The Anti Eilat
KIbbutz Lotan, Israel — Just north of Eilat’s mega-resort sprawl lies one of Israel’s most physically stunning regions. With a landscape of stark red and brown mountain cliffs, the Arava rift valley straddles the length of the border with Jordan all the way up to the Dead Sea. Just out of college in the early ‘90s, I did a two-month volunteer stint on a kibbutz in the Arava. I spent my mornings aloft in the branches in a grove of date palm trees on the border, and every afternoon I waited for the setting sun to reveal the giant crags of the Edom Mountain range. I’ve barely returned since. Every time vacation time rolled around, I found myself pulled to the lush mountains and stream-filled wadis of the Galilee and Golan. The Arava always seemed too remote, too hot, too dry, too much of a shlep. It’s also easy to miss. Indeed the road signs on the highway counting down the distance to Eilat almost seem to focus motorists eager to end four- to five-hour road trips beyond the Arava. But this year, eager to escape the holiday crush in northern Israel, and curious to find out about eco-tourism in the desert, we trucked down to Kibbutz Lotan, an agricultural collective run by immigrants from the Reform movement who have focused on strategies for sustainable living. At Lotan, guests stay in the modest kibbutz bungalows that one can find at most kibbutz guest houses. These ones get their character from an outer coating of mud, which is a canvas for whimsical and colorful sculpture that adds a touch of magic to the guest area. The dried mud bricks are a recurring motif at Lotan, as the kibbutz has plunged itself into researching technologies and modes of self-sustaining building. Guests can do a brief tour of the kibbutz’s community of geodesic domes made with earthen walls and a steel frame. The dorm-sized dwellings serve as the temporary homes of students from abroad — Green Apprentices — who help research environmentally-friendly living technologies, like green air-cooling systems. “The entire community is dedicated to enabling people to live a more sustainable existence,” said Dafna Abell who helps run the kibbutz’s tourism operation. Abell said the kibbutz made the switch to eco-tourism about a decade ago after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada forced Lotan to come up with new strategies to draw visitors. Eco-tourism sites have since spread through the Arava and the Negev region of southern Israel. The desert has inspired the green-friendly tourist ventures because those who choose to live in the middle of nature are more sensitive to changes in the environment, Abell said. “It’s a sparsely populated place, there’s a lot of nature, around us. People moved down here because there is no heavy industry,” she said, referring to the residents as “settlers.” “It’s important for the people who live here to keep it this way.” Indeed, southern Israel is still considered Israel’s last frontier. Though it was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s dream to develop the Negev, and to this day all politicians regurgitate his vision, most of Israel’s economic life remained in the center of the country. The south remained relatively poor with bare-bones infrastructure. That may be changing. On our way down to the Arava, as we drove around Beersheva, we passed through several stretches of roads and junctions that were being widened and upgraded. But the Arava remains isolated, making its arresting beauty all the more haunting. The residents in the Arava number only a couple of thousand, living on a mix of kibbutzim, moshavim and other communal settlements strung along the Arava Road, which ends at Eilat. At Lotan, guests can take a seminar on mud construction. Earthen dwellings require thick walls, which keep rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter. For kids, there’s a class on making mud and straw pellets to protect seeds during vegetation. There’s a large playground made up entirely of recycled vehicle hulks and tires. Lotan has also set up a reserve for the millions of birds who use the rift valley as a migratory path linking Africa to Europe. Abell said birdwatchers from as far away as Europe have made pilgrimage to the kibbutz. After a day of eco-activities in end-of-summer heat, the kibbutz pool offered a chance to cool down, with the multihued Edom Mountains in full sight. Just a 15-minute drive south of the kibbutz, there is the Yotvata Desert Zoo, which features animals that are native to the Arava ecosystem. The zoo, which includes a drive-through “safari,” has also tried to introduce new species into the Arava region, with mixed success. One of the highlights of the region is Timna Park, situated about 20 minutes north of Eilat. The scenery is breathtaking. The famous rock formations in the nature reserve include the massive columns of “Solomon’s Pillars” and the cartoon-like “mushroom.” Visitors can also explore the ancient copper mines that produced the metals for King Solomon. Lotan’s rooms were somewhat disappointing relative to the price, but the kibbutz plans to renovate them. Of course there are other lodging options. Further north along the Arava Road guests can stay in Bedouin-style tents at Spice Route Inn. Families stay in communal tents with rug floors and the option of food made from nearby organic gardens. For couples looking for something more intimate than a tent in a “cabin-like” setting, the mudrooms at the Desert Days resort make for a compelling option. Desert Days also conducts seminars on sustainable construction. “Though most of the guests are more interested in isolation from other tourists, the eco-friendly surroundings give places like Desert Days added value,” said proprietor Rinat Bashan. “The Jacuzzi and television are less important for them. It’s more of a spiritual farm. It’s something with a concept rather than just a place to sleep.”