You have to be crazy to build trails in the harsh and unforgiving Negev Desert. Summer temperatures that rise to over 40 degrees Celsius and a rainfall average of less than 20mm per year are not ideal conditions to ride bikes in. Couple these meteorological roadblocks with the rock-infested terrain that makes up the majority of the landscape of Southern Israel, and you basically have the antithesis of great riding. It’d take a lunatic to dream up the idea of creating a riding destination down here, right?
Yaron Dari agrees. “I’m crazy, but just the right amount of crazy”, he tells us, as we bump along in a Land Cruiser towing a custom-built bike trailer, heading up into the mountains above his home at the Kibbutz Samar, towards his trail network. Yaron is the man responsible for the trails we’ve come to ride in this far corner of Israel, and the man is just nuts enough to pull off the ambitious goal of creating a mountain bike destination in this inhospitable area.
Despite the un-welcoming nature of the Negev Desert as a whole, the Kibbutz Samar is a veritable oasis in the middle of it all. The kibbutz was established in 1976, and like the hundreds of other communal kibbutzim in Israel, was founded with agriculture as its base. Plump and juicy dates were, and still are, its main export and source of revenue, but mountain biking is poised to become another reliable source of income. The Samar Bike Hotel runs from November to March (we’re visiting a week before the season kicks off). The timing of the operating season takes advantage of the cooler temperatures and more frequent rain.
The hotel is more of a collection of small cabins, featuring a welcoming open air gathering area, and a dining area shared with all the kibbutz members and volunteers. Bike hotel guests eat what the kibbutz community eats, which generally means healthy, wholesome meals, mostly sourced from the immediate area. The amenities are all perfect for a laid back, relaxing stay, and one of the best features of the hotel is the pumptrack. A striking anomaly in the desert, the cement pumptrack is bordered with green grass, and has overhead lights for cooler night sessions around the track. The track is our first sign of the kibbutz’ commitment to mountain biking, and the night we arrive the lights go on and we carve up some laps.
Despite some abnormally heavy rains recently (over 30mm in twenty minutes a couple days before our arrival), Yaron is psyched to show off the fruits of his hard labour. On our drive to the trails, I watch a timelapse on his phone of his team moving a multi-ton rock out of their proposed line using pneumatic pillows. Why not go around? “My vision for the trail was such that the rock needed to be moved, so we moved it”, is his reasoning.
As we explore the trails, I learn the extent of the rock transportation that Yaron has undertaken. His trails are not dug into the mountain, but rather built out from them. Boulders are shifted to create elevated benches, but instead of fighting the terrain, the terrace-style build flows with the hillside, almost belying the amount of work that went into them. Not only does this style of building blend seamlessly with this particular environment, it also aids dramatically in drainage, evidenced by the lack of destruction caused by the near biblical recent rainfall.
Yaron leads us down less manicured trails as well. On the upper ridge above the main valley, and looking across to the Red Mountains of Jordan, the Israel Bike Trail runs 300 kilometres from the Red Sea to the town of Mizpe Ramon. This length of trail is about a quarter of the full 1200 kilometre proposed distance, spanning the entire distance of Israel. We ride a very short portion of it, and then drop off the ridge on gnarly descents taking us back down towards Samar. These trails are rocky and real, dropping off exposed ridgelines down to the stepped desert plains below, and into more flowy terrain dips and dives in and out of dry riverbeds. These descents follow ancient trade routes that have been modernized for mountain biking by Yaron and his trail building crew.
As we explore the region on our bikes, the bleak first impressions of the area quickly fade away. Like the Kibbutz Samar, these trails are a mountain biker’s oasis amongst the rocky cliffs and vast open desert. Our respect for Yaron’s efforts deepens with every turn railed and each descent enjoyed. It takes a certain type of person to flourish in these extremes of this environment., and Yaron is just that type of character. Lucky for us, he’s also just crazy enough to take on the herculean task of building a mountain bike destination in the desert for us all to enjoy.