This is part 2 of Mike Hopkins and Sarah Leishman's adventure to Israel in November 2013. You can brush up on the first two days of their trip in Part 1 HERE.
We had already had our minds blown. We rode the Sugar Trail from Jerusalem to Jericho on the first day on our bikes and finished the day off with a few Gold Stars (local beer - not bad!) at a gas station outside of Jericho. We then headed along the highway to the Dead Sea for the night. When we arrived at our ridiculously pimp hotel (aptly named "Herod's") on the Dead Sea, it was dark out and our whole crew was savagely exhausted. The heat, the distance and the jet lag had taken a toll on us all and we were told that we would be leaving the Dead Sea in the morning at 8am. We'd have to check out the sea "on our own" and I basically decided I was going to skip it altogether...until I woke up the next morning.
Mike and I had been exchanging the simple philosophy since we arrived in Jerusalem three days prior of "you might as well: when are you going to be here next?" (aka: YOLO). When we found ourselves at the Western (Wailing) Wall on our first day, I used that mantra to talk him into entering the men's side of the Wall to touch it - because that's what people travel the world to do, in very simple terms. Our tourist, non-denominational eyes found the place really intimidating upon our arrival. He did it and came back to say "Ok I went up and touched it. Did you?" I hadn't, even after bullying Mike into it. I got up to the Wall on the super-crowded women's side that day, saw people in tears, praying and speaking in hushed tones and I backed away quickly. I didn't get it. I didn't want to be rude and I was afraid of accidentally offending someone (classic Canadian - sorry for being so awesome). I missed my chance to do something every traveler does when they get to the Western Wall in Jerusalem - after all, when was I going to be there next? This was my one and only 'miss' while in Israel, however, and I forced myself, my cut up leg from a rookie crash the day prior and my tired body out of bed at 6:30 a.m. to go float in the Dead Sea. My leg stung like hell, but as I flailed and floated around in the lowest place on the planet, I took the time to appreciate how much the experience ruled. I was almost sad to leave before I realized what was ahead of us.
Our bus left a little late in the morning (the Canadians were subtly urged to quit f*ckin' around so we could all be "on time" for the rest of the trip) and headed southwest and up and into the Negev Desert. We passed by what looked like some amazing descents towards the Dead Sea but wouldn't get a chance to taste those goods. We were headed to Sde Boker and the Geofun Desert Cycling Centre.
Geofun is a bike shop-meets-tour outfit in the town of Sde Boker. It's in the Negev Desert and has a passionate community of shredders who have worked hard to develop a network of trails for folks to ride on. The terrain we encountered in both days of riding in the area was a huge change from hard-charging descents of the Sugar Trail and had plenty of rolling, reasonable climbs and dirt that I would think could put Chile's recently famed #antigrip
dirt to shame. What was rad about the zone was the availability of cheap accommodation in the form of re-purposed kibbutz
's, super accessible rental bikes (Geofun had a full range of hardtails to rent and our super fit guides seemed more than happy - and fast as hell - on hardtail 29ers) and awesome guides. It was also super cool for Mike and I to find a Norco
dealer in a country as far away as Israel. These guys had it all.
The more we traveled through the trail network in the Negev, the more it became clear to us the importance that has been made by the riders of Israel in promoting and developing the sport of mountain biking. Our guide Nimi Cohen spoke endlessly about the events he's involved in building in Israel and he worked hard to connect us with as many of the finest trails the country had to offer as he could. He stressed the need for us to feel united with the "desert experience" over the course of our trip and as we graduated from the 5 star hotels of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea into more rustic kibbutz's, he knew the connection couldn't be avoided. Nimi planned for our trip to take us "deeper and deeper into the desert" and he hoped that by the time our journey came to an end, the desert would feel like a natural place for us.
On our second day in Sde Boker, we were taken to visit a Bedouin camp along the Argan Trail. The Halukim Trail the day before had been awesome, but we were ready for a bit of a change of pace. The time we spent being served tea, taking selfies with the kids in the family and connecting without language proved to be an experience Mike and I will never, ever forget.
We moved farther south after our visit to Sde Boker to the town of Mitzpe Ramon to ride the trails around the Ramon Crater. This is where we also had a change of guides and met the 6'5" tall Yaron Deri of Samar Bike
and the Samar Kibbutz, where we would be staying for the remainder of our trip. Mitzpe Ramon is a small town about 85km south of Beer Sheva in the Negev and has become a hotspot for travellers looking for adventure in Israel. We found fully equipped hotels that were friendly to bikers (like the IBike Bikers Hotel
right in town). The Ramon Crater is the largest of three craters in the Negev Desert and is only one of 7 geologically formed craters in the world. It is also home to a section of the Israel Bike Trail and some amazing riding, including heavy duty pedalling and fun little descents.
Once we were fully moved into the Samar Kibbutz with our crew on our final days of the trip, we properly had time to bond over beers, huge amounts of the best food we've eaten and even some old bike movies. Nimi's vision of making a bunch of riders from around the world one with the southern deserts of Israel was becoming a reality and it became clear to us how easy it would be for any adventurous shredder to find the exact same riding experience we were having.
Our final two days were spent making our way toward Israel's southern-most city, Eilat. The super-ambitious schedule we had involved a ride down trails on the Shayarot Cliffs (about 35km) a visit to Timna Park and a shred down another section of the Israel Bike Trail (meant to be an easy up, this section of epic trail turned out to be one of our favourite descents).
We had only a few hours before Mike and I had to fly out of Eilat to get us home to Canada, and we spent that time at the Dolphin Reef
Spa. To call our Israel experience 'surreal' would be inadequate; Mike and I were like people who had never seen the outside world before on this adventure - everything was different and the further we travelled south in Israel, the more we fell in love with a nation few in the world truly understand (including us). If our efforts to tell this story can accomplish one thing, it's to encourage every mountain biker in the world regardless of race, religion or political views to put Israel on his/her bucket list. Israel, despite its politics and the noise we all hear in the media, holds an incredible culture of mountain bikers and mountain biking terrain. Mike and I can safely say that this was one of the most amazing trips we've ever been on in our lives.
Here are some links to check out if you're interested in learning about Israel's rich mountain biking scene (we barely scratched the surface):
• Our organizing guide and local legend, Nimi Cohen
(the man actually should have his own entire article). He runs Mountain Goat Tours and is a logistical genius. He also runs the Israel Desert Challenge.
• Yoram Hen
- our guide from the Sugar Trail and his tour operation
• The Geofun Cycling Centre
in Sde Boker
• Samar Bike and the amazing Yaron Deri
• Epic Israel
- Israel's take on the Cape Epic
Thanks to Jonathan Duncan and Norco Bicycles
for connecting us with this incredible journey and to the rest of our sponsors for their support:
Norco Bicycles, Marzocchi, Smith Optics, Shimano, TEVA, The North Face, Camelbak, Kenda Tires, SixSixOne, Gravity, Joystick and Dissent Labs.
Norco Bicycles, SRAM, RockShox, Bell Helmets, Smith Optics, ONE Industries, Camelbak, Kenda Tires, Dissent Labs, Tag Cycling Whistler and Fanatyk Co Whistler.