It seemed like a crazy idea at first — to take the children out to the desert and spend the night at a Bedouin camp sleeping inside a big black tent. But within minutes of arriving at our remote destination and after being greeted in classic Bedouin hospitality-style with a refreshing cup of sweet tea, our initial fears were put to rest.
Almost at once the tranquil serenity of this nomadic lifestyle succeeded in wiping away (some of) the stresses of our city life.
While not a huge fan of sleeping under the stars — give me hotel luxury over an outdoor adventure anytime — spending the night at a Bedouin camp was a compromise reached between me and my Sabra-born, nature-loving children. It would give them the chance to unleash their wilder, free-spirited side while I could be assured of a good night’s sleep thanks to a mattress provided by our Bedouin hosts.
The experience, I hoped, would also be a chance to open my children’s minds to the fact that even in our Jewish-dominated state, there are other minorities who have a different way of living and interesting or unique lifestyles.
Defined as Arab nomads, the Bedouins who populate Israel’s Negev region are estimated to number more than 160,000 and make up roughly 25 percent of the residents in the country’s south. Today, more than half of them live in towns built especially for them by the Israeli government between 1979 and 1982, while the other half live in what are known as “unrecognized villages.”
Data released last year by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that Israel’s Arab population accounts for some 1.57 million people or 20.4 percent of Israel’s overall population. Many of the Bedouins serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
The destination for our Bedouin camping experience was Chan Hashayarot or Caravan Inn, located south of Beersheva, not far from Kibbutz Sde Boker. One of several similar camps where one can supposedly experience real Bedouin hospitality, this particular desert inn provided all the trimmings to make it a relaxing alternative mini-break that was particularly welcoming for the children.
Aside from the sleeping arrangements — in a traditional communal style tent where families or large groups end up bedding down together — we were also treated to an authentic hafla or festive meal replete with fresh salads, humus, tehina, spicy beans, rice and a vegetable dish called magloube. Large groups can also order dancing and musical entertainment. In the morning, the inn also provides a tasty Israeli breakfast with bread, fresh vegetables, eggs, cheese, olives and pastries.
Although the Bedouin tent experience is a common option for organized tours that come to Israel with their communities or as part of a Jewish Agency for Israel program, over the past few years it has also become popular for individual Israeli families looking for a night away from the city.
Chan Hashayarot’s manager, Gila Vered, says that while more and more Israeli families are trying it out, few international tourists have yet to include a Bedouin camping trip as part of a family vacation to Israel. A well-informed website, www.shayarot.com, (yes, apparently even Bedouins are online too) in English, Hebrew and even French, however, aims to change that.
Overall, the Bedouin experience falls somewhere between braving it in the wilderness and opting for a rural guesthouse or small hotel. Its communal areas — the tent, showers and bathrooms — are all clean and well organized. But some of the authentic Bedouin elements we were looking for — having the chance to interact with actual Bedouin people and learn more about their culture and lifestyle — were missing here.
Despite that, my three young children loved the campsite’s open spaces and the sense of freedom, especially the huge pile of mattresses inside the massive tent and the camels, which in keeping with Bedouin tradition, slept a little too near our tent. Our time away from home or hotel, also gave the opportunity to bond together as a family and with the good friends who had joined us. We came well equipped with board games and cards, not to mention the late night scary stories that we told in camp-like style right before bedtime.
For daytime activities, the place itself offers a wide variety of options such as camel rides along the ancient Nabatean spice trail that once ran the length of the Mediterranean coast or a faster moving ride in off-road 4-by-4 jeeps. For the more adventurous types (and those who visit without young children), mountain rappelling is also on offer at the nearby Ramon Crater.
We opted to travel further afield and our stay in the south included a visit to the desert home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, which is now a moving tribute to this ardent Zionist. And we fit in a short tiyul or hike in the Golda Meir National Park across the road. On our drive back home to Jerusalem, we chose to spend the day at the glorious Eshkol National Park, which is well worth a visit.
The cost of a night at Chan Hashayarot is approximately $55 per person for groups numbering more than 20 people and $65 per person for smaller groups. Prices include VAT (Value Added Tax) but do not include the cost of the festive meal or the other attractions that the inn offers. At popular times the price increases, and it is most advisable to visit the Negev during the fall or spring.