Two Fridays ago, the first of our two-day weekend, Philippe, Simone and I headed north alongside the coast toward Haifa. Despite a friend’s vague directions—exit at Mikhmoret, left at roundabout, right at end, right and follow the Alexander river toward a play structure and bridge—I was determined to see an area where sea turtles gather.
When I plugged in our destination on WAZE, it offered one too many options: Nahal (river) Alexander, Nahal Alexander bridge, Nahal Alexander park, but none of them mentioned the turtles. After choosing one, we complied, as usual, since that friendly voice seems to always know the way. We exited the main road, onto a dirt one and spotted the river with its Turkish coffee looking muddy water. We drove slowly, seeing parked cars at different stopping points, but nothing fitting the description I had been given. Unsure of ourselves, we decided to park and get out and walk. By the time we arrived after lunch, the early October sun was at its hottest, penetrating and invasive.
The 45-kilometer river runs from the Samarian hills to the coast, but we had no idea where the critters congregated. With sunscreen, hats and glasses on, we went west. The tiyul was easy, no ups or downs, just a mildly windy walk alongside the riverbank.
Since settling in two years ago August, we haven’t gone on one tiyul. Tiyul, an all-encompassing word in Hebrew meaning hike, outing or fieldtrip. It’s a countrywide pastime. The focal point of the overnight school and youth group trips; the essence of shabbat/Saturday; the fall-back during any school holiday, weather permitting. Walk in nature, learn about the land, see where battles were fought, soldiers died, tanks still stand, busses exploded. Pick up grapefruits or oranges or apples that have fallen. Acknowledge forests planted by thousands of donors and Jewish organizations all over the world. Picnic at tables, on the grass or in a patch of dirt. Set up camp in the desert or alongside the beach. Israelis believe in and admire and have the utmost respect for the land. For whatever reason, the tiyul bug hit me, and I wanted to be outside.
The late Friday afternoon trains whirred by as the path veered away from the river. We noticed the sun start to fade and clouds loom. An oversized ATV slowed when it spotted us and I waved the driver down. “Atem yodim afo hatsavim?” I asked if they had seen turtles.
The father-daughter duo nodded their heads yes and explained that we were almost there, about 15 minutes by foot, along the river’s edge. We thanked them and continued onward. Along the path we saw the closest thing to a pumpkin patch I’ve ever seen here. The squash must have weighed at least 50 pounds, with peel the color of pale peach, and long, curvaceous bodies. Shortly after passing under the railroad tracks, we eyed a weasel, navigating his way through wild brush. “Regardez, un sea turtle!” Philippe said in his half French, half English and pointed across the bank to a mysterious dark creature. As quickly as he glimpsed him, the turtle disappeared, below the murky water, probably scared by our overeagerness.
More and more people started to arrive, some on foot, others on bike. Then, on our right, the infamous bridge and park with a sign saying Turtle Bridge appeared. We crossed over and joined the onlookers gawking below at large catfish, birds, garbage floating and finally, sea turtles, bobbing their heads.
The reptiles looked odd, almost skin-less, with small, black spots along their entire body. Most were full-grown but we saw at least one baby. According to an article in Ha’aretz newspaper, these are East African turtles, who, once upon a time, landed in Israel as their northernmost point of distribution. They used to be a common sight, but pollution has destroyed many of them.