MICHAL CHINCIALA: NEGEV OR IN THE HEAT OF THE DESERT AGAIN 1/2
22. 07. 2022
It's been two long years, full of Covid darkness. Since the last trip to the Swedish Royal Trail, I have been in a cross-country hibernation, at least in terms of long projects. My friend Zdeněk and I planned the north-south traverse of Iceland for a long time, but this project unfortunately did not work out for various reasons. Gradually alternatives came up, the Jordan Trail, the Lofoten Islands beyond the Arctic Circle came into consideration, but in the end I decided after years to re-enter the full-fledged desert, the Israeli Negev.
The Israeli national trail is roughly 1,000 kilometres long and crosses the whole country from north to south. I chose the part from Jerusalem to the end of the trail in Eilat on the shores of the Red Sea. The original plan was very ambitious, to run about 600km in six to seven days. During the planning I appreciated the help of my Israeli friend, Adam Schalit, who gave me very valuable advice on how to conduct myself in this desert and what to look out for. Most of the planning, however, was done from my computer, including where I would meet my support to restock. And this proved to be crucial for the whole course of the expedition.
Now let's get right into the thick of things...
28. 6. – We are on our way
The plane leaves at midnight. It's an inhumane time to take off. Especially because two days before the start of the project I don't sleep at all one night, therefore this cannot be expected from four hours spent in an uncomfortable airplane seat. My support, my friend Petr and my son Patrik, are on their way from Ostrava and Olomouc, respectively, and are already at the airport when I am just starting my journey. We're all in place long before departure, I'm frightened by the scary rumours of airport traffic, even though it might not be so hot at midnight, security is a certainty.
After all, we stand in a queue for about an hour and after the security check we buy a large, chilled Pilsner in the shop, it's really big, the can is three quarters of a litre. A classic start to any project...
When I hear my name being called at the gate, I wonder what catastrophe awaits me. Instead, I learn that I have something unauthorised in my case – probably my power bank. I tell myself I'm not stupid enough to leave something like this in my case after all these years, but an X-ray will convince me otherwise. With a sense of shame, I put the power bank in my hand luggage and then we can move on to the plane.
The flight is smooth, we try to sleep, but I personally am not very good at it. At 4:30 in the morning, after a pleasantly turbulent flight, we land in Tel Aviv. We have a couple of hours to pick up the data SIM card and our rental car. My fears about the smooth running of the project are realised in part when the shop where I am supposed to pick up the card does not open at the promised seven o'clock, but only at half past eight. We wait another hour more for the car, so we are quite delayed right from the beginning. But before that, all we have to do is consume a few pieces that we have hidden in our suitcases just in case.
29. 6. 2022 – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and preparations
The morning's tasks are clear: pick up satellite trackers (there is very poor mobile signal coverage in the desert, the trackers allow the sending of text messages and e-mails), buy gas bombs for cooking and do the shopping. The traffic in Tel Aviv is very heavy and I have trouble finding a company with a tracker because, as I later find out, it is located in a building somewhere on the fourth floor and there are no signs anywhere in a language I can read). Of course, I am not surprised when the company's employees, after I tell them the purpose of the leasing, tell me that I am crazy, because nobody goes trekking in the desert in summer, much less running.
Since we are a few hours late, instead of checking in, we reverse the order in the evening after the tour of Jerusalem and go to our rented apartment. About two kilometres before our destination, we are stopped by soldiers in a shack, although they say nothing and send us on our way, but it turns out that our accommodation is in Palestinian territory, over the formal border, because Israeli flags are flying everywhere.
We have minimal time for normal travel due to our time-consuming sports program, but we will reserve a couple of hours in the afternoon for sightseeing in Jerusalem. We have planned the well-known places, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and the Old Town. I have conflicting feelings about the tour - places that seemed monumental in photos (such as the al-Aqsa Mosque) are actually much smaller and less impressive, as is the Wailing Wall. It is worth mentioning the division of the Wailing Wall into male and female parts - of course, we unmistakably enter the female part first, which, by the way, is full as opposed to the male part, which is half empty.
The old town with its shops is impressive, but given my aversion to shopping, I wasn't so crazy about it after all.
