The 850km Israel Bike Trail runs from north to south from Mount Hermon to Almog Beach, Eilat. It is generally based on the Israel National Trail. The trail winds its way through the countryside, passing areas of great natural beauty and sites sacred to the great religions. The INT serves as the backbone for many of other marked trails, an integrated nation-wide network, designed to foster nature conservation and to preserve the special character of each geographical region. The sixteenth section of the IBT runs 52km from Mamshit to Sde Boker. This section starts at Mamshit Archeological Park (Kurnub) , the site of a city built by the Nabateans in the first century CE. It is well worth a visit to see the palaces, baths and reservoirs. The site is above a dry river valley, Nahal Mamshit, which is impossible to mountain bike ride in its upper parts, so the bike trail follows a path from the Camel Ranch (B&B), around nearby Har Rotem, before descending again to the amazing single-tracks that run alongside this valley. The mountain bike rider can pick any track in the general direction and mountain bike ride on the soft undulating terrain to their hearts content.
After this idyllic interlude there are some serious technical challenges to overcome in Nahal Mamshit itself before we emerge under the longest (and highest) railway bridge in Israel. This splendid man- made structure carries the line from the Zin Phosphate Plant northwards, and is on the edge of one of the most impressive natural sites of the Negev: Hamachtesh Hagadol (The Great Crater, which distinguishes it from the nearby Small Crater, Hamachtesh Hakatan ).
These geological depressions (caused mainly by water erosion) are unique to the Negev and are fascinating to mountain bike ride. Hamachtesh Hagadol is entered by a narrow road that crosses its northern extremity and passes a small canyon famous for the coloured strata of sand that visitors collect in glass bottles. Riders should not attempt this as the bottles and sand are unlikely to reach their destination intact and will be powder once again !
The trail through the crater is a patchwork of multicoloured sands and rocks; purples, reds, and yellows in splendid profusion. The topography is gently undulating with a series of descents and climbs, some of them fiendishly technical. Take your time as you may not mountain bike ride such a unique terrain again !
The exit out of the crater is by a daunting ascent: Maale Avraham. This climb hits home right at the start with a steep section that has been cut up nicely by our 4x4 friends and a careful line has to be taken to ensure some success (and admiration). Higher up the climb the surface is more compacted and so it is more manageable, if still lung-bursting, at high temperatures. The end is reached at the rim of the crater with a stupendous view back down from whence you came.
The trail continues in a westward direction through dry river valleys running between bare hills and with surface textures to satisfy any technical ambitions. Eventually we hit tarmac and can then freewheel down the road to the Midreshet Ben Gurion (College of the Negev) at Sede Boqer. This is the site of a enviromental education high school, field studies school (B&B) and of the graves of David Ben Gurion and his wife which look out into the awesome splendour of the Zin Canyon which we will have the privilege of entering tomorrow.