The Animal Bazaar at Kushi's Pundak 101 km

Stretches of uninhabitable desert, ancient ruins, holy lands galore, bodies of water so salty they're dead…you can’t deny it: Israel is full of surreal places. 

But so far, Kushi is it for me. 

The surrealist of the surreal, the strangest of the strange. It's right here in my backyard: Israel’s vast and desolate desert.

Meet Kushi's Pundak 101km.

boat in the desert
An apparently uninhabited boat on the outskirts of the property dating back, I'm sure, to biblical times

Back in the 1980s, a tall, solid man with a history in clandestine war operations decided on a new direction for his life: he would sell coffee out of a decrepit bus alongside the lonesome highway spanning the southern Arava desert.

Out of this small seed of an idea, Pundak 101km was born.

The locals (which in a country as small as Israel, one might venture to call everybody a local) often refer to the place as “Kushi.” It's the nickname of the man who founded the place and it means “black man,” but...he isn’t black.

From bus-served coffee, Kushi's has grown over the past three decades into a strange and beautiful desert oasis that serves as home for animal (or human) rejects, hermits, and other souls who can’t seem to escape the strange magic that is 101km.

guinea pigs
guinea pig heaven
4 horn sheep
Look hard and you can see the ram has two sets of horns
ugly ducklings
The ugly duckings...nah, it's only your pond that's ugly
Piranha habitat
Piranhas...seriously. Cleaning their tank was a blast.


Today the primary function of Pundak 101km's real estate is to provide shady spot and refreshments for vacationers on the long drive across the desert to get to the southern beach town on Eilat.

But quietly, it seems, it is also a sort of animal bazaar. Most people come through without even taking a stroll over to the swath of caged animals mere yards away. Instead, they sit at communal picnic tables drinking cold bottles of soda or licking freezer-born ice cream cones purchased from the strangely 7-11ish store, then they pile back into their cars and continue down the road.

Nobody seems sure of how Kushi came to acquire so many animals, but acquire them he did, and the place is now legendary across Israel.

Camels, coatis, goats, rams, ferrets, parrots, snakes, tarantulas, lizards, an ostrich, giant turtles, geese, a fat wild boar, peacocks, and countless guinea pigs call it home.

Is it a good home? Perhaps…perhaps. But what wild animal aware of its walls can ever fully be said to live in a good home? We can only hope that the effort and pain that go into stripping an animal of its natural habitat pay off by inspiring humans to care about animals’ overall place in the world.

Approaching 101km from the highway
101 km pundak
Nothing says "welcome" like a hanging dummy

For my part, I arrived to Kushi as a curious Wwoofing volunteer, eager to escape the noisiness of Eilat by means of what sounded like a peaceful animal retreat.

(if you want the lowdown on why I'm in Israel in the first place, click here)

Peaceful?

I suppose it’s a subjective term.

I do prefer the constant squawking of parrots, baa-ing of goats, and groaning of camels to the crying babies and stray dogs of Eilat…but I’m not quite sure I would go so far as to call the experience peaceful.

macaw parrot in tree
Thank you, macaw, for my daily reminders that you are, indeed, alive
There is also the minor problem that the idea of Wwoofing as an "exchange" seems to be sadly absent here.

Yes, I was given a filthy room to sleep in (used clothes, tissues, and two empty vodka bottles littered the floor...And my sheets were dirty.). And I am allowed to take part in the [sub-par] employee meals (there are give-or-take 20 men and a petite handful of women who work around the premises or in the small convenience store), but indeed, I am looking for something a bit more—an exchange on a deeper level.

Upon arrival, I was deposited to my room by the young guy who runs the place, Matan, and then began working without any real discussion of what I could expect for the week to come.

I miss my French families...

But then there are the animals. My beloved animals.

female camels
The dancing camel orphan
white peacock
A beautiful albino peacock
white donkey
Albino donkey?

We start work around 8:30 feeding them, and it takes about three hours (including copious ferret-petting sessions), after which we break for lunch and come back to work for an hour or two (or three if the manager has it his way—he doesn't.).

coati diet
pet coati
coati diet
These coatis are the improved versions of racoons...adorable and sweet, they love attention and some will even walk around with you on a leash.

parrot feeding
feather head chicken

albino ferret

And there are certainly some interesting people to help me forget about a daze-inducing night of interrupted sleep.

Case in point: Ella, a full-time librarian and part-time amateur astronomer, and my only fellow volunteer. We bonded over our suspicions of being exploited (more on that to come!), but also over a couple stunning nights of stargazing.

As a Russian-born Jew who came to Israel when she was 15, she has an amazing perspective and wealth of knowledge concerning the country’s history and current political landscape. Though I never expected to come to Israel, I now know how lucky I am to have this opportunity to explore its rich land and history.

And then there's the desert that surrounds Kushi: It's other-worldly. There's no other way to describe it, so why try with words?

israel sunset
desert sunset
israel sunset
desert sunset

Anyway, stay tuned (get updates in your inbox by clicking here!).

I have a feeling this whiff of exploitation isn't going to go away, and we all know that the Chowgypsy isn't one to be walked on...

yellow flower tree
signs of life

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