Israel on two wheels

Some places you get an idea that half of Israel is one huge firing area

Instead of the promised sun and heat, it is heavy rain to greet us upon arrival. An immigration officer asks a few detailed questions, he stamps our passports and lets us in Israel. Our friend Ohn Debby picks us up from the airport. I am glad it happens, because otherwise we would have to ride our bikes in a heavy rain in the dark. We travel 50 kilometers north to town of Netanya. Israel can easily be divided into two parts. It is green, flourishing north and dry, arid south. While the north resembles a cross between Europe and the U.S., the south is completely desolated. It is a region where you can feel the authentic atmosphere of the Middle East. Thanks to Ohn’s hospitality, the first few days we spend on getting to know the northern part of Israel.

Green north

While visiting a new country, in theory, it doesn’t hurt to see some of the highlights described in the guidebooks (but not too many!). We visit Jerusalem, where we follow the Way of the Cross and look at various places connected with the life of Jesus. This is probably the only city in the world considered sacred by the followers of three religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It also formed basis for many past and ongoing conflicts, not only those on the religious background.

Gradually I get to know more detailed foundations of the unceasing conflict between Palestine and Israel. I must admit that over the entire trip, having talked with Jews, Palestinians and independent people, it is difficult to adopt an impartial position. Both sides of the conflict are quite right in their views. It is a complex problem so describing it in more detail would have too strongly dominated the travel experience I am about to share.

We visit the Mediterranean coast, the ruins of the aqueduct, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, a few places where you can drink a beer, see more soldiers, ordinary people, rabbis or simply go and look at the incomprehensible inscriptions in Hebrew.

Local cuisine

The Israeli cuisine is worth mentioning before we move south. Ohn is an enthusiast of cooking, which may be confirmed by his passion and perfection every time he prepares his favorite shakshouka for us. The dish is made by skillful mixing and frying together tomatoes, eggs, sausages, onions, and often other products available in the refrigerator. Usually eaten for breakfast, literally translating shakshouka means “one big mess”.

In Israel here and there are street stallholders selling baguettes with a green paste called zaatar. For more hungry ones falafel are a popular choice, but mainly it is supreme kebabs with unlimited salads to choose from, often coming with free French fries.

It doesn’t change the fact that Israel tops my list of the most expensive places I have visited, giving way to Scandinavian countries only. Going to the market, however, you can find affordable products, such as bananas, olives, fresh and dried dates and of course humus, the most popular one. It is kind of a paste eaten with pita bread. Preparing humus involves grinding and thoroughly mixing chickpeas, garlic, sesame seeds, olive oil and lemon juice. Often some other spices are added to give it even more acquired taste.

Arid south

Taking cattle to pasture

Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan and vibrant city. I can easily spot surfers riding scooters to the beach, busy businessmen and lots of backpackers. We pass Tel Aviv-Jaffa and keep to the picturesque Mediterranean coastline. We pass Ashdod and found a place to stay for a night somewhere between Qiryat Gat and Qiryat Malakhi in the bush.

The landscape starts to change. It’s amazing how quickly green forests become savanna and then semi-arid desert. Unfortunately all the time we follow the national highway, the good thing is that with every town we pass, the road traffic noticeably reduces.

We get a few kilometers off the road into the semi-desert. We kindle a fire at dusk. Surprisingly a few Bedouin attending camels drop us a visit.

We sit by the fire together, share bread with humus and bananas baked with chocolate. I think we are here quite a phenomenon, because soon there is another group of curious Bedouins willing to see mysterious strangers.

In the end of the evening we catch a few large ants and fry them. They have a high content of protein.

The wind blows in my face, going uphill is getting more difficult. At some point a sandstorm starts. Sand raging around the area is suddenly everywhere. A tiny tornado passes us and soon the weather improves.

I feel the right part of adventure has just begun. Tens of kilometers with no trace of civilization ahead of us.

