By Rachel Brandenberg
Back in Jerusalem after a week in the desert, having successfully completed 350 miles of bike riding through the southern half of Israel, I am sitting at the table in my apartment looking at and listening to a light rain through open windows, appreciating the cool breeze and pitter-patter of the water on my mirpeset (balcony). With great thanks to all of you who have supported or intend to support me, the Arava Institute and Hazon in this endeavor, I offer here a taste of the Israel Ride 2007 experience in stories and pictures. For more footage (still and video), reports from the ride, and/or to help me reach my fundraising goal, lots of great information is still available at www.israelride.org. After meeting the Arava Institute staff and students, visiting their facilities and hearing more about their work, as well as riding through much of the territory they study and work to preserve and develop, I can say with full confidence that I am happy to have embarked on this adventure and do all that I can to offer them my support.
For such a small country, Israel is host to incredibly diverse landscapes – even just its southern half – something I have always known, but am always reminded of anew each time I travel through it. During 350 miles of biking, I witnessed the evolution of the terrain from the holy hilltop city of Jerusalem, to the mineral-rich Dead Sea basin, to the geologically phenomenal Machtesh Ramon, to the seemingly endless red sand mountains of the Arava desert, all the way to the Red Sea and the resort town of Eilat that has sprung up around it. I reached two separate borders with Egypt and one border with Jordan, and from the lowest to highest points of our ride, covered a net of about 1500 meters of elevation.
In 5 days of riding, a group of about 250 individuals, primarily from the United States, and some from around the Middle East, covered the course from Jerusalem to Eilat together, helping each other physically, mentally, and emotionally along the way, for a cumulative experience that was challenging, inspirational, and fulfilling, yet hard to describe in only a few words of writing. I am including a summary of the journey below, as well as a collection of pictures that I and other staff and fellow-riders took along the route.
Notes from the Road —
Day 1: Jerusalem to Neve Zohar, 66 miles.
We began with 30 km “downhill” 1200 meters, from an altitude of 800 meters in Jerusalem to -400 meters by the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Although it didn’t take much pedaling effort, this was the most dangerous stretch of the ride because of the steepness of the incline (or decline), and the fact that the route was a well-traveled highway, which merged from four to two lanes about half way down. Nonetheless, we all made it to the first rest-stop full with snacks and energy drink at Lido Junction with little incident. After a brief introduction to the Dead Sea Basin and the former British resort at Lido Junction, we split into two groups – Chalutzim and Tzofim, to begin the work for Day 1…
Day 2: Neve Zohar to Mashabei Sade (Chalutzim), 82.5 miles.
Beginning from the Dead Sea basin, we started the day at an altitude of -400 and at the highest point, reached an altitude of 700 meters, resulting in some of the most steep climbs of the entire ride. I chose to go with the slightly more challenging group, volunteering myself to attempt the Scorpion’s Ascent (Translation: Ma’ale ha’aqrabim), a 2 mile climb of approximately 500 meters, the steepest areas of which were at about a 13% grade…
Day 3: Mashabei Sade to Mitzpe Ramon, 80 miles (to date total: 222 miles)
Friday was another really long day with significant inclines. At the briefing session the night before we were given three choices: ride from there straight to the hotel, ride from there to an off-road portion and then to the hotel, or ride from there to a turn-off toward the Egyptian border and make a 50 mile detour up a mountain road known to be a wind tunnel to reach the army base border guard there. Choose your own adventure: which would you pick? There were 15 of us who (crazily?) chose the latter…In retrospect, this was one of the hardest, but best days. And it helped to know too that it was to be followed by Shabbat, so whatever energy I had left could be spent, in advance of a full day of rest….
Shabbat: Remained at Mitzpe Ramon, 0 miles (thankfully!)
Day 4: Mitzpe Ramon to Kibbutz Ketura, 62 miles
Today was mostly a descent, beginning at an altitude of 860 meters and ending at 100. We entered the Machtesh on the higher side this time, so the descent in was awesome, and the climb out was bearable…
Day 5: Kibbutz Ketura to Eilat, 60 miles
A handful of us accepted the challenge to climb back up the mountain we rode down to get to Ketura. Beginning at an altitude of 100 meters, we went the 6 miles up to about 500 meters, to the top of Mt. Ayit. I psyched myself out for something really difficult, but in reality, the climb was not so bad…The scenery was gorgeous as we rode through empty desert roads, but it was very hot, and very hilly. Somehow I think the organizers forgot to warn us that we’d spend most of the day steadily climbing up to an altitude of almost 1000 meters before beginning a quick, steep descent to the Red Sea. Not to mention, it was HOT. We were told it got up to about 110-114 degrees.
Day 6: Back to Jerusalem, by bus
After a day of recovery in Eilat, I took an Egged bus back up to Jerusalem. In addition to this being a good chance to sit in one place for a few hours for the first time in a few days, it was very rewarding to travel back across some of the roads that I had just recently traversed by bike. Although the bike route was far less direct than the bus so I did not retrace our entire path, many parts were indeed the same. I smiled as I noticed the areas where rest stops had been set up a few days earlier, or at the sign pointing to the turn off for Ma’ale ha’aqrabim, and the beginning of the Arava Road. I marveled at all that we had accomplished and appreciated that the bus ride allowed me to review the ride after the fact, this time from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.
In short, the ride was an awesome experience, physically, emotionally, and mentally. This was by far the most difficult physical challenge I have embarked upon since I stopped running competitively a few years ago, but that was part of the value of the experience. It was empowering, energizing, and inspiring. I have not spent so much consecutive time outside – and certainly not in the desert – since I was in high school and doing similar routes by foot, and I have never completed anywhere close to as many miles on a bicycle. (Next stop: triathlon?) To remain focused on the road and on biking at the same time was a mental exercise in it of itself, but so too was the task of overcoming the physical challenges that almost every part of the ride presented. I was reminded of the mantras I learned from past swim and running coaches about pacing, hills, and maintaining mental control over physical tasks, while at the same time listening to new advice from my fellow-riders about biking, shifting, drafting, and riding road bikes vs. hybrids, with running shoes vs. biking shoes.
Thanks to my fellow-chalutzimers, I learned about biking and the importance of balancing work, family, and personal time for endeavors such as this. Thanks to the staff and coordinators of the Ride, I learned about the desert, the Arava Institute, and Hazon. Thanks to the Arava Institute students and faculty who accompanied us, I learned that the needs of the environment demand cross-border cooperation and may one day bring us closer to regional peace. And thanks to the entire experience, I learned what about myself, and was reminded of my own interests and abilities. I recommend future rides to anybody who has any interest in biking, the desert, the environment, water scarcity, the Middle East, the State of Israel, the land of Israel, or simply in regional peace.