From the Dead Sea Shimshon and I parted ways. The Passover holiday was about to start so Shimshon headed back to Jerusalem to spend time with his family. He had invited me to go, but I was too excited to ride in the desert — no people, no water, just my bike and the rocks. Anyway, if Moses is any example, I think you’re supposed to spend Passover wandering around the desert.
I love desert bicycle touring. The tour in Israel didn’t end up being as hard as my longer Mojave tour or my Colorado Plateau tour, but it was still a desert adventure and at times felt fairly remote.
When I first left Shimshon, I detoured to Mitspe Shalem kibbutz to stock up on groceries. After my shopping it took about four hours on a circuitous climb to end up at a viewpoint 600m higher overlooking the same kibbutz. That’s a lot of climbing to end up only 200m above sea level! The view was great, but the wind picked up, and I wished I hadn’t pitched my tent so close to the edge of the cliff.
Riding in the Judean desert means seeing lots of camels and goats. There’s enough vegetation out there to support Bedouins leading their flocks around. One day on a side track I spotted a Bedouin scooping water out of a well for his goats. Low on water myself I headed over. The goats had finished drinking by then, and the camels had arrived. In addition to water the camel guy gave me about 0.5l of fresh camel milk. It was still warm. Wow, that was really good. It seemed heavier, thicker, and more oily/fatty than cow milk. What a treat.
Most folks who visit Israel during Passover will notice that you can’t buy bread or in fact anything that is not labelled “Kosher for Passover”. This includes beer, many things with yeast, olive oil, helva, and heaps of other things. I don’t know if it’s really supposed to prohibit eating olive oil and helva, but I couldn’t buy any because they close entire aisles in the supermarkets. In larger towns it’s not terribly difficult to get around this by patronizing the Arab or Russian shops.
I visited my only Palestinian village near Carmel, above 15km SE of Hebron. There I was warmly welcomed, and what they weren’t selling in the small grocery store — bread and tomatoes — the owner simply gave to me from his own pantry. By this time I had started to get used to the de facto apartheid that is the way of life in Israel/Palestine. More on that in another post.
One thing that puzzled me in this region were modern concrete ruins. Here’s one of a building in a desolate area on the top of a hill commanding an impressive view over the surrounding area. A military post?
And here are what appear to be house foundations for an entire abandoned kibbutz? or military base?
The scenery was at times superb. I came through a little-travelled area (with tricky navigation) and down some ridiculously steep sections of road to the beautiful canyon at Breikhat Tsfira. As if the scenery wasn’t enough, there was a swimming hole at the edge of the pouroff. What a gem! Later when I showed a park ranger where I had come from, he said “with that map??!!” “Uh, sure, I have a compass, too.” I used a 1:150000 map in the Judean while most people travel with the expensive 1:50000 series (70 NIS vs. 1500 NIS for the entire country).
Masada, one of Israel’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, combines history with great scenery. The Romans built a fortress on the top of this difficult-to-access mesa overlooking the Dead Sea. The Jews took it over and then were ousted by the Romans in a famous siege. It seems most the Jews committed a mass suicide to avoid becoming Roman prisoners, but reliable accounts of events from 2000 years ago are rather difficult to come by. The only written history was written by someone who was in Rome at the time of the siege. At any rate the food and water storage capacity in this remote desert outpost are impressive.
My photos hardly do Masada justice.
One afternoon I ran into Rea who started a tour company called Walk About Love supporting walkers on Isreal’s 1000km-long National Trail. He invited me to camp with them one night where I met a Romanian woman doing the entire trail, an American woman who doesn’t like to camp, an Israeli guy who’s starting a company making cheese from nuts (cashews maybe?), and a young Swedish guy who had left Sweden for better economic opportunities in Argentina. I guess it should be expected that people who choose to wander around in the Judean Desert for 40 days are a bit odd.