By Erik R. Trinidad
A tale of Bedouins and bladders.
“He said that he’ll drop us off at the settlement and that it’s a far walk… And it’s unsafe… And that we shouldn’t be heroes for doing it,” my new friend Sarit explained to me, translating the bus driver’s warning in Hebrew at Jerusalem’s central bus station. “But he’ll take us.”
This was the latest warning for us not to go on the Wadi Qelt trek that we’d read and heard so much about, a hike through the Judean Desert of the Palestinian West Bank. An Israeli guide in Jerusalem advised us that while the trek isn’t unheard of—it’s mentioned in guidebooks after all—there’s safety in numbers and we should go with a larger group. A Palestinian guy I befriended in the Old City thought the idea of recreational hiking anywhere was just absurd—”I’m Palestinian; We don’t hike!” he told me—while an American ex-pat gave me a different kind of cautionary advice:
“You needn’t worry about Israelis and their politics, or Palestinians and their politics. Worry about the Bedouins who have no politics,” he told me. “Don’t do it alone. It’s a little unsafe and you’re likely to be shot by Bedouins.”
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Sarit was not only my Hebrew translator, but my latest travel companion in my independent wanderings around Israel. Coincidentally a fellow New Yorker, she was also touring the country after spending months on a kibbutz, when our paths crossed in the city of Haifa just a few days before our West Bank excursion. With our common bonds, we had kept in touch to plan the trek, but how we would actually fare together outside of an urban environment was yet to be determined.
Like myself, she too had heard tales from former Wadi Qelt hikers about being harassed by gun-toting West Bank nomads—exciting experiences that they survived and laughed about in retrospect. Their good-humored stories of peril only added to the appeal of experiencing the desert trek ourselves.
The reluctant bus driver dropped us off on the side of the road, somewhere between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. He pulled away, leaving Sarit and me at a junction near the West Bank border. There were no security checkpoints as far as we could see, just signs designating the directions to “Mizpe Yericho,” a Jewish settlement within the West Bank; “St. George,” a secluded monastery that we’d read was halfway between Jerusalem and Jericho; and “Wadi Qelt” itself.
“I guess this is the start of the trail,” I announced, looking down the dusty, undulating path that gradually descended into the unknown valley.
“I guess so,” Sarit said before taking a sip of water, as the sun began its daily ritual of scorching the earth.
We didn’t have a map—our guidebook was lacking in any details of the hike—and at the time, neither of us had a smartphone to look up anything on Google Maps—not that we’d get reception in the middle of the desert anyway. We just figured we’d arrive at the wadi (Arabic word for a valley or dried up river bed), and just hike it all the way through to the end.
With a handful of trail bars and a combined five liters of water in our packs, we began our hike with a spirit of adventure and a confident sense of direction. One foot followed the other, each step bringing us lower into the wadi. Above our heads, the sky was an imperfect blue, fighting to peer through a shroud of dusty haze. As far as I could see, on the horizon were beige hills and mounds of sand. A scattering of dark green desert bushes broke the rolling monotony—until we encountered signs of human life after about an hour of trekking the path.
“Where is everyone?” I wondered aloud.
We found several encampments—makeshift fences and patched-together shelters—evidence of other people living in those parts, but seemingly abandoned. We spotted a couple of live animals on the way, but nobody attending to them. Perhaps people were hiding from the two strangers passing through—and watching us?
As we continued our way beyond the ghost town, the radiating desert sun cooked us from above. You could have fried an egg on the sidewalk—if there was one. Eggs might have been good too, for we were foolishly lacking in adequate food and water supplies for what was turning out to be a much longer excursion than anticipated—especially water. For fear of death by dehydration, Sarit started to get a bit neurotic and was quickly depleting our shared hydration supply.
Adding to our mounting frustrations, the wadi, which had been a clearly defined canyon to follow, suddenly wasn’t. Any direction looked liked it could have followed the wadi to Jericho. Fortunately, we looked up from the valley and noticed something: an actual working aqueduct. It might not have been such a surprise if our guidebook had mentioned it, but to us it was a major archaeological find. Upon further investigation, we found some signs nearby, pointing two confusing directions to the midway of St. George’s Monastery: “Through the Aqueduct” and “Through the Wadi.”
“Let’s follow the aqueduct,” I suggested. “You’d think the Romans built the aqueduct, and the monastery was probably built by the Romans, so it’ll probably lead us right there.” That was my wannabe archaeologist hypothesis anyway; I just assumed Romans. (It was actually built and restored by Greek monks.) Besides, walking by flowing water could help cool us down, especially since the agony of high noon was rapidly approaching.
“Okay,” Sarit agreed.
