It’s possible that the best time to venture down south to the Negev is during the winter, just after a set of major winter rains. This is when there are still small puddles and muddied riverbeds visible to the naked eye… when desert plants and spring flowers begin to emerge, green and verdant, a stark bolt of color against the browns and reds of the desert.
There’s what to be said for visiting the Negev in the spring or fall, when the days and nights are warmer, and there’s no question about whether it’s possible to sit out in the sun by the pool, (more about that in next week’s full feature on Mitzpeh Ramon), enjoying the dry desert rays. But then you’d miss certain winter pleasures, the top five of which are listed below.
1) Limans. On the way down south, I kept passing clusters of trees rooted in shallow pools of water that appeared man-made, but were clearly a result of the recent rains. I finally stopped at one on my way back up north — at Ramat Avdat, north of Mizpeh — where a stand of tamarisks stood in a gully of water. Turns out that the limans are part of the planned landscape, earthen beds that collect floodwater during the rainy season by damming a nearby gully or streambed, according to the tree organization Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael. The dam slows down the flow of runoff water, forcing it to enter the soil and allowing the trees to flourish in areas where they normally wouldn’t. Planned by the JNF as entry points to private farms, campsites and attractions down south, the limans are easily visible and accessible from the highway (see the list here), although the Ramat Avdat liman is the southernmost cluster in the northern Negev, where the land is at its most arid and untouched.
2) White desert snails. True, these bright white, small snail shells that litter the desert floor may not thrill everyone, but as the mother of twin 4-year-old boys, I’m being trained in the pleasures of snails. Turns out that Sphincterochila boissieri live in the Negev and Sinai deserts, and are only around for about 10 days after a rainfall during the winter season — about 18-26 days in toto during the year, according to biologist and Negev tour guide Haim Berger. And here’s a tip: If you get caught in the desert without any water, suck on some snail shells; they retain water from the rainy season.
3) Kmeha (plural: kmehin) is the Hebrew term for a local tuber or fungus that grows under the ground of the Negev Desert, and is in season right now. Like any self-respecting truffle, it’s hard to find and is most often scouted out by Bedouin trackers, who know how to identify the shape made by the lumpy, hard fungus underground, and are aware that it’s often found near the Desert Samson bush. Those who have spent time seeking out kmehin say they have a subtle, woodsy flavor and are best eaten simply — merely sauteed in butter — and are an edible delicacy akin to the black or white truffles found in France and Italy.
4) Water is one of those commodities that has always been in short supply in the Negev, even though it’s not quite as dire a situation as it was in ancient times. Still, it’s fascinating to explore the water cisterns and systems of the ancient Nabateans, who built the Ramalia cisterns — deep, cavernous spaces under a rocky outcrop that were dug out as community wells, and could hold water supplies for up to two years. The cisterns are mostly empty right now, but often fill up with water after a rainy winter. Negev guide Haim Berger said he has brought his son to paddle on his surfboard in the ancient underground waterhole, but there are regional plans to dig out the cistern and turn it into a more visible, functional cistern.
The Ramalia cisterns are on Route 40, just across from Aroma at Ein Avdat.
5) It’s not that the Negev Brewery’s Porter Alon isn’t available elsewhere in the country, or during other seasons, but I’ve never drunk it north of Beersheba. There’s also something about drinking a Negev microbrew in the Negev, even if it is made in the more northward climes of Kiryat Gat. Finally, it is a wondrous thing to drink a dark, chocolatey beer like the Porter Alon after an evening spent admiring the stars in the galaxy, which are all the more visible in the endlessly black, clear skies of the Negev Desert.