But the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre is definitely worth a visit.
We don't stay too long and on the way back to our accommodation we buy our remaining supplies, 84 litres of water and 12 litres of coke, from the supermarket. We have instant food (pasta, etc., what else, right?) and all the other food from home, so we are ready pretty quickly.
The evening is in the spirit of a pre-race beer, meetings, planning and preparations. And, of course, increasing nervousness. We don't get to bed until after midnight.
In terms of equipment, it is minimalist compared to previous projects. Into the WWA Ultra Bag, which has been my constant friend since Ultra Gobi, I put a 2L bag, supplemented with two 0.7L bottles, the obligatory first aid kit (Imodium, bandage, space blanket and so on), power bank and other materials. The temperature shouldn't drop below twenty degrees at night, so I won't need anything against the cold.
My clothing is very different this time. Unlike previous races and projects where I relied on compression stuff, this time I decided not to let anything restrict me and try the ultra-lightweight loose Kilpi COMFY-M shorts and the WYLDER-M T-shirt in red.
My feet are without compression socks this time, replacing them with my favourite toe socks. On my head is my indispensable Outdoor Research hat and on my feet are my Columbia Montrail Caldorado boots tested on the Royal Trail.
30. 6. – First day of running around Jerusalem
Compared to the schedule, we don't mind the early morning wake-up, 09:00 makes certain of this. My pre-start preparations are the same whether it is a personal challenge or a race. A very light breakfast (rather less than more) and a very essential visit to the bathroom with a subsequent shower, as is certainly not news to those who have read my accounts regularly...
It's about half an hour by car to the start. We leave after 10:00. The starting point is quite unremarkable, I would say almost civilian. A short side road and access to the terrain. Peter takes pictures and Patrik launches the drone. It's starting to get really hot and I'm wondering what I'm getting into - and this is just the beginning, the desert will be upon us in a day or two.
My first steps lead straight uphill, the trail winds through bushes and rocks, I follow the GPS on my watch, but get lost several times. The trail is marked with a red-blue-white flag, which is always turned in the direction of the route. However, I am not aware that it is also an indicator of direction until a few hours later. I climb the first hill and I get a beautiful view of the countryside. It gives a very dry impression and is interspersed with a dense network of paths and trails and is divided as if into terraces. The trail itself alternates between terrain that is quite tolerable and field paths. I run through pine groves, but they are so sparse that they do not protect me from the brutal sun.
I don't count on water from local sources along the whole route. Either it isn't available at all, or if it is, I wouldn't dare drink it. At one of these springs in the middle of the hills a group of naked Arabs are bathing and looking at me as if I were an apparition. I don't have the courage or the inclination to talk, let alone enjoy a bath. In the valley, I see a winding fence that separates Israel from Palestine. It really is a sturdy fence, and the Israelis seem to be the best at building them. Sporadic small towns are becoming more and more rare as I approach the forests away from civilisation.
The trail deviates into dry creek beds, between rocks, up and down. I’m not running like I was a few hours ago. I can feel my heart rate rising, at the same time I have to watch out for injuries. It's clear to me that the planned 100 kilometres will probably be unrealistic today.
My first meeting with support is scheduled in approximately five hours. The run to the place where the boys are waiting for me is very technical, full of rocks. I've run about thirty kilometres and I can feel it. I'm really parched, so I won't reject a cold beer after running. I sit on the door sill of the car for a while and rest.
I will digress here because the organisation of the project needs to be explained. As I've already written, mobile signal coverage is very poor outside the main roads, and when it is, it is outrageously expensive. That is why we have created a system of numbered meeting points, which are usually where the trail crosses the route. So, it is sufficient to use the tracker to send a message to, for example, MP03, which means that I will meet him at location 3 and he is on the support team to track me and estimate when to expect me there.
After the first encounter, I run along the border of the nature reserve on a dirt road and take a picture ( just like my support) of a station full of large satellite dishes. I wonder what it could be.
The sun goes down and slowly starts to glow. I climb over a few peaks and then follow the ridge. The signage could be more thorough, I often follow my watch.
