Monday, January 02, 2006

Israel: Ein Afek

On a fine January Saturday, I decided to visit Ein Afek Nature Reserve.

I hopped in the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, and in about an hour I was passing through Haifa. Ein Afek is just north of the city, so I was in the vicinity.

I ended up turning too soon and found myself at Kibbutz Afek, from which there is no access to the reserve. A friendly kibbutznik tried to help me, but she spoke only French and Hebrew. My very basic Hebrew and even worse French weren’t cutting it, so our conversation wasn’t at all productive.

I backtracked, though, and it didn’t take me long to find the reserve.

Of all the sites in the Israeli National Park System, Ein Afek is not one of the bigger draws. This was pretty obvious when I pulled up. My arrival doubled the total number of cars in the parking lot.

I checked in with the park ranger on duty and got a copy of the park’s informational brochure. Then the reserve and all its wonders were mine to enjoy.

For me, Ein Afek was a good illustration of one thing: Israelis are about as good at managing wetlands as Americans are (Everglades anyone?). The area was once a vast and verdant marshland which was drained almost entirely to make way for farms and suburbs. The government then realized the error of its ways, restored some of the swamps, and made a park.

I started walking down the path and soon came upon the only other visitors in the park at the time. A woman was peering into a pond with her two kids, and while I couldn’t understand her, I could tell that she was trying to make things interesting for the young ones. There wasn’t that much to see in the pond so she was probably showing the kids a water flea or something.

I passed by a few more ponds, and each one had a viewing platform or two. There wasn’t much to see besides an odd fish and some cattails.

This part of the park was close to a highway, and I could see cars whizzing by. It was nice, though, because if I hadn’t been watching them, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the cars. The park was pretty well insulated from the noise of the traffic.

I continued down the trail, and the path gave way to an elevated wooden walkway as it continued through the heart of the swamp. The walkway was fun and all, but there was still an undeniable lack of wildlife. I saw some spiders and mosquitoes amid the rustling reeds, stagnant waters, and muck, and that was about it. I couldn’t help but think, “What this swamp needs is a gator”. Historical accounts place some sort of crocodilian critter in Israel, so an alligator in Ein Afek wouldn’t be so far fetched.

After a few minutes, the wooden walkway ended, and I was back on the dirt path. At this point, there were monstrous grasses topped with plumes on either side of the trail. These grasses were 10 feet tall if they were an inch.

The path formed a loop, and as I neared my starting point, the wall of grasses fell away. Off in the distance, I could see a few water buffalo grazing. These non-natives were brought in by the parks department to help keep the vegetation under control.

Going at a very leisurely pace, I had killed about an hour, and I was basically finished with the park. I had seen some plants, a catfish, 3 or 4 fish that looked like bream, a few ravens, and a bunch of uninteresting bugs. This would have been good and well if I had not had certain expectations. Before coming, though, I had read that in early January the park would be overrun with migratory waterfowl. If there were any waterfowl there that day, they were doing a stellar job of hiding.

At that point in my visit, Ein Afek was looking at 9.5 yawns out of a possible 10 on the Chris Call Scale of Boredom. That’s nearly a perfect score.

There was one chance left for redemption, though. I had saved the Crusader fort and water mill for last.

I moseyed on over and had a look. There wasn’t much to the building itself, but it did provide a great view from its roof.

With my bird’s eye view, I turned my attention, well, back to the birds. And suddenly the park sprang to life before me. I spied a white crane, a pair of cormorants, a kingfisher, and… And that was it.

I’m not picky, though, and I was pleased with my finds. The kingfisher is one of my favorite birds actually, so I spent a bit of time watching this electric-blue dive-bomber trying to spear fish in a pond.

While I was watching the kingfisher, though, something more interesting came into view.

The park was surrounded by a coil of barbed wire. In the barbed wire on the back side of park, there was a gate that was chained shut. As I was watching, a group of people came tromping through the brush toward this gate. Once they reached it and discovered that it was locked, they pulled on the barbed wire and created an opening. Two of the little kids in the group crawled through. Then there was trouble: The third person got snagged in the wire. Maybe these people had some arrangement whereby they were permitted to sneak into the park, but their entrance really looked dodgy.

Anyway, this was the scene: Two little kids were inside the park; an older kid was stuck in the wire; and 5 other kids and adults were on the outside. The ones on the outside were sticking their hands through the wire, like prisoners in cells. The kid in the barbed wire was squirming. The whole thing looked ridiculous.

The mission was clearly not going as planned, and soon the two kids on the inside were dispatched to fetch the ranger.

In no time, the ranger had surveyed the situation and unlocked the gate. Then the group extricated the lad from the wire. They accomplished this task relatively quickly but without any real urgency. This led me to believe that the boy was unharmed by the ordeal.

As the ranger spoke with the gate crashers, I descended from my perch and headed back to the G3.

Between the kingfisher and the barbed-wire eight, Ein Afek had indeed redeemed itself for the day. My final score was a respectable 7.5 yawns out of 10.

1 comment:

touring said...

I found the description of your visit hilarious. I am going this week so hope I will be more lucky in my sitings there. Actually since you were there I believe things have improved. The water authority has allowed more water through - the migrating birds are much more in abundance and there is a brand new film at the mill that brings the history of the place much more to life. Did you know that Richard the Lionheart contracted malaria here?

By the way, point of information - water buffalo ARE native to this area. Admittedly they had to be reintroduced because they had been pretty well eliminated my man - but they are indigenous to Israel. Inded they are even mentioned in the Bible.