Within the first two days of the desert stage some logistical difficulties appear. Our main concern is to take an appropriate amount of water and food. Sometimes the heat reaches over 40 degrees, so we are even more tired and thirsty.

War at standby

The road cuts a giant military training ground in half. There are armed F-16 fighter jets flying above our heads and helicopters with powerful ready-to-shot rockets. It reminds me that all the time we are in Israel.

Every Israeli must spend three years in the army at the age of 19-22 years. In this period there is a rigorous discipline. After completing national service, every adult male in the age of 23-50 years old is subject to mandatory a month-long training once a year.

Attaching so much importance to military force, Israel, a 7.5 million nation, has around 500,000 active troops. Out of which 200,000 are armed solders deployed across entire country and immediately ready. Even more ready than you think, as the soldiers are sleeping in their boots with rifles in their hands. It makes sense, because Israel is at constant threat from the neighboring countries.

Desert oases

Unexpectedly we reached Shittim oasis

Clear sky in the desert means nothing more than exactly burning sun. It is particularly troublesome when going uphill, the salty sweat trickling from my forehead makes eyes stinging. Going downhill gives some relief as our full-loaded bikes sometimes accelerate to nearly 70 km/h.

We pass several wadi, that is places where rainfall can form periodic rivers. The view of a two meter high post with water-level marks in the middle of a scorching hot desert looks quite ridiculous. However, there must be a reason for putting it here.

We pass Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev desert. Soon we arrive to Sede Boqer Kibbutz, in which unlike we planned, we are not able to stock up. Before dusk we reach Mizpe Ramon, a town in the middle of the desert.

Jews celebrate Sabbath and do not work from sunset on Friday until following sunset on Saturday. We keep searching and eventually find the only open shop in town and enthusiastically buy nearly all available products. We are extremely hungry, because we used up too much energy.

The food and water supply should last for a day and a half. Ahead of us is a long, extremely fast downhill ride. We begin crossing the Makhtesh Ramon Crater. This is a huge geologic formation measuring 38 km by 6 km and being 450 meters deep. The inside of the interior is amazing, just like a lunar landscape: vast emptiness, unimaginable spaces and no signs of civilization.

After a long day of driving we find Shittim, an oasis hidden in the middle of nowhere. The opportunity to drink a cold beer in the middle of the desert is indescribable. Even if it is a few times overpriced and costs 16 ILS. We eat to our hearts’ content and accumulate enough energy for the next part of desert.

Mieszko found a friend to talk to

We are in the middle of military training ground. Allegedly the jet pilots firing at test targets are familiar with our coordinates and are supposed to skip the place where we sleep.

During the following day we get solders’ breakfast in one of the military bases along the way. Riding a bike makes it easier to make friends in random circumstances.

I hear gunshots. We cross another firing area. Slowly approaching the Egyptian border, we follow it alongside to the south. The first border crossing is used only for military traffic. It is not possible for tourists to cross here. The soldiers are surprised by our arrival on bicycles. They share some snacks and while we talk, someone looking at my Beerlao t-shirt says, “Oh, I see that you also have been to Laos“. A moment later we are already sitting in their reinforced military version of the Hummer vehicle and take pictures with the Israeli flag in the background.

Last steep downhill part ahead and soon we reach our destination. Elat is a tourist town on the southern tip of Israel at the point where the three countries meet in the north shore of Red Sea. Due to the size of Israel and its small share of Red Sea coastline, there are millions of Israeli tourists.

We indulge ourselves in the opportunity to plunge into water and take a bath, the first one since a few hundred kilometers. In the evening we pitch a tent on the beach nearby the Egyptian border.

Once Kate peacefully falls asleep, me and Mieszko sneak out for a small walk around. We come to an accidental bar, smoke hookah and listening Israeli tales about Egypt we sip strong anise alcohol of the unknown origin. Our minds are already in Egypt.

April 2011

israel