If you go in search of the red kalaniyot flowers (anemones) that carpet southern Israel in the winter, you’ll have to get off the main roads. The wildflowers love two things: rainwater and cold temperatures, and this winter has been a boon for both.
But in order to see the most concentrated areas of flowers, you’ll have to slow down a bit. Get out of your car, because the densest flower thickets are off the beaten track. If you’re looking for a new way to experience the annual Darom Adom (Red South) Festival that begins on January 22-23 and last for five weekends, a bicycle may be your best bet.
Few bike stores around the world would want to advertise their precarious geopolitical situation to potential riders. But the 217 store at Kibbutz Carmia, located north of Gaza in the northern reach of the kalaniyot, decided to embrace it. “217” refers to their district according to the Home Front Command. During Operation Protective Edge, the 217 district (Zikim and Kibbutz Carmia) had a friendly competition with the 218 district (Yad Mordechai and Netiv Ha’asara) to see which area got hit by more rockets. Patricio (Pato) Tanner, the owner of 217, noted cynically that his district won (though only one house was damaged on the kibbutz).
“I thought [the Home Front Command district numbers] was a well-known thing. It turns out that it’s not really, but whoever understands the name loves it,” said Tanner.
Kibbutz Carmia is located about 5 km (just over 3 miles) from the Gaza border, just far enough away that they don’t get short-range mortars, which come so quickly that they do not have a warning system. But their location just north of Gaza makes them close enough for them to bear the brunt of the rockets. The Red Alert alarm system gives them 15 seconds to seek shelter.
Tanner had planned to open his bike store in time for the High Holidays in September 2014, but the war delayed his plans by three months. He opened the store in December 2014, during a time when many local businesses were struggling with the economic impact of the summer’s war.
The Darom Adom Festival, which celebrates the seasonal blossoming of the kalaniyot, was created in part to encourage internal tourism to the southern part of Israel, an area that is both economically depressed due to its location in the periphery as well as its proximity to Gaza. The festival lasts for five weekends in January in February, and includes concerts, workshops, tours, hikes, a running race, as well as deals on hotels and cabins.
But a bicycle is one of the best ways to see the area during the festival. It’s slow enough to hop on and hop off, to explore the banks of the seasonal riverbeds, which are carpeted with red, or have a picnic among the flowers. But you’ll still be able to cover enough ground to see a number of different areas.
The most popular area to see the anemones is the Shokeda Forest, where red flowers dot the landscape. But Tanner is hoping visitors will also discover the northern part of the Gaza Periphery area, near Kibbutz Carmia, which also has pockets of brilliant red contrasting against the green vegetation of late winter.
Some suggestions for areas to see the flowers, according to the event organizers:
The best season to explore the southern region of Israel near the Gaza border is from December to Passover, when the rains make the desert bloom but before it gets too hot. And late January-February, when the kalaniyot are in full bloom, is the best time of all. Each year, the peak blossom date varies, but early rains this past fall in October mean that the anemones are already plentiful.
The 217 store offers bike rentals (NIS 50 for four hours, in addition to trailers for kids and tandem bikes) and route suggestions. They will also host a farmer’s market for local farmers and artists to sell their wares on Saturday, January 30.
For families and hobby cyclists, the store recommends their yellow route, a 6-8 km flat ride through sprouting wheat fields that parallels the Shikma riverbed for part of the ride, where kalaniyot explode among the weeds next to the seasonal stream.
More experienced cyclists can opt for their black route, a 14-km ride that can include an optional jaunt to Netiv Ha’asara, with a short but surprisingly steep uphill. During Darom Adom, visitors to Netiv Ha’asara can decorate a piece of pottery and add it to the moshav’s “Path of Peace” mural on the concrete security barrier at the edge of the moshav closest to Gaza.
Mountain bikes are recommended for all routes, since some of the paths are gravel. For mountain-bike enthusiasts, 217 will shuttle you to the Gvar’am Nature Reserve, which boasts an excellent single track, and also has a massive amount of kalaniyot this year.
Many local artisanal farms open their doors to visitors during the Darom Adom Festival — from ostrich farms to sheep-cheese farms to pick-you-own farms. When you drop off your rental at 217, you can even try five different types of the local beer, called Weizenfelder, which are available for a steal at only NIS 17 per bottle.
If you’re worried about seeing the best blossoms, the Darom Adom website updates their Top 10 recommendations daily. But wherever you go, make sure to go slow. Time to stop and smell the flowers.