Roughly the size of New
Jersey and well known for being home to the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Lake
Galilee, tiny Israel has a gigantic secret that many travellers have never
heard of. But word is slowly spreading about Maktesh Ramon,
a vast lunar landscape hidden in the heart of the Negev desert.
Described by Lonely Planet
as "Israel's Grand Canyon", the maktesh is not a canyon, but a
unique geological phenomenon. There are only seven makteshim in the world – five in Israel and two in Egypt’s
Sinai desert – and Maktesh
Ramon is by far the
"The word comes
from the Hebrew for 'crater', but a maktesh
is not created by a meteorite that crashed into our atmosphere," said Itay
Naveh, manager of the Mitzpe
Ramon Visitors Centre. "Maktesh Ramon was created by the erosion of a
mountain that rose above sea level. Millions of years ago, the limestone top of
the mountain broke and the inside of it was drained out by the river. So, it's
more like a giant funnel, not really a canyon."
Indeed, a more accurate definition of a maktesh is an “erosion cirque”, providing a peek into the
earth’s crust and detailing millions of years of evolution. The ancient rivers
of Ramon and Ardon that once ran through it have long since dried up, leaving a
giant bowl that is 300m
deep, 8km wide and 40km long, featuring multi-coloured sandstone, volcanic rock
Life on Mars
Unbelievably remote, the town of Mitzpe Ramon has grown on the edge of the
crater. Founded as a workers
camp in 1951, Mitzpe (Hebrew
for watchtower), was an isolated
community of mostly Romanian and North African Jewish immigrants who came to
build roads. But in recent years it has become a hub for urbanites from Tel
Aviv and desert travellers who prefer to take the scenic route south to the Red
Sea and the resort town of Eilat.
With tourism being a key part of the town’s economic future, the Mitzpe
Ramon Visitors Centre reopened in February
2013 after more than two years of renovations. There are detailed maps of area hiking
trails and a museum with a 3D model of the maktesh, plus exhibitions and films on the local geology.
The centre also has a new section dedicated to the life of Ilan
Ramon, the first
Israeli astronaut, who tragically died in a fatal NASA mission in 2003. Born
Ilan Wolferman, he changed his surname to Ramon as he loved the Maktesh Ramon
region. This area of the desert, part of the Negev Highlands, is also pitch
black at night, making for a wonderful place to observe the stars and a fitting
memorial site for an astronaut.
Living on the edge
In recent years, the Ramon region,
resembling the fictional Star Wars
planet of Tatooine, has become an adventure tourism hotspot. Local companies such
as Guide Horizon run Jeep and desert buggy tours circling
the rim of the crater, complete with meals and lodge-style accommodation. Those
that prefer two wheels can travel with iBike, which offers equipment hire and cycling
tours for all levels. Bike around the edge or cycle into the crater on Route 40,
passing the Carpentry, a unique rock formation that resembles wood.
Sporty travellers can also head to the Silent Arrow desert
camp, 2.5km west of town, for a game of Desert
Archery. It is
similar to golf but instead of a club you have a bow and arrow and instead of a
hole you have to hit balloons dotted around the rocks.
However, for most travellers, the most immersive way to explore the crater is
by hiking one of its many trails. One popular trek is the Ein Saharonim
Trail, which starts in the middle of the crater, a 20-minute drive
south of Mitzpe Ramon at the Be’erot
Camp Ground. Run by a local Bedouin tribe, the camp offers large dorm tents as well
as fresh mint tea and black coffee for a handful of shekels. The 5km circular
trail leads to the 2,000-year-old ruins of the Saharonim Stronghold, an ancient
station on the Nabataean Spice Route. The Nabataeans were ancient Arabs who
spoke Aramaic, lived in caves and built cities such as Petra in Jordan. At one
point, the Spice Route stretched from India to Rome, passing through Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia and what was then Judea. Not much remains of the old stronghold,
which was an inn for traders, but the views from this elevated position in the
middle of the crater are spectacular.
Other maktesh hikes maktesh include a mostly flat
2.5km trek down Nahal Ardon (a desert valley), which also ends with fantastic views,
or the more challenging 9km trek to Mount Ramon on the crater’s southern edge,
passing the seven volcanic rock hills called the Ramon Horns.
Due to the intense desert sun, it is advisable to start
early, take plenty of water and wear a hat. However, the town of Mitzpe Ramon,
situated 900m above sea level, is actually one of the coldest places in Israel,
especially at night. The best times of year to visit are March to June or
September to November, when temperatures hover at a pleasant 20 to 30C.
There is no shortage of accommodation options
in Mitzpe Ramon. In the past decade, many of the once-abandoned hangars in the
town's old industrial zone have been turned into alternative art galleries,
shops and studios. Adama, a large warehouse that is now a dance and
meditation centre, offers tepee-like stays.
Just around the corner you can try some good home cooking at Hakatzeh (2
Har Adon St). This cosy family-run restaurant serves dishes such as meatballs
with aubergine and couscous, beef goulash and some of the best labneh
(white cheese made from yoghurt) in Israel, pared with pita bread and olives.
On the same street is Chez Eugene, an upmarket gastro-chef restaurant and
small boutique hotel. Inspired by French-Belgian cuisine, Eugene offers
succulent steaks, salmon and goose breast, plus each room is designed with
funky furniture and contemporary art.
The most prominent hotel is undoubtedly Beresheet, an ultra-luxurious 111-room resort at the
town's eastern entrance that opened in 2011. Unlike anything else in town,
Beresheet (which means Genesis in
Hebrew) has an infinity pool overlooking the crater, several private pools and a
gourmet restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Guests are transported around the
resort on golf carts while soft jazz is pumped from speakers.
At the other end of the town, the Green Backpackers also opened in
2011 in a quiet cul-de-sac off Nahal Zia Street. This cute budget hostel has soft
carpets, laundry service, second-hand books, free wi-fi, a DVD library, a
travellers’ message-board and shared recipes in the communal kitchen.
most remote place to stay in Mitzpe Ramon is Silent Arrow, situated 700m west of town
down a bumpy dirt track. Here, travellers can sleep in a communal Bedouin tent
or in private dome tents, where the
only sound you will hear is that of your own snoring.