Israel travels

A turtle diary on the Alexander

The largest freshwater turtle in the world, the Nile soft-shelled finds sanctuary on the banks of a rehabilitated river

Halfway through a delicious riverside walk with a guide from the Jewish National Fund, we asked when we would be coming to the end of the “model river rehabilitation trail” that I thought we were on. He began to laugh. “We haven’t even begun,” he told me. “I’ve been saving the best for last.”

Soon afterwards, we came to a bend in the river. Just at that point, the southern bank was crammed with thick, natural foliage that reflected in the water. In sharp contrast, lush green lawns on the opposite bank slanted gently down to the river. The sight was absolutely breathtaking and I wasn’t surprised when our guide stated proudly that we had reached the Model River Rehabilitation portion of the Alexander River.

One of our favorite jaunts is a stroll along the Alexander River (officially called a stream but, for Israel, big enough for us to call it a river), which runs from the Samarian Mountains to the Mediterranean north of Netanya. The outing, which begins at a delightful site called Turtles Bridge, includes birds, flowers, fish and reptiles, along with gorgeous landscaping and wonderfully flowing water.

Because this is a completely level region, an observation balcony above the river offers a fantastic view of what were once the swamps of the Hefer Valley. Then, on a wooden walkway next to the water, you get a first-hand view of the river’s Nile Soft-Shelled Turtles. The largest species of freshwater turtles in the world, these reptiles can be up to 1.2 meters (4 ft.) long and weigh as much as 50 kilograms (32 lbs.). Incredibly, they swam to this region all the way from Central Africa.

The view from Turtles Bridge on the Nahal Alexander walk (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The view from Turtles Bridge on the Nahal Alexander walk. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

At the beginning of the 20th century there were hundreds upon hundreds of these huge creatures in our nation’s rivers. Indeed, these particular reptiles came to Israel millions of years ago, and are among the oldest wildlife in Israel.

Unfortunately, as the country developed industries, their waste caused heavy pollution and devastated the Nile Soft Shelled Turtle population. At the beginning of 1992 there were only 300 soft-shelled turtles left in Israel, virtually all of them in Alexander; sadly, two-thirds of the remaining reptiles were wiped out during that winter’s giant floods.

Something very small protruding from the surface: A Nile Soft-Shelled turtle pictured from the Nahal Alexander walk (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Something very small protruding from the surface: A Nile soft-shelled turtle pictured from the Nahal Alexander walk. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

It is possible to spend hours on the walkway or on the bridge watching the turtles, for they spend some of their time outside the water. Often you only see something very small protruding from the surface. That’s because, while Nile turtles can absorb 70 percent of the oxygen they require through their skin while under water, they do need a shot of air every so often and stick out their heads. Indeed, what you see above water is an elongated snout: the turtle version of a snorkel.

Being cold-blooded creatures, the turtles have to soak up sun in order to stay healthy and active. Thus you will often find them lying on slabs of rock with a special slant that the JNF thoughtfully placed on the banks for their pleasure. The soft shell is covered in skin; its muddy color makes the perfect camouflage.

Nile soft-shelled turtles are carnivores that eat mollusks, snails, worms and pieces of dead fish. They also like bread, but if you plan to feed them, hold the bread out on a stick or a branch. You’ll see why, when you watch them climb towards you and snatch the food with their large mouths. If you try this be careful, for turtles both bite and scratch.

The Model River Rehabilitation portion of the Alexander River (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Model River Rehabilitation portion of the Alexander. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Alexander in which they make their Israeli home originates about 30 kilometers (19 miles) further east, in the Samarian (Shomron) Mountains. There, in the mountains, the river contains water only in winter. But down here in the plains it flows all year long, because of the region’s many springs.

After Israel became a state, partially collapsed banks, reams of sediment and terrible pollution wreaked havoc on what was left of the river. Efforts to clean up the mess began in the 1970s and 1980s. But it wasn’t until 1995 that major changes began to take place. At that time the JNF spearheaded efforts by over a dozen environmental organizations, public and government bodies and the regional council to rehabilitate the river, which was widened to its original size. Clearing the sediment naturally deepened the river, and the banks were shored up and restored. Responsibility for upkeep fell on the shoulders of the regional council, which is doing a fantastic job.

Turtles Bridge on the Nahal Alexander walk (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Turtles Bridge on the Nahal Alexander walk. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A refreshing riverside walk begins across the bridge, on a path called “shvilnahal” or “rivertrail”). In places, the river foliage is so thick that it blocks your view of the water. You will see tall reeds, bending in the wind, and the mulberry trees that used to appear on our 100 shekel bills. Any raspberries along the trail are there for the taking, along with licorice-tasting delicate anise.

Here and there picnic tables and benches stud the well-kept lawns next to the riverbank. On the other side of the path, the JNF planted common water foliage, like pink and white river oleander. Silver poplars add charm to an already enchanting outing.

Birds aplenty can be found along the Alexander. Tour guides call my favorite bird, the spur-winged plover, Mr. Diplomat. That’s because it is coated in black, wears a white “shirt” and sports a black “top hat.” When it stands, it even bows.

Kingfisher spotted on the Nahal Alexander walk (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Kingfisher spotted on the Nahal Alexander walk. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Another bird on the trail is the flat-headed hoopoe, with a downward curving beak. Its long protrusion is balanced by the brown and orange feathers that jut out behind its head. Also hanging out nearby is the chocolaty white-breasted kingfisher, whose drabness is offset by metallic looking turquoise back and wings.

The JNF’s model for river rehabilitation is just a couple of kilometers down the trail. It is breathtakingly exquisite, for it is rare in this country to happen upon such a perfect, tranquil, aesthetic spot.

Alexander River’s tall, straight southern bank wasn’t tampered with during rehabilitation. But at this particular point there is a bend in the river, and over the years during heavy rains, portions of the banks fell into the water and blocked its exit. The result was severe flooding in the region.

That’s why architects of the river restoration, who also deepened the river at this point to its original depth, created a long, gradual incline on the northern bank. When it rains, water goes up the slope – and then slowly returns to the river. Benches that might have been swept into the water were placed – artistically – at the top of the slope. And the plants picked for this area have long, deep roots that help keep them in place even when it rains.

Colorful flowers and picnic tables scattered among the trees and beneath artistic pergolas add to the stunning scenery. And all thanks to the Jewish community of Italy, which contributed the entire project.

Next on the trail is a lovely recreation area, and a suspension bridge made of steel. Far smaller than Israel’s first suspension bridge, which is located in the Negev and rocks back and forth, this bridge has its own attractions. Visitors standing in the middle can throw a small piece of bread into the water and watch an enormous freshwater catfish snap it up.

This fantastic trail ends with a concrete bridge, “old” Highway 4. We like to sit underneath the bridge, on stone benches. Sometimes, from there, we view a kingfisher in flight, its blue head and wings glittering in the sunlight.

For detailed directions to Nahal Alexander’s river trail, write to us at Israel Travels.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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