Monday, 6 August 2012

Israel: Las Banias at Golan Heights


It's another pricey place, but again for good reason. Officially the border between Syria, Lebanon and Israel, people seem to forget that at one time - the birth of civilisation originated in these countries. So expect amazing waterfalls as the wettest region in the area.

This area isn't for the faint-hearted. The Golan may be a rural area and largely safe, however it is also one of the world's largest military barriers, and while it offers many hiking options, you should always be cautious for firing and mining fields. I found the Hitchhiker's Guide to Galilee, which is definitely a website to watch in the future.

Places to see and do: 

Definitely the Banias are worth a visit (entry fee is NIS 27). This national park follows the Banias stream, and includes some easy and fairly short hiking trails that pass by old water mills, vigorous rapids, and the ruins of a temple to the god Pan. The city was located within the region known as the "Panion" (the region of the Greek god Pan), and is named after the deity associated with the grotto and shrines close to the spring called "Paneas".

Getting to and from Golan Heights: 

Very strange place to try and get to. Apparently has the worst transport connections in the country, which really tells you a lot. It is off 'Route 99', and the nearest bus station (I say it very loosely) is Kiryat Shmona Central Bus station.

From Mikhmoret, take route number 872/852, one of the Egged ones, then you take the 841 bus when changing at Khadera Central Bus station. It takes several hours, and it doesn't end here. Or you can change at Netanya Interchange with the additional option of taking 910. When you get on this interchange, you will need to take 842 to Kiryat Shmona.

You need to see if you can catch a ride through Route 99 to the Banias as it is a little outside the town. If you have a driving licence, you can rent cars from the station, which is always useful. On the way back, it's another case of hitchhiking- and believe me, it takes time to flag down a car that arrives once every half hour.


Getting around the Banias Nature Reserve, is a bit of a doddle if you're fit and you take shortcuts (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more). But getting there and out is the biggest issue, so I suggest you make car rental plans or go with a tour.

So this place is a hiker's heaven. You need to trek several miles just to get to the place, after hours of travelling on a bus some distance away from the nature reserve. But it's really no wonder. What used to be seen as an important Christian pilgrimage, wouldn't quite have the same effect if it was only a cab ride away. And it could be quite strenuous for those not prepared for the great outdoors. 

Remember: water is a must, and when we were there, we were still allowed to have a quick dip in the waterfall. Not quite sure whether that's the case now. Hats, sun screen, emergency supplies - and all that jazz.

We eventually made it to the Kiryat Shmona, after a hop, skip, jump and a food stop all the way from Mikhmoret. The beaches were a distant memory after visiting the slightly cooler highlands of the country. It was a strange feeling. It took almost 38 hours to feel a change of scenery and climate in India and China, yet this tiny country had the same impact in 4 hours. 

After being left stranded in the nearby town, we realised it wasn't going to be as easy as we thought. We stood on a street corner (completely appropriately of course) and attempted to flag down a car going down route 99, waving our arms frantically as if we were trying to fly there. In the back of some hippy student's car (as always) we made it halfway through the route, before being kicked out. It was time to try flap our wings again.

It took a wee while, but we did eventually make it there in the same day amazingly. And it was packed to seams with tourists, all wearing multi-coloured caps, eager to catch a glimpse of Pan's Labyrinth...I mean Pan's temple.

The temenos (sacred precinct) included a temple, courtyards, a grotto and niches for rituals. It was constructed on an elevated, 80m long natural terrace along the cliff which towered over the north of the city. A four-line inscription at the base of one of the niches relates to Pan and Echo, the mountain nymph, and was dated to 87 CE.

This was just the beginning in the long line of ancient history that followed. After this came the Romans and associations with Jesus, the Byzantine empire, the Crusaders, the Ottoman empire and last but not least, the British empire.

Apart from the history lesson, it had breathtaking landscapes lining the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese border. The Banias has the mother-of-all-waterfalls in its vicinity.

Depending on one’s pace, there is a 45-minute trail passing both Roman and Crusader sites, followed by another 90-minute walk passing by the Govta Stream until reaching the waterfall, which is generally considered the most impressive in Israel.

A point nine kilometres (about 5½ miles) further, where the Hermon Stream meets the Dan waterway, is the head of the Jordan River.

So what seemed like endless miles, wilting in the heat, we finally saw a glimpse of the waterfall through all of the flora and fauna. And it felt like a mirage, that much water spewing from the rocks, and all we wanted to do is jump into it. 

Except, it being a nature reserve and all, we needed to find a remote spot where the authorities wouldn't bust our chops about it. And a remote spot we found, so far out the loophole that it was behind some revolving gates that said we wouldn't be allowed back, unless we climbed another 2 hours to get to the outside world. We chanced it, despite seeing the gates were against a sheer drop off a cliff side. 

After a speedy dip in freezing cold water, in some bizarre part of the reserve which had an overturned tank, we decided to head back and attempt to take a shortcut. However, this shortcut consisted of climbing back over those gates without preferably falling to our death. And after careful contortion-ism, we made it back, feeling bad for the school kids who had to make that extra journey via the other side.

We finally got back to one of those obscure highway routes and realised that there were two elderly ladies attempting to also flag a car. It wasn't much of a competition, rather it was kind of pathetic. Guys were happily stopping for two young girls but not for those 'mature' women. We stopped a car, who wanted to take us and then pointed to them. He arrogantly shook his head and drove off. 

The next guy stopped for us, but we gave it up for the two women, who gave us absolutely no time of day and not even a courteous thank you! We scoffed and vowed never to help any old-biddy ever again. It was pitch black by the time we got home. And our legs and arms needed a cast from all of the aches and pains.

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