When my good friend Nimi Cohen mentioned the possibility of riding our gravel bikes in the Negev Desert, in the south of Israel, I had doubts. Not that Nimi is a crazy guy or known for his crazy ideas. Well. Yes he is. But in this case I knew he might be into something and maybe after all, the Negev could be the perfect place to ride our GravelPlus "camels"...
Story, photos and video by Marc Gasch
THE NEGEV DESERT
Rock, sand and craft beer in Israel
STAGE 1: EIN TAMAR TO YERUHAM 76KM AND +1.557 METERS CLIMBING
The Negev is a rocky desert in the south of Israel, covering almost half of the country, and extending from the Mediterranean area in the North-West, to the drier and hotter area in the South close to Eliat, the southest city of Israel, on the shores of the Red Sea. Arid and dry, but with some rain in the areas closer to the Mediterranean sea, the Negev is home to huge box canyons or "craters", and endless dry river beds, a perfect landscape for our cameras and bikes. Nimi Cohen, our local contact and guide, cycling celebrity in Israel, journalist, beer lover and event organizer, offered to come up with a 3 day route that connected the main attractions in the area, following our "self-supported" and "self-documented" XPDTN3 philosophy. We had to rely on a couple of transfers to get away from the city in Tel Aviv, but other than that, the route was easy to track and organize. Be aware though, that this is a real desert. A desert with no people for miles, a desert with no water and no place to get a sandwich if you are suddenly hungry, so you better be prepared for adventure. Sometimes even no cellphone reception. In our case, we played it safe and Nimi joined us, along with his friend Zach Uchovsky to avoid some Bedouins finding our Spanish body carcasses drying in the middle of a riverbed after a GPS miscalculation...
After a quick transfer from our Hotel Bell in the seafront at Tel Aviv, we loaded our 3T Exploro bikes, and the steel Niner bikes from Nimi and Zach into the pick up truck. When lifting our carbon bikes, Nimi face changed suddenly, and shouted "Steel is Real (heavy)"! which I can confirm after testing their bikes myself. Their bikes were super cool, and Niner is known for making good geometries and cool bikes too, but you cannot escape the weight of a Reynolds frame, especially loaded with bike packing bags. Anyway, we are not weightweenies, and we just wanted to sail straight to the desert as fast as possible and escape the city, where we have been for a couple of days, visiting the old city, the old Jaffa market and eating Hummus, Kebabs and delicious honey pastries like there was no tomorrow. Carbo-loading overdone. After an early wake up call we drove from the Tel Aviv seafront down (yes, down) to the Dead Sea, where our altimeter showed -430m below sea level at the trailhead where our adventure started.
After unloading the bikes from the truck in Ein Tamar, getting some extra water and saying goodbye to our driver, the route started in an amazing dry canyon called Wadi Amatzyahu, with an official MTB singletrack running inside called Harits Bahavar. We started pedalling among majestic walls following the immaculate singletrack that was the perfect warm up for our legs. The temperature was spot on and we were even wearing our arm and knee warmers at the start of the day. Diego Grasa, my partner in this adventure, could not resist taking the drone off the backpack for a first flight in this amazing scenery. We were already starting to wonder if bringing a drone in our backpacks would still make our average speed more miserable. Stopping for pictures and video means that our days are long, and we are not beating any Strava KOM, but if you add a drone to the formula, then things can get rough...Luckily by the end of the day, we have mastered a workflow where we could take the small drone out of the backpack, and get it ready to fly in less than 2 minutes.
The Nahal Tsin Wadi (a "Wadi", in Arabic and Hebrew, is a dry creek that runs water only during floods in wintertime)was another dry river we followed, still amazed by the surroundings. People think of a desert as a flat boring place, but this place was nothing but boring. Rivers, canyons, craters, gigantic walls and some vegetation made it a photographers dream. Blue skies and perfect weather also helped and the 4 people bike caravan kept rolling to our destination for the day, the city of Yeruham, an oasis in the middle of nowhere and known for their huge factory and the decent singletrack. But before sleeping in the cool Desert Iris hotel in Yeruham, a long and steep paved climb was waiting for us. Maale Akrabim is a hallmark in the road cycling culture in Israel, with its perfect 180º turns and breathtaking views (check the video), that get better the more you get tired climbing up. After the climbing challenge there were still a few kilometers of perfect paved roads enjoying an amazing sunset to get to Yeruham, an industrial city in the middle of the desert, where we enjoyed a nice sleep on our hotel, certainly an oasis after a rough day in the saddle.
