Walking in the footsteps of pilgrims on Israel's new Yam le Yam trail

Following this hike from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee is to undertake a journey through the ages, crossing Biblical valleys, past sacred mountains and Crusader landmarks.

Friday, June 5, 2020,
By Emma Thomson
Fishermen cast lines into natural lagoons and sea pools at Achziv National Park on the shores ...

Fishermen cast lines into natural lagoons and sea pools at Achziv National Park on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, one end of the Yam Le Yam trail.

Photograph by David Vaaknin

“You can’t love without sweat.” Bold words from a man I’ve just met. I glance across at the bearded Daniel Gino, ready to be met by a sultry gaze. But his eyes are looking elsewhere: at the undulating hills of Israel’s Upper Galilee region.

I can’t blame him. These lush jackal- and boar-haunted woods are a world away from the arid desert of the south, and through them runs Yam le Yam, a 47-mile ‘sea to sea’ trail that starts on the Mediterranean coastline and arcs south to the Sea of Galilee; a route that’s finally on the verge of international attention. 

“I was 14 the first time,” continues Daniel. He, like many other Boy Scouts have done for decades, trekked it during Passover as a sweaty rite of passage that binds the boys to the country of their birth. “It’s a short trail, but it connects you to the land emotionally,” he says, as we make our way to the start. 

In Hebrew, halach — the verb ‘to walk’ — encompasses many meanings: to grow and go forward; to flow or be poured out as water (about which I later learn more); and to walk hand in hand with God. It would be just the two of us — Daniel, my guide and a former forest ranger — on this four-day pilgrimage of sorts. We probably wouldn’t be holding hands. 

Israel has long been a destination for pilgrims. Movement flows through the bloodlines of its people, not least in the lore of the ancient exodus out of Egypt led by Moses. Today, most pilgrims — nearly a million of them every year — make their way to the holy city of Jerusalem, but this would be a journey of a different kind. One through nature. For out of all Israel’s 6,000 miles or so of hiking trails, Yam le Yam is the greenest. It weaves through the far northern valleys of Upper and Lower Galilee; its ripples forged by the Great Rift Valley that starts in Lebanon and cleaves ever southward to Mozambique.

The night I arrive, a third of the country’s annual average rainfall plummets from the sky. Huge, plump raindrops flood the streets, causing parked cars to float and swelling the rivers. Forget cats and dogs, this was rain on a biblical scale. But the next morning, the sky is blue and combed free of clouds. I grin at Daniel, full of hope. “Bad news,” he counteracts, dourly. “Big chunks of the trail are flooded.” I point to the sunny sky in confused protest. “Doesn’t matter. Look.” He leads me across the road and points to a reed-studded lake. “That’s meant to be the start of the trail.” 

We retreat back across the road and down onto the sand. Cantering toward us are the feisty rollers of the Mediterranean. A few early fishermen stand with their lines in the muddy-as-cocoa waters. Right on the shoreline are the remnants of a dwelling. 

“A Phoenician fishing village,” explains Daniel. There’s so much archaeology under foot in Israel, the experts only investigate the bigger findings, such as the rubble of the village buildings 20 metres from where we stand, which balances on a thumbnail of green called Achziv National Park, where the trail starts. 

A hiker passes a trail marker, Upper Amud Stream Nature Reserve.

Photograph by David Vaaknin

“The Mediterranean is smaller now; today the shoreline is a 100 metres further back,” he says, explaining why the fishing village seems further away from the water today. He starts scanning the ground and, a few metres later, swipes up a shell. “These hunting snails secrete the mucus that’s used in indigo dye. See the shelves in the rocks the Phoenicians carved to grow and harvest them?” And just like that he melds present and past. 

