Desert freewheeling

If I completed by first two-day bike jaunt from Jerusalem to Eilat at the age of 50, surely, for example, some unfit 25-year-old could aspire to something similar.

The writer, Barry Davis, on Eagle Hill, just before the long descent to the Arava highway, around 55 km. before Eilat (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The writer, Barry Davis, on Eagle Hill, just before the long descent to the Arava highway, around 55 km. before Eilat
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Anyone who has known me for more than, say, half an hour will know I am an avid road cyclist. I regale – or bore – people with tales of my cycling exploits not, as one might think, to blow my own trumpet but to convey to others the idea that they may, in fact, be capable of more than they think. It’s as altruistic as that.
If I completed by first two-day bike jaunt from Jerusalem to Eilat at the age of 50, surely, for example, some unfit 25-year-old or even a 45-year-old could aspire to something similar, thereby improving their health and, yes, enjoying an exhilarating experience.
I first got on a bike – the mountain version had yet to be invented back then – at the age of 19. I got on the five-gear road British-made racer and just pedaled away. I was enthralled with my new mode of transport, but it remained just that for a couple of years, before it was stolen just prior to an extended Stateside jaunt.
Fast-forward around a dozen years and, as a resident of Tel Aviv, I begin cycling from home to work in Herzliya, and back. In those days there were fewer cars around, and fewer crazy cyclists, and no one thought of prohibiting us from taking to the coastal highway. My first trip to Herzliya took 42 minutes; a month or so later I was down to 24 minutes. I’d put on my shades, crank up the volume on my Walkman to the proverbial 11, and merrily whiz my way betwixt the speeding vehicles with Led Zeppelin blaring into my then still youngish ears.
A few more years down the line, there I was in my mid-40s, spending 10 to 15 or more hours a day in front of my computer trying to keep the family’s body and soul together. One day it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t getting any younger.
Call it midlife crisis, an epiphany, whatever, but I recalled my merry insouciant biking salad days back in Manchester and splashed out the princely sum of NIS 300 on a rust bucket.
Undeterred by initially wheezing up the gentlest of inclines, I kept at it, and six months later NIS 900 of my hard-earned cash was forked out on a slightly better model. (Later I realized the bike shop owner had probably overcharged me by at least NIS 500.) Less than a year later, after finally making the climb up to Yad Kennedy without stopping to ensure my heart was not about to implode, I finally purchased a “proper bike” – all NIS 7,000 of it, plus another couple of grand on accessories. My cycling die had been irrevocably cast.
On my 48th birthday I cycled from Moshav Mata in the Eila Valley to the Tel Aviv beach, and had an enormous sense of satisfaction as I dismounted on the promenade. I was at the beach because I’d pedaled my way there.
Within a few months I’d begun navigating some of the tougher climbs in my Jerusalem hills environs and, over time, I began considering more adventurous journeys, until I homed in on the idea of making it from Jerusalem all the way to Eilat by the time I was 50. What could be more uplifting and thrilling than cycling through the Negev and Arava deserts to our southernmost city and taking a refreshing dip in the bluest of red seas? And so it came to pass, at the scheduled age, and has continued to be a major feature of my cycling calendar for the past 12 years.
All but one of those couple of dozen, or so, Jerusalem- Eilat two-day odysseys to date have been undertaken, and thoroughly enjoyed, solo. Interestingly, the only time I rode with someone else, there was an almighty downpour on the first day, just past Kibbutz Sde Boker. It is quite something to watch a dark sheet of rain make its inexorable way to you across open brown sandy expanses. The precipitation was so heavy that, on a couple of occasions, we had to get off our bikes and, holding them aloft, to navigate our way through the rushing water across flooded sections of the road.
As any road cyclist will tell you, rain is one thing but wind can be the killer. On one ride, three or four years ago, it felt like I had a headwind or crosswind all the way to Eilat, no matter which way the road twisted.
But make it I did.
To tell the truth, I am not that mad about much of Eilat – all those jam-packed hotels and the noisy touristy glitter – but I love the sea and I don’t know many more thrilling and rewarding experiences than bathing in the Red Sea after a 350-km. ride. It is simply untouchable.
CYCLING SOLO offers so many advantages, some of them, paradoxically, of a social nature. Strangers tend to be drawn by the sight of someone on a human-powered vehicle making their way across, for the onlooker, unthinkable distances. Over the past dozen years I have had memorable encounters with all kinds of people I’ve met along the road.
One was with a Dutchman somewhere in the middle of the Ramon Crater. It was the second day of my trip – I normally spend the night at Mitzpe Ramon, at the eco-friendly Desert Shade site – and a week or so earlier, over Purim, there had been an incredible amount of rain in Jerusalem. Clearly, the South had received its fair share of rain, too, because there were purple, red, white, yellow and orange flowers by the roadside all the way to Eilat. There were pools of water dotted around the Negev and Arava, and when I stopped to natter with the Dutchman, I saw he was observing the movements of a gigantic flock of storks which was taking a breather on its migratory trip at what looked like an enormous lawn, slap bang in the middle of the desert.
The man had left Amsterdam with his bicycle, intending to spend a fortnight wheeling his away along our highways and byways. Unfortunately, when he changed planes at Bucharest Airport, his bicycle didn’t, and he was forced to rent a car for the duration here.
On my last bike ride down south I came across Kuba, a 20-something Pole who had flown with his bike and a ton of camping equipment and other necessities of self-catering life to Ovda Airport near Eilat.
As I caught up with him, I was intrigued by all the bits and pieces stuffed into, and strapped onto, the panniers. It turned out that he was carrying a preposterous 50 kg. of gear. I accompanied him over the final 30 or so kilometers to Mitzpe Ramon. He was clearly exhausted and, when we got there, he told me he wouldn’t have made it without my encouragement. Naturally, I now have an open invite to Poland, where I will be furnished with a bicycle.
EVER KEEN to up my cycling ante, a few years back I tried to make it all the way to Eilat in one day. I’d planned to leave at 2:30 a.m.
but, unfortunately, didn’t get going until an hour later. Hence, by the time I got to the Arava highway at Ketura junction, just 50 km.
north of my destination, it was past nightfall, and I didn’t think it would be too prudent to pedal my way on the home stretch as cars whizzed by way at high speed in pitch black.
Luckily, I had a friend on Kibbutz Samar, who came to pick me up and took me to his place for a shower and victuals, before dropping me off at the Eilat bus station for the long journey back.
I was physically drained but still had plenty of adrenalin and endorphins doing the rounds of my vascular system, and hence was unable to sleep on the way back to Jerusalem. Even so, I was well satisfied with my 300-km. one-dayer.
I normally get to Eilat with around an hour to spare before the bus back to Jerusalem leaves – plenty of time for a wonderful dip in the sea, shower, and beer and hummus and/or fries. What more can a person want from life?