Photos: Tiki Ozer
Let me take you to one of the most enchanting places on Earth. It’s a place that forever lives in my soul. Mitzpe Ramon is the southernmost town in the Negev desert in Israel. It is located on the edge of the Ramon crater with its breathtaking scenery.
We lived there between 1957 and 1963. It was a tiny remote settlement of just a few families, where living conditions were harsh. However, I could always find solace in the desert surrounding us.
I was only five years old when we settled there. After school I was usually left to my own devices. That allowed me to spend most of my free time outdoors, taking in the desert with its mesmerizing grandeur. Despite the multitudes of snakes and scorpions, it felt safe to me. I loved sitting on top of the large rock that loomed over the vast crater. There I learned to treasure solitude and being one with nature. There were many creatures around but very few humans. A couple of large horned yellow lizards would usually be sunning themselves nearby. The scorpions were often hidden under rocks. I loved looking for them. There were a couple of foxes and a tribe of mountain goats who fearlessly jumped from cliff to cliff over the precipice.
The large flat rock ledge overlooked the expanse of the Ramon crater. It loomed very high and there was a steep decline below it. Falling would be fatal, but I never conceived of the possibility. I would sit on the very edge with my feet dangling, and take in the picturesque view that stretched in front of me. The crater’s walls were multicolored with layers of sand in blues, pinks, reds and yellows. It used to be a prehistoric sea, and it looked like a sea emptied of its water. It was covered with thousands of marine fossils, still intact. There were many sea urchins and starfish which I loved collecting.
Sometimes I would see a caravan of Bedouins moving very slowly through the crater, with their camels and their entire families. They never rushed anywhere; they were on desert time. Nobody rushed in the desert.
There was a winding road etched through the crater, which led to Eilat, the port city on the edge of the Red Sea. In the 1950s, trucks with goods from Africa would pass through this road on their way to major cities in Israel. They didn’t stop at our settlement. Only a small truck with supplies came around once a week or so.
I do remember though, that once, a truck stopped close to me. It was carrying sugar cane from Africa. The friendly driver handed me a few sticks of sugar cane. I was thrilled with excitement, as I had never seen or tasted sugar cane before. My imagination took me to the sugar plantation in Africa. I imagined the workers singing as they joyfully cut the delicious sugar cane that I was now tasting for the first time. The nice driver showed me how to chew on the cane to extract the sweet juice. It was so refreshing and delicious. We hardly ever had any sweets, and sugar was a rare commodity. I was so happy to run home and share with all my sisters.
Another time, we got visitors from Africa. They were of a different kind. It was midday, right after school. I was standing there close to the edge of the crater, taking in the scenery as usual, when suddenly the sky turned black and the day turned to night. Trillions of locusts covered the sky. Then they started landing, covering the ground and anything on it, including me. They covered every inch of the surface. They looked like a large hybrid of grasshopper and a cockroach. They made an eerie sound with their wings. I just stood there, numb, watching them consume anything they could find on the ground. They were gone before too long. I knew what they were because we had learned about them in Bible class. Locusts were one of the plagues that hit Egypt when they wouldn’t let my people go. They were around in biblical times and are still around now. Living by the edge of the crater, I felt a connection to ancient times, and the locust was part of it for me. Prehistoric, biblical and Bedouin time all existed together in our desert.
Living on the crater’s edge, writer Talya Dunleavy felt a connection to ancient times
The sunset was my cue to go home, but I would watch every last bit of it before leaving. Each time, I was newly awed by the magnificence of the sunset over the crater. The colors of the layers on the walls would slowly intensify and the whole place would be ablaze with fiery reds and blues. It was breathtaking. I was never alone watching it. There would usually be a ram and his family standing there at the very edge of the cliff. Sometimes a fox or a bird would join us. We were all so comfortable around each other, all creatures of the same tribe. Just before dark, I would head back to our tiny stone house, already looking forward to the next day when I would be roaming my desert again.
Mitzpe Ramon is still there, but now it is a great tourist attraction. The town grew from seven families to four thousand inhabitants. It now has all the modern amenities and comforts. It has become a favorite destination for photographers and nature lovers. It is no longer easy to find solitude there, and some of the desert has been covered with buildings and fancy hotels. Still, the breathtaking scenery of the crater is the same as it was sixty years ago, and the descendants of the rams and the foxes still live there.
Mitzpe Ramon is still my favorite place in the world. I find myself longing for it often. I dream of living there on the edge of the crater someday, painting and writing. It has changed my inner world and I take it with me everywhere I go. It was a unique blessing to spend my childhood there. My soul is bonded with that prehistoric place which has a soul of its own.