Trekking the desert, on two wheels

Cycling through the Negev is an off-the-beaten-path way to get to know Israel, an adventure between hot and cold, arid space and flourishing valleys, war and peace.

WITH FIVE days to spare and a sense of adventure, bike trails from Jerusalem to Eilat are becoming a popular trek. (photo credit: EVA LINDNER)
WITH FIVE days to spare and a sense of adventure, bike trails from Jerusalem to Eilat are becoming a popular trek.
(photo credit: EVA LINDNER)
The Negev desert takes up 60 percent of Israel’s area, but contains only 10% of the nation’s population. The upside is that most of the land is empty, with wide vistas across the stony terrain.
With a good bike and some time, you can open up this desert, staring its challenges in the face and passing through dramatic contrasts of heat and cold, blooming fields and dusty roads, mountains and valleys, war and peace.
I came to the Negev by chance on a trip to explore the 400 kilometers of bike trail between Jerusalem and Eilat. I wanted to check out one of the numerous bike paths that the country is currently expanding. One of them will be a mountain bike trail, an extension of the Israel National Trail, and will eventually stretch across the whole country.
Cycling through the desert to Eilat takes about five days, and this trip was planned with tour operator Gordon Active. Trying to pack the minimum – clothes, maps and a GPS – on a Saturday while the city of Jerusalem rested, my companion and I began our trek, heaving up the city’s hills.
On the first day, we headed to Ashkelon. The route took us past blooming fields, greenhouses, orchards and vegetable gardens. In fact, the desert’s greenness was astounding, proof of the success of the drip irrigation system.
Yet on this day, farmers could have saved their water, because something happened that hadn’t happened for six weeks: It poured. Usually the winter months from December to February are the rainiest, but this winter it rained only half as much as average. The dry, sandy soil and even my own clothes greedily drank the water. At first it was a pleasant cooling effect, but it soon became bitterly cold. We stepped up to the reception desk at our Ashkelon hotel exhausted, soaked and covered in mud. The clerk would only let us enter after we confirmed twice that we were guests of the hotel.
The next day, the sun beat down on us as if to make amends for the inconvenience of the previous day. Our wheels ground across a dune path just outside Ashkelon, and we found ourselves just a few meters from an Iron Dome. What had otherwise been only a news item became concrete: Israel has a formidable system to protect itself from rocket attacks across the Gazan border 20 km. away. Up in a watchtower nearby, a soldier, armed and in full uniform, stared down at us. We looked back, sporting our own helmets and clutching our water bottles. There was no fence or wall between us and the Iron Dome. I remembered my conversation with the tour provider when he showed us our bike trail: “On the second day you will ride south along the Gaza Strip.”
“Is that not dangerous?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, the rockets will fly way over your head.”
Over the next few days, we would meet the army again several times. On desolate roads winding through desert canyons, military vehicles regularly crawled by. We don’t know if they appreciated our visit, or if they laughed at us from the comfort of a vehicle with 300 horsepower while we huffed across the landscape under our own steam.
One day later, south of the Gazan border, the next leg of our desert tour was a narrow track along the fence built over the last few years to separate Egypt from Israel. I also felt closer to my own limits. After 250 km., the percentage of my body on which it was still bearable to sit grew smaller by the minute. We decided to take some distance by bus before we fell off our bikes.
We stood at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. In front of us were dry river beds, canyons and a rocky landscape inall colors – brown, caramel and lava-black. In the distance we watched a camel walking with a Beduin calmly bringing his herd of goats across the street. An estimated 150,000 Beduin live in the desert with their animals, some of them nomadic, some settled. In the Negev, you experience time differently than in major cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Life here is calculated by zman midbar, Hebrew for “desert time.”
While we gazed at the wandering shepherd, a car stopped next to us.
“Hey, can I help you? You look lost,” the young driver said before jumping out of his car. “My name is Shlomo and I did a bike tour through Spain last year. I know how it feels when you need support.”
It was surprising to be confronted with such brazen, unsolicited help. But it was comforting. He translated the timetable of the bus for us and offered his number in case we should need anything.
Finally on the bus toward Mitzpe Ramon, I realized how flat and barren the landscape looks when you rush by at 100 km. an hour. In the languid time it takes to travel the landscape by bike, the Negev unfolds its beauty.
Yet Mitzpe Ramon did offer the most spectacular view of the country. We stood on the cliff of the Ramon crater, the largest erosion crater of the Negev. The gorge is almost 40 km. long. The desert enchanted us again with its play of colors and its varied structure. After a while, we recognized two ibex, whose cream-colored coats blended into the landscape.
That night, we stayed in a mud hut on the edge of the crater. You can’t get much closer to nature. The Desert Eco Lodge is a popular spot for cyclists, but we had no strength to speed with mountain bikes through the crater.
Our muscle aches had grown deep and chronic.
The next day I arrived in Shittim after cycling 75 km.
from Mitzpe Ramon. It’s a long day’s journey, and I was often thankful for the bottles of water I had strapped to the back of my bike, because on the way to the ashram there to discover my inner peace, I passed almost no shade or other people. The middle of a firing zone is an unlikely site for an ashram, but for 20 young Israelis, Shittim is a desert temple where they come to walk barefoot and meditate in a retired army base.
And apparently the bike paths are still so unused that the denizens of Shittim were as surprised to see me as I was to meet them.
“You came all the way from Jerusalem by bike? Without a car? Through the desert?” asked the young woman at the reception desk while putting out a form on the table.
Like all visitors, I signed a waiver acknowledging that the grounds outside the ashram are military property and entering is illegal. Just outside the meditation space, in view of soldiers training for war, residents have laid out desert stones to spell “Imagine.”
I ate a vegetarian dinner surrounded by dreadlocked Israelis in baggy pants. In the morning, I started the day with meditation together with the denizens. And then I got back on the bike and pedaled further south.
On the fifth day, amazingly, we achieved our goal: Eilat on the Red Sea. The city lies between the dark red mountains of Jordan, which reversed the evening light on us, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. We actually crossed half the country with our bikes in a few days. We approached three borders and two oceans. After the serene Jerusalem Shabbat and the quiet splendor of Mitzpe Ramon, Eilat was a loud town of holiday shopping to the soundtrack of electronic music. But after 400 km. on a bike, little could throw us off balance.
■ Tour operator and bike