After two nights staying in Beer Sheva, we checked out of our hotel, boarded the buses and headed to the Arava. As we travelled through the desert, we were treated to some amazing landscape, quite different to what we have seen so far on our trip. This gave us a glimpse of what Israel would have looked like before the JNF reforestation projects, as well as the terrain our Lighthorsemen would have experienced during the charge of Beer Sheva. We also saw Bedouin settlements dotted across the landscape. The harshness of the conditions reflects the difficulties some of their community face each day.

We continued through the unique landscape and as we reached the top of the rise, the vista opened out to a large valley. His valley was created by a series of ancient seas and rivers leaving behind breathtaking sculpted landforms void of trees. It is hard to imagine that they are able to grow mangoes in this regions during winter. It was also hard to imagine we were below sea level!

Our first stop was the Vidor Centre, where we watched a short 3D film explaining the harshness of the environment and the obstacles they had to overcome to create an agricultural industry. One quote from the films was, ‘birds don’t stop here on their migration except for one, the Babbler, as the region is so harsh.’

Interestingly, the Arava was also the home to David Ben-Gurion. Our guide Samantha stated, ‘if we do not come to the border, the border will come to us’. This reminded the group why the pioneers persevered in this arid desert.

We then moved into the multi sensory experimental tour where we found great inspiration for our students, including innovative agriculture, landform formation and stories from residents of the Arava. It also included an exhibit of tropical fish they are now breeding in the region and an augmented reality sandbox which allowed us to experience a hands-on approach to how the landscape was formed.

We were informed that 50-60% of all produce in the region is exported overseas. However, our next stop was an organic farmer, Tomer Tene, only supplies locally. He produces 20 different plants, including several varieties of tomatoes. We were lucky enough to pick our own tomatoes and peppers to taste and take away. The owner explained his farming techniques, in particular using predators to reduce the number of White Fly. Interestingly, many people from Thailand and Bedouin from Jordan come to work on the farms picking fruit and vegetables.

We then travelled to Shittim School where 7-8 year old students welcomed us with tea while sitting amongst their animals with roosters crowing in the background. We then walked through their sophisticated greenhouses where they showed us their produce and gardening skills. This gave us a glimpse of what is it is like to grow up in the Arava.

We then collaborated our cooking skills to prepare lunch in their outdoor kitchen and leaning space in the sunshine. We had a lovely Sabich and Bourekas pastry and for dessert we munched on hand made date balls.

After lunch, we spoke to Iris and Gill Slavyn, the founders of Lotam’s Way. This organisation specialises in survival trekking and therapy through the outdoors for teens, often from difficult backgrounds. Teenagers find their inner strength through conquering the harsh environment. The organisation was named in honour of their late son Lotan, who lost his life in the Second Lebanon War trying to help fellow soldiers by putting himself before others. His family wanted to do something in his memory to empower youth at risk, to rebuild their self-esteem and confidence and develop the resistance to negative social pressures. This was a moving experience as they have channelled their grief into something positive.

We then visited Sapir Park, an oasis landscaped by another JNF Australia funded project. The project’s vision is to host community activities and learning opportunities for nearby students. As we wandered around the Park, we were able to enjoy the wildlife and were amazed that so much vegetation include green grass could grow in such a harsh environment.

Our accomodation for the night is an Israeli style BnB, while some of us tasted the famous yogurt in the Arava.

After check in, we were given the opportunity to hear from students from the Arava International Centre for Agriculture Training. These students were from a range of countries in Asia and Africa, including Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Kenya and Nigeria. They are here in Israel to learn about the innovative agricultural techniques successful in the Arava, with plans to take their new knowledge home to further the agricultural industry in their own country. This includes techniques as simple as protecting themselves from the effects of pesticide spraying, to marketing and distribution of their produce. Samantha summed up the importance of this with her remark, ‘give them a fish and they will eat for a day, teach them how to fish and they will never go hungry’. This gave us insight into the intricacies of the Israeli agricultural industry and it wide-reaching influence.

After a long day, some of us were reluctant to participate in the next activity of folk dancing. However, within a few minutes everyone was swept up by the laughter and wide array of dancing styles which made for a fun night. Our night finished off with a dinner that included hot chips, something many people were missing from home.

Meg Steel and Carly Jones from Masada College, Sydney