Wednesday, February 19, 2003
The clouds and cool breezes added extra magic to the sunset in Eilat last Shabbat. We sat cross-legged on the mostly empty southern beach, not far from the Egyptian border, watching a flock of seagulls lazily swoop and soar over the water. The gentle waves lapped at the shore as the fading light produced a dazzling display of colours.
Through the clear water we could make out each pebble and shell, a mosaic of reds, pinks, greys, greens, browns and blues. Here and there were cauliflower-like fragments of dead coral, washed ashore among the smooth stones.
Across the gulf, the rugged mountains in neighbouring Jordan changed from orange to red to magenta to purple to blue. The clouds above them also metamorphosed, appearing pink above bluish mountains before the sun finally disappeared. Once darkness descended, the full moon turned the clouds to white puffs above ominous grey mountains. Lights twinkled from the cities of Eilat and Aqaba, with the moonlit Red Sea punctuated by the garish neon displays of passing pleasure boats.
A few dozen yards to our right an Israeli Arab family were enjoying a beachfront barbecue at the end of the Muslim Eid Al Adha holiday weekend. From time to time we could hear snippets of darbouka percussion or wailing Arabic song from their boombox.
Down the beach to our left a man was tending to a coffee pot on a little campfire and beyond him a group of youngsters were lounging around a kid with a guitar, humming Israeli rock ballads.
Driving through the Negev desert on the way south, we had been treated to an exceptional display of wildflowers nurtured by the runoff from winter rains. (For the first time in years we've actually had a rainy winter, the way it's supposed to be, hence DH's yearning for Eilat's eternal sun.) The road through the Ramon Crater was particularly lovely, with the rough, rocky browns and oranges of the desert scenery offset by the delicate, cheerful flowers and foliage, a profusion of purple, red, yellow, pink and green.
Just north of Eilat we had stopped at the Hai Bar Nature Reserve, a unique wildlife sanctuary home to species once native to the region in biblical times, but now extinct in the wild. Among the project's achievements is the successful restoration of the Arabian oryx antelope and the onager wild horse to Israel's southern desert. The site was once a major tourist destination offering up-close glimpses of elusive antelope, wild asses, ostriches and nocturnal predators. Sadly, with the economic crisis and the slump in tourism the Hai Bar is due to close at the end of the year unless they can make up the lost revenue. We wanted a chance to bid farewell.
We saw plenty of wildlife outside the reserve too, accompanying a local bird expert in pursuit of a rare eagle recently sighted in the vicinity. Alas, there were no eagles to be found on Eagle Mountain, but I spotted my first Barbary falcon and a charming family of desert gazelle.
The only thing missing from the scenery was that endangered species known as the foreign tourist. Looking for some postcards of Eilat to send foreign relatives, I found several shops with yellowed, old cards. One storekeeper explained that there were so few foreign visitors it was no longer worth his while to restock.
Not long ago, Eilat was a favoured destination for sun-starved northern Europeans. You could hardly move without bumping into Germans, Brits and assorted Scandinavians. This time the only non-Israeli holidaymakers we came across were some local UN and USAID personnel on vacation from their Jerusalem offices, and a family of French Jews.
Such a shame. Away from the terror alerts of central Israel, Eilat would be a perfect place for snowbound Americans and Europeans to come for some R&R, escaping the Orange Alert on the East Coast and the pro-Saddam rallies in the cities. Nothing but quiet beaches, sunny skies, desert mountains, coral reefs and the birds.
As my late grandmother would say, a mechaya.