We hop across the rocks, which are as pitted as loofahs, towards the water’s edge. Daniel magics a camping stove and percolator from his rucksack and starts brewing coffee. “You know, there’s a tradition of collecting water from the Med, carrying it with you and depositing it into the Sea of Galilee at the other end,” he says, without looking up. I gulp down the contents of my water bottle and hobble towards the sea that throws itself angrily against the shore. Gingerly, I lower the bottle towards the foaming mass, leaning just a little too far. Wham! A rogue wave dumps a cascade of freezing sea water over my feet and legs. I let out a shriek so shrill the fishermen look to the sky, scanning for seagulls. I squelch back towards Daniel, full bottle held triumphantly aloft. We drink the dregs of our coffee and drive upriver; stowing my hard-won sea water behind the seat of our driver, Meir. 

By the banks of the swollen Kziv stream, beneath a canopy of shivering golden maple leaves, we meet Shai Koren, district manager of the Upper Galilee region. His eyes and khaki shirt are both wrinkled, both due to the birth of his new son. The majority of the trail passes are through reserves and parks, and he knows their outlines as keenly as the lines on his own hands. 

“People started hiking Yam le Yam in the 1950s, but it didn’t become an official route until a decade ago — and we’re finally on the cusp of promoting it abroad. We’ll have official signage and new zimmers (B&Bs) outside the reserves for hikers; owners will even pick you up and drop you off back on the trail. In a few months, I’m going to hike it in its entirety with my daughter and son. We’re pushing them to get away from computers and back to camping — to see the night stars, not five stars!”

Managing areas of outstanding natural beauty sounds like a cushy job, but as it turns out, it can be a bit ‘Wild West’. “A hunter once shot a foot above my head. I asked for his gun — it was a mistake,” he shrugs, philosophically.

Hunters come for the wild boar and fallow deer, which were reintroduced from Iran in the 1970s. “Israel is a bridge between three continents and we have the wildlife to prove it: gazelles from Africa, porcupines from Asia and salamanders from Europe. And when the birds migrate south, it’s the Great Rift Valley they follow.” Throw in the striped hyena, jackal and wolves and you’re in for a really wild show.

Shai Koren, district manager of Upper Galilee Israel Nature and Parks Authority, standing on the Mediterranean shoreline of Achziv National Park.

Photograph by David Vaaknin

We hitch a ride in Shai’s four-wheel-drive vehicle and rumble upward to one of the trail’s highlights: Montfort — a castle with a crumbling watchtower that clings to the hillside. It belonged to French Crusaders until it was besieged by Mamluk slave soldiers in 1271. Starting higher, we clamber down to the ruins; the occasional misplaced boot sending wafts of wild sage up into the air. From here, the valley is a sea of broccoli-bulb treetops. “Nature is mixed with the fate of humanity. Hundreds of years ago, there were no trees left on these hillsides,” says Shai, scanning his finger along the slopes furred with perennial oaks. “It had all been used for timber and firewood.” 

The afternoon sun warms the mammoth stones of the old fort, where daisies sprout amid the cracks. One of the stones bears a crudely graffitied Crusader cross, and past and present collide once more. Shai points across the ravine. “Back in 1965, a hunter killed Israel’s last Anatolian leopard on that hill over there. His grandchild still wears the creature’s teeth as a necklace.” I jump as, right on cue, the primal wails of jackals resound from the valley below. 

By the time we arrive at Hefer Ranch in the village of Aberim, night has drawn a dark veil and the creeping cold causes us to wrap our coats tighter around us. Ranch owner, Eyal Hefer, feels none of it. His broad back is clothed only in a thin oilskin gilet. With a sun-cracked smile, he pumps my hand as firmly as if it were a water piston. He leads me into the goat shed. Pinned to the barn door are old family photos; among them, one of his now grown-up-daughter when she was a baby, lying in her hay-lined playpen surrounded by quizzical goats. Eyal hands me a bucket. “You can milk that one,” he instructs, pointing to a feisty white female. She stamps her hooves huffily and I hastily push the pail into Daniel’s hands. 

