Earths natural largest crater cradles a spectacular desert

Just as the whole of Israel is a study in contrasts, so are its deserts.

Set aside any concepts you may have of what a desert is, for in Israel there are no undulating sand dunes or landscapes as unbroken as the sea. Instead, they are marked by cliffs, crags, boulders and dry river gulches.

Driving from the coastal plain, via Beersheba, one soon notices the remarkable phenomenon of the elevations of the southern Negev, comparable to parts of the Galilee hills and Jerusalem, with the Negev highlands reaching heights above 3,900 feet. Crowning the most impressive desert plateau is the town of Mitzpe Ramon, located about 3-1/2 hour's drive from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Mitzpe Ramon, where it has been known to snow in winter, is perched at the edge of the dramatic Ramon Crater, the largest natural crater on the face of the earth — often cited as an example of what a moon crater must be like. Once traversed by the ancient Spice Route, the 1,300-foot-deep erosion crater is 25 miles long and six miles wide. One can only imagine how many Nabatean caravans crossed it in ancient times, but the dramatic evidence of the prehistoric sea, which once covered this region, and the telltale rocks formed by long-defunct volcanic activity are readily visible to the eye of even the most casual visitor.

In spite of this exceptional attraction, however, few used to visit the town, which slipped into dormancy from the knockout punch dealt by the routing of the Arava Highway. In bypassing Mitzpe Ramon, the new highway carried away traffic, drop-in visitors and even industry, which relocated for proximity to transportation arteries. Over the past few years, however, several developments have made Mitzpe Ramon a special little gem for both wilderness lovers and the most pampered travelers — one worth the detour from the main highway.

The town's excellent visitors' center has been built at the edge of the Ramon Crater in Makhtesh Ramon. Although the magnificent view of the crater can be enjoyed from the sculpture-lined promenade which rims this segment, the visitors' center, administered by the Nature Reserves Authority, provides fascinating insights into the crater's myriad phenomena. Informative films, video clips and exhibits in several languages appeal to all levels of interest and ages. It also provides excellent background information for those planning to drive down into the crater.

Additional facilities within the complex include a self-service restaurant, refreshment stand and an excellent gift shop, which has a notable variety of quality souvenirs, including particularly affordable examples of Bedouin embroidery.

Those who have the use of a car should make a point of driving at least partway into the crater, if only the few miles to the "carpentry shop." This area is seemingly strewn with what appear to be castoff ends of sawn lumber, left behind by an indifferent carpenter. A closer look, however, reveals that these are crystals formed eons ago, when a volcano existed here. Some tour books refer to the "wooden" stairs erected here for traversing this part of the crater. In fact, these stairs — contrived with an easy gradient which makes them convenient even for individuals with mobility problems — are made of recycled industrial plastic, in keeping with environmental principles.

Tours of the crater can be organized through the visitors' center or the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and adventure-touring companies. Meanwhile, anyone planning to drive to Eilat should seriously consider routing through the Ramon Crater.

Adventurous visitors have been known to camp in the crater, while those who prefer a roof to a canopy of stars have a handful of alternatives. These include the excellent youth hostel, the Sukkah in the Desert (an encampment of rudimentary huts with limited amenities), and the Ramon Inn, the one and only hotel in Mitzpe Ramon.

The Ramon Inn, opened in 1993, is the kind of place about which the cognoscenti speak in careful whispers, for fear it will be overrun. Since it was converted from two adjacent apartment buildings into a hotel, it consists entirely of small apartments, ranging in size from studios to two or three rooms with kitchenettes. The space which formerly had separated the buildings, was covered to create the public areas of the hotel: reception, lobby, lounge and restaurant.

Isrotel, the company that owns and operates the inn, has created one of those rarities which contradicts conventional wisdom: a hotel known for its food. Ethnic cuisine has been incorporated into the hotel kitchen's offerings and local women prepare the authentic condiments that accompany the many and varied dishes. Thus, for example, at the Sabbath breakfast buffet, alongside selections of cereals and eggs, one can find a Moroccan comer with fisulia (a slow-cooked bean stew), fresh onions and brown eggs, and a Yemenite comer with a massive pot of malawah (a pan bread which is baked overnight), and spicy tomato relish — traditional Shabbat breakfast dishes of the respective communities. Similarly, the buffet dinners have a different menu every evening, with selections including the conventional as well as the exotic, from East European to North African.

This is not a place for sitting by the pool — especially since there is no pool! It is one for getting out and exploring. A visit to the nearby ranch, which has some 500 llamas and alpacas, is a must. Children can feed and ride on the animals, and are shown how the animals are shorn and their wool processed into yam and handmade products.

Another safe and enjoyable animal experience for children and adults is feeding the ibex that congregate near the sculpture garden in town. Simply bringing a bag full of vegetable scraps will have them literally eating out of your hand.

Not far north of the town are the ruins of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat and Kibbutz Sde Boker, featuring the home and graves of David and Paula Ben-Gurion. A 90-minute hour drive to the south is Eilat and the wonders of the Red Sea.

Individually or in combination, these make for a singular adventure.