Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Israel - The Promised Land? Mad dogs, Englishmen, & Israeli's go out in the midday sun.

©Yoram Hen
Preconceptions, no matter how hard you try to resist them, are always very different from reality.
Israel is a country that gets a lot of press, that carries with it some political baggage, and some hefty misconceptions.
It is a country considered by many to be nothing more than a virtual desert wasteland.
It is also considered by many to be something of a war zone.
I was asked on more than one occasion why I was going there. 
As I was to find out during my trip it is far from either.

What I actually found was a safe, modern, vibrant, country with a pristine and diverse landscape.
A landscape that is cherished, invested in, and very clean. It is one of the cleanest countries I have had the pleasure to visit.
I met warm and welcoming people who were excited, and proud, to show me the best that their country has to offer, and it definitely has a lot to offer.
I even saw a wild tortoise! (wild in the free-roaming sense, not wild in the angry sense!). I'd never seen a tortoise in the wild before.

It is also remarkably accessible from The UK. My five hour flight from Manchester to Tel Aviv cost £180 return with easyJet, and a very reasonable £70 for my bike (which allowed up to 32kgs!).
A five hour flight, a two hour time difference, and visa-free entry,  makes it a very realistic option for a short (or long) winter break. I flew out on Thursday lunchtime, arrived in Tel Aviv around 7.00pm local time, enjoyed four fantastic days of mountain biking, and flew home on Monday evening. No jet lag, no hassles.

In the early part of last year I was introduced to Yoram Hen and his brother Michael, by mutual friends in Kathmandu, and we, in turn, became friends. He regaled me with tails of epic singletrack in his homeland.
In November I bumped in to him, once again, in Kathmandu, and he extended to me an invitation to go out and see them for myself. I was bewitched by his photographs and videos and so I took up the offer. I love to visit new destinations, I love to visit friends with my bike even more.
And it just so happens that my friend Yoram has an encyclopedic knowledge of Israels burgeoning trail network. How could I refuse?


Yoram and Michael (Micky) collected me from the airport on my arrival and we immediately set off south for our first destination - Mitzpe Ramon.
Mitzpe Ramon, in the south of Israel, sits conveniently close to the rim of the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert. It is a small town (pop:5000) in something of a revival. After a period of languishing it is now attracting a young, hip, and vibrant crowd drawn to the nascent Jazz-Pop scene that has sprung up in recent times.
It was one of these Jazz bars that was to be our first port of call. Now I'm not the biggest fan of Jazz to be honest, but it was an interesting place. Various musicians would gravitate onto the stage in a carousel of creativity, and the prominent female vocalist had a voice that could charm the birds from the tree's. It was a place that exuded creative energy. I liked it a lot.



After a couple of tasty beers we made our way around the corner to our accommodation for the night.
The owner, whose name escapes me, is a friend of Yoram's (Yoram reminded me that his name is Sharon). It was a classic backpacker hangout befitting the local crowd. Floor cushions, interesting artwork, a big shared kitchen, outdoor showers, open spaces. Just my kind of place. I don't particularly enjoy hotels. I do enjoy backpacker hangouts.



Day One. Ramon Crater. Mitzpe Ramon to Moah, near Tzofar.

The Ramon Crater. A staggeringly beautiful natural wonder.
Yoram had invited two friends along to join us for the ride, Simon and Marik. Micky was manning the support vehicle and would meet us later in the day.
Simon and Marik were interesting characters both with very different riding styles. Simon was a quick cross-country type of rider, sociable and a bit of a joker. Marik was similar to me with a robust route-one approach to the gnarlier sections of trail, he was a bit quieter and I think he was weighing me up a bit the first day :D
We spun along a short section of road before picking up the trailhead to a section of The Israel Bike Trail.
The view across the crater was spectacular and from our entry point we could see a spot far in to the distance where we would drop in to it and meet Micky for lunch. The crater is a vast natural wonder created, it is thought, by subterranean water erosion.
The Israel Bike Trail is an ambitious project that, when completed, will span the entire length of the country from North to South and cover in excess of 1000km of way-marked trail.
This lower section that we were tackling covers about 75km of mostly singletrack along part of the ancient & historic Spice Route.
Coming in off the back of a couple of night-shifts and a day of travelling, combined with the heat of the morning, ensured that I suffered a bit. The terrain, fortunately, was rolling and any climbing was mercifully short. I ended up with my Buff on under my helmet and had it hanging over my neck to try and keep the sun off.