Eyal and his wife Edna offer walkers 22 fixed tents beneath shady trees, communal showers and his three horses — Amigo, Luna and Nesh — for riding. But it’s the honesty-box system for wine and their moreish homemade cheeses that keeps guests coming back. Eyal invites me into their house to sample them. Fridge magnets from around the world cover every inch of the kitchen. Dogs and cats fill the floor, fluffy as rugs. With hands wrapped around mugs of herb-infused tea, we talk until late. 

Morning brings buffeting winds atop Mount Zvul. Below us, the hillocks and ravines of the Galilee valleys unfurl like a creased green carpet. Waiting for us is Tareq Shanan, director of the Amud Stream Nature Reserve, who gives us the all-clear to walk this section of the waterlogged trail. Tareq lives in Hurfeish, a Druze town that crowns this hilltop through which the Yam le Yam passes. A small Arabic-speaking minority (with communities in Syria and Lebanon too), the Druze fled persecution from mainstream Muslims in Egypt around 1,000 years ago. They believe in a combination of Islamic monotheism, Greek philosophy and elements of Hinduism, including reincarnation. 

A group of horse-riders on the trail below the Amud, a striking limestone pillar rising from a stream of the same name, Upper Amud Stream Nature Reserve.

Photograph by David Vaaknin

“When my daughter was three years old, she had many emotions about the war in Syria, so I took her to the border, and only then did she relax,” relates Tareq, rotating his blue-bead rosary around his thumb and explaining his belief that his daughter was possibly the reincarnation of a soul born in Syria, and getting close to her homeland again had calmed her.

We’ve taken shelter from the wind’s freezing gusts inside the Druze’s second-most holy site: the cave where prophet Sabalan lived atop the mount. Today, it’s covered with a sleek colonnaded shrine. 

“People think of the Middle East as predominantly Muslim, but this trail covers a mosaic of religions. Here you have Bedouins, Jews, Druze, Circassians, Christians and Muslim Arabs — in the north we all live together. The trail is special because it passes through authentic villages that are home to both Christians and Druze — they’re good examples of comfortable coexistence.” Daniel had already pointed out Tarshicha, a town where Arabs and Jews live together. In a country fraught with religious tension, this is no small thing. 

Rather than trespassing through their backyards, this trail has the potential to become a binding thread. “Will the promotion of Yam le Yam change your lives?” I ask. He rubs his black beard. “We’ll all gain something — it’ll help us all to learn and collaborate with each other more.” 

We call in at the local bakery to pick up a pair of sambusak — Druze-style savoury turnover pastries filled with spinach or minced lamb — for our picnic. The husband-and-wife team take turns shaping the dough before shovelling them into the glowing brick oven. Swathed around her head is a distinctive Druze white headscarf. 

We pull into a car park, as instructed by Tareq, ready to start walking. Right beside the gravel space, as unnoticed as if it were a bus stop, are the remains of an Iron Age settlement. Beside that, an ancient Roman wine press and, a little further on, an Ottoman corral for sheep. It was probably men shepherding these fleecy creatures that forged the trails we’re walking. 

We stride beneath oaks strewn with Spanish moss, their sun-lit leaves dancing like shadow puppets on the ground. Occasionally, the rustle of a rodent stirs the bushes or the trill of a blackbird breaks through the conversation. Walking is never just placing one foot in front of the other. There’s a meditative repetition; something intimate that connects sole, soil and soul. Especially here. “In Israel, almost every rock has a story,” says Daniel.

I’m snapped out of my musings. Coming down the hill is Jonathan, a swathe of grey hair and wind-pinked cheeks. In his mid-50s, he walks these woods every week. 

“Lots of forests planted in the 1940s and 1950s were made up of pine trees. I prefer the indigenous forest and this trail is special for that,” he tells us, before striding off. 

The Druze Israeli town of Hurfeish, seen from Mount Zvul.

Photograph by David Vaaknin

We reach Mount Neria and the trees thin out enough to reveal 180-degree views. “Where the green ends, so too does Israel,” points Daniel, gesturing past the shadow of the disputed Golan Heights region. These are the valleys of Jesus’s intensive roaming. “When you’re travelling in Israel, you can pick up the Bible, read just about any story, and see the landscape it played out on,” says Daniel. Israel is the seat of stories — and as we walk, we tell each other our own. “I didn’t cut my hair for two years after I left the army, having done my national service,” Daniel shares, pacing a few metres in front of me. “I finished university and then rode my motorcycle around the world.”

We walk on a little further and finally summit the pylon-crowned Mount Meron, Israel’s highest peak. “Do you see what I see?” asks Daniel. In the distance, the Sea of Galilee, the lowest freshwater lake on the planet, shimmers like a sheet of metal. But chasing in from the north is a muslin veil of mist and rain that draws up the valley, obscuring the villages and views. Raincoats on, we start downwards, eventually tracing the Amud Stream. From the bushes comes a flash of jackal, dappled brown and gold. A few steps further and we disturb three wild boars, almost as big as brown bears; they canter past us with a snort and snuffle.

The rain intensifies and, once again, we have to spread the map out and re-route. Eventually, we admit defeat and jump into the car to drive towards the Sea of Galilee. “My uncle owned a farm on the shore over there, near the village of Migdal — it’s where Mary Magdalene came from,” Daniel tells me. “For two years, I lived on the beach, picking his mangoes and riding my horse.”

When we pull over, I reach for the bottle I’d stowed in the back pocket of the driver’s seat. It’s not there. “Meir, have you seen my bottle with the Mediterranean seawater in it?” Panic fills his eyes. “I threw it away. I thought it was old drinking water,” he stutters.

Daniel and I collapse into laughter. We decide to go through the motions anyway. So, at North Beach, between stacked sun loungers waiting for summer bodies, I slowly pour some bottled drinking water symbolically into the sea, its surface already jumping with the patter of rain. “I once caught more than 30 fish from here,” Daniel mentions, quietly but proudly. 

Our walk, or halach, hadn’t quite gone to plan. However, it had encompassed going forward and plenty of water, but as for walking hand in hand with God, I wasn’t sure. That night, Daniel and I sat on the edge of the pier at Nof Ginosar kibbutz hotel, beers in hand. Off to the left, lights glimmer along the Golan Heights, to the right spreads Jordan, and behind looms the shadowy masses of the Upper and Lower Galilee valleys we’d partly traversed. The inky waters of Galilee swayed the high reeds near us, releasing soft whispers, and in that moment, I felt a soulful presence. I paused; the beer bottle halfway to my mouth. Suddenly, it all started adding up. Daniel was in his early 30s. Used to have long hair. Fished and lived on the shores of Galilee. Had I been walking with someone else all along?  

Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron.

Photograph by David Vaaknin

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways, EasyJet, El Al, Virgin Atlantic and Wizz Air fly non-stop between the UK and Tel Aviv.
Average flight time: 5h.
Israel is compact: a 90-minute drive east-west, nine hours north-south. All major rental companies operate here. Just be aware that certain Orthodox neighbourhoods close during Shabbat (Friday to Saturday evening). 
Taxis are plentiful, but overcharging of tourists is common; sheruts (minivans) operating on fixed routes for a fixed price can be better option.
Wild camping isn’t permitted on the trail, but there are plenty of B&Bs. 

When to go
Yam le Yam is best walked in spring (March/April, average temperature is 20C) and especially in May when the wild lilies are in full bloom. Alternatively, hike in autumn (September/October average temperature is 25C), when the summer heat has lost its sting.

More information
Israel Nature and Parks Authority. parks.org.il
Treasures of the Galilee. ozrothagalil.org.il 
Israel Tourism. touristisrael.com
Go Israel. info.goisrael.com

How to do it
Pomegranate Travel offers small-group, four-day Sea to Sea trek tours from £2,320 per person, including all accommodation, guide, transport and most meals. Excludes flights.

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

This article was amended on 6 June 2020 as the original piece inadvertently suggested a violation of Israel’s Antiquities Law.

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