Makhtesh Ramon

On Saturday Eric, Shemer and I were in the Negev desert (the southern half of Israel) seeing sights, looking at plants and generally enjoying the amazing landscape. We decided to visit Makhtesh Ramon, a large rock basin. It’s over 40km long and 10km wide, with cliffs rising over 500m around its edges. It looks like a giant impact crater from some epic natural disaster of times long gone. But looks are, in this case, deceiving – the word “makhtesh” is the Hebrew word for mortar grinder and is given to this land form because it’s created entirely by erosion. I still find it hard to believe that the makhtesh was simply cut from the earth by water over millions of years.
The makhtesh occurs here because harder rocks (limestone and dolomite) are layered on top of softer minerals (chalk and sandstone). Rain washes the softer minerals from under the rock relatively quickly causing it to collapse. As layer by layer the process repeats, the makhtesh deepens. The cliff edges of the makhtesh then form abruptly where the solid rock stands alone and cannot be undercut. This feature is not only unique but also rare – it occurs only in the Negev desert and on the Sinai peninsula. Seven sites exist in total, with Makhtesh Ramon being the largest. 

The Makhtesh is cut into the earth exposing a geological timeline that allows you to travel back 200 million years. At the top of the bedrock sit hills of varying height (and therefore varying age), richly coloured by different layers of rocks and minerals. The most pronounced of these hills are the shiny black basalt mounds in the area we visited. Once the hearts of ancient volcanoes, these cooled deposits have been exposed to create scorched blotches on the bright sandy landscape. 

Our hike for the day was around 18km in the north east tip of the Makhtesh Ramon, starting and finishing at Be’erot campground. The loop took us up Mt Ardon, which is at the end of a peninsula overlooking the makhtesh. Then we headed back through the crater base, walking among and over the incredible basalt hills. The hike took around six hours and we avoided most of the day’s heat with an early start.

I’ve never been to a desert before so simply walking around in the desolate, Martian landscape was pretty mind blowing. Reaching the top of Mt Ardon and looking down was all together something else and my pictures, though dramatic, can’t do it justice. The cliff edge is so unbelievably steep and exposed that just standing near gives you the sensation of falling, and below unfolds an expanse of reds, oranges, yellows all seared with patches of black – my brain couldn’t rationalise what it was seeing. Even now looking back at the photos they seem fake.

There are plants in the Negev desert, though few and far between, and some Acacias even manage to form sizeable trees. Most of the desert plants aren’t the stars which we think of growing in our gardens, they are often spiney and either brown or a washed out green – they look like they are one late rain storm away from death and often they are. On the top of Mt Ardon there sat a lone Retama raetam (White Broom similar in looks to the yellow Spanish broom but a different genus altogether), a relatively large bush about a metre tall somehow clinging to life in the most inhospitable place imaginable. Impressive. 
Most plant life in the desert exists along wadis (rivers or streams) which, though dry for much of the year, manage to provide just enough water to allow plants to survive. As a result, a lot of the plants you find in the desert are geophytes (bulbs). By spending most of the summer dormant underground, and performing their life cycle in the cooler periods of winter and spring, they need less serious adaptations to survive. One of the stars of the geophytes, especially in November, is Sternbergia clusiana (in the Amaryllidaceae family). With bright yellow flowers up to 10cm tall (the largest in the genus) it’s quite a spectacle and can be found in isolated populations all over the Negev desert. This was the botanical highlight of the trip!

We cultivate Sternbergia clusiana in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens so I have been seeing these flowers since the day I arrived. There are large drifts of them in several borders, though they have only been in the Gardens for a few years. It is believed that this rapid spread happens because ants eagerly carry the seeds away to feed on a specialised piece of the seed coat, then drop the remains elsewhere. This is a brilliant example of a symbiotic relationship that must have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years.
This weekend’s trip was an introduction to a landscape I’m sure I will remember forever. The drama and scale of makhtesh Ramon is both haunting and beautiful; at first glance it’s desolate and hostile, but beneath the surface it teams with life. I hope to visit the Negev desert more before I leave Israel, definitely at least once in spring to see more geophytes, and maybe some snakes. It was too cool for them to be out basking this trip but with some spring sunshine…

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