You can hear music and singing from the valley. People seem to be having fun, and so far I'm having fun too. According to my watch, I am approaching the next meeting point, but it is only a short distance away from a large picnic with live music powered by a generator. After a short run, I meet up with the boys with a magnificent view of the landscape. It's 19:40 and it's sunset.
I'm having my first big meal. So far I have only been living off bars, but now I have local bread and salami. That's enough for me, because I'm not even hungry (it's too hot to eat), so I refuse the offer to cook pasta with thanks. I'm gearing up for my night run. As always, I respect a night in unfamiliar terrain with unknown monsters, so I delay my departure as much as possible. However, after about half an hour I set off under the light of my headlamp.
I'm plodding through the night - I can't see anything apart from occasional lights - when a woman in a uniform with a huge gun (compared to her figure) appears in front of me in the middle of nowhere at about eleven o'clock. Obviously, I'm as much a surprise to her as she is to me. I guess this is gonna be fun. I ask her what's going on. And it appears that a military exercise is underway. She tells me to turn around and go back where I came from, because it's not safe here. I reply that in 200 metres I have to turn left and in another three kilometres I have to be in a town where I have a meeting with my boys, so it shouldn't be such a problem. Well, they say it is. We argue for a while, and then we hear the sound of an off-roader. Coincidentally, her supervisor passes by – he asks me to show him on the map where I am running to. Finally he lets me go on, telling me to turn left and in no circumstances right, because it's really no fun out there. I thank him and march towards the rendezvous point. When I am glad that everything is okay, after about two kilometres I am stopped by another military patrol. I go through another round of explanations - this time with the fact that a convoy of military off-roaders is about to pass, so I have to stand 100 metres away and wait for half an hour. I use this time for refreshments. When the convoy passes, I can continue, but before that I explain to the remaining soldiers why I am here, of course with the expected uncomprehending reaction. In half an hour I am with my boys, who are waiting for me at the petrol station. I'm having dinner. It's midnight. I feel relatively well, considering the fourteen hours or so I have run don't feel like much.
My next meeting is scheduled for the morning, so I leave my support and continue into the hills. After a few kilometres I reach an asphalt road - it's a service road for endless vineyards, it goes past small towns and is insanely flat and dull. I'm slowly starting to nod off as I move. It is all the more tiring because I can see the lights of the highway I have to cross in the distance. Overcoming the highway itself is a bit of a challenge, because the underpasses are badly marked and the route in the GPS doesn't agree with the real world. Eventually, though, I find the mark for continuing on.
I have about ten kilometres to go, when, low and behold, a trench appears in front of me, about 2 metres wide and 4 metres deep, lined with high banks of dug-out earth. Apparently, it's an excavation for a new pipeline. It's not for jumping over, if I ended up at the bottom, I would probably break my legs and no one would find me. It's dark and my headlamp doesn't shine very far, so I try to first go left and then right to find a crossing. Hundreds of metres of nothing. In the end I decide to take it around the excavation in the direction of the car, simply shortening the route a bit. Dawn is breaking - and I see I was right not to jump. In the light, the excavation looks even more menacing. And there was no crossing for about five kilometres.
The landscape is still green, the sun is rising and it is very pleasant. I have almost ninety kilometres under my belt, not a bad result for the first stage. I arrive in the forest, where there is a Bedouin tent including a herd of goats and two unpleasant dogs, which are prevented from attacking me only by a loud call. The dogs are reluctant to let me go, but they still bark for fun. After passing through a nicely landscaped park with a lake, I see the boys unpacking their suitcases from the car and making breakfast in the parking lot off the highway.
I get rid of my clothes and dirt with wet wipes, change into clean clothes and eat my prepared hot breakfast with gusto. Then I prepare my backpack and things for the next stage and discuss with the boys the events of the previous night.
On the advice of my Israeli friend, we skip another 100km of the trail, because this section is not that interesting and we also have to save some time. We're leaving the parking lot, and I immediately fall asleep. I wake up about two hours later, after an hour's drive and an hour of sleep in a parked car, already in the desert oasis near Kfar Hanokdim.
I'm finally getting to know Negev, and the real desert adventure is now just about to begin.Michal Činčiala