January 17, 2019

Makhtesh Ramon crater a school of rock in Israeli desert

David Ben-Gurion once said the Negev is the future of Israel, as 60 percent of the country’s land is in the desert.

Things did not pan out the way the first prime minister of Israel planned, but one thing the Negev does have is a fascinating window into the nation’s past: Makhtesh Ramon (Hebrew for “Ramon Crater”), a massive geological phenomenon that is 26 miles long and 7 miles wide.

Located in the remote southern community Mitzpe Ramon, the crater is home to 70 percent of the rock types found in the world, including sandstone, limestone, basalt, flint and more. During a trip last summer, arranged by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, my group’s guide for the day, Oded Schickler of Ramon Desert Tours, described the crater as “the geological window of the universe.”

But it’s no ordinary crater for other reasons, too. As explained by an interactive exhibition at the Mitzpe Ramon Visitor Center, the formation of the crater dates back to water erosion that occurred more than 200 million years ago. Despite rumors that an asteroid collision created the crater, the movement of oceans and rivers actually resulted in the formation of the site, according to touristisrael.com.

A video presentation describes the wildlife in the crater. Birds in the area include the griffon vulture, which has become a symbol for distrust between Israel and its neighbors. Earlier this year, one of the endangered birds flew to Lebanon and the locals there mistook the tracking device it was wearing for espionage gear. 

There’s also a memorial and exhibit honoring the late Ilan Ramon. The astronaut, who died during the fatal Columbia space shuttle mission in 2003, changed his name from Wolferman upon joining the military “thanks to his love for this part of the Negev Desert of Israel,” according to touristisrael.com.

The crater, as experienced today, is a vast desert unfolding inside of high mountainous walls. Black rocks, shrubbery and the occasional electrical tower dot the brown, barren terrain. 

A popular way to explore the crater is by a Jeep tour. Hold on as your vehicle off-roads across the bumpy landscape, stopping every so often to provide your guide with a chance to talk about rocks, wildlife and more while you take pictures and experience the region on foot. 

One of our guides demonstrated how to make soap from natural materials found in the crater, mixing crushed leaves that contain certain oils with water before rubbing them together in his palms. For those looking for something more extreme than making soap, Ramon Desert Tours also leads rock rappelling at the crater. Mountain biking and camping are also options for visitors to the crater.

For those looking for a fun but mellow night out, HabereH pub, a neighborhood Mitzpe Ramon bar, is a place for young locals to mix and mingle over brews in an ambience with classic rock decor adorning the walls. Angelenos can imagine it as a much tinier Barney’s Beanery, located within walking distance of the Isrotel Ramon Inn. 

The nine-mile drive from the hotel to the crater is its own experience, with winding rugged roads at one point passing by the Beresheet Hotel, one of a variety of hotel options in the area. If you’re lucky, you might spot a Nubian ibex, a desert goat, along the drive. Look closely to see tags on their bodies, which keep track of the size of the population via transmitters. 

The climate, as one might expect, is hot and dry and difficult: Mitzpe Ramon receives only 2 inches of rain annually, which is liable to cause flash floods. The nearby Route 90, which many use to travel to Eilat, is often flooded. 

“If we have one hour of rain, we pop Champagne,” Schickler said. 

The population of the area is a mere 4,600 people. “No other civilized place in the country is so isolated,” said Ohad Rahilovich, founder of Ramon Desert Tours. 

Israeli Ministry of Tourism guide Eli Gertler explained that people began moving to the area after 1956, five years after Mitzpe Ramon’s founding, with “more and more people coming here, day after day,” he said. “It’s not a town. It’s like a big village.” 

Tourism to the area began in the mid-’80s and saw the development of hotels, Jeep companies, electric lines and electric towers, Gertler said. Tourism was down 25 percent in 2015 from 2014, Gertler told me during my July visit to the site, due to violence that engulfed Israel in the summer of 2014.

Too bad, given the beauty of the unique region — a perfect place for exploration, meditation and more.