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Sands of time: Grand Fondo Arava review

In-depth
3 Jul 2020
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Cyclist visits the Negev Desert in Israel to capture one the last sportives to take place before the global lockdown

Words and photography Alex Turner 

‘You will see camels, you will see camels,’ says Mike, excitedly. I’m being driven south from Tel Aviv in the back seat of an old car. Mike, a Jewish cycling enthusiast born in the United States and now a citizen of Israel, is giving me a lift to the start town of the Gran Fondo Arava, a sportive in the heart of Israel’s Negev Desert.

As we drive, Mike explains that since the foundation of Israel in 1948, Jews born outside of its borders can automatically claim citizenship in Israel – a process he likens to ‘ascending to the Holy Land’.

Leaving the outskirts of Tel Aviv behind, we head south and eventually enter the emptiness of the Negev, the desert region of Israel’s southern half that accounts for almost 55% of its landmass but only around 10% of its population. As night falls around us, I can make little of it out.

Three hours after leaving Tel Aviv, the car slows before a perimeter fence with large metal gates. Mike makes a call on his phone and the gates open. We enter a settlement called Moshav Ein Yahav, which is to be my home for the next two nights.

Behind the gates, children illuminated by street lamps are playing in wide, neat rows of bungalows and on grassy lawns. I’ve no real idea where I am, and the darkness, lack of preparation and a few pre-race jitters add to a sudden, overwhelming sense of disorientation.

Doubling up

Just 24 hours earlier I was in my flat in Bristol, content that there was little chance of seeing a cow, never mind a camel. It’s the beginning of March 2020, and the realities of Covid-19 are only just starting to hit home.

The lockdown has yet to happen, flights are still flying, events are still taking place, but the warning signs are apparent that life is about to change for everyone.

It’s for this reason that I suddenly find myself fulfilling a dual role. I had initially been hired simply to do the photography for Cyclist, covering the Gran Fondo Arava, however the decision has been made not to send a rider to take part in the sportive. Which is how I come to be writing about it as well as shooting it.

I may not be able to impart what it feels like to ride a bike through the desert, but at least I can offer an insight into the life of a photographer trying to keep up with a peloton of cyclists at an international event.

After a fitful night’s sleep, I’m up at 5am (3am to my British body clock) to get to the start line. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with race organisation and I know that the most stressful part of my job is about to begin.

As riders mill about and assemble at the start line, the car and driver I am reliant on to take me round the course are nowhere to be seen. The difficulties of safely coordinating a field of 800 riders, helicopters and a TV crew during the early stages of a global pandemic are, I am sure, immense, but this is not an unfamiliar occurrence.

As always happens in these situations, I begin by making polite enquiries about my transport, followed by more urgent entreaties as bunch after bunch of riders leaves the start line. Finally, I begin to kick up a real fuss – in as polite a manner as possible, of course – which has the effect of triggering an escalation of shouting in Hebrew. This spreads through the organisers, the organisers’ families and, seemingly, random passersby, until I am delivered into the capable hands of Hanan.

We dash to his car, as he explains he is ‘a big boss’, the production manager for the entire event, and will be required periodically to narrate the professional race happening a little further up the road.

He has a lot to do, and we are both wary that each will interfere with the other’s work during the event, but we strike up an uneasy alliance. Hanan steps on the accelerator and we head off in pursuit of the peloton.

Sting of the Scorpion

The Gran Fondo Arava is a 130km competitive and non-competitive sportive through one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on Earth. The Arava Valley, which in Hebrew literally means ‘dry and desolate area’, lies just south of the Dead Sea, whose salty shores sit at 417m below sea level – officially the lowest elevation on Earth for anywhere on land.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the entire Arava was covered by ocean, which has now receded and left a spectacular red-orange desert in its place. As the sun rises over the sand, it’s a scene more reminiscent of Star Wars’ Tatooine than the Tour de France.

We make ground on the riders on a wide, straight road that splits the horizon. The sound of the peloton rises like a swarm of bees, the hum of their wheels and the click of my camera shutter echoing off the steep desert walls. The pack is hungrily eating up the first 22km, rolling fast towards a brutal, unforgiving ascent that they all know will stretch them to their limits.

The Scorpions Pass was built by the Romans in the 1st century, and was used as a vital connection for the spice trade between historical civilisations in Asia, Europe and Africa. This near-2,000-year-old monument from the ancient world is understandably a recognised heritage site in Israel.

The road, upgraded and paved at numerous times during the 20th century, was still an essential – if nerve-jangling – desert transport route until 1957, when an alternative route was established.

The Scorpions Pass also has a bloody modern history that adds to its fearsome reputation. In 1954 it was the site of a terrorist massacre in which 12 people lost their lives during a midday attack by masked gunmen on a passenger bus.

Even today, the pass is not without its dangers. Wikipedia, occasionally prone to inaccuracy but not usually given to hyperbole, states, ‘The pass is known for its extreme danger due to poor physical condition. Below the pass there is an abyss, and the road has no guardrails. In addition, the road has extreme drop-offs of hundreds of metres.’

The organisers have secured permission for the road, usually closed to public access, to play host to a King of the Mountain section, which will see participants compete for the titles of ‘King and Queen of Scorpions’. As we begin our approach, its steep hairpins snake, writhe and cling to the rock at impossible angles.                

I’m expecting the pass to offer some of the best opportunities for photography, so I’m keen to get ahead of the riders before the road narrows. Hanan, who I think is eager to impress me because I’m the only foreign journalist in attendance, picks up his radio. Moments later, a helicopter swoops over the pass and he yells and points at the sky urging me to take pictures while bellowing, ‘Beautiful!’

I take some shots, but really the helicopter is a little too far away to make an impact. We carry on halfway up the pass, continually leapfrogging the riders as I jump out of the car, compose the shots and get moving as quickly as possible again.

On days like this I can be shooting for 10 hours, and each leg of the race feels like a sprint finish. There is surprisingly little time to reach each new location and frame the shot before the main body of riders passes through. Stay too long at any one place and it can be difficult to locate the pack again without missing significant portions of the race.

While I’m shooting, Hanan takes a phone call – he’s now talking live on Israeli radio, so can’t drive. Somewhat panicked and left with no other choice, I begin to ascend the Scorpions Pass on foot.

Taking each hairpin at a slow jog, I pant and wheel around to shoot backwards as the cliffs give way to the vast orange expanse below. I know I won’t receive my medal at the finish line but I feel that, in my own unique category, I too have become a King of Scorpions.

The clock ticks down

The route continues at more gentle gradients, but through no less dramatic landscapes as the heat begins to climb. It’s a warm 25°C, but by Arava standards riders are enjoying a pleasantly cool end to an Israeli winter.

The Arava Valley receives only 50mm of rainfall a year, all of it in these balmier months. When the rain falls, water is unable to penetrate the clay desert floor and causes flash floods that can wash over the roads. Fortunately, the landscape is punctured by deep gorges called wadis, which cut through the desert rock and drain away surface water to the Dead Sea and beyond.

The riders pass alongside the Nahal Tsin, the largest wadi in the Negev at 120km long, their progress obscured from my view by the acacia trees that blossom on its banks. As I stray from the road, I notice crystallised tide marks left on the ground where rain water has partially dissolved the salty desert floor.

After 100km of riding through some of the most spectacular landscapes, the riders are treated to one final blast along smooth tarmac, which must come as a relief after hours labouring on rough roads strewn with gravel and sand. The return along the Peace Road marks the final challenge of the day, and offers views into the neighbouring Kingdom of Jordan.

It was at this southeastern border of southern Israel that King Hussein of Jordan and President Weizman of Israel, accompanied by Bill Clinton, signed a peace treaty in 1994, bringing an end to many years of intense conflict. Suggesting that the truce may be somewhat delicate, the small fence that runs along the perimeter is dotted with signs reading, ‘Danger Mines!’

I stick carefully to the road and enjoy watching the riders drift back along its gentle curves. On the Israeli side of the fence, date palms fat with fruit are surrounded by dusty polytunnels. Incredibly, due to pioneering agricultural techniques developed here under the beating sun, these greenhouses account for up to a third of European vegetable imports during our gloomy winters.

At the finish line, riders celebrate with their families and friends while helping themselves to cold beer and sandwiches. Although they perhaps don’t realise it at this moment, this may be the last time they will get to enjoy the company of strangers for some months to come.

Covid-19 will put an end to gatherings around the world, shut down borders and ground international flights. But it won’t be forever, and hopefully, come March 2021, the Gran Fondo Arava will be able to welcome riders back to the Negev Desert. And I can’t think of a more beautiful place to visit when the time comes.

As we return along busy main roads back to Tel Aviv for my flight home, the early prophecy of the trip is fulfilled. I spy two camels posing majestically, before passing over the brow of a distant hill and out of sight.

The details

There will be camels

What: Gran Fondo Arava
Where: Negev Desert, Israel
How far: 130km (Mini fondo 56km)
Total ascent: 1,424m
Next one: 6th March 2021
Price: From approx £80
Contact: granfondoisrael.com

Pop-up parties

With water comes life, and life needs food

Thanks to its Bedouin backbone, the Negev Desert is no stranger to a moveable feast, so keep your eyes peeled for the clusters of tents that appear around temporary lakes formed in winter. It’s from these a sort of pop-up party forms, and it’s here you’ll find some superb food and drink. Barbecue is high up the agenda, so expect a lot of lamb, a staple meat in Israel, but also a beguiling array of vegetables.

Despite its arid climate, the Negev is home to an expanding arable industry that has seen the desert actually shrink since the 1960s as farm fields take over. It’s said the region’s cherry tomatoes are four times sweeter than anywhere else, and surprisingly the Negev also produces some commendable wines, with many vineyards further up the desert’s hills.

While you’re here

Get your just deserts

Back to nature

The Negev Desert boasts many natural spectacles, and you’ll have no trouble finding local guides to help you spot gazelles, ibex and even golden jackals. A gravel bike with wide tyres should allow for a similar solo exploration, but navigation could be challenging.

Star gazing

At night there is almost no light pollution and very little cloud cover – perfect conditions for stargazing and astronomy, preferable while drinking a cup of ‘desert tea’ brewed from freshly picked plants.

Float on

The Dead Sea is just a one-hour drive from Sapir, and can be visited as part of a short detour to/from the airport. The salt content makes the water more dense than the human body, meaning you can just lie back and relax as you float easily on the surface.

Do it yourself

Travel

Cyclist flew with Easyjet from Bristol to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, with a flight time of around five hours. Covid-19 allowing, flights are available from lots of British airports and with a number of airlines. Sapir, where the race starts, is around a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, with opportunities for easy car rental at the airport.

Accommodation

We stayed in a zimmer, a form of accommodation popular in Israel, which is generally a privately owned, self-contained unit in the grounds of a family home. Shula, the owner of the comfortable bungalow I stayed in, was one of the original settlers in the area and was a mine of local information.

Thanks

A very big thanks to the Gran Fondo Arava team for being so accommodating, to Hanan for fantastic driving, to Shula and family for the wonderful cakes, to Iliat for the desert tour and to Sara Dagan at Go Israel. See goisrael.com for more details.