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Making coffee in a slot. ©Yoram Hen
An hour or two into the ride we pulled over and to my surprise a coffee pot appeared! Yoram fired up a little gas stove and proceeded to brew up a delicious elixir of Israeli style coffee right at the side of the trail. We continued on along the cruising trail all the way to the kibbutz at Makhtesh Ramon.
After a leisurely lunch we rolled out once more. A short delay ensued as we waited for Marik to catch up. Yoram and Simon poked fun at him because he decided to go to the toilet just as we were setting off from our long rest.




Yoram, Simon, and Micky discussing the route.
The trail now took on a completely different personality. The change in topography was stark and stunning. From the vast open space of the crater rim to rolling down through a wadi (dry/seasonal river bed) with dramatic towering sandstone walls on both sides, reminiscent of a mini Grand Canyon. I expected to see Clint Eastwood astride a horse at any minute! It was also mercifully cooler.

We crisscrossed the wadi at each bend and had to carry speed to get us through the tyre sucking sand and gravel, it was a technique we quickly mastered. The reward for this suffering was oodles of noodles! Singletrack sent from heaven! On and on and on it meandered and kept us grinning for close on to 35km! Absolutely fantastic flowing trail, mile after mile.
We stopped in the shade occasionally for a short break. As we were about to saddle up I asked Marik if he needed the toilet before we moved on? He looked up at me, raised one finger in the air, and said "OK, that's one-nil to you" Oops!
When chatting earlier I had asked Marik what he did for a living, his simple reply was "The security business". I didn't pursue the matter further. I had him penciled in as a BMF (Bad-Mother-F***er!) :D
As I got to know him over the coming days I grew to like him a lot, he was actually a very thoughtful person and great company. He is also a very good rider and we both enjoy riding the same type of trails, I enjoyed some his line choices a lot. (I still think he might be a BMF though! Hahaha).
The final section of trail leading to our meeting point with Micky was the piece de resistance; steep, flowing, and swooping all the way. The trail was swooping, we were whooping!


©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Marik enjoying himself. ©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Yoram rolling in to an extraordinary section of singletrack.




Next stop was the town of Arad, further north, situated on the cusp of the Negev and Judean deserts, and around 600m above sea level.
Simon rang ahead to the Blau Weiss Hotel and Hostel Complex and secured us a room for the night. We showered, unceremoniously dumped our gear, then made our way to the go-to place in town - Muza.
The food and the beer are exceptionally fine and I highly recommend a visit if you ever happen to be in the area.
During the course of the evening I discovered that Simon, who has a chronic fear of heights, spent twenty years flying supersonic F4 Phantom jet planes in the Air Force. It's an unusual combination that one! He left the Air Force twenty years ago and has never flown since! Instead he works tirelessly for his local community (and rides bicycles of course).

Day Two. Arad to the Zohar Fort, Neve Zohar.


Riding out of Arad ©Yoram Hen
If yesterday was a day of cruising sweet, flowing, singletrack, then this day could be considered to be somewhere right at the opposite end of the spectrum. Gnarly, gritty, rocky BMF descending almost all the way to the Dead Sea - 380m below sea level - Oh Yeah!
We were joined by yet another companion today, a former Israeli Elite Female XC mountain biker, the delightful Nili Bartov. No pressure then.
The day started simply enough with another short cruise out of town and onto a boulder strewn vantage point for a view of the trail ahead. We were halted from our impending plunge, temporarily, by a train of camels approaching from the opposite direction. My first (quite exciting) experience of camels in the wild; albeit of the domesticated variety, as it were.


Traffic jam. ©Yoram Hen
I was feeling much fresher for today's ride although that may have been bolstered by the generally cascading nature of the trail.
It was split pretty much evenly in to three parts over about 35km.
The first part was thrilling; fast and flowing, on hardpack, with a lot of loose rock.


