Mountain Biking in Israel
Think like a camel. Ride like a tiger. And drink like a Viking coming in from the battlefield! Maor, our guide for the day, gives us these words of advice to prepare us for the approaching heat in the Judaean Desert. Camels also look for the path of least resistance and would never walk up a steep one. That’s why camel treks are perfect for bikers, he tells us. The smooth riding style of a tiger is in our blood anyway. Or so we hope.
It’s not even seven in the morning yet, and the thermometer already shows 24 degrees centigrade (75 degrees Fahrenheit). This is going to be fun. Michele, a colleague from the Qloom Team, and I sit on a blanket in the Judaean Desert with Maor and Hovav (who’s a bike guide and trail builder) and have breakfast. We can see Jerusalem and other smaller cities in the distance. Everything seems sparse and gray in the desert landscape. Our eyes have to adjust to the endless expanse. Hovav knows just about every trail in Israel. This is the only place where someone else, a man named Maor, knows the trails better than Hovav does. Everybody lovingly calls Maor “The Janitor.” He’s recorded about 700 kilometers of trails via GPS here. He finds each and every one of them without the help of a navigation device. He promises us an unusual day full of surprises.
We pack up what’s left of our breakfast and hop on our bikes. Our Israeli friends give it everything they’ve got. We need some time to get used to the slippery, rocky terrain. They want to show us a not-yet-official trail first thing today. We can’t wait. We stop, our mouths gaping wide open, after just 10 minutes. Wow! A huge gorge opens up right in front of us. It’s cut deep, with terrace-like rock formations made of yellow sandstone on both sides. We make comparisons to the Grand Canyon or the Kali Gandaki Gorge in Nepal. The best is yet to come. There’s a trail on the left side high above the gorge, close to the edge, above many of the terraces. A dream come true! The thing is, there is no room for error here. Some sections are narrower than the width of a handlebar. The trail even has a roof on one of its sections, since ragged sandstone formations reach up into the sky above us. We’re totally ecstatic.
We spot a house far in the distance. Michele and I can’t believe our eyes. A building protrudes from the canyon that fits into the surroundings perfectly because it’s built of sandstone. It’s huge, with steeples, domes, and countless floors. It sticks to the edge of the canyon like a swallow’s nest. Only a few hundred meters of flowy trail until we stop, quite impressed, right opposite of Mar Saba. We just can’t get enough of this sight. Hovav explains that it’s a Greek Orthodox monastery that is inhabited by monks to this day. It was founded by a hermit monk, the holy Sabas, in the 5th century. Up to 8000 monks lived there in its prime, which explains the unbelievable size.
The sun keeps rising, and with it the thermometer. It’s already over 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees centigrade) at 11 a.m. We make our way to ride one of the most well-known trails in Israel: the Sugar Trail. It follows an old caravan route towards the Red Sea. Traders traveled it in former times. Their pack animals carried salt, spices and also sugar. Some of the wells along the way are besieged by goats, and we have to wriggle our way through them. The ascents are never hard to ride up, and the paths down are smooth, as if they were made for bikers. We get caught up in the landscape and feel isolated from all civilization in no time. It’s like we landed on another planet. The 25-kilometer-long (15-mile), often-pumpy desert trail is out of this world and a must for all bikers who visit Israel.
THE DEAD SEA
A bath in the Dead Sea should also be on your to-do list if you visit the Holy Land. Michele and I don’t want to miss out on the fun and ride towards the beach. It increasingly smells like rotten eggs thanks to the amount of sulfur in the water. The shore is covered in crusty salt. Some of the salt formations look like stalactites reaching towards the water. We carefully walk into the sea. You hear a lot about being able to just let yourself float and how you can’t drown here. We’re skeptical until we find out for ourselves. We carefully immerse ourselves in the water—one foot off the ground, then the other. And flop; we float on the surface like corks. We can’t keep ourselves from laughing hard. We feel completely weightless.
We really don’t feel like laughing, though, when we see several ghost towns along the shore. Huge holes are everywhere in the ground. They look like bomb craters. Hovav explains that the constantly sinking sea level is flushing out the land, making the ground cave in. This is due to the inflows being dammed up for hydroelectric power stations. The increasing desalination for the world market is also taking its toll. We go to an abandoned hotel, and he shows us the point from which he was able to step into the water from its terrace around 20 years ago. Today, watermelon plantations have taken its place, and the shore is more than 100 meters away. The once booming business with visitors who wanted to go bathing has been gone for years.
There are a few cities in this world that are surrounded by a certain mysticism. Jerusalem is one of them, without a doubt. Of course, it’s part of our itinerary. We’ve heard many of the stories surrounding the city from religious studies classes in school. When we arrive, we realize we know absolutely nothing. What was that with the Mount of Olives? What’s the difference again between the big world religions? What’s the Wailing Wall really about? We have many questions we can’t quite answer.
