“This isn’t a crater. It’s a makhtesh .”
It sure looked like a crater to me, at least as I’m standing at the top of Mount Negev, peaking over a 45-foot (14-meter) cliff ledge. That I’ll be descending into. Backward with a rope (hopefully) ensuring I don’t fall to my death.
This should be fun.
Israel isn’t often thought of as an adventure travel destination, and I’m not sure why. During my time there I hiked, sand boarded, cycled through Egyptian ruins, night hiked to shoot star photos and snorkeled in the Red Sea. My guide, Yair Tzadok, also told me there was rock climbing, bungee jumping, sky diving, caving and downhill biking (adrenaline junkies can do the Haifa Championship Route). Basically, there’s a lot to do if you want to be active in the outdoors.
In all honesty Ramon is not a crater, it’s a very rare “makhtesh,” a heart-shaped geological landform sitting at the top of Mount Negev in the Negev Desert, which was covered in water hundreds of millions of years ago. As the water receded what was left was a hill, which eroded oven time due to the ebb and flow of the ocean and weather. The softer center of the landform collapsed inward while the outer walls grew taller, exposing ancient rock layers, and today you can’t help but notice the contrasting textures and swirls in colors of fudge, red and yellow within the natural site.
There are only seven makhtesh in the world, all in Israel and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, although the one I’ll be exploring today is the largest of them. In fact, it’s possible to fit all other six inside at 25 miles (40 kilometers) long, 4 miles (6 kilometers) wide and 1,640 feet (500 meters) deep. Ramon Crater and its surrounds compose Ramon Nature Reserve, Israel’s largest national park.
And today I’ll be hurling myself over its edge.
My guide for the day is Adam Sela of Challenging Experience, who straps me into my harness and helmet (thankfully, since last time I did any climbing/rappelling I busted my head open). This isn’t my first time willingly falling back over a cliff ledge, and while it does get easier each time — travel has helped me a lot with conquering my fear of heights — it’s still hard to not imagine the rope breaking and me smashing all my bones on the dolomite stone below.
No time to think about splattered brains though, as we’re on a time schedule.
“Sit back,” instructs Adam.
He means act like the void beyond the cliff edge is a comfortable chair instead of the top of a deadly fall. I push negative thoughts out of my mind, ignore my sweaty palms and begin to descend.
I have trouble at first as the rope feels tight, but Adam instructs me to widen my stance and leave some slack in the rope, which I grip for dear life before agreeing to give some up.
From there it gets easier. Once I put my trust in the rope and I’m over the cliff ledge, I walk like the sheer vertical rock wall is my living room. I look back, enjoying the vast mountain and desert scenery so different from my home of Brooklyn. Here, the dusty air combines with swirling textures to create the illusion Ramon Crater is never ending. Between the vastness of it all and the fact I still haven’t caused a rip in my rope I feel miniscule (although my tightening waistband from copious amounts of hummus begs to differ).
I take a deep breath and smile, feeling invincible. Until suddenly the cliff wall is gone, and there’s nothing. I try to shove my legs inward with the curve of the wall, as it seems to have jutted in a few feet, but I lose my footing and fall.
The rope catches me. Phew. I decide instead of breaking my face against rock I’ll slowly drop myself like Madonna descending from the ceiling of a concert stage, and say a prayer once my feet are on the ground.
After a short hike back up to the top and some fun ledge photos, it’s now time to get into the Jeep — sorry, Land Rover — for the off-roading tour into the makhtesh.
The vehicle is open-air, with inside and truck bed seating. If you’re not looking to be jostled around too much closer to the front is probably best; however, I apparently enjoy having whiplash, and choose the back instead.
While the ride is naturally bumpy, it’s less focused on the freak out factor and more on providing information and photo opportunities, as we see a random-looking blue water beach (called the Stone Wind Water Site), sections of the Israel National Trail and even do some foraging for wild arugula.
One of the most interesting findings is a pre-historic dwelling made from stone, which researchers can date due to the absence of pottery. Within the stone walls are fossils of crustaceans — some of which are now extinct — that prove the place I’m standing now was once underwater.
We end at the summit of Mount Gvanim, from which it’s possible to see natural sites like the mahktesh wall and magmatic intrusions, as well as Mount Katum, Mount Marpek and Ramon Fault. It’s hard to imagine what this may have looked like 200 million years ago, coated in the no-longer-in-existence Tethys Ocean. And while I’ll never really comprehend it, today I’m able to better understand Ramon’s past and potential future in an adventurous way.
Location: Ramon Crater, Be’er Sheva, Israel
Emergency Numbers: 100 (Police); 101 (Ambulance). You can also dial 911 or use the Emergency button on your phone. Having an SOS Emergency app is also recommended just in case, especially if you’re exploring the crater without a guide.
Currency: Israeli New Shekels (1 Shekel is about $0.25 USD as of April 2015)
Official Language: Hebrew & Arabic (most speak Hebrew over Arabic, and many speak English, as well)
Private Israel Guide Services: Yair Tzadok, firstname.lastname@example.org, (972) 523 800 660
Challenging Experience Tours: Adam Sela, email@example.com, (972) 505 308 272; Pricing: $180 for 2-hour off-roading tour; $260 2-hour off-roading tour with rappelling; $280 for 4-hour off-roading tour; $380+ for a full day tour
Fitness Level: Beginner, although those with a fear of heights might have trouble with the repelling. I suggest you use this to face those fears!
1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die: UNESCO Edition by Michael Bright
Fodor’s Israel (Full-color Travel Guide) by Fodor’s
Walk the Land : A Journey on Foot through Israel by Judith Galblum Pex