It’s a surreal feeling standing at this yellow gate, kept shut by just a flimsy chain and a padlock. Because beyond this gate lies a whole world of chaos.
This is the Israel-Lebanon border at Rosh Hanikra, and beyond this gate lies the world of Hezbollah and, if you continue on straight into Lebanon and turn right to Syria, the drama of the Syrian civil war.
This is also the place you go for one of the most stunning cable car rides, and one of the most stunning views, you will ever experience. Here are amazing grottoes formed from geological forces over thousands of years. Rainwater penetrated the bedrock, dissolving it and forming tunnels and sea caves. The cable car is believed to be the steepest in the world, running at a height of 230 feet above sea level at a steep 60-degree angle.
And there you have the jarring contrast of Israel’s border areas. Lookouts that help you to visualize chilling geopolitical realities are located in places of amazing natural beauty and magnificent hikes. And somehow, sightseeing culture in Israel has combined these two pursuits — appreciating the landscape, and coming to grips with the harsh realities of this region.
When you’re a tourist in Israel, it’s considered entirely normal to go straight from the hotel to observe Hezbollah in Lebanon, or to combine eating ice cream and listening for ISIS fire on the Syria border.
Rosh Hanikra is an excellent destination, with its combination of geological and geopolitical interests — the cable car and the border. It is an easy option, especially on hot days, as it’s only a few steps from the parking lot to the cable car, and there is even an attractive kosher (meat) restaurant on site. But many people want a more energetic expedition, and if you’re prepared to hike, there are many possibilities.
When I was at Nahal Ayun near Metulla a few weeks ago, tour guide Ohri Carmeli (ohritours.com) was there with a group of dozens of Americans. “It’s amazing that Israel and Lebanon don’t have peace, but you’re walking a hike that is right on the border — you are just feet away from the United Nations buffer zone,” he said. Carmeli’s visitors were fascinated. “Here,” he commented, “you can really feel and sense the border with an unfriendly neighbor, which doesn’t happen much in Europe and America, and this stimulates lots of questions and discussions.”
On the Nahal Ayun trail there are four waterfalls, two of which are especially stunning: the 70-foot Mill Waterfall, alongside which are the remains of a flour mill, and the 100-foot Oven Waterfall, one of the highest perennial streams in Israel.
The yellow gate at the border crossing may remain locked almost all the time, with no open border between Israel and Lebanon, but water has no respect for the man-made constraints of borders — the water in the Israeli waterfalls flows from the Ayun Valley in Lebanon.
Nahal Ayun is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which provides organized parking and a modest snack bar. The main hiking trail takes between 30 minutes and an hour and a half.
Carmeli recommends another hike near the Lebanon border as well — Nahal Snir. The major pull factor here is that you get to wade in the water of the Snir Stream, simultaneously keeping you cool and adding fun. From this hike you can see not only the Lebanese landscape, but on most days you make out at least one Lebanese town.
In the area of the Syria border, there is many an impressive hike. Tour guide Yonit Schiller recommends a visit to the Odem Forest.
There is a four-and-a-half mile hiking route overseen by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael that covers Mount Odem and the forest below, which is home to three different varieties of oak tree. Schiller said that she loves the forest because it almost has the feel of a secret spot, despite being so close to the Syria story. “It’s not heavily visited — you really feel alone in nature,” she said, adding that it has a lot of “mystique” and reminds her of scenes described in fairytales. It is, she said, “one of the most impressive forests I’ve ever walked through.”
Just 18 minutes from this wonderland is a mountain where you can see and hear something of the tragedy of the Syrian civil war for yourself. After the hour-long climb up Mount Bental you can often see smoke from fighting, and hear explosions. You get a sense of the small distance between the serene Jewish villages of the Golan and the ongoing conflict over the border. Standing there, one wonders about the future of Syria, when the crisis will end, and whether the population there will have the luxury of a leisurely peaceful hike in this beautiful scenery any time soon.