Taking the extreme approach to Israel
by Press Release by Desmond Bentley [April 29, 2011]
Want to mountain-bike through the Negev at moonlight? Rappel down Black Canyon? Spelunk in Mount Sedom? Name the extreme sport and Israel has it.
You are probably familiar with the image of the brawny Israeli ex-soldier fearlessly charging up the Himalayan slopes or leaping off treacherous cliffs. Like most preconceptions, this representation contains more than a grain of truth. The fact is that Israelis love challenges - especially if they include the element of danger. And extreme sports - the popular term for a slew of sometimes counter-cultural activities perceived as being inherently dangerous - are disproportionately popular.
"Israelis love nature - and they love the adrenalin rush. This combination is unbeatable, and far more suitable to the Israeli mindset than any high-tech amusement park," says Moshe Meyers, CEO of Israel Extreme, a company specializing in off-the-beaten-track tourism.
"Israelis stand out in terms of the percentage of people involved in extreme sports," says Meyers. "This tiny country has so many natural sites for every type of extreme sport, from desert canyons to snow-capped mountains. We have some of the most beautiful sites in the world, many of them wheelchair accessible. I donít know any other country with so many participants, yet people abroad are not aware of these options."
Beyond the obvious airborne, waterborne or ground-level sports, Meyers says that going underground is the most rapidly developing extreme option.
Into the depths
Caving (known as "potholing" in the UK) is not an activity to be attempted alone, or without the proper equipment and preparation. It involves climbing, hiking, rappelling - and no small amount of danger. "It's possibly the most dangerous challenge sport there is," says Sergey Shipitsin, one of Israel's most accomplished speleologists. "In most countries you can't even get insurance for it. It's also one of the few activities where you can still go where no one has gone before - and even discover things not found beforehand anywhere in the world."
Shipitsin, 43, says Israel ranks among cave explorers' top 10 destinations. "Israel is a dream country for the cave explorer. In such a small country, we have everything. There is no country in the world like it in this respect."
Israel's four main caving areas are the Jerusalem hills; Mount Sodom; around Peki'in in the Upper Galilee; and the Hebron Hills in the West Bank.
Mount Sodom - basically a block of salt rising 230 meters above the Dead Sea that sank into the ancient lake before being lifted out as a slab by tectonic tremors - is pierced by labyrinth caverns and tunnels formed by rainwater, including the world's biggest salt caves. "And we haven't even started exploring it in depth yet," says Shipitsin.
If you know where to look, the Jerusalem hills have thousands of caves, many of them eminently explorable. The most interesting cave in Israel, says Shipitsin, is the 2.5-kilometer Ayalon Cave, discovered in April 2006 when a small opening was noticed in a quarry near Ramle. The limestone cave, completely cut off from the outside environment for millennia, sustained an independent, sunlight-free ecosystem. Four crustacean and four terrestrial species previously unknown to science, all without eyes, have been identified already. However, this cave remains closed to the public to allow scientific investigation to continue undisturbed.
In 2004, Shipitsin and some follow cavers set up Sarma, a non-profit organization dedicated to cave exploration and rescue, which now has some 3,000 members.
"I started in Russia at age 16," he says. "Israel has many people experienced in both cave exploration and rappelling. We organize challenge trips underground and training courses of various lengths. You don't have to be particularly fit - we had children aged seven and a 74-year-old in last weekend's tour."
Climb up, rappel down
Israelis wishing to train for rock climbing have their choice of 12 rock-climbing walls - in Ashdod, Haifa, Jerusalem, Kibbutz Ha'Ogen, Kiryat-Ono, Kfar Blum, Petah Tikvah, Ramat Yishai and Tel Aviv.
When it comes to the real deal, Israel has some spectacular sites for rappelling, or the controlled descent down a rope known as "abseiling" in British English and "snappling" in Hebrew. Aficionados say that nothing matches the adrenalin rush of rappelling against the cliffs of the Ramon crater in the Negev, or down wadis in the Judean Desert.
One of the most popular rappelling sites is at Khirbet Oren on Mount Carmel, where the stone wall rises up from the valley almost vertically. Other popular sites include the Keshet (Arch) Cave on the border with Lebanon and the Pigeons Caves, a prehistoric site near Karmiel. Then there's the notoriously challenging Black Canyon trail in the Golan Heights that combines rushing water with hiking through a unique nature reserve.
The quickest way down
Now, free-falling is for the really strong of heart. "Yes, it's dangerous," admits Ziv Kochva, a parachuting guide at the Paradive jump school near Habonim Beach opposite the Carmel mountain range, "but parachuting is an empowering experience. It makes you think you can do anything - a tremendous feeling of freedom. Fear that turns into elation: Nothing can be compared with it. Anyone who doesn't do it once in their life is missing out."
Israel has its own skydiving fraternity, many of them graduates of paratroop units or the IDF's jump school at Tel Nof. One stalwart, Shlomi Perel, jumped for the 15,000th time in January - an Israeli record. Civilian skydivers must take a two-day study course and have at least 10 jumps under their belt before being allowed up to 12,000 feet. But the beauty about parachuting is that you don't need to take a test - anyone can experience it through tandem jumps, in which the thrill-seeker and guide are harnessed together.
Since opening a decade ago, Paradive, the country's largest jump school, has conducted more than 300,000 jumps. Paradive offers three types of tandem jump: the basic jump, in which the paying client can passively enjoy the ride; "challenge tandem," in which the customer opens and controls the 'chute in the air; and "tandem jet," where the plane drops you off at five kilometers.
"It can be the greatest experience of a lifetime," Kochva exclaims. "You drop for 50 seconds at 200 kmph, then spend five to seven minutes floating down in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's a closed area - a nature reserve and the only part of the Mediterranean coastline closed to flights."
Parachuting is definitely not a cheap thrill - a basic tandem jump costs about NIS 1,200 ($333).
What kinds of people parachute? "Literally all sorts - from 12-year-olds to some in their 70s, and not necessarily former paratroopers," says Kochva. "We have one elderly gent who's already done 15 tandem jumps. Often they come as a birthday present - it's a present they never forget."
First of all, let's differentiate between the complementary sports of paragliding and hang gliding. Both answer