STAGE 2: YERUHAM TO MIDRESHET SDE BOKER: 55KM AND +745 METERS CLIMBING
After an exotic and copious breakfast involving hummus and Middle East pastries, the start from Yeruham treated us to rocky single track that get our legs spinning in the morning. When we thought the challenging trail was over, it opened up to an incredible cliff that allowed us to get a glance of what was to come. A beautiful valley followed the crater-like area to the south with black rocks and some sandy areas that slowed down our pace. Today was a short stage though, so we took it easy and enjoyed the views and took some time to shoot some clips with our "bird". Diego even had time to lose one of his gloves and we had to retrace a few kilometers to get it back.
The large crater followed a straight line of perfect gravel road, where we were flying on our bikes, but looking at the horizon, we can already see what was next. Because big cliffs and nice views normally means climbing... After a few kilometres in a straight line, we approached the Maale Avraham climb, a super rocky and steep climb where all of us had to push the bike for a few meters. It does not matter if single chainring or triple, you are going to walk here. As Nimi pointed out: "classic gravel" (not).
After reaching the highest point of the climb, Nimi still had another surprise for us, this time in the form of a bottle of red wine he had been carrying on his Apidura frame pack for all day! Plastic glasses and all, we stopped for a quick sip, enjoying the amazing views and soaking in the midday sun. Life was good. After leaving the crater, we followed the Nahak Boker Wadi, that was leading us to Sde Boker, one of the most famous Kibbutz in Israel, and known as the retirement home of Israel's legendary Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Before reaching the small town, the famous Halukim Trail was waiting for us, a perfect MTB singletrack winding down along the hills close to the settlement, and that glowed in the perfect winter desert light. We were screaming like kids, now with the view of our finish line in front of us.
Hungry and more tired that we expected when we checked the kilometers on the GPS, we entered Sde Boker, or we better say, the Midreshet Ben Gurion, next to the Sde Boker kibbutz, where we met with some of Nimi and Zack's local friends. Hungry like animals, we literally emptied the poor guys' fridge, eating all kind of delicious homemade bread and pitas, with hummus and other local delicatessen.
The sun was setting on the horizon and we set up to find our guesthouse, not without checking the last rays of sun hitting the beautiful valley of Tsin below Sde Boker, sculpted by years and years of wind and water erosion. A nature's masterpiece. We stayed in the Krivine Guesthouse, a small but cozy house in the neighborhood closest to the best views in the area, owned by an English gentleman that travelled to Israel years ago, to stay here forever.
STAGE 3: MIDRESHET SDE BOKER TO MITSPE RAMON: 70KM AND +1.000 METERS CLIMBING
Another morning, another cool singletrack. Same as yesterday, we woke up in Sde Boker to one of the best single tracks of the trip. Recently build by the locals bikers, it flowed on the hills close to the town, starting right at the entrance gate and kept going for miles. The cycling community in the Israeli desert (and in Israel in general) is very active, and never stops building new trails, finding new areas and organizing cool events , like the Samarathon or the Epic Israel.
After leaving the single track, our route continued as a double track on the Avdat National Park, taking a small portion of paved road to continue on the Nahal Nafha Wadi, to one of the weirdest place we have ever been on our bikes. Nimi took us by surprise (again) to a series of huge manmade tunnels excavated on the mountain that had lots of different uses during the years, the latest of them throwing crazy Trance Raves in the desert. Ask Nimi and he can tell you lots of cool stories about it! But after so much joy and fun, the pain was coming... Our route, in order to avoid ugly roads, had to go through the so called "Oil Route" that , as you imagine, it's an oil service 4x4 road, a kind of never ending fireroad made of crazy steep climbs and rocky unrideable short descents. My mood was not the best in this area and my friends kept laughing at me and my face. I can laugh now too, but I cannot say I enjoyed that part of the trip. Anyway, they did enjoyed it, so it was obviously a personal problem. Do I want to go back there ? No. But, I guess you already know Nimi by now, and at the end of the Oil Route (Tsir Ha'neft) he was waiting for me with a couple of beers he had again carried all day in the packs, and even some nuts and snacks to go with them. My hero.
After the improvised "aperitivo" we reached the trail that will lead us to our final destination in Mitspe Ramon. Here, one of the largest craters I have ever seen in my life opened in front of our eyes. We wondered near its cliff, admiring the grandiosity of this nature wonder, with the small city of Mitspe Ramon now in the horizon. The last kilometers on the Hava Singletrack made the last portion of our route more memorable. An amazing journey through a unknown desert, that sounded not like the perfect place for our gravel bikes, but turned to be a destination to put on the list of things to do before you die...But don't forget to bring enough water.