Little fish and amphibians grazed our ankles as we waded through the narrow, stone channel only about two feet wide. The ancient plumbing system followed the winding Wadi Qelt rim on higher ground, giving us some sense of direction. As water flowed towards a destination, I could only think that if I had brought water purification tablets, we would have easily had a fresh drinking source to refill our empty bottles. While I prided myself on being a “camel”—being able to survive with minimal water—somehow, most of our shared five liters of drinking water had already been expended.
“I have to pee again,” Sarit admitted to me as we continued our hike on solid ground, near the man-made water channel.
“Again? You just went,” I scolded her.
But she went again. And again, and again in the bushes—relieving herself of our water supply.
“You know, if you drink and pee it out right away, your body already has the water it needs,” I told her. “You’re overhydrated.”
“I don’t want to die!” Sarit retorted. She was convinced that we were going to be on the six o’clock news, as those two hikers that died of dehydration in the desert.
“You’re peeing out all our water!” I rebuked.
Just as our petty fight was starting to escalate in the middle of nowhere, we came around a bend where I noticed a piece of cloth, colorful and devoid of dust, tucked in a nook of a rock.
“Someone’s been here.”
And then, we started hearing voices reverberating in the canyon. I couldn’t tell which direction was from the source and which was from the echo. Suddenly, we stopped caring about our water supply.
In the distance, two figures along the aqueduct pathway came into focus. If we were to follow the aqueduct all the way, there would be no avoiding them. We were too high from the dry riverbed to jump or climb down. Contact with them was inevitable.
“There are people over there,” I said in an ominous whisper. “Bedouins…”
“Oh my God, I’m really scared,” Sarit nervously uttered.
“Should we go back?”
“No, but I’m really scared.”
Suddenly the tales of guns entered our minds, and there was no one around to help us. No one knew that we were even out on this foolish trek, except maybe the bus driver who brought us to the trailhead, and he told us not to be there. We couldn’t see any evidence of guns, but what soon became apparent were dogs. The closer we walked towards the figures, the louder the canines took notice of us and barked to alert them of our presence.
Should we turn back? I wondered. Are the dogs tied up or free to attack us? Does Sarit need to pee again? Things were getting tense and I might have wet my pants myself.
“Uh, salaam,” I called out in Arabic to the teenaged Bedouin in a blue t-shirt. It was about the only thing I knew in the language. The closer we became, I noticed a herd of goats around a bend. And then it started to become clear: the dogs were herding dogs, and the figures were mere shepherds.
“They’re just kids,” I informed Sarit, walking forward, still wary of any trouble. I gave them an ocular pat-down for any suspicious weaponry, as our inevitable encounter came to be. The dogs continued to bark at us, louder than before, albeit at a distance.
As Sarit approached the young man to communicate, I hoped she had some more vocabulary up her sleeve than I did.
“You speak English?” she asked him bluntly. “Uh, how far is it to Jericho?”
Blank stares from both shepherds, with smiles of confusion.
“How farrr iss it… to Jerrricho?” she asked again, elongating her r’s as if it would help him comprehend. “Is it thissss way?”
The blue-clad Bedouin tried to say something, but just smiled to compensate for his inability. The other one stood by his side, continuing his dumbfounded gaze.
Sarit asked another question: “How far is it to Saint George?”
The monastery triggered something in the shepherd’s mind. “Sainnn Georrge…” he said, recognizing the proper noun. He held out his ten fingers.
“Ten minutes? Ten kilometers?”
He nodded in acknowledgement—or simply just nodded, we couldn’t tell. “Sainnn Georrrrge,” he reiterated. He pointed us in the direction, which followed the aqueduct anyway.
“Shukran,” Sarit thanked him.
And we walked away from our first Bedouin encounter, unscathed and confused—but still thirsty.
With the shepherds behind us, we noticed a footpath that strayed away from the aqueduct. We decided to follow it since it appeared to be a shortcut, an alternative to following the winding rim of the wadi to arrive at the same place in the distance. However, the pathway went through the unforgiving desert again, this time over big hills.
Gasping with exhaustion, we made it up yet another incline, where we found a symbol of guidance. “A cross!” Sarit exclaimed. “A cross! I never thought I’d be so happy to see a cross! Jesus Christ is my savior!” she joked, provisionally going Christian from the Jewish faith she was raised with.
“Well, it’s got to be that way.”
Full of optimism that we might not actually die in the desert heat, Sarit was only disappointed when we arrived at the vantage point of the cross and saw that up ahead was not the monastery, but another cross in the distance on another hill. How many crucifix-adorned hills there were before the monastery we did not know, and the situation became bleak again.
We regrouped and analyzed our situation. How far was it really to Jericho? Was it more than the six kilometers we’d read about? We’d been hiking for hours; we should have seen it already, or at least the monastery. Where was it? How much water do we have? Just enough to make it back the way we came? Or should we trek forward?
