Grueling Desert Biking in Israel: Breaking out of the Comfort Zone, for a Cause

By Andy Katell

“The hill is your friend,” Howie Rodenstein declared as he tried to brace 180 Americans, Australians and Israelis for what was to become the bicycle climb of their lives – 4,100 feet up from the lowest point on earth. Later, while trudging up yet another massive hill en route from the Dead Sea to Eilat, I learned that what Howie, a founder of the annual Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride, probably really meant was that the downhill is your friend.

No matter. I made it up the hills, and down, to live and write this article upon return home to White Plains, NY.

For a second year undertaking this challenge, I began the nearly 300-mile southbound journey just after dawn in Jerusalem, feasting all the senses to sounds — a shofar blast and chants of the Jewish traveler’s prayer – and sights – a clutch of bicyclists of various shapes and sizes whizzing by Jerusalem’s golden limestone buildings. The 180 riders – a record in the event’s 5-year history – abruptly left their comfort zones of air conditioning, plush chairs, and flushing toilets for a trek through the desert – billed as “cycling for peace, partnership and environmental protection.” Each committed to raise at least $3,600 – with a collective goal of $1 million – for the Israel-based Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which teaches coexistence through environmental cooperation in the Middle East, and NY-based Hazon, whose mission is “to foster people’s Jewish journeys and engenders love and respect for Jewish tradition and the physical world.”

Challenges, Opportunities

Riding from May 2-7, with a break for Shabbat, we endured not only grueling climbs in the Judaean and Negev deserts but temperatures reaching 114 degrees Fahrenheit, a baking sun and brutal headwinds. Offsetting those hardships were a few physical boosts — a brief sunshower and part-day of cloudy skies, the stunning beauty of brown, gold, red and white sand and rock — and spiritual boosts — our amazing dedication, perseverance and faith, camaraderie, a healthy sense of humor, and fantastic ride support by Arava Institute and Hazon staff members.

My favorite moments came mainly in the mornings, when we started the day refreshed (thanks to sleeping pills, massages and great food), relaxed and cooler. It was then that I connected most with my fellow riders, before we spread out along the vast expanses, and discussed everything from “how are you feeling today?” to “why are you doing this?” The riders were a distinguished and varied group: lawyers, scientists, doctors, political leaders, students, rabbis, a 70-year-old Holocaust survivor, a 13-year-old girl and a bike shop owner. Kansas sent a 10-person delegation. Boulder, Colorado – which knows from hills – amassed a large team, and I represented Corporate America and Westchester County, NY, along with New Rochelle neighbors Dr. Marvin Chinitz and his son Isaac. My other favorite moments came when I spotted telecommunications antenna towers ahead, because they marked the highest points – meaning it was all downhill from there.

The Cause, First Hand

We learned first-hand about the environmental challenges that the Arava Institute is taking on – the super-salty waters of the Dead Sea that are receding as its sources are siphoned off, the air pollution from phosphate factories that burned our throats and lungs as we rode past. We saw the animals who call the desert their home: camels, beetles, goats and various birds of prey. I tried to do my part to help. At one point, I spotted a ladybug on the road, and tried to pick it up to rescue it from being crushed under 360 bicycle tires. She wouldn’t budge.

Pedaling On the Border

Israel’s borders are never far. Approaching Eilat on the Red Sea, we lunched on a hilltop within sight of three other countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Earlier, I took a detour in blistering heat and up never-ending hills with the advanced riding group to the remote Har-Harif Army Base, where Israeli forces patrolling the border with Egypt face not so much terrorist infiltration these days but smuggling of prostitutes, cigarettes and drugs, with two or three suspects caught daily. Most of the 200-mile border with Egypt is literally just a line in the sand, so Israeli forces rely largely on electronic devices to monitor it.


The desert heat can impair one’s mental faculties. I am proud to report that I made one of my better decisions by opting out of a communal Bedouin tent sleeping option one night at the Arava Institute’s home base, Kibbutz Ketura. I am no stranger to camping, but the thought of trying to sleep on dusty soil with a 100-degree hot wind blowing all night amid dozens of aching, snoring middle-aged men (and some women) did not seem appealing. So I signed up for a proper, air conditioned room. At night, a tent “refugee” showed up in my room begging for creature comforts, so my two roommates and I made a place for him on the floor.

Small World, Comrade

Of Israel’s 7 million population, more than 15 percent speak Russian. Add to that the thousands of Russian tourists, and you’re never far from the Slavic tongue. As a former Moscow correspondent for The Associated Press news agency, I detected Russian language at almost every stop: a busload of Russian-speaking tourists at Ein Yoqeram, the laundry room attendant at the Ramon Inn in Mitzpe Ramon, the Russian group sales pitch in a private room at the Ahava Factory outlet store. And entering the elevator at the Caesar Hotel on the western shore of the Dead Sea, I encountered a man wearing a badge identifying himself as from Russia, attending a conference of geophysicists and space scientists. I told him I had reported on the Soviet space program decades ago and often interviewed a prominent Russian space scientist. “Get off at the next floor,” he advised, “he’s here, and I’ll take you to him.” I headed for the beach to float in the sea instead, but marveled at how small a world it is.

Philosophy from the Seat of a Bike

You have a lot of time to think, to look inside and outside yourself, when you’re trekking through the wilderness for five days. Analogies come easily between biking and life. Approaching a huge hill climb on a bike seems daunting, even overwhelming. Intimidating. Humbling. What I learned is that if you break that climb into segments and rest often, the challenge becomes manageable. A lesson for life. Take it in small bites, with a goal in mind, and try to enjoy the journey at least as much as the destination. Maybe the hill is our friend, after all.

Andy Katell, a member of Temple Israel Center and resident of White Plains, NY, participated in the Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride for a second year in a row, and commutes to work by bike in Stamford, CT. Further information about the ride:

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