Out in the midday sun. ©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Neil. ©Yoram Hen


©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen


The middle section was more undulating, with a downhill slant and short punchy climbs. We stopped for the coffee break again and Yoram proceeded to brew up trail-side using a few bits of dry kindling that were laying around in the wadi.
I took the opportunity to scope out an interesting line with progressively bigger drops, all with uncompromising flat landings. 
They weren't actually all that bad, the biggest was about four and half feet but with a soft sandy surface, meaning I couldn't carry much speed, and a huck-to-flat, it was enough to get the old heart racing a bit.
It was worth a stab though. I rolled in did the first two as a warm up and then tackled all three at once after a bit of sucking & blowing and some fervent chin rubbing!
I considered doing them again after the coffee but decided it was probably better not to push my luck! On we rolled.


The first, and smallest, of the three drops. ©Yoram Hen
The best was again saved until last. 
Our final descent down the Dead Sea was a riotous affair of  rocky singletrack. Baby-head boulders and committing rock steps pockmarked a trail that culminated in a (30% gradient) steep, slabby, grand finale. As good as it gets.

Simon enjoying himself.

Nili. ©Yoram Hen

Marik and Yoram. ©Yoram Hen

Marik. ©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Neil. ©Yoram Hen

Neil. ©Yoram Hen

Neil. ©Yoram Hen

Yoram. ©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen


We loaded the bikes onto the pick-up and made our way the short distance to a beach on the Dead Sea.
Every since I was a kid, seeing images of people reading newspapers and floating around aimlessly in the sunshine, I've wanted to float on the Dead Sea.
It was dead good too! A travel ambition neatly ticked off the list.


Neil. ©Yoram Hen
Back at Arad we went our separate ways. Micky. Marik, and Simon, headed off to their respective homes. Yoram, Nili, and I, spent a pleasant evening cruising along boardwalks in the recently developed and now vibrant old port area of Tel Aviv. Like many big cities this area became a bit of a wasteland after the demise of the port and it's renewal into a trendy and functional open space has revitalised the place. It now teems with with runners and cyclists; and families looking to enjoy the many shops, restaurants, and bars.

I spent the next two nights enjoying the comforts of home with Yoram and his family at their secluded house surrounded by forested hills and plantations of olive and avocado.
The northern half of Israel is starkly different, and equally as beautiful, to the sandstone desert of the southern regions. A lush and green Mediterranean landscape that abounds with nature at its finest; productive farmland, interspersed with huge forests, and lots of rocky escarpments, perfect mountain bike territory. A plethora of cacti and wild mustard throng the hedgerows and roadsides at every turn, it's a glorious environment.




Day Three. Menshe' Heights - Hazore'a Singletrack.



Yoram, Nili, Marik, and I, rocked up to Menshe' heights for a morning of trail centre goodness. It is very similar to many of the UK trail centres, heavily forested in places with groomed singletrack and great features throughout its course. Unlike Winter in the UK however it was blessed with dry trails and glorious sunshine.
We had a blast railing bermed corners, snaking through the endless singletrack, popping off rocks and small jumps, and even fording small streams. One particular avenue of trees seemed blisteringly fast through the claustrophobic grasp of tight turns, grabbing branches, and soft loamy soil; I may have punched the air at that point.


Nili. ©Yoram Hen

Nili, Marik, and Neil enjoying a break. ©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Marik fording a stream. ©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

©Yoram Hen

Nili Bartov. ©Yoram Hen
About an hour or so in to the ride I regretted bragging that I had hadn't had a puncture for four years. On the most innocuous section of gravel road I had a puncture.
Marik came to the rescue with his seemingly bottomless trail-side toolkit.
"Do you have a worm?" he asked
"Huh? WTF is a worm?" (It was one of those "Lost in translation" moments, he was referring to a tubeless repair plug)
He proceeded to repair my tubeless tyre with a handy tool and and a length of ... well... worm! :D (Not a real worm obviously; a rubber one).
He them saved the day again by producing the tools necessary to tighten up my front chainring which I noticed had worked itself loose.


Checking my chainring. ©Yoram Hen
Towards the end of the ride we were whizzing along a nice compact trail when a shout went up to slow down.
A tortoise was blocking the trail. I laughed a lot at the sight of a wild tortoise. It was very small but it made my day. I've only ever seen tortoises as pets in the UK.



©Yoram Hen
On the way home we called in to a small Arab-owned cafe and ate delicious hummus with a mountain of fresh, tasty, flat breads. The food in Israel is fantastic, lots of fresh fruit, salad and peppers. Typically middle-eastern, simple and delicious.

