Biking in the Shadow of Gaza

by Brian on March 1, 2007

in Only in Israel

Tucked away in the shadow of the Gaza Strip lies a magical meadow of rolling hills blanketed with rich red anemones and long green grass. Interested in visiting? You’d better act fast – the flowers are only in bloom for another two weeks.

This veritable Hobbit’s paradise is one of Israel’s true hidden gems, situated just behind Kibbutz Be’eri in the most unlikely of locations: between the barren, rough sands of the Western Negev desert south of Ashkelon and the Mediterranean Gaza coast that is home to some of the most violent real estate in the world. That the rolling meadows are not visible from the highway leading to Be’eri (but the tops of the homes from Gaza are) makes the trip all that more surprising.

Now is the time – the only time, really – to go for a visit. That’s when the calaniyot – the red anemones – are in full bloom. The season lasts only two to three weeks total. After that, the intense summer sun makes traveling in this desert region unpleasant. We headed out on a recent Friday morning with the whole family.

Traveling to Be’eri is no small commitment. It’s an hour and three quarters each way from Jerusalem (Tel Aviv area residents can make the trip in half the time) and is dotted with the modern version of “keep out” signs all along the way. In this case, these were traffic indicators reading “Gaza,” “Erez Checkpoint,” and “Rafiah” – all names from the news more commonly associated with kidnapping and missiles than the joys of nature.

It was no less daunting that the turn off to Kibbutz Be’eri is just past Sderot, the Israeli town that continues to be bombarded by Palestinian-launched Kassam rockets. As we approached the end of our drive, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: what in the world am I doing with my family here of all places? Are we being irresponsible to drive so close to a war zone? These flowers darn well better be worth it!

The meadow with the flowers is about an hour’s hike from the kibbutz. As a result, most people bring their bikes; the kibbutz also has a booming business renting two-wheelers. As we arrived, we were surrounded by hundreds of bikers, many decked out in their biking spandex. Apparently our buried treasure was not as super secret as we thought, at least among Israel’s growing bicycle enthusiast community.

Kibbutz Be’eri rents bikes for 60 shekels (about $14) each for the whole day; we rented bikes last year during a trip to North America and there it was $20 an hour, so this felt like a pretty good deal. I quickly found out why.

The seat on my bike kept slipping down from the position to which I’d raised it in order to stretch my legs out comfortably; the chain would slip randomly out of gear whenever I went up a slight hill; and about half way into the ride – too late to turn back and do anything about it – one of the kids called to my attention that my back tire was going flat. A recommendation: if you rent from the kibbutz, check your bike thoroughly…or bring your own.

Even these inconveniences could not interfere with the pleasures that awaited us. The ride starts along a road through the kibbutz fields. The wide-open space was a welcome change from the urban bustle of Jerusalem. After about ten minutes, there is a turn off to the left (the sign is clearly marked “Family Trail”) that begins to wind down a dirt path through the anemones. They are simply everywhere – whole hillsides turned red. It’s spectacular.

About 25 minutes into the ride, the landscape transforms again into a lush and rolling wooded area with an ancient cistern and water mill at the center. I’ve never been to a desert oasis, but I imagine this is how it would be.

We parked our bikes at one of the conveniently located picnic tables and ate our tuna and peanut butter sandwiches (no, not together…as eight-year-old Aviv would say, that would be gross). We explored a bit further before returning on the same path. Half an hour later, we were back at the kibbutz and buying ice cream for the kids.

Our route was rather tame – there are a full 24 kilometers of bike trails starting from the kibbutz and I assume many of the serious bikers we met were making a full day of it, rather than our relatively quick jaunt to Hobbit land.

Other than the odd juxtaposition of peaceful nature with the proximity to the nearby and decidedly un-peaceful Gaza, the day was perfect and well worth the shlep from Jerusalem. At this writing, you’ve got another week or two before the anemones are gone. Don’t miss it!

To get to Kibbutz Be’eri, head out of the center of the country on Highway 4, pass Ashkelon and at the Sha’ar HaNegev intersection next to Sderot, turn south onto Road 232. Go a few kilometers to the junction for Sa’ad and turn east (that’s a left) and after 300 meters, turn right. Follow the signs to Kibbutz Be’eri. You can reserve bicycles in advance by calling the kibbutz bike shop at 08-9949374 or 054-7918071.

Here are some pictures
that YNET has posted of the anemones in the northern Negev.

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