The old town is religious to an extent that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s made up of four quarters that are different in ethnicity and religion: the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, the Armenian quarter, and the Jewish quarter. Each has its own charm and character. Visitors from all over the globe bustle in the narrow, lively streets. Many pilgrims are out and about who want to visit the holy sites of Jerusalem, and there are so many of them in such a small space: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands on the supposed place of Jesus’ grave; the Al-Aksa mosque; the grave of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Mount of Olives, and the Wailing Wall just to name a few. This is just a small sample of the seemingly endless list of sights to visit. We spent a day just drifting through the alleys and the market, taking bites of the delicious delicacies that we are offered here and there. We really love the halva, a sweet dish made from ground sesame and sugar syrup. It’s then topped off with all kinds of extras like nuts, pistachios, coffee beans and various spices. This is a vacation for the senses.
The next day, our alarm goes off at 4 in the morning. I sleepily look over to Michele. He looks really tired, too, but we have to get moving. Hovav will be here in 30 minutes to head south with us to the desert town of Mitzpe Ramon. It will be our base for the next few days as we explore the Negev Desert on our bikes. The small town lies at the edge of the erosion crater Machtesch Ramon, the largest of its kind in Negev. It expands to almost 40 kilometers. We walk only a few steps from the parking lot to the crater’s rim. The ground directly in front of us drops down vertically about 100 meters or more. The huge area down there looks endless. The crater’s edge is many kilometers long to our left. We’re a little speechless to be honest, which isn’t due to being tired anymore but because of the amazing display of nature.
We’ll spend the next days on the Israel Bike Trail, which starts up here. This mammoth project will be a 1100-kilometer (684-mile) mountain bike trail divided into 27 stages when it’s finished one day. After it’s completely marked, the bike route will lead directly from Eilat in the south all the way to Mount Hermon in Israel’s north. The development of the Israel Bike Trail is a national endeavor. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is responsible for the project. About 360 kilometers (224 miles) are built and marked here in the south so far.
Hovav, highly motivated as always, starts on the trail. We try to keep up with his pace. Again, we stand no chance. We’re not used to the temperatures nor the dry air. We’ll desperately need about 5 liters of water each day. This makes our backpacks very heavy in the morning. The trail is clean, as if it has been swept with a broom, and smooth like an eel. The trail is covered in rocks to the left and right of the 50cm (20-inch) wide track. Our bikes roll perfectly down our path. It’s unfathomable how many hours must have been spent here with rakes and shovels to move the rocks. We found out that the entire trail was shaped by hand by the Negev. We’re magically pulled to the rim of the crater again and again to take in the views. We get reprimanded soon. This is all a nature reserve, and we’re supposed to stay on the trail. Of course, we comply with Hovav’s request. We’re impressed by his respect for nature and the caution with which he moves in it. A few kilometers further along the trail, the steep crater wall offers an opening. The bike trail leads down to the ground of the crater parallel to a steep track for four-wheelers. You can already see an endless band of trail that meanders off into the distance from here. We’re in joyful anticipation. Michele and I are sure that this downhill will be amazing. We play a game of chance to decide who gets to go down the trail first. Michele wins. We start down with huge grins on our faces, and we’re not disappointed. The line flows down in perfect curves. Small banks allow us to ride fast. Again, all obstacles have been cleared from the trail, and we can enjoy the flow of the ride.
Cairns are installed at regular distances, at least when one track crosses another one or when you come to a crossing. Small rocks with the logo of the trail or even small concrete pillars lead the way so you really can’t go wrong. Even big boards that give you an overview of the upcoming section are visible from time to time. Time flies, and we’ve soon crossed almost the entire crater. The stages are divided in such a way that you always end up at a campground or another small town. It’s perfect. They really thought of everything when planning this.
Spending the night in a tent in the desert always has a special charm. We’ve never seen a comparably glowing and glittering night sky anywhere else in the world. Air and light pollution are very minimal here, so the stars are very clear and bright. We can even easily make out the Milky Way.
The desert, in general, offers such a unique landscape with very special charms. We experience incredibly diverse days. We cross sandy passages where we have to push our bikes occasionally for short periods of time, pass a multitude of stone types in different dazzling colors, and see unexpected plants by the side of the trail again and again—flowers blooming in purple, yellow or red peek from in between the rocks. Many of them are endemic to the area, meaning they can only be found here in the Negev Desert.
Mountain Biker’s Basic Guide to Israel
Information, videos, maps, and details about the Israel Bike Trail are available at Hillel Sussman: www.ibt.org.il/en/
Best time to travel in the south: October to March
Gear: Bikes can be transported by the airlines without a problem. Plan extra time when departing, because bikes need to be taken out of the packed bags and X-rayed completely. Please be patient.
