Words by James Shirley
It was only when I landed in Tel Aviv did the messages come through, "are you okay? Is everything fine?". Hmmm… Funny… Everything seemed fine… Apart from the fact that I booked the cheapest flights I could find from Inverness to Israel which meant a long stint at Heathrow Airport and now sleeping on the floor in the Tel Aviv arrivals hall from 3am until the others were due to arrive 8 hours later.
Every 10 minutes a lady on the PA system would kindly remind everyone NOT to carry weapons INSIDE the airport - it also seemed strange, yet quite likely, that this could be a ’normal’ message. There was also an unusual amount of security personnel on hand. I felt quite safe in the airport. I didn’t want to be outside anyway. Off to sleep I went…
Four months previously, I was cooling off at the Lost Lake in Whistler with just a few days to go until the 7th round of the Enduro World Series. I was with my racing buddies – Max Schumann, Ines Thoma and Ludo May. Having only one more round after this we were already thinking about a trip to do in the off-season. With Nathalie Schneitter and Noga Korem also in our company, it was quickly decided where we should go: to Israel! Noga is the only Israeli on the circuit and she is definitely a one of a kind. She’s from a land whose stories and myths from places such as Bethlehem and Nazareth seem so familiar and yet so distant at the same time. We couldn’t wait to see it for ourselves.
It wasn’t until we were reunited at the airport that I discovered what was going on. Apparently, Trump had just announced the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the country’s capital in Jerusalem which threatened to jeopardize the negotiations of the ‘two-state solution’ and aggravate the Middle East conflict. Foreign Offices worldwide were issuing travel warnings for Israel and especially Jerusalem, which happened to be our first port of call. To complete the squad, Ludo brought his girlfriend Nancy Pellissier and Ines took an old friend from her cross-country racing days – Markus Bauer – who happens to be the current German Marathon Champion. Our anticipated 9th member of the team decided at late notice not to risk the journey.
The first clear observation was the sheer number of armed personnel. Gun laws in Israel are strict but soldiers are allowed to carry their service weapons even if they are off duty. It is also mandatory for all civilians to enlist in the Israeli Defense Force – up to 3 years for men and 2 years for women – after they have reached eighteen years of age, so there is definitely a strong military presence.
After checking in to the hotel we had plenty of time to take a stroll through our new surroundings. At over 750 metres above sea level, the air became crisp and cold as the winter evening rolled in. Our accommodation was located just outside the walls of Jerusalem whose ancient past holds great significance for three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Noga, aware in advance that she wouldn’t be able to satisfy our curiosities kindly organised a tour guide who lead us through the shrines of this great and holy city.
We walked over the roofs of the bazaars with the golden-topped ‘Dome of the Rock’ temple in the background. For a long time, Jerusalem was considered to be the centre of the earth. It was the world’s largest city with the tallest buildings and grandest temples. Unfortunately, as we were told, when the Romans invaded the entire city was flattened to the ground.
As we came closer to the glinting golden roof, the location of this Islamic temple became more apparent. It sat on the ‘Temple Mount’ whose enormous retaining walls were originally created as the foundations for King Herod’s giant Jewish ‘Second Temple’ (the first one got flattened by the Babylonians before the Romans came). The Western Wall of this structure is often referred to as the ‘Wailing Wall’ because it is now the closest point to the top of the mount where the Jewish people are allowed to pray.
Before we could get to the wall, metal detectors awaited us like they do at airport security. We then split up: Women to the right; Men to the left; and we all prayed for good trails ahead...
The next day we drove East into Palestinian territory and dropped down towards the Dead Sea. We parked behind a gas station, assembled our bikes and jumped on a shuttle which took us back up the same road from where we had just come.
We were dropped off at the top of the “Sugar Trail” – an old trade route which used to carry goods, food and sugar from the planes by the Dead Sea up to the city of Jerusalem. The rivers that once ran into the Dead Sea have long since dried up due to intensive irrigation and water demands. It is said that the water level drops by 1metre every year and currently sits at -430 metres which meant we had a descent of over 1,100 metres to play with!
At the summit of the trail, we were surprised by the presence of our guide from the previous evening. He brought with him some typical home-grown tea and freshly baked pastries for us to enjoy whilst he furthered our knowledge of the history of this beautiful area.
We finally got going on our first bit of singletrack. The ground was way more predictable than I was expecting. There wasn’t much sand in this desert. Instead, the trail felt very hardpacked – baked earth with big rocks, large sections of bedrock and a thick sprinkling of dust in places. Even with our high start point, we still had a bit of climbing to do as we weaved our way up, over and around the various rocky dunes. I can’t say that the riding itself was the best in the world but the whole combined experience made for one of my most memorable rides. I had to stop and pinch myself every now and then to prove that it was real – I was riding in the desert, below sea level, taken back in time to on an old highway that was built hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
After a truly brilliant ride we made it to the Dead Sea for a quick float before sunset. The water there is incredibly dense and it’s so rich in minerals that it tastes disgusting! It is also advised that you keep your face clear out of the water – Ludo.