We weren't quite finished yet though. Today was planned as a two-ride day. Yoram and Marik wanted to show me the best of their local trails. And it was worth the effort.

Hof Carmel Forest - Kerem Maharal.
Gnar-Wars episode 1 - Hero Dirt.



A long time ago in a forest far far away mountain bikers made a pilgrimage to ride the awesome natural trails of the Hof Carmel.
Something of a mecca during Israels then nascent mountain bike scene The Hof Carmel Forest drew riders from far and wide every weekend. These days with the discovery and development of other areas the pressure has reduced and it is a much quieter affair. I don't know why; it is absolutely ace.

We rolled back down the 2km private road that leads to the collection of houses where Yoram lives and met Marik at the entrance gate before tackling some of the sweet "local knowledge" singletrack on this side of the main road. Marik and Yoram were undecided as to the best route in to it because of some muddy sections en-route. I decided that we were going the muddy way. Mud is fun, and if your from the UK it is an inevitable part of your riding experience.
They were probably correct.
One particularly large, and fun looking, puddle dowsed the flames of that brilliant idea. I managed to get about half way across it! The singletrack reward, however, was sublime; steep and technical descending that had us high-fiving all the way.


©Yoram Hen
We crossed the road and began climbing steadily, first through rough pasture, and eventually into the soaring forest.
The network of trails in the forest are amazing; mile upon mile in every direction, and all of it fantastic. You would need to spend a week there with Yoram just to ride it all once.
Yoram and Marik lead the way; I followed obediently, twisting and turning through endless rock gardens interspersed with luscious loam. Hero dirt at its finest, and tons of technical challenges with tons of confidence inducing grip everywhere. Over the years local riders have diligently forged the best lines through it all and have added a few of their own features too, just to spice it up. Every now and then Marik would shout back to me "Jump!" and airborne we would go. I can't tell you how good the riding is in The Hof Carmel Forest. It really is as good as it gets.


Neil. ©Yoram Hen

Yoram. ©Yoram Hen
I had admired a beautiful old stone building on the way back to Yoram's place which he explained was actually quite a new building, purposely built as a local artisan winery. 
Later that evening he got a call from the manager, Alon, inviting us down to sample some of the wines currently being processed. That's not the sort of offer you get every day, yeehaw.




Day Four. Gnar-Wars episode 2 - Return to the Hero Dirt.

A late-afternoon flight from Tel Aviv back to England meant that we had time to plunder one more ride in the forest before I had to hastily pack my bike and hit the road.

None the worse for our previous evenings wine tasting endeavours we circled the plantations around Yoram's home then took the scenic route to meet Marik in a nearby village; where we saw a crow trying to eat a snake! Another rare event by all accounts. We whipped up through the fields, with increasingly aching legs, and back in to the forest haven for more of the same as yesterday. Today's highlight was a sea-view snack break while we enjoyed the warming sun on a nicely exposed west-facing hillside.



©Yoram Hen






And then it was all over, a pleasure to be enjoyed again another day. On the two occasions that we rode in the forest we never saw another soul.
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My train from Haifa took me directly into Terminal Three. After some confusion I managed to squeeze on to the free bus transiting to Terminal One. After checking-in I discovered that all the flights go from terminal Three and we had to transfer back again on the bus. Strange. Other than that I had a trouble free passage and boarded the plane with a satisfying smile.
Israel had proved to be everything that Yoram had promised, and more.
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I can't say that I got under the skin of Israel, so to speak; it's the first time that I have visited a country without experiencing some of its cultural highlights, of which Israel has many.
What I did get was a whistlestop tour of some of Israels mountain bike honeypots. On my next trip I intend spend a little more time digging a little deeper, culturally, and, you know, maybe a few more honeypots!
Originally we planned to ride the famous "Sugar Trail" from Jerusalem, so I really do have to return just to experience that. I also now have the full distance tour of The Israel Bike Trail to consider.
That is one of the great things about adventure travel; the more you do it the more things you find that need adding to your list.

A huge THANK YOU goes out to my friend Yoram Hen and his family for inviting me into their home, and for his generous invitation to guide me around some of the best trails his country has to offer. And huge thanks also to Micky, Simon, Marik, and Nili, for their welcome, kindness, and company.
It was a blast! I hope I can return the favour sometime.

You can find out more information about Yoram and his guided trips on his website here:
Yoram Hen

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