Wild Birds is the true story of my 1000-km walk across Israel and Palestine. Photos were captured on a Sony Xperia mobile phone and they are grouped into the three legs of my journey. Copies of Wild Birds are available here.
Part One: The North of Israel
The Israel National Trail starts in a small village called Dan.
"On some level, I wanted to see this as a serendipitous sign, an indication that I’d made the right choice to travel to the other side of the world to embark upon a starry-eyed dream of hiking solo across a politically tumultuous land. Perhaps it was just a charming semantic coincidence." (page 20)
"In Dan, as instructed by my guidebook, Hike the Land of Israel, I located the nature museum. Around the back of the museum, beside a parking lot, was a campfire area with an Israel National Trail sign and a mud archway indicating the INT trailhead. Decorated with blue, orange, and white tiled flowers, the archway was like a small Arc de Triomphe built by hobbits." (page 20)
"Walking the trail quickly became a scavenger hunt, each marker was an Easter egg but instead of a chocolate surprise I was granted the intrinsic pleasure of knowing that I was not lost. Despite the gloomy weather, despite the tightness in my throat, despite the heaviness of the backpack, and despite the barrage of questions, I became giddy. This is what I’d travelled halfway around the world to do: walk the trail. And now I was doing it." (page 21)
To hike across Israel and Palestine, I was prepared to face many obstacles. I wasn't, however, prepared for the mud.
"The hiking over the next two days was a mix of mud and sunshine, despair and bliss. Oftentimes my boots were so caked in mud that I felt like I was walking in platform shoes. At specific sections, the INT was framed with shoulder-high thistles, which required opting for one of two evils: navigating through prickles or trudging directly through the muck." (page 64)
The view looking back across the Hula Valley.
"Ornithologists estimate that approximately 500 million migrating birds pass through the valley each year, moving between southern and northern hemispheres, along the Great Rift Valley from Africa to Asia or Europe. The valley once contained an expansive shallow lake where rice grew and water buffalo roamed, but the lake was drained in the 1950s with the intention to decrease malaria and increase economic productivity. This was bad news for birds." (page 28)
I was proud of myself for my little hiker's hack. Instead of walking around with the guidebook in my hand, I cut out the day's itinerary and maps, and then placed them inside a hefty ziplock bag.
"The light switch didn’t work, but the last dregs of daylight provided enough illumination to see the main room was mostly empty, except for a pile of foam mattresses and an upright piano beside a window. The floor creaked as I limped to the piano, which had a manufacture’s name that I didn’t recognize: Daniel. I dropped my index finger on middle C; the tone was tinny and out of tune and echoed through the silent room." (page 31)
"The air on Mount Meron smelled of oak trees and snow—that singular type of cold, damp humidity that indicates impending snowfall. I was moving slowly along muddy switchbacks framed by pine trees, walking to the top of the mountain. Patches of snow began to appear. Eventually there was more snow than visible ground, and the INT became a white, slushy mess. Above, thick, grey clouds had rolled in. As I walked higher, I stepped into the clouds." (page 43)
Sometimes the trail was simply beautiful.
"Tentatively, I approached another stone structure, this one with a grass roof and a cave-like arched entrance. The cave floor was smooth, almost like polished concrete, and it was void of garbage. This was the best I was going to find, I told myself. So, I dropped my backpack and started setting up my gear, lacing the poles through my bivy sack, slipping in the self-inflating air pad and then pulling my sleeping bag out of its compression sack. With everything in place, I stood back. In the bivy sack, it was alarming how convenient I was for burial." (page 49)
"The landscape transformed into a valley with spring shrubs taller than my shoulders. The density of the foliage, while handsome, provided two problems. First, like the overgrown goat pasture on my second day of hiking, finding trail markers was a constant challenge. Second, with the combination of rain and morning dew, the plants were dripping wet. Whenever I bumped into a plant stalk, which was every step, water fell off the leaves. The result was like walking into a car wash." (page 53)
"By mid-afternoon, we reached the south end of the Sea of Galilee and the region’s attraction that I was most curious about: the Jordan River Baptism site. When entering the site, the first thing visitors see is a wall lined with photos of the celebrities—such as Whitney Houston—that have been dipped into the sacred water. A set of change rooms, a cafeteria, and a gift shop were built along the curve of the slow brownish-green river." (page 63)
"One night, I slept on the edge of a field. By the morning, the dew crept inside the walls of my bivy sack and dripped all over my sleeping bag. I awoke soaked and shivering. But it wasn’t all hardship. The new propane tank fit my camping stove, and this meant I started eating hot meals. At the end of the day, with my gear set up and a steaming bowl of tomato soup with pasta, I felt competent and proud, like I was marginally skilled enough to justify being on the trail. A not-totally-pathetic hiker." (page 65)
Traffic jam in the Galilee.