“The aqueduct is moving closer to the wadi,” Sarit noticed in the distance. “They must meet together at the monastery.” That was her wannabe archaeological hypothesis anyway.
We took the risk and trekked on, conscious of our near-empty water supply. We alternated wearing the one baseball cap I brought to shade our heads from the sun’s rays, as it was reaching the hottest point of the day—I reckoned it was over 110°F. Beaten and dehydrated, I soon realized why Wadi Qelt is often associated with Psalm 23:4’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” We might have conceded to a Biblical demise—until the monastery appeared in the distance.
“Oh my God, there it is!” Sarit exclaimed.
It was not a mirage. Our slump turned into a spirited sprint, and we ran to the ancient building. However, it was monkless; no monks to be found. We followed a stone path and stairway that led us to the base of the monastery—only for it to bring us to another mysterious figure, this one sporting a beard, a keffiyeh, and a galabiyya that concealed a teal shirt underneath.
“I am Ali Baba,” he greeted us, telltale sign he was not of the Christian monastery. The Bedouin spoke English in an Arabic accent, with a soft voice. “This is Habibi,” he continued, referring to the darling mule at his side.
“Are you from Jericho?” Sarit asked the mysterious man.
“No, I am Bedouin. I live in the desert,” he answered.
Sarit continued the conversation with him; communication in a common language was much easier, albeit in simple sentences. I on the other hand, was still on guard. But before I could assess the peculiar Bedouin’s demeanor or possible motives, she was already on the back of his mule, hitching a ride to the paved road that he informed us about—one that directly led to Jericho—saving us the trouble of having to continue wandering the desert like Moses and his people. I was a little annoyed that I was still on foot while Sarit got to ride the beast of burden, as we ascended up a hill out of the wadi.
“Where are you from?” Ali Baba asked the two of us.
“New York,” we answered.
“New York… in America!” the mysterious Bedouin said with recognition. “I know America. Land of Snickers. I eat Snickers. I like Snickers.” And then he started mentioning all the other American brands he knew. “Pringles. Coca-Cola Zero. McDonald’s… Makes Americans fat.”
Just as soon as I thought his English was good enough to give us a lecture on American obesity, we arrived at the paved road. Ali Baba held out his hand with a smile, and spoke another American phrase we all knew.
“No money, no honey,” he joked.
We gladly paid him fifty shekels for his assistance, and went on our way along the well-marked asphalted path towards Jericho. Along the way, we encountered yet another wandering nomad, but he, like Ali Baba, would not go any farther with us into the city limits. Both Bedouins of the desert—men with no politics at all— turned their backs on modern civilization and reverted to their simple, nomadic life in the sands.
Perhaps the stories of guns and aggression we had heard were all tall tales; Bedouin behavior, at least from our experience, was much more peaceful than what we had anticipated. In fact, all of our troubles on the Wadi Qelt trek were faults of our own, results of our lack of preparation.
A Muslim call to prayer filled the air as we entered the outskirts of Jericho. Green fertile land appeared in the distance, and soon we arrived at actual buildings. The red, black, white, and green colors of the Palestinian flag waved from a pole in the air, and Sarit and I were happy that we were somewhere rather than nowhere.
“We did it!” raved Sarit. “I can’t believe it! We made it!”
She covered her shoulders as we walked to one of the main roads, where it was easy to get a taxi to take us to the town center.
“We just walked here from Jerusalem,” Sarit admitted to the Palestinian cab driver. “We’re hungry and we need water!”
In no time, we were at a restaurant where plates of delicious Middle Eastern mezes graced the top of our table. We devoured them like we hadn’t eaten in forty days, washing them down with bottles and bottles of drinking water. And for the first time in what seemed to be an eternity, Sarit peed again—this time in a toilet.
As we rode in a car that took us back to Jerusalem, I reflected on our ordeal in the wild West Bank and couldn’t help but smile. In hindsight, I realized that we too had a Wadi Qelt survival story to contribute to anyone considering doing the trek themselves—one that Sarit and I could laugh about after the fact, for years to come.
Erik R. Trinidad is a Brooklyn-based freelance travel and food writer whose credits include National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur, and Discovery.com. He has contributed to Travelers’ Tales’ travel anthology, Hyenas Laughed At Me (And Now I Know Why), and was awarded the Adventure Travel Silver Certificate in their Second Annual Solas Awards for his short story about another trekking ordeal along the Everest Trail. It may be of note that as soon as he and his friend Sarit arrived back in Jerusalem after the Wadi Qelt trek, the streets of the Old City were filled with the music of Michael Jackson; they had trekked on the day the world got notice of his passing in June 2009.