Bike rental in Sde Boker, close to the Negev Desert near Gofun: https://geofun.co.il/en/rentals/
Your water supply cannot be compared to what you need at home. You will need about 5 liters per day! Sunscreen and protection are mandatory!
Places to stay: Possible start in the Judaean Desert.
Mitzpe Jericho Guesthouse: www.zimmeril.com/site.asp?site_id=4284
Desert Camp: www.idesertcamping.co.il/
YMCA Jerusalem, nice building with a huge tower that offers an incredible view of the city: ww.ymca3arches.com
Tel Aviv—Nice hotel with beach within walking distance, copious breakfast, roof-top terrace with view of the ocean and sundowner: www.atlas.co.il
Shabat: Shabat is held by the Jewish part of the population in Israel from Friday evening until Saturday evening. It’s the family day where you do not work, drive or use your phone.
One of Hovav’s favorite passages awaits us the next day, as he tells us in the morning, full of joy. We’re going to ride in a wadi, a dried-out river bed. The otherwise rather flat surroundings become more and more hilly after a few kilometers. Single trees line the side of the path. The rising terrain keeps growing around us, and it soon looks insurmountable. We fear that we may have to carry our bikes up the steep slopes somewhere. But no, our path comes into view on the right part of the hillside. It winds its way up in serpentines at a gentle angle. We comfortably pedal along the path and wind our way up without much effort. This really is the high art of trail building! Crossings are leveled, curves filled and secured with stone walls, and all big obstacles are removed. A rock the size of a small car lies to the side of the path at one point. Hovav explains that they move rocks like this with a huge air cushion to be able to shape the trail in its ideal line without any help from machines.
We easily bike up the 250 meters of vertical gain and reach a plain on top. It’s only a short ride up here; the next downhill awaits. The river bed that was advertised lies below us. We encounter steep walls in diverse shades of red on both sides, huge boulders, and trees that provide shade in between. It looks like a painting. The trail is integrated into the landscape perfectly here as well. We speed down the path along the rock face. A herd of goats is standing underneath a tree, enjoying the sparse shade it provides. A little later, we meet two camels lying by the side of the trail. They’re dozing. The path occasionally changes sides in the gorge we are now in. This is really different from the open, endless expanse we witnessed before. A terrific change.
ACROSS THE NEGEV DESERT
The Israel Bike Trail through the Negev Desert really is a unique experience. We never expected to be able to bike on such a rideable trail in the middle of such amazing scenery. The trail building on such a high level and done by hand in an environmentally friendly way is really exemplary. Sadly, we’re out of time after three days, and we have to leave the desert and head north. But, there’s not just this trail project for bikers in Israel. Over 40 trained trail builders work in the country overall. They’re building a diverse infrastructure for bikers in different regions. Hovav tells us about more bike territories. You can reach a forest area just outside of Tel Aviv with several kilometers of trails within 15 minutes by taking the public bus. Lots of diverse trails are also being built in the Golan Heights up north where the country is much more fertile and green. We ask ourselves why we’ve heard so little about the unbelievable trails here.
THE LAST DAY: TEL AVIV
We want to spend our last day in Israel in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is different. Different from the very holy Jerusalem. Different from any other cities in Israel. About 400,000 people live in the economic and trade metropolis. Rent prices are the highest here in the entire country. The city is alive 24 hours. During the day, traffic rages in the constantly congested streets. At night, especially, the younger population, rages in the bars or clubs of the city. The entertainment never ends. We begin our first day in a little café on the beach. Where else? We order a cafe hafuch, the Israeli version of a cappuccino, alongside an omelet; labaneh, a type of cream cheese; and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A breeze of fresh ocean air rises to the nose. We leisurely ride through the age-old streets of Old Jaffa. Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1909, was originally a suburb of the antique port town of Jaffa. Both cities were united in 1950. Today, the ancient streets are filled with small shops, restaurants, and a diverse number of bars.
We spend the afternoon on the well-visited beach. A newly built promenade, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) long, invites people to stroll. The water has a pleasant temperature, and it’s clean. Of course, we don’t say no to the obligatory sundowner to chill out music. We dig our feet deeper into the ground, drinks in hand, as the sun slowly sets behind the sea.
If you think about Israel here, you think about the Middle East conflict: housing developments, occupation, assassins, Hamas rockets. Sadly, we hear a lot about this conflict-ridden part of the country in the media. But, the place has another side—one in which traveling without danger or fear is possible. We never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. On the contrary, we were able to meet people with warm hearts and cordial hospitality. We were able to experience once again that a shared interest, in our case biking, can be a way to open doors and meet one another without prejudices to share a good time. We’re thankful that we were allowed to experience this mind-opening adventure in Israel. Shalom to our new friends. We’ll surely come back!
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