Cycling through the Desert of the Exodus

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The construction of the Israel Bike Trail’s southern segment, a 300-kilometer route that runs from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat, was just completed. Eight marvelous segments of trail cross the mountains and craters of the Negev Highlands, the Arava Valley, and the mountains of Eilat via a singular, bike-only desert track. A description of the entire southern segment follows.

> by Yadin Roman and Avi Gold

The Israel Bike Trail (IBT), which ultimately will traverse the country from north to south, is the brainchild of Yuval Peled and Hillel Sussman of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). Eight years ago, they came up with the idea of creating a long-distance trail for bicycles that not only could connect the cycling community to nature and the environment, but also could serve as a challenging catalyst to infuse geography and travel into the growing interest around the country in mountain biking. They worked out a general route though the most attractive scenery in Israel, from the slopes of Mount Hermon in the north to the Gulf of Eilat in the south. From the beginning, they planned for the IBT to be a mountain bike route, that is, a single, unpaved country track that does not enter urban areas. In developing the trail, they took its environmental impact and the preservation of nature and heritage sites into account, among other issues.
When it came to building the actual trail, they quickly discovered that there is little knowledge in Israel of the design principles for biking trails. However, the initial backing from Stephen Bronfman, followed by the Olmert government’s decision to allocate NIS 100 million to the Israel Government Tourist Corporation for the construction of biking trails in open areas, enabled the project to overcome that obstacle and take a significant step forward.
Menachem Marcus, a guide and geographer, was asked to mark the IBT’s principle route, while several workshops, with experts from abroad, were organized to train Israelis to construct bike trails. The workshops emphasized safety, on one hand, and minimizing environmental impact, on the other hand. The IBT’s route was set in cooperation with the Israel Bicycle Association and all those who completed the workshops received an official certificate. Only workshop graduates are permitted to build bike paths in open areas (currently there are 80 people in Israel who are certified to do so).
The work itself was done with the help of volunteers and, of course, was managed by professional planners. The work in essence is manual labor, performed with spades, hoes, and brooms. No outside materials are used; only the soil and rocks found around the trail itself are utilized. INPA rangers oversee the construction to ensure that the infringement on the land is minimal. Great effort also was made to create a track that is safe for riders, taking into account issues such as gradient and level. Finally, special signage was designed for the IBT; it has since become the standard on bike trails around the country.
When the IBT is completed, it will cover approximately 1,200 kilometers that can be divided into segments of 30-25 kilometers, each of which is designed to be biked in one day. Each segment ends at a campsite; more upscale tourism facilities also are available at some spots. The planners hope the trail will facilitate the growth of the ever-evolving sport tourism industry. They also hope that the path’s uniqueness will attract bicyclists not only from Israel but also from around the world – just as the Israel Trail attracted hikers – and thus make an important contribution to tourism development in Israel in general and in the areas that are near the IBT in particular.
The IBT is designed as a major path with secondary paths branching off it and later rejoining it. The secondary paths include the trails at the Ramon Colors Park, which is about to open in the Ramon Crater, and the myriad bike routes in Timna Park. According to the plans, the IBT also will approach Jerusalem, where it will connect to a new bike trail around the city. It will ascend to the city from Neveh Shalom in the Judean Lowlands along the historic route that pilgrims to the holy city followed for generations. Then, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, at the Valley of the Cedars (Emek Ha’arazim), it will connect with an urban bike trail, ascending to the Bridge of Strings, running down Jaffa Road to the Jaffa Gate in the walls of the Old City, and then continuing alongside the walls of the Old City and through Bloomfield Garden to reach the old Jerusalem railway tracks, which recently was converted into a park with running and biking paths. From the park, the bike path will continue south toward the Biblical Zoo, along Nahal Refaim, and reconnect to the IBT in the Ela Valley.

The Desert Trail
Tomer Nahmani, who works at the INPA’s southern region, is responsible for the southern part of the trail. This section of the IBT, from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat, just was completed. The result is a unique single bike track: 300 kilometers through pristine desert. The trail is divided into eight segments, each of which can be completed in one day. The trail does not cross roads and is arranged as a single. It is well marked with its own signage and easy to follow. The IBT is designed from north to south and so signage for riders is placed in that direction. At the beginning of each segment there is a sign with a map and explanations of the highlights in the area covered by the route.
Beyond the pure riding experience, the trail provides an exceptional opportunity to explore desert regions in the central Negev mountains, Arava, and the Eilat Mountains. The vantage points along it are among the most beautiful in the country and the various sites it passes teach important lessons on everything from the geography of the natural landscape to the history of human culture. On top of all this, those riding along the southern segments of the IBT might just encounter desert wildlife such as deer, ibex, and birds of all kinds and sizes, as well as animals that typically hide from humans, such as sand foxes, monitor lizards, and even leopards.
But before anyone goes whizzing down the route in search of wildlife, it should be noted that it was designed and built for cyclists, especially mountain bikers. This is not a paved trail in a municipal park; riding it requires some skills, including the ability to handle a bike in challenging terrain. Furthermore, since the trail passes through desert areas, bikers must bring appropriate supplies: water; food; tools to repair flat tires and other common bike malfunctions; and, of course, safety equipment, such as helmets, kneepads, and so forth. Bikers not familiar with the area should hire a local guide to make arrangements for various services for riders along the trail as well as to provide additional insight on the area’s history and features.

Cycling Safely

The IBT is designed exclusively for bicyclists and hikers. Vehicular traffic on the trail is forbidden.
Cycling is allowed only along the marked path.
Riders are encouraged to demonstrate caution and give the right of way to hikers and vehicles.
The path is intended for skilled and experienced riders.
Riders who are under 12 years old must be accompanied by an adult.
Riders should match cycling conditions to their personal ability.
Parts of the route are difficult and should be traversed on foot.
Bring appropriate safety equipment.
Cycling after dark is prohibited.
Do not ride during rain and when caught in the rain, do not cross riverbeds.
Avoid riding during extremely hot weather and take care to avoid dehydration and heatstroke.
Do not litter or leave trash behind.
Protect the flora and fauna.
Cycling on the IBT is the responsibility of the rider only.
Sections along the Jordanian-Israeli border could be land mined. Do not cross fences or deviate from the bike path.

The World’s Most Beautiful Crater

long the Nabatean Spice Route

The Arava Savannah

Beyond Feather Ridge

The Steep Ascent to Smadar

The Golden Dunes of ’Uvda

The Mountains of Eilat

Grand Finale at Eilat

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