Riding the Desert with a DR

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For me, riding a motorcycle symbolizes freedom. In everyday life, as a self-declared nerd (and no one who knows me would argue), I respect laws. I will wait on the sidewalk until the light switches to green and only then cross the street, even if no cars are on the road. If there is a sign reading “No Littering”, I will run kilometres after a plastic bag that flew away. And for all of us really, there is a mass of state rules and social codes that influence and try to control our behaviour. Even laws that aren’t laws – like; Finish your plate. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Wait three days after a date until you call back. Don’t wear plaid and stripes together.

But on the motorcycle, for a moment, laws do not apply. White and yellow lines on the road cannot decide for me where I will drive. If the light takes too long to change, I can use the sidewalk. If there’s a gate I can slip through it. If there’s a red light I can cut to the front of the line. There is an element of creativity, in riding on and off-road, in determining your line. There is a huge sense of freedom when you stuff a shirt, pants, and a toothbrush into a backpack, tie it to your motorcycle and just ride off into the desert. Letting curiosity lead you off the main road into unmarked river-beds, and unknown paths. I managed to steal away and do just this – four days in the Israeli desert. The next trip just might be 40 years in the desert. Here’s the story for now:

I set off from my village in the countryside of the Jezarel Valley in Northern Israel on Tuesday morning around brunchtime, driving south through Tel Aviv. Dear Urbanites, please explain to me, how do you have traffic jams at 11:30 in the morning? By the time you get to work you probably have to turn around and go right home! I rode on depressingly banal highways for two and a half hours, anxious to get to the Arava desert. Finally, I passed the square of the town, Arad, and began to descend towards the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 430 meters below sea level.

20170307_150047_HDR-01The desert opened up beneath my eyes – a breathtaking view of marlstone cliffs around me, below white mounds of salt dotting the blue lake (it isn’t really a sea after all) and on the horizon the purple-pink mountains of Jordan. With a huge smile, I reached the shores of the Dead Sea, called Ein Bokek. Brakes screeching, I flew into the parking lot, starting to strip off my clothes before the leg stand was even down, and jumped into the water. Even though I’ve been to the Dead Sea several times I am still surprised every time by the strange floating sensation. Because of the density of the water, you bob up and down in the turquoise water like a rubber duck, a very strange, amusing sensation.

After my swim, I watched the sun begin to set sitting on a bench and eating the apple I had brought with me. My riding boots were filled with sand, my pants were wet and everything was sticky from the salt water for the rest of my trip. Totally worth it!

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The sun was beginning to disappear, so I got back on my DR and continued through the desert mountains. Cliffs to my left, to the right the Dead Sea, its surface painted pink by the sun. A few days earlier I had mentioned on Facebook that I was going to travel in the Arava. One of my Facebook friends wrote me a message inviting me to stay the night at his father’s house in the nearby village of Naot HaKikar. I was more than grateful to take him up on the offer, and so here I was a few days later, at a pepper factory at the edge of the village surrounded by dozens of workers sorting through hundreds of peppers of all shapes and colors. From between the machines emerged an elderly man with a huge white beard and over their drone I heard him yell “Another madwoman, huh? Well, well – welcome!”

Momo, the bearer of the white beard, made me a cup of tea with spearmint and sugar and then showed me to his house. It will never cease to amaze me how strangers, who do not know me and do not owe me a thing, give me a place to sleep for the night. But not just that! They also give me a large bed, a hot shower, a warm dinner. In the morning Momo brought me sunscreen, peppers and cookies for the way, and even showed me where the spare key was kept so that if I got stuck and he was not around I would have somewhere to sleep. But the most valuable thing he gave me was his stories – tales of his childhood, how he rolled from one side of the country to another side of the world, made a living, gambled, won, struggled, raised children and rejoiced in his lot.

Momo was very skeptical about my plan to ride alone through the desert. To be fair, he had a point. When he asked me where I planned to ride my answer was “any path going in the general direction of anywhere south of here”. I know that is the sort of thing people raise their eyebrows at.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning, I drove the few hundred meters to the gate of the village, where a brown sign bearing the inscription “Amatzya River” stood, and left the tar road for some dirt. The road was mostly in good condition, apart for several sections of slippery marble-like stones. In one of those sections the motorcycle began to dance between my hands. Every cell in my brain was screaming, “Do not fight with the handlebars! Whatever you do – don’t fight with the handlebars!”

I managed to stop the motorcycle, heart pounding. Now every cell in my| brain was busy imagining what would happen if and when I fell here, in the middle of nowhere, broke a leg, broke the motorcycle…I pulled my phone out of my pocket – just as I thought, there was no hint of reception. If something really did happen, I would be in big trouble.

But then, suddenly, without the deafening sound of the motor in my ears, I noticed the beautiful silence of the desert. I got off the bike and looked around at the beauty, nature, and tranquility that surrounded me. Just me and the motorcycle, and no one else. This is where paradise hides -just a few kilometres’ off the main road.

