Depends who's asking: A Fool's Endeavour
Note to self: the term ‘fall’ here refers to both a waterfall and a potential fall to the death if attempting to traverse carrying a large, unwieldy bicycle. Hindsight, they say, is a beautiful thing, but I can’t concur.
Two things I find endlessly fascinating and beautiful are deserts and maps. So to look at a map of the Negev, a desert or semidesert covering 4,700 square miles and 55% of the country’s land area, was, to be my dramatic self, rather exciting. I spent weeks poring over the contours of the eroding sandstone and loess – even as the son of a geologist, trust me, it’s not worth looking this one up – of the landscape before I realised that there might be a way to venture across it by bicycle. The Israel National Trail, a 637-mile hiking trail running the length of the country, passes through some of the remotest areas of the Negev that are accessible to the public (a large proportion of the region is reserved only for military use), and I had planned to ride out of Mitzpe Ramon, on the edge of the Makhtesh Crater (Israel’s Grand Canyon, if you will), before turning off the road and traversing 25 miles to Highway 90 on Israel’s eastern border. Setting off in the dark , I had packed my bike with as much water as my lightweight setup would allow me (still a surprising six litres) and let gravity help me career down the hairpin bends as the highway descended into a crater 500 metres deep at its lowest point. As the sun rose, the ochre landscape opened up before me and disappeared in the blue haze of the early morning on the horizon. Alone on the crest of a ridge, only barely able to see any signs of human presence at all, I was in awe, reaping the truest reward that bicycle travel can afford: to see the world like no other, in a way that words simply cannot express.
There is a stark, Promethean beauty in the Negev. Walking or riding on the Israel National Trail, it feels as if the desert is meting out a punishment warranted by simply having the audacity to step into it, yet drawing you ever onward into its emptiness. The gravel-bottomed canyons wound in meandering curves as I marvelled at the height of the cliffs surrounding me, from which a curious ibex or two looked down as they grazed on tough, thorny acacias. As I trudged uphill carrying my bike across my shoulders, the only sounds coming from my mouth were heavy breaths and the occasional stream of expletives. The wind whipped the words from my mouth, and the rocks said nothing. Pic – 631: Another world. This is as close to Mars as I can comfortably get.Though progress was hard, I had been relatively relaxed about food and water for the greater part of the morning. But it was as the sun reached its highest point, and the miles seemed to become longer and longer as I pushed my bike up dry stream beds and carried it up slopes that would have been difficult even without a 17-kilo bike and luggage on my back. After a hair-raising descent down the edge of a dry waterfall, during which I slipped and nearly fell several metres onto the rocks below me, I sat under the only green tree I had seen for hours, and wondered how on earth tiny, gorgeous red flowers could be growing in its branches in such a vast, seemingly waterless place.
I checked my rucksack and bottles for water. I was beginning to run out. It was also at this point that I realised the Israel National Trail map, which I had been following instead of my smartphone (owing to its far greater detail), was informing me that I was attempting to cross in a day a stretch of the trail that would ordinarily be two and a half days hiking. The seriousness of the situation dawned on me. I had not seen any other people since I left the road, and it was highly unlikely that I would again until – or rather unless – I made it through the desert to the highway highway on the other side. It was too far to go back, and I was too isolated to continue without the aid of my bike. There was no choice but to continue, even if that meant slogging away up the side of a canyon half a foot at a time. I began to ration my water after I realised my empty one-litre bottle had fallen from my bike somewhere in the bottom of a riverbed from which I’d just climbed. Three sips before the next climb. Three sips after. None for travelling or walking on the flat. My head began to float a little as the afternoon wore on, and I took my sunglasses off when I began to feel a tightening band around my temples. My tongue felt like a hairbrush, and stuck to my teeth and the roof of my mouth. My legs began to cramp as I struggled under the weight of the bike up climbs that seemed as though they would never end. I was thankful that I’d chosen a route which was downhill overall, rather than the other way around, but every uphill step and pedal stroke was sapping my energy, and I knew that I would be in real trouble if night fall were to come without having found any water. Photos became an unnecessary distraction, and though I was tired I was increasingly impatient to keep moving. Eventually, at around 5:30pm, over twelve hours after I had set off from Mitzpe Ramon, and over eleven hours since I had seen any human beings, the land suddenly dropped away and I saw Sapir, a small community on the edge of the north-south Highway 90 which would take me to Eilat. It looked like an oasis with its luscious-looking green trees and shady palms. I approached three teenage girls who stood chatting on a street corner. Luckily they spoke English, and were kind enough to invite me to their house, where their uncle, a friendly, generous man called Arnold provided me with litres of cold water, cucumber, peaches, and cheese. “You don’t normally see many people out on the trail at this time of year” he told me, a fact since corroborated by many online sources, who recommend hiking between February and May. By that point, however, I was just grateful to be out of the wilderness, and not a little pleased with myself and my bike. For a converted city bike with no suspension and some cheap welded-on Chinese tri-bars, it had held up remarkably well considering the thorough mountain biking I had put it through.
Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored those signs which said ‘No Bicycles’…
Thanking Arnold and his nieces for their help, I headed south, reveling in the sensation of my wheels eating up the smooth, flat tarmac. I stopped to drink a questionable amount of yoghurt purchased from a petrol station whose toilet walls were quite literally smeared with shit, and then headed onward, pedaling until the sun went down and I began to look for a place to sleep. The ‘campsite’ I had seen on Google Maps turned out to be nothing more than a car park with a bench, so I rode on a little further until I found a far more suitable spot: a giant pile of dirt behind which I couldn’t be spotted from the road. Unfortunately, this positive point had also been taken advantage of by others for far more prosaic reasons, and I had to ensure not to put my sleeping mat down on a toilet spot, or sharp stones, or both. I had made it through the desert, and as my consciousness slipped slowly from me under the glowing moon I reflected that, although the desert had been beautiful, it would be remiss of me to undertake such a foolhardy endeavour again with such little water. This was a day whose highs and lows I will not be forgetting in a hurry.
Breathing deep the air of success, which, incidentally, smells a lot like used toilet paper.