The air in the desert is clear and dry. Sound echoes over huge gulfs of sand, stone and shrubbery. In the night, when it is quiet, the silence rings out strong and undemanding.
I arrived in the desert wrung out from months of travel. Moving from one place to the next on every mode of transport imaginable, being with friends and strangers every day, eating anything and everything, and staying up all night had all caught up with me. As soon as I arrived in Israel illness forced to come to a complete standstill.
Two weeks later, now able to stand, move and stomach simple foods, thanks to a sweet friend’s connections I arrived in the quiet bustle of a boutique vineyard in the west of the country. The family, weathered by hard work and warm as the desert they lived in, invited me into their eclectic home that sheltered friends and travellers as if their own.
Run by a husband and wife team, the vineyard was established in 1998 as part of the Negev Wine Route project, a stretch of road between Beer Sheva and Miztpe Ramon that has been brought back to life by pioneering farmers and entrepreneurs. With the region only getting an average of 100mm of rain per year, it doesn’t immediately seem like a place for viticulture. However, overcoming scorching heat and minimal rain, the vineyards prove that wine can spring forth from such a harsh climate.
This particular vineyard had the special touch of a pair who had known each other since school, where they worked as guides and studied the great outdoors through the likes of botany, zoology, ornithology and archeology. The now long-married pair travelled far and wide, collecting knowledge and experiences that would later help to resurrect the farm and make the vineyard what it is today. After years of hard work and building from the ground up, the farm has expanded to become a place for grape cultivation and experiments, a producer of specialist wines, a place for group tours and workshops, and a bed and breakfast with unique desert cabins.
During days that were icy in the morning and blazing by midday, I worked my way down long rows of hardy grapes, pruning them back so new buds could emerge. A battered hat protected my face from a fierce sun while ancient gardening gloves saved my hands from the gnarled branches. Hour after hour I methodically created piles of discarded branches along with a small group of efficient and petite Malaysian workers. As a volunteer here, in place of payment I was given a bed and food. This meant for the first time in months I had my own room and a small kitchen to use as I liked. The simple cabin was utter luxury, with its mosquito nets, trays of eggs and cereal, and hot water crown jewels.
At this vineyard, made by hardy vines and hardy souls, I came to spend many of my lunches with Hannah, owner, wife and mother extraordinaire. She would invite me to cook a feast of eggs, bread, salad and whatever else we could hunt out of the fridge and pantry. As we cooked she would talk, telling me many things that were close to her heart. She shared with me the struggles, and the ins and outs of what it actually took to raise a family and simultaneously lift this land out of the dry desert to make it into a functional farm.
Throughout my life, in numerous ways I’ve been touched by the kindness of people, to invite me in, offer food, shelter and stories, to share songs and warmth even as a stranger often unable to converse in their native tongue. While my time here was brief, the gentle, repetitive work, hearty food, nourishing company and occasional 'dancercise' class restored me in a way I didn’t even realise until I’d left.