Freewheeling and high on mountain air
For a new perspective on the Galilee, just saddle up.
Rocky mountain high: Paul Berger pauses above Kinneret
It is 10am and I am sitting on a hillside on the southwestern shore of Kinneret, puddles of sweat collecting on the ground below. I have been riding, with a friend, in the July heat for four hours. We are not sure where we are or how we are going to get down the hill. I ran out of water half an hour ago.
I am in the Galil to explore two short sections of the 85-mile bike trail that winds up, down and around the hills that surround Lake Kinneret, the lowest freshwater lake in the world.
The trail cost about £350,000 - paid for by Keren Kayemet Le'Israel and the Israel and Galilee tourism authorities - and is due to open by January 1.
Shortly before my friend and I embarked on our journey, Oded Shoham, who is project manager for the trail, visited our base, the no-frills Aviv Hotel, in Tiberias on the eastern shore of the lake. He gave us a map and traced a two-day route that would take us past Christian pilgrimage sites and Kibbutz Afikim, where we were assured of the most "incredible hummus". I would go a long way for hummus. But we were two hours behind schedule and under instruction not to ride after midday. Our goal was to reach Kibbutz Ma'agan, on the southern tip of the Kinneret, before noon.
Aviv Hotel and Hostel, Tiberias (00972-4-6712272) has double rooms with bathroom, from £47 per night; Hachi Nof Sheyesh guest house and spa at Moshav Ramot (00972 50-6320121) has doubles with breakfast from NIS600 (£106) per night
We were running late because the route out of Tiberias, which looked easy on the map, but involved a three-mile, uphill climb that would make a Tour de France rider sweat.
We started out enthusiastically at 6am riding at a moderate pace on mountain bikes rented from the Aviv Hotel. After 15 minutes, I stopped a minibus driver to ask directions to our first turn, Sapir Street. He looked surprised. "It's a long way up there," he said, pointing up the hillside.
For the next 90 minutes we pushed our bikes up an incline similar to that found on a stalled escalator. By the time we arrived at the trailhead, at around 8am, we were exhausted.
Mercifully, the subsequent ride south was largely downhill, rattling, bumping and skidding over dirt and gravel paths and weaving around rocks. Occasionally, we hit a stretch of paved road and freewheeled downhill and around bends before being punished with another uphill climb.
To our left, the lake shimmered in the sun and for about two hours we giddily followed trail markers only having to double back just twice. Apart from the odd farm worker collecting honey or picking mangos, we didn't pass a soul.
We had about 15lbs on our backs, including clothing, bike repair kits, food and, for my friend, water. Between the weight of my pack, the heat and the concentration needed to remain upright while hurtling downhill, I was sure an accident was imminent unless we found water soon. My friend graciously offered me sips from his dwindling supply. We reached the village of Kinneret, near the southern lakeshore, about 45 minutes later, and refilled. But an hour after that we had to stop again. This time, we collapsed in a bus shelter. My friend lay on a bench and concentrated on breathing. I felt as though a heater inside my head was about to explode.
This state pretty much epitomized the following day-and-a-half of riding; perfect as Israel is for cycling, with its diverse landscape (desert, mountain, forest, coast), it has one handicap in summer: heat. Temperatures each day topped 30C.
The ride was supposed to be fun, so we vowed to stick to a 40-mile route that ran alongside the lake.
According to locals, the shoreline is rideable by a novice in about six hours. But some of the lakeside roads include long and taxing climbs - especially on fat, mountain bike tyres - so seven or eight hours is nearer the mark in summer.
On the eastern shore of the Kinneret, we were sandwiched between the hills of the Golan on one side and a succession of pebbly beaches on the other. We rode so close to banana plantations and mango groves that we could reach out and touch the fruit.
Rather than trying to complete our ride in one day, we stayed overnight at Moshav Ramot, on the northeast shore of the lake. Our hosts were Racheli and Dudu Goldstein of the Hachi Nof Sheyesh (Best View Ever) guesthouse.
Over a meal of kosher smoked lamb ribs and sirloin steak at their cosy Habikta restaurant Racheli explained that tourism is thriving at Ramot, which has 200 rooms spread among a variety of family-run hotels and guesthouses. We stayed in one of Hachi Nof Sheyesh's two-storey wooden cabins, whose luxuries included flat screen TV, two showers and two Jacuzzis, one perched on a balcony with views over the lake. Unsurprisingly, we were slow to saddle up the following morning.
The northern tip of the Kinneret is perhaps the most dangerous for cyclists. The highway twists and turns. In places, the hard shoulder disappears. At one point I became so nervous that I rode into a ditch. My friend joined me after being buzzed by a speeding truck.
Israeli drivers are no joke. On Highway 90, a few miles from Tiberias, we witnessed a crash less than 100 feet from where my friend had been standing a moment before. Aware of the danger, Galilee tourism authorities recently unveiled plans for a bike path that will allow riders to circumnavigate the lake in safety.
By the time we reached Tiberias, around 7pm, I think it is fair to say that we had had enough adventure.
I would certainly ride the lake shore again when the bike path is complete. And as for those mountain bike trails, by all means give them a try. Just get a lift to the trailhead, consider taking a guide and don't try it in the summer.