"Pink light slowly poured into the stone room at the Mount Tabor monastery. The night had been cold, but the insulation of my sleeping bag kept me warm enough, and my sheer exhaustion had ensured a sound sleep. Before packing my bag, I drained almond-size blisters that had bubbled on the backs of my ankles and the lentil-like ones across the tops of my toes, letting the liquid squirt into a square of toilet paper." (page 74)
"Despite its tent-like status, the yurt had running water and electricity. I showered and then slipped into a pair of well-worn blue jeans and a faded hoodie. After wearing quick-dry hiking gear for two weeks, the soft cotton fabrics felt luxurious against my skin. In the kitchen, Neta squeezed oranges into a glass and handed the juice to me. Then she pan-fried leftover mujaddara— lentils and caramelized onions served with rice—and pushed a steaming plate in my direction." (page 81)
"The trail became my walking partner and the trail markers—those placards spray-painted blue-white-orange on flat-faced rocks, attached to the top of fence posts, nailed to trees—were the language we spoke to each other. Spotting a trail marker was like receiving a check mark for finding the right answer, each released a small dose of dopamine." (page 88)
"The final days of the first leg of my journey, walking parallel to the Mediterranean Sea, were among the most pleasurable of my entire experience hiking in the Holy Land. The water was therapeutic for my blistered toes and the salty air and the stretching ocean views served to stimulate my determination. The final night of this first leg of the journey, I camped on a cliff overlooking the ocean, just south of a city called Netanya." (page 89)
Don't judge my fashion choices.
Part Two: Palestine
"The landscape was a patchwork of agriculture fields: uniformly green crops of wheat, orchards arranged in tidy rows, and patches of brown soil where crops would eventually grow once more. The valleys surrounding Jenin were essentially the breadbasket of the West Bank; fertile ground produced wheat and chickpeas, tomatoes and tobacco. Mohammed pointed north toward a distant cluster of beige buildings. “That’s Nazareth,” he mentioned. We could also see Mount Tabor, a small but notable bump on the horizon. From a bird’s eye view, the topographical patchwork could have been mistaken for other farming regions, such as Alberta or Kansas. The landscape was a far cry from the barbed-wired, bullet-holed war zone that appears during an Internet image search of Palestine.” (page 106)
"Around noon, we stopped for a break in a grove of almond trees. Mohammed picked a few unripe, green almonds from a branch and held them out in his hand. 'Try these,' he said. To prove he wasn’t joking, he bit one in half and chewed. It sounded like he was eating a carrot. Hesitantly, I plucked one green almond out of his hand and nibbled the fuzzy husk—crunchy and bitter, with a flavour similar to unripe pear, leaving a type of woody flavour on the tongue. 'Not bad,' I said. Nodding my head in approval." (page 107)
"On the sofa in the salon, I opened Walking Palestine: 25 Journeys into the West Bank, which I had brought as a reference. Umm Fadi’s seven-year-old daughter had returned from school. She sat beside me looking at the colourful photographs and announcing various animals—donkeys, goats, birds—in Arabic. I repeated each word she said, causing a small giggle each time." (page 102)
"For Westerners like myself, the idea of a coffee shop conjures the sound of milk being frothed and the fragrance of espresso beans. Perhaps some Ella Fitzgerald love songs over a stereo system. I had a sneaking suspicion, however, that the local coffee shop was not Starbucks." (page 102)
Guess whose pants I'm wearing? (The answer is on page 48.)
"Eventually, we stopped for a midday tea on a rocky outcrop facing north over the Jenin Valley. As Mohammed built a fire to boil water, I ventured further up the hill. Because we spent so much time together, I wanted to ensure that Mohammed had moments where he didn’t need to babysit me. I also appreciated my moments of solitude. Wind whistled softly through shrubs and bells tinkled from a nearby herd of goats." (page 111)
"Adham said the dish was called maqluba, which translated as 'upside down.' The family gathered around the table, and as we ate the upside-down dish, Adham mentioned that he didn’t have school the next day. It was a Thursday night, which meant that the weekend had begun. 'If you don’t have school,' I asked, 'Why don’t you walk with us tomorrow?' Adham’s eyes popped open. And his face turned red." (page 123)
"Ahdam brought a wooden walking stick as tall as himself, which made him look like a young Arab Gandalf. When I asked about the stick, he said that it belonged to his father. He also had a music player and kept earbuds plugged into his ears as he walked. 'What are you listening to?' I asked. 'The Beatles,' he said quietly." (page 125)
"We walked past a field bursting with a green plant. Liam motioned toward it, pausing from our conversation to mention that it was a crop of chickpeas. He explained that a Palestinian farmer might be working in a field just like this when a group of settlers could arrive, armed with machine guns and knives. To intimidate villagers, settlers had been known to stab sheep to death." (page 131)
"We were ending with what Mohammed described as some of the best hiking in Palestine—a canyon called Wadi Auja. Gradually, the floor of the canyon widened. We walked along a dried riverbed across rocks the size of medicine balls and descended slowly over dried waterfalls. Despite the fact that it was springtime—the wettest time of the year—the riverbeds and waterfalls were barren." (page 141)
Spot the donkey.
