At 86, the grandfather of Israeli hiking finally fulfilled a decades-long dream.
Over five days, trailblazing outdoorsman Yehoshua “Shuka” Ravek traversed some 100 kilometers (62 miles) by foot, walking from Petra, Jordan, to Avdat in the Israeli Negev. From February 18-23, Ravek walked along with a group of some 40 Israelis and, before crossing the border, a handful of Jordanians — and two camels.
Why the camels? The octogenarian’s goal was to accurately retrace the steps of the ancient Incense Route, laid down circa 3rd century BCE by Nabatean traders. He wanted to see if the path, first used by the mysterious desert dwellers and later by the Roman invaders, could really have supported this means of transportation.
And if fulfilling a dream wasn’t enough, on the final day, the group of hikers discovered and mapped out a “lost” 7.5 km (4.6 miles) section of the path that had eluded searching scholars for decades.
“I’m already 86 years old, almost at the end of my abilities. I walked the whole thing by foot, because I wanted to do it at least once,” Ravek told The Times of Israel this week. Having the opportunity to participate in discovering the new section Ravek said, “Filled my heart with joy.”
Ravek is most well-known for opening up Jordan to Israeli hikers following the 1994 peace agreement signed by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein — and his love of off-road trekking. Today, armed with two hi-tech walking sticks, he continues his national network of hiking groups under the banner of Hug Elad, named for his son who died in an accident while in Nepal.
Ravek said that for decades he dreamt about walking the ancient trade route from Petra to Avdat — considered then the most important city along the way. In 2005, UNESCO declared the Incense Route a World Heritage Site and he’d anticipated the path would be opened up to hikers. It wasn’t.
After over a decade of inaction, Ravek said he initiated the February trek with the help of like-minded organizers from the Sde Boker Field School, the Hevel Eilot regional council and the Dead Sea and Arava Research Institute to work out the daunting logistics.
“It was more successful than anticipated,” said Ravek, who said the notion of an Incense Route is still largely unknown in Jordan.
“Now the tourism industry needs to take up the gauntlet and turn it into a tourism path,” said Ravek.
The road less taken
Possibly even prior to the 3rd century BCE and continuing through the 2nd century CE, Nabatean merchants used the Incense Route for their flourishing trade. In its heyday, it stretched from Yemen to the Gaza ports, and beyond.
The Nabatean trail’s route was the best for the topography, and perfectly suited to camels. After the Roman empire conquered the area, the trail was improved upon as it needed broader, clearly marked roads for its army’s legions. While using the same course as the Nabateans, the Romans widened the path and marked it every 480 meters (1,575 ft.) with a grouping of milestones.
The stones were 1.5 to 2 meters high and usually included inscriptions which provided the road’s destination city, as well as an advertisement for the ruling authority of the era. There could be up to 10-15 such stones at any one station along the route.
Later, chuckled Ravek, “The Turks walked on the Roman paths, and the British took the turkish paths, and we took the British routes. Every ruling authority does the same thing, until today.”
Likewise in Jordan, said Ravek, parts of the ancient camel path slowly turned into a dirt road for Jeeps, “and now it’s a road.”
However, the newly discovered section of the Incense Route, located northeast of the Ramon Crater, hadn’t been trod upon for centuries, said Ravek. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Near the Negev stronghold of Avdat two sections of the Incense Route are exposed and clearly marked. Back in the early 1960s, a pair of young archaeologists from the fledgling Sde Boker Field School, Zeev Meshel and Yoram Tsafrir, surveyed the area in search of the missing link between these two sections. In the area the pair thought most likely to connect between them, they found nothing.
Recently, however, a young group of Sde Boker researchers employed new technology to chart Meshel and Tsafrir’s hypothesis. Using Geographic Informations Software (GIS), the Sde Boker guides mapped out the topography of the area and layered other pertinent information upon the map. What they saw in the combined layers of information made them choose an alternative route for the February trek.
Guide Tomer Zur participated in the journey and recalled the excitement as the group discovered the sets of Roman milestones, in situ, where they had lain without recognition for millennia.
“When the whole company walked on the road, there was great excitement to find not only one milestone, but exactly 480 meters later, another, then a third and fourth,” said Zur in a lengthy background conversation this week.
For Zur, who among other initiatives works with Ravek in guiding Israeli tour groups to Jordan, it was exciting to see the different directions in research presented by the new section of the Roman road connecting Avdat and the Ramon crater. But primarily for Zur, it was learning that “there’s still room for new people and new ideas.”
“The Land of Israel is so small, you think everything was discovered and there’s no place for new ideas. You may be mistaken to think everything was done before you because here, all of a sudden, two or three simple guys found a new thing that was not known so far,” said Zur.
Like Ravek, guide Zur hopes the time is ripe to finally open the Petra-Avdat Incense Route to the public.
Obstacles in the path
Speaking with The Times of Israel while driving to the southern Negev Kibbutz Yotvata for the opening of a new hotel, Negev tourism consultant Yoni Shtern lamented the lack of cooperation shown by the IDF and Parks Authority in getting the Incense Route tourism project off the ground.
The cross-border Incense Route trek, the culmination of years of dreaming, took many months of planning and permits to overcome the complicated logistics presented by the many bureaucratic, diplomatic and military obstacles involved, said Shtern, one of the key organizers on behalf of the Dead Sea and Arava Research Institute.
On the Israeli side, a conservative estimate places over 60 percent of the route in a military fire zone, which meant getting approval and special permits from the IDF. That meant three months filled with many conversations, emails, faxes and letters until the group received a special permit. In short, said Shtern, “It was a big headache.”
Additionally, some 40% of the route isn’t charted, which meant additional permits from the National Parks Authority to walk — with camels — off the beaten path.
The Parks Authority, said Shtern, initially required a very expensive insurance policy. Then, special permission was given — dependent upon the IDF permit. At the same time, laughed Shtern, he’d been told by the IDF that it was waiting on permission from the Parks Authority.
And when boots finally hit the ground, it was a start-stop endeavor of two days hiking north and west from Petra on the Jordanian side to reach the border, followed by a pause for an inconvenient long bus trip south to cross the border in Aqaba to Eilat, followed by another bus ride north to pick up the Incense Route again on the Israeli side.
Shtern, like Ravek, has his own dream now: To see a new border crossing in the Arava Valley — something that is possible under the 1994 agreements — which would allow tourists to enjoy the authentic Incense Route experience.
“For these two states, joint tourism efforts can build peace,” said Shtern. “The Incense Route is stronger than a border. It can be the link between the two nations.”