tent was quite an experience. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and even though I was cozy in my sleeping bag, I felt how bitterly cold it was outside. Waking up to the sun casting morning shadows across the crater, we set off on our second day of hiking. This time we climbed up the edge of the crater and walked along the rim, and a couple of times, we had to climb rock scrambles where one slip could send you rolling down the edge of the crater. At one point, there were even iron handles drilled into the rock; we knew when we saw those that this cliff meant business. But we all made it through safe and sound, circling the rim of the crater around until we ended up back at our camp just before sunset.
We then set off for Eilat, where we stayed in a lovely hostel that fed us an amazing hot breakfast the next morning, which we were all incredibly grateful for. On Sunday, we could either choose to stay at the beach or hike in the Eilat mountains to a peak where you can see Jordan, Egypt, and on a clear day, Saudi Arabia. I chose the hike, even though I was pretty worn out from the past two days, and I was so glad I did! Looking out over the Red Sea as it lay nestled in the midst of desert mountains was an exhilarating moment, to say the least.
It is really hard to describe in words how I felt throughout this weekend. It was definitely the farthest I had ever been pushed physically, and the camaraderie the shared experience built within the international students was really great. Passing each other on the way to class on Monday morning, we all knew not only how sore we were, but that the endless sweeping desert vistas we had seen together would be printed on our minds for the rest of our lives.