Once the sun had set we drove a few more minutes to register ourselves for the Dessert Challenge – a fun sports festival that welcomes runners and bikers to take part in various races of different formats from Friday night through to Sunday afternoon. That evening some of us did the 5 and 10km run in the night with our head torches. The next morning was the cross-country marathon race which we contested, on our trail bikes, in teams of two. There was a strong turnout of high-end bikes. In fact, throughout the whole trip I was impressed by the number of quality bikes and kit that people were using. It was fun to be a part of the festival and everyone there was open and welcoming. With several victories and medals between us, we went back to our accommodation and packed our things ready for the next ‘Noga Tours’ adventure.
In the morning we had time for another quick bathing session before a 4-hour journey south-west to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert. On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by a group of curious Ibex. We then checked in to our hotel and bedded down for the night.
This area is specifically marketed as a mountain bike hotspot and the trails, maps and signposts are all well done. The terrain is generally flat and rocky but with breath-taking views of the "Grand Canyon of Israel". It felt much more like a cross-country adventure than a trail ride shred and we finished our tour that day pleasantly exhausted after about a 70km round trip with a cool Coke at the bar. Riding in the desert is thirsty work! Even in December, the temperatures are still high enough that you’ll be a sweaty mess by the end of a ride.
That evening we trucked north. The route took us East of the Gaza strip, through Tel Aviv and onwards beyond Haifa. Our destination in the north-east was in a much greener, hillier landscape. This is where Noga’s family are from and we were invited to join them for a delicious feast of traditional home cooked dishes. It was lovely to experience an evening in local company with great people and food.
The trails of the following two days were very different from the desert landscape that we had just experienced. The sparse pine forests around Misgav and Mishmar HaEmek offer fast, flowing trails with jumps and berms. The vegetation there is reminiscent of Tuscany or parts of Southern France with dry hard soils and a few bits of scrubland in between the wooded areas.
The second of the two riding spots was located and built on Kibbutz land by some of the community members. This Kibbutz – Mishmas HaEmek – which has been in existence since 1922 has a population of over 1,200 people and still operates with a traditional socialist structure.
Our tour of the area started in the village with some spiced coffee at the local bike shop. Our guides for the day live and work in the settlement and it was really interesting to get to know them. They talk highly of their lifestyle and the environment they live in. They work together for the community and in their spare time they also happen to be great riders and trail builders too!
One memorable thing about the villages and settlements dotted around Israel is the high level of security. They all have sturdy metal fences that surround the perimeter and a controlled electric gate at the entrance. It seemed bizarre at first but it soon became expected. One day, however, we got caught out. There was an incident on the highway, no flow of traffic in either direction and a big tailback so we decided to turn around, take the previous junction and find a new way back to our accommodation that night. Google maps suggested that there was a road that would have taken us to where we needed to go and it was correct. There was a road… in places. We followed the dirt track through the fields, over the dried-up river beds and eventually crawled the van up and over to the village where we were staying. It was only then that we remembered about the gates and the fences. We were locked out and on the wrong side of town so we abandoned ship and had to walk the rest of the way!
The final highlight of the trip was Tel Aviv – a fascinating city with sandy beaches, modern skyscrapers and the ancient port city of Jaffa tucked away in amongst it. We arrived well after dusk and so only had enough time on the first evening to walk along the promenade with kebab in hand overlooking the city skyline.
The next was our last full day in Israel so we took the bikes for a quick sight-seeing tour, coffee stop and trip to the market.
In the afternoon we joined some local pinners in Tzora at a seemingly inconspicuous meeting place just under an hour outside of Tel Aviv next to a fuel station. Crazily enough, this place turned out to be an absolute gem with some of Israel’s finest singletracks. With a multitude of high speed, rocky, technical runs and some fast guys to keep pace with we had an absolute blast. I got the feeling that in Israel the gravity scene is still a bit underground. There’s huge potential for xc style missions all across the country but the best purpose-built singletrack trails seem to be quietly created by a few passionate people. Tourism is a big thing for Israel and it feels as though the sport is moving in the right direction so let’s give it some time and see what happens. Could this be the winter riding destination of the future?
The morning soon came and it was time to check in at the airport again. We joined the long queues for the strict security control and somehow all of the things that kept us on our toes before didn’t seem so scary anymore.
Thank you, Noga, for a brilliant week! Without her, the trip really couldn’t have happened. She has all the connections, the language skills and the knowledge of what’s good and what’s not. Since it was the end of the season our trip was biased towards the culture of the country rather than just a pure riding holiday but she told us of many more locations that she knows of including a bikepark with 5 specific DH/Enduro trails and Gondola uplift! She said we didn’t go there because it was an extra hour further north above Haifa but perhaps she just wanted to save something for the next time…
For more info then contact Noga at Israelmtbtours@gmail.com to book yourself a spot.