Until recently I had never seen a proper desert. Tall sandstone mountains that stretched to meet the sky, their peaks eroded away into alien looking formations by the wind and rain. This red sandy landscape seemed to stretch on forever into a peaceful, yet treacherous terrain. I had thought that taking a four-hour bus trip through this landscape would become dull after a while however it was anything but. The cliffs, mountains, and hills of sand were not only humbling but hauntingly beautiful.
The narrow one lane highway that the bus took cut its way over hills and mountains, through vistas and passed small Bedouin communities that seemed to sprout from the sand itself. As the sun sank below the horizon and the shadows of the hills grew longer the temperature dropped drastically. Where I was once panting in a tank top and leggings I began to shiver and break out my warm parka and beanie. Other than the occasional palm tree planted near a pit stop or gas station, green seemed to be a rare color. After four hours of staring out at the desert terrain the bus finally reached its final destination in the coastal city of Eilat which sits next to the Jordan border
The next morning, I woke up to a magnificent view of red desert mountains set behind the clear waters of the red sea. The light sparkling blue set against the deep orangey/reddish sand of the local landscape made for a beautiful contrast. No wonder this had become such a tourist destination for Israelis and global tourists alike.
In Eilat one can find many popular and unique attractions such as swimming with dolphins in a protected dolphin reef, snorkeling and diving in a coral beach nature reserve, going on dune buggy trips through the surrounding desert, and last but not least walking through a lush botanical garden.
Lush garden? After seeing the local dry, arid landscape I had to check what I had written in my search history to see if I had put in the right location. There was in fact a botanical garden in Eilat and according to google maps it was only about a thirty-minute walk from my small Airbnb. That was all the information I needed, I quickly packed a day bag and started on my way to this supposed lush oasis.
After a sweaty walk offset by strong gusts of dust filled winds I reached the road that led to the garden. The landscape hadn’t changed. On either side of me lay more desert and reddish mountains, only behind me did the stark blue waters of the red sea remind me that there was more to this world then dust and sand. As I walked the road towards this magical garden I began to pass large industrial warehouses, an old car lot, and an almost abandoned looking gas station. I began to wonder if I was going the right way, or if this place even existed. Finally, I came across a weathered sign that read “Botanical Garden”. As I walked passed the sign palm trees began to appear in clumps, accompanied by bushes and ferns. “What is this!” I asked myself, “Greenery!!!” I climbed up over a small hill and was finally given a clear view of the garden itself. I had to stop. Tucked between small sandy hills and what looked like a local junk yard sat an oasis of trees and bushes. A pond could be seen next to what seemed to be the visitors center with a stream that led to more ponds. Colorful flowers and plants planted in impressive sandstone terraces marked either side of the walking paths that seemed to stretch all over the property. A dog laid happily in the shade of a tall tree and a cacophony of birds could be heard singing in the vast green canopy. A friendly young woman greeted me at the front of the visitors center, gave me a map, and began highlighting some of the gardens main attractions. She explained that in the garden you could find over 1000 different species of tropical trees, plants, and bushes. Some were local, such as the Acai tree, Abraham bush, and Wormwood, while others were foreign, like the Cuban sea almond and Baobab tree. Along with the rare plant species there were also man-made waterfalls, a bird sanctuary, plant nursery, organic farm, love nest with a great view of the Edom mountains, streams and pools, a cactus garden, and last but not least a rainforest.
“A rainforest?” I asked. “Yes, it is our main attraction and it is the only one of its kind in the whole world.” She answered with a pleased smile, “The whole area is lined with special irrigation tubes that let out a fine mist every 10/15 minutes to maintain the humidity and moistness underneath the tree canopy.” “Does it work?” I asked a little skeptical given the local climate and surrounding landscape. “See for yourself” She gestured to a spot marked on the map and gave me another pamphlet with additional information about each attraction, “Everything you’ll need to know should be on here, if not, please don’t hesitate to ask.” “I certainly won’t.” I said with a smile and started down the first path marked on the map.
As I walked I began to inform myself of the garden itself. The Eilat Botanical Gardens is built on the site of a former military base that was abandoned in 1994 after Israel made peace with Jordan. It started as a small nursery and was later expanded on to become the paradise it is today. As I read I noticed one of the markers on the map depicted a helmet and a gun next to a large number 2. I kept an eye out for the marker and after about three minutes of walking found a sign that matched the symbol. It stood next to a corrugated tunnel that looked like an old bunker and read, “Military bunker 1968-1994. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Isiah 2:4”
It was wild to think that this gorgeous green oasis had once been a military base. It was much too peaceful and pristine. But if you were to look around you would in fact find traces of its old occupants. Old pieces of machinery and what looked like could be half of an old tank sat rotting away in the junkyard next door. Even within the garden itself the gardeners had left bits of metal wall and plaques describing what had once stood there.
As I kept walking I read more about the creation of the gardens. I was excited to learn that everything grown here was grown using only organic principles to ensure that the gardens environment was ecologically safe and supportive to all species. No plants here had been bought and brought over either, they had all been grown from seed and sown by the creators of the garden themselves. Even the stone terraces, which almost everything was planted in, was built by hand using local rock.
The path I followed twisted around tree groves and flower gardens. I passed a small stream which ran to the side of the path and lead to another small pond with water lilies and lily pads floating on its surface. The path lead me to a set of stone stairs leading down into more of the garden. Here the air seemed to grow moister and a sign read, “Rainforest” with an arrow next to it pointing down the stairway. I took the stairs two by two and again found myself stopped in my tracks. The rough stone stairs lead me down out of Israel and straight into Costa Rica. Crickets or possibly cicadas chirped among the branches and vines twisted themselves around the base of thick trunks. Leaves glistened with moisture and as I descended through the canopies I felt the lightest mist of water being sprayed by the foretold irrigation tubes. Hibiscus flowers and mango trees grew close together, two plants I hadn’t seen since leaving Hawaii. My pamphlet told me that the rainforest was an experiment in creating a microclimate which would allow tropical plants to grow in the desert. It was quite the feat, to create an environment like a rainforest in its stark opposite ecosystem like a desert. While it was magical and quite impressive to stand in this tropical climate in the dry desert country of Israel, I had to wonder how the creators of this oasis got enough water to maintain such a project.
After hunting down the lady that had greeted me at the beginning of my visit I posed this very question to her. She explained that the botanical garden used rainwater harvesting as well as groundwater extraction to water the plants and maintain the tropical climate found in the rainforest. The site was built on top of a spring, the reason to why it was chosen to be the site of the former military base, and the spring has transformed the land into a natural oasis with fertile ground in which to farm and grow plants. “It’s a lot of work to maintain but as you can see it is worth all the sweat.” She said. That it certainly is, and as a visitor I was not only blown away by its beauty but also the ingenuity involved in every part of the garden. It is truly a gem of the desert and a must-see destination if you ever find yourself in Eilat.