Israel is full of unusual things to do, stupendously good food and friendly people (as well as pushy taxi drivers). We stayed in Eilat on the very southern tip of the country, which is largely a resort town, but not in the loud, brash Mediterranean way we’ve grown to expect. However, whilst we liked wandering around Eilat, Israel is so much more than just beaches and snorkelling.
We knew we wouldn’t have time during our trip to cross over into Jordan or drive up to Tel Aviv, and so it was me that spontaneously suggested a bike ride out to Eilot. Cycling in Israel seemed a bit mad (it’s hot, I’m very uncoordinated/easily overbalanced) but the whole experience was unforgettable.
It had been over 11 years since I had ridden a bike, and I’d never been a confident cyclist to begin with. It took me until I was around seven years old to grasp it, way after my friends. I’ve fallen headfirst over handlebars, toppled over more times than I can count and haven’t the first clue of how to maintain a bicycle. In short, it’s not my first choice of activity.
“You went cycling? In Israel? But you won’t even cycle to the local shop!”
We told my mum we were going to hire bikes, and she was understandably surprised it was my idea. But I saw cycling as a way to save time, knowing it was too far to walk before it got dark. Only a vowel and 4km away from Eilat, Eilot is a tiny kibbutz in the Aravah Valley, not far from the Wadi Araba border crossing. It’s an easy drive, long walk or semi-tough bike ride along Route 90 (well, semi-tough if like us you’re grossly unfit). As it turned out, this totally unanticipated experience ended up being one of the best we’ve have ever had, despite the agonising pains in our thigh muscles afterwards).
** Something to note: several of the photos included below are arguably not the best quality in the world. My phone is old and temperamental, it was windy in Eilot and my hands were sore and shaky from manhandling my bike. I’ve provided the most decent shots I could find to give an idea of what Eilot looks like, but even after my desperate efforts they’re still grainy and/or slightly blurred in places, however sadly no more can be done. **
After a quick online search, we found that Sunset Motel Eilat offered reasonably priced bike hire and was on the small street parallel to our hotel. Check their opening times because although we found the hire process to be incredibly easy, several TripAdvisor reviews document a different experience.
Full of confidence, we wandered in and hired two bikes for two hours, which came to around 85 shekels, the equivalent of roughly 20 euros. As soon as I saw Chris swing his leg over the bike seat and begin to pedal, I realised the ridiculousness of my suggestion as I stood there in my short, floaty summer dress. I was struck by a blind fear that within two minutes I’d fall off and find myself flat on my face in the middle of a busy road.
Chris, as ever, was full of encouragement and even took my handbag for me so I could practise retaining my balance without distractions. Feeling pathetic and silly, I floundered about on the rough terrain for a few minutes before deciding to get a grip (literally) and just go for it. We sailed down the hill leading out of Eilat, the bikes clunking and clattering over the uneven pavements and groaning each time we tentatively tugged on the brakes.
Despite being a keen walker and rarely struggling for breath even on brisk hikes, I found cycling very hard work. Even the gradual incline was tough, and the air was languid as the afternoon sun began to set. We eventually reached a small roundabout and realised that Eilot was at the top of the hill forking sharply off to the left. We gave up and walked the bikes upwards, not liking our chances.
Different perspectives of Israel: Eilat vs. Eilot
Eilot is a strange place, and there’s only limited information about it online. All we could really find out about Eilot beforehand was that it’s a kibbutz and is home to fewer than 400 people (though we barely saw a soul when we visited). As we approached, on our left sat the sprawling U Sunrise Club resort, but other than that the village was almost desolate. What we’d briefly seen on Google Maps was different to what we encountered when we arrived – there wasn’t a single sign of life.
We winced as we hauled the bikes over the multiple speed bumps on the winding roads, cursing the quality of the suspension and becoming slightly fearful that the well-worn bikes wouldn’t make it back to Eilat in one piece.
We rode to the outskirts of the silent village until we were met with the option to either head back or carry on up a disused, dusty track covered with sharp grey rocks and stones protruding upwards at awkward angles. Whilst the roads in Eilat aren’t the most pristine in the world, the general feeling there is that things are being improved or worked on. Not so in Eilot. Chris sat down to rest as we agreed that the bikes wouldn’t manage – and in any case the burn in our thigh muscles told us we couldn’t face another incline.
I felt a sudden and unexpected burst of energy and began to venture up the track on foot, fascinated by what could be at the end of it. Suddenly I heard the unmistakable growl of a motorbike engine. Peering through the barbed wire fence on my right, I stood for a few moments watching a group of teenagers race each other on their dirt bikes along a flat plain of the Negev Desert below, throwing up clouds of dry, coarse sand into the atmosphere.
I trudged further up the track, noticing the sad piles of drinks cans, broken furniture and food wrappers littering the left hand side, which looked onto a dilapidated spot of land occupied only by litter and faded red umbrellas. At the end, just beneath a sandy mound with some sort of dilapidated looking aerial on top of it, I gasped as I looked up to see the sun setting over the Eilat Mountains in a milky twilight haze. Not concentrating on anything except the view, I jumped at the sound of loud, heavy breathing and shuffling footsteps.
On my left stood three horses in a makeshift stable, scratching their hooves on the dry ground and shuffling towards their fence. Quietly, I approached, leaving a good distance so as not to startle them. Their shelter was surrounded by barbed wire and just beyond were discarded, filthy mattresses and shards of broken glass. Having grown up in the UK I often associate domesticated horses with affluence and a ‘good’ social standing, or certainly a lavish, upper-middle class setting. I hoped that despite their rough surroundings, they were well cared for.
I must have been stood there for a while, transfixed by the oddness of all the sights around me, because as I began to head back down, I saw Chris shakily cycling up to find out where I’d ended up.
As we made our descent back through the village, we saw a group of young boys stood beneath flickering lights on a veranda of a building that looked like a combination of a static caravan and a very basic bungalow. They were perhaps ten or eleven, and not glued to their smartphones or listening to music on their iPods, but playing with a toy which from a distance looked like little more than a cup on a string.
Further along, we heard laughter accompanied by tinny drums and clanging guitar notes emanating from a tiny barn-like shack at the side of the road. The group of teenagers inside seemed to have claimed the space as their hangout, chattering and laughing together in their own little world.
The simplicity and quietness of life in the village made the vast, golden-white hotels obnoxiously dominating the promenade in Eilat seem vulgar and ostentatious. Small, quiet Eilot felt forgotten and left behind. The marketing video we were shown on the bus from Ovda to Eilat (which is mentioned in our first article on our Israel trip) was geared towards pricier, ‘more appealing’ options, and didn’t mention Eilot once. Rather, it focused on promoting certain restaurants (the kind locals probably avoid) and Eilat’s ‘spectacular’ hotel district.
Feeling strange but tired and knowing we were close to the deadline to return the bikes, we sailed downhill back towards Eilat whooping with glee at the feel of the wind in our hair. Along Route 90, rows of colour-changing street lamps lit our way as the traffic streamed past. In the village we saw a different side to Israel that we couldn’t have experienced in the centre of Eilat, and we’re so pleased we did. For more ideas on things to do in Eilat that aren’t as ‘typical’ or touristy, we’d recommend checking out Hedonistit’s post which gives a great insight into the area.
Honestly, despite how nervous I was at the prospect of cycling again, the whole experience will always be one of my most favourite travel memories. Our advice? If you have the chance to try something new, take it – life is far too short not to.
All images © Two Wild Wanderers