"As we stepped off the trail and into a dusty parking lot, a pre-arranged driver was waiting with a 1970s Mercedes Benz limousine. 'Here is our ride,' Anwar stated and smiled proudly." (page 142)
Part Three: The Desert
"In the not-so-distant past, European mapmakers placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world. It was the ultimate destination for pilgrims, the geographical heart of human spirituality. While maps have evolved, many still considered Jerusalem to be one of the most sacred places on the planet. I’m one of the millions of people who view the city as a significant location—but unlike many, it’s not for religious reasons. In fact, I cherish Jerusalem for a reason that many would consider sacrilegious." (page 151)
"From Jerusalem to the start of the desert, the trail made a horseshoe formation, skirting the Judaean Mountains and traversing pastoral land. During those initial days out of Jerusalem, I averaged 30 kilometres per day, starting early in the morning and only stopping as daylight faded. I would find a place to camp, watch the sun setting over rolling hills, and then begin my evening routine: set up my little blue cocoon, boil water for pasta or lentils, take some notes in a journal, and then read until my eyelids become heavy (which was typically a short amount of time)." (page 161)
"Eventually, the food was cleared away and one of the men brought out a square-shaped stringed instrument that had a timbre similar to a banjo. A melody began, at first slow and meandering. Then the tempo increased. Then the men started clapping in unison, keeping a beat. The younger men stood up to dance. One of them reached for my hand and, without a moment for me to humbly object, he pulled me to my feet. I joined the guys in a line, arms draped over each other’s shoulders—an image that landed somewhere between soldiers proudly holding onto each other and a chorus of woozy can-can dancers."
"That night, I camped on the side of a canyon, on a ridge overlooking a dried river valley punctuated with a lone acacia tree. In the distance, I could see a small campfire, likely from a school group. I was alone, but I did not feel isolated." (page 187)
"In the early afternoon, I arrived at the highway that led to Dimona, a town that sprung up in the 1950s, largely to support a nearby nuclear research centre. Ideally, I would have kept walking, perhaps I could have caught the solo French hiker. But the next four days of trail were extremely isolated. There would be no stores and it was imperative to stock up on food and water. On the side of the highway, I put out my thumb." (page 187)
"At the edge of the crater, I dropped my backpack and brought my hand over my eyes to block the desert glare. The landscape was like the surface of Mars, with multicolour layers like the sky in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream: hues of copper and charcoal, rows of burgundy and mocha. HaMakhtesh HaKatan—the Little Crater, as it was also known—was not so little." (page 188)
"At midday, I came across a camel and her calf directly on the path. Unsure of the temperament of mother camels, I opted for a wide detour, watching for scorpions as I stepped across unsteady rocks. Back on the trail, I saw a herd of ibex in the distance." (page 196)
"'What is that?' I pointed in the direction of his foot while turning my head away in disgust. 'How do you even walk with that?' Teef chuckled and said, 'it actually doesn’t hurt.' On his ankle was a puffy lump the size of a chicken nugget; the biggest blister I had ever seen in my life. I looked again at the swollen skin with squinted eyes, the same way a person might gaze directly into the sun." (page 208)
"When I finally departed Mitzpe Ramon, I followed the INT along the southern edge of the Ramon Crater, dipping into canyons and teetering across another jutting rooster’s comb, which offered sweeping views across the crater." (page 216)
"Perhaps this is why some people are drawn to long-distance trails. In the sweeping, deserted landscapes, typical social rules don’t necessarily apply. One can be unfettered. One can be wild." (page 218)
"Given its location in the heart of the desert, the fields surrounding Neot Semadar were surprisingly green, with rows of date trees and lines of grape vines. The community centred around a pink art centre, which itself centred around a tall lookout tower that functioned as a cooling mechanism. It had the aesthetic of a Barbie spaceship launch pad, one that would make Spanish architect Gaudí proud." (page 219)
"Eventually Teef and I reached the stage where each of our daily rituals became the final one: the final campsite, the final sunset, the final morning, the final kilometres." (page 228)
"On the second to last day, we climbed a hill onto a saddle. In the distance, unmistakably, we could see the Red Sea glimmering. A turquoise oasis, a marine finish line. My eyes welled with tears knowing that the conclusion was so near." (page 228)
Copies of Wild Birds are available here.