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I get asked quite often why I ride solo. People seem absolutely perplexed by this. I understand that it can be more dangerous alone. After all, if something goes wrong, no one can help you. But personally, I prefer no company over bad company. And I also prefer no company to no trip. If there is no one else available, I won’t let that stop me from traveling. More than favouring traveling solo, I just am not afraid of it. I have learnt to trust myself, my riding ability, my instincts, and I have also learnt to trust strangers and good people along the way. Caution is necessary, but it shouldn’t hold you back.

The rest of the day I spent like a little kid in an amusement park – no plan, no direction, no deadline. Every time I spotted a turn off the road that sparked my curiosity, I turned and rode it. From one riverbed to another, I rode south along the disintegrating fence that symbolizes the border with Jordan. The Arava Desert is filled with endless streams and breathtaking 4×4 trails, all you need is curiosity. Finally, at sunset, I reached the village of Yotvata.

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A few weeks earlier, I had written a message to a group of hard-core bikers telling them my idea to travel in the desert.  Several generous guys replied that if I needed a place to sleep in the south, I was more than welcome, and the name of the village “Yotvata” was thrown around. Excellent, I said to myself, and I wrote to one of them, Gadi, that I would be very happy to stay with him. On Wednesday morning, I confirmed with him that I could arrive in the evening. He answered that there was no problem and that they were waiting for me. All good.

So, there I was, on Wednesday evening, at the gate of Yotvata, trying to call Gadi and ask him where he lives inside the kibbutz. But he wasn’t picking up the phone. And of course – plot twist – I ran out of battery and my phone turned off. After two hours of waiting at the gate, I decided I need to change my game plan.

I stopped and asked people in the street if they knew a guy by the name of Gadi, but no one had heard of him. I got back on the motorcycle and rode to the center of the kibbutz. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an office building, with an electrical outlet peeping out from behind a ragged sofa. First things first, I said to myself, let’s charge the phone. I went in and saw mailboxes lined with family names. I began to go through one by one to see if there was such a man called Gadi in this village at all. Going through the names, one family name stood out and seemed familiar to me. Maybe I had just gotten confused with the last name?

When an innocent man came in to pick up his mail I pounced on him and asked if he knew a guy with the new surname. “Yes, I think so, come after me.” He led me to a small house surrounded by beautiful metal statues. I knocked on the door. There was came a yell “Open!”, so I apprehensively turned the handle and opened the door to discover a man and woman sitting on a couch, watching TV.

“Hello Achinoam!”

“You know who I am? … were you expecting me?”

“You wrote to us two weeks ago that you might come by. It’s just funny that you didn’t call to say you were coming.”

After a few awkward minutes setting things straight, I realized that all this time I had been corresponding with the wrong person! Gadi in fact lives near Sde Boker, about 200 kilometres away, and I had come to Avi in Yotvata! After much embarrassment and laughter, everything was worked out. Despite the surprise, Avi organized the spare bedroom and once again I was amazed and grateful for the never-ending generosity of strangers.

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The next morning, Avi showed me his motorcycle – a beautiful BMW R1150GS, and told me about his journey in 2006 from Israel to China via Kazakhstan. We fiddled with my motorcycle a little – tightening the chain and filling coolant. After a cup of coffee, and another one, and one last coffee – I continued on my way. This time northbound.

Thursday was more relaxed. Strong winds threatened to blow me off course in Mitzpeh Ramon and made me give up trying to get to Azzuz on the border with Egypt. With the climb north, the landscape changed back to rolling green fields. In the evening, I arrived in the village of Kiryat Malachi to stay with friends of the family. Eran and Sharon know my parents from way back, since they went to boarding school together. Over a wonderful plate of dinner (especially for someone whose lunch consisted of an apple and a diet coke at a gas station) I told Eran about my amusing mix-up from the previous night. “Wait a minute, are you talking about who I think you are?!” It turns out that Gadi and Eran have been good friends for years. What a small world!

On Friday morning, I got up and rode 5 minutes to the nearby gas station at Re’em Junction, where I was meeting other riders for a trip organized by our Suzuki dealership.  One by one, the guys rolled in – on battered, battle-ready DR’s and shiny, new Husky’s. It was a beautiful, sunny day, with good company, on easy, fun trials. At the end of the day, when we are all saying our goodbyes, I slipped away and wiped the sweat from my forehead. I was so relieved that I didn’t fall or make a fool of myself. Even though I have experience, I am not used to riding with others and usually lack confidence in big groups.  Perhaps the secret is, as in other things in life – Fake it ’till you make it …

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When I arrived home that evening I was stinky and disgusting, my back was broken (it’s not that the DR’s seat is uncomfortable for long distances – it’s just that I would have been more comfortable if I had been riding on a seat made of broken glass) and I had a huge smile on my face. It turns out that you do not have to travel to Africa to go on adventures, meet amazing people, see exciting landscapes and ride with your favorite motorcycle.

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