The 100-day Walk About Love often follows old spice trade routes through the Israeli desert PHOTOS: Willow Gamberg
It all began in the milling confusion of the Tel Aviv bus station.
I was trying to find my way to Mitzpe Ramon, a small Israeli town on a plateau in the Arava desert, renowned for its amazing hikes and sunsets.
The problem is that to get there, one must navigate the labyrinth of the Israeli bus system, which is mystifying at its best and impossible at its worst.
I was sitting at what I hoped was the right stop, trying not to look completely lost, when a kindred backpacker about my own age walked up.
“Are you doing the Walk About Love, too?” she asked, noting my backpack and ridiculous hippie travel clothing.
At my look of mute confusion, she laughed. As we boarded the bus, she explained that she was on her way to join up with a kind of peace movement, an annual walk across Israel from the south to the north.
The Walk About Love is a 100-day, 1,000-km journey from Eilat in the south to the northern Shaharot Dunes, mostly following the Israel Trail and the old spice caravan routes, instead of the modern roadways.
When she invited me to accompany her to the campsite, I was tempted, but had already made my hostel reservation in Mitzpe Ramon. I did take the phone number of the organizer and, once I got to the hostel, did a bit more research about the walk.
Created four years ago by a 23-year-old former Israeli soldier named Rea Pasternak, it is a multi-cultural journey of love, music and brotherhood that Pasternak envisioned as a way to begin the healing of the war-torn land of Israel and its people.
Anyone can join for however long they like, as long as they are able to walk the stretches of desert that are allotted for each day, which are taken very slowly and usually amount to between 10-20 km.
The cost of about $20 a day includes food and water. Trucks go ahead of the groups, bringing food, tents and the backpacks, so walkers need only carry their water and lunch for the day.
I had been looking for something fun to do with a group for the rest of my time in Israel, so I was sold immediately.
After several phone calls, I arranged to meet up the next day with one of the co-organizers, who was heading to rejoin the group after a trip to Tel Aviv. We met at a bus stop at a random gas station in the middle of the desert.
He told me the night’s camp was in the ruins of Moa, “somewhere between those hills,” and waved vaguely at the distant hilltops, just visible above the heat haze rising off the desert rocks and sand.
We set off into the desert, and after less than an hour managed to locate the campsite, behind the Moa ruins that served as an overnight stop for the caravans of the spice route.
A group of about 30 people sat on straw mats around a central fire, while another 20 milled about the supply trucks and on the fringes of the camp.
As we walked up, there was a collective smattering of welcomes and I was promptly treated to a round of introductions to people from all over the world, many with completely unpronounceable names.
Besides those from Israel, there were visitors from the U.S., Canada, Germany, England and South America.
The ukulele I had strapped to my pack was immediately requisitioned and passed around. It resurfaced after some three hours in the skilled hands of one of the group’s many musicians.
Sounding better than it ever did under my clumsy ministration, the uke joined the group’s collection of instruments, which included three guitars, two djembes, one tambourine, one fiddle and a melodica.
As we settled in around the fire, dinner was served from a communal pot and the instruments were set aside in favour of container lids, bowls, travel mugs and whatever else was at hand.
Night fell surprisingly quickly. We sat up and played music under an eerily bright moon, before finally lying down to sleep on straw mats under the stars.
The next day, we were all up with the sun. After everything was packed and breakfast was eaten, we grabbed lunch for the road. One of the walkers was given a map and we began hiking.
There was no particular trail we followed. Everyone just seemed to head in vaguely the same direction. As about 40 hikers trailed along the old spice route, the heat shimmered and we fantasized about the lake that reputedly graced our campsite for that evening.
The desert was picturesque and foreign, enjoyable even in the heat, and we reached our destination by mid-afternoon, my group having gotten lost only once.
Our campsite for the weekend was at the generously-named Lake Sapir, which consisted of a fish-filled, scummy pond beside a beautiful park and campsite, a few minutes from the Sapir kibbutz.
Nonetheless, we all plunged in gratefully as the organizers began to set up the site and tent for the weekend festivities.
This weekend’s events would be particularly special because it was Pesach (Passover), and many of the walkers’ families would be heading out to join them for the important Jewish ceremony and holiday.
The day was spent preparing food and relaxing in the shade, while family members trickled in and were introduced to everyone.
As the sun went down, we gathered our group of well over 50 into a rough circle under the tent awnings and the ceremony began.
One of the senior hikers conducted the proceedings, assisted by various group members and organizers.
The story of Pesach was told through songs and excerpts from the Haggadah, the text that lays out the order of the Passover seder, though I suspect the length and number were adjusted to fit the enormous, multicultural— not to mention hungry— group.
The readings were more in the form of stories than sermons, with a simple statement of belief and faith on the part of the Jewish participants that did not exclude those of us who didn’t share their religion.
The songs were beautiful, traditional Hebrew melodies, although there was also a rousing rendition of Bob Marley’s “Exodus”.
Between the final stories, we sampled the various courses in the prescribed order, including the traditional unleavened bread, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, red cabbage and boiled potatoes, along with plenty of red wine, which was used to drink a toast after each story and song.
Gradually the meal wound to a close and the real party started. Music and wine and dancing ran steadily into the night. For awhile, we were joined by some Bedouin campers from across the park.
It was a joyful, upbeat celebration, and a truly amazing experience for a young, foreign traveller to feel so accepted and included in the sacred celebration of an important national holiday.
Friends and family members stayed on until the end of the weekend, taking some walkers with them and leaving others in their place. As Sapir was easy to get to by road, quite a few new or returning hikers took the opportunity to join or rejoin the group.
Sadly, it was also where I had to leave to continue my own travels. I was sent on my way with a chorus of goodbyes and hugs as everyone packed up their gear to get back on the trail.
They will reach their destination by the end of May, to return next year with both experienced walkers and plenty of new faces.
I hope to go back and join them some day.
Willow Gamberg is a former What’s Up Yukon intern who writes about music and other arts-related topics.