Israel’s unique and breathtaking subterranean scenery is attracting a growing number of cavers. It’s not for the faint-hearted though.
By Naama Barak, ISRAEL21c
“I remember a few times when I got stuck and needed help getting out, with people pulling you out by the legs because you went somewhere and there was no way forward. Things like that happen; it’s not pleasant.”
Yet getting stuck in a cave could never keep Yoav Negev from his passion – spelunking across Israel’s most exciting underground caverns.
“I was into caving ever since childhood,” says the 41-year-old software engineer. “My dad was a trekking club coordinator, and I used to accompany him on excursions.”
“I feel comfortable in caves – the views are amazing and the physical challenge is fun,” he adds.
Around three years ago, he founded the Israel Cave Explorers Club, where he and some 40 other cave junkies join together to explore, tour and map Israel’s many undercover caves. Their monthly lay excursions have attracted a roster of some 200 people.
“Our motto is ‘Getting to the bottom of things,’” Negev says, explaining that spelunking isn’t only for recreation and scenery, but to discover the geology, historical artifacts and cave history involved.
Caving in Israel is a growing field. “Around five years ago it was near zero. There were really few people who dealt with caves in Israel,” he notes.
Local interest grew when in 2014 he opened a Facebook group dedicated to caves, which now has some 2,000 followers.
“Naturally, people find caves difficult. People are usually interested through films or photos, but when it gets to getting out there, they recoil,” he says. “It stems from the fear of being shut in in a cave for many hours – that’s how I see it.”
But for those who dare to submerge themselves, it’s most satisfying.
“The most exciting thing about caves has to do with discovering passages inside them, or finding artifacts within them,” Negev says, noting that unique cave conditions (such as lack of wind, sun and people) help fragile things survive.
These include geological beauties such as stalactites and stalagmites, as well as manmade treasures like ancient scrolls, the most famous Israeli example being the Dead Sea Scrolls from the third century BCE to the first century CE.
“The whole issue of discovery and the subject of cave discovery are very exciting,” Negev says. “This is one of the last fields mankind can still do something about and discover. The last word hasn’t been said yet.”
Negev’s club, together with Malham, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Cave Research Center, are at the helm of cave exploration and mapping in Israel. This most notably involves mapping caves, such as the recently discovered Malham Cave in the Dead Sea region, the world’s longest known salt cave.
“We’re a very small country and we have a very wide range of views in relation to our size. The same goes for caves,” he explains.
Up north, more European-style, deep caves can be found, while the desert area is typically home to maze-like caves. Salt caves like Malham can otherwise be found only in Iran and Chile.
“It’s a unique phenomenon – interesting and spectacular. It draws cavers from all over the world,” he says of the 150 to 200 caves in the Mount Sodom area, which also happen to be his favorite type of cave.
Going caving in Israel, however, is no mean feat.
“It’s forbidden to visit almost all the caves in Israel, and whoever visits them is a felon,” admits Negev. This, he explains, is because it’s forbidden to enter caves off the beaten, marked track – which most caves are. In short, the cavers engage in illegal activity. “We have no choice,” he says.
Added to that is the issue of cave demolitions.
“As of today, a cave in itself is not defined as a protected natural element,” he says. “It’s very sad. We have many examples of beautiful caves that were destroyed by builders during building and development works.”
And if that weren’t enough, there’s the danger involved.
“Caves of course pose a challenge. After all, this is an environment we’re not used to living and walking around in,” Negev notes. “Many caves are wet and muddy and moving through them is very difficult. They’re vertical and narrow and pose a physical challenge.
“Furthermore, there’s the whole issue of communications inside a cave and out of it that is very problematic,” Negev adds, explaining that satellite phones don’t work underground. “You can’t let the world outside know that you’re stuck.”
Rescuing people from caves is a difficult endeavor, often involving international teams and huge forces as in the case of the football team that got trapped in a cave in Thailand for 18 days last summer.
Negev’s club recently founded a rescue unit and is now part of the European Cave Rescue Association.
For those wanting to experience the underground wonders of caves without the fear of arrest or injury, Negev suggests visiting “show caves” – easily and legally accessible caves that are supervised and safe for the wider public.
He especially recommends the Alma Cave in the Galilee and the Te’omim Cave and Avshalom Cave near Jerusalem.
Wherever you go caving, Negev’s top tip is not to go alone. Find a club, learn more about caves in general and gradually set out to explore in experienced company.
One nagging question remains: Do experienced cavers ever suffer from claustrophobia?
“Generally speaking, the more experience you have the more confident you become,” Negev says. “Claustrophobia is a phobia – there’s no sense to it. It doesn’t exist, or it exists in a very limited and controlled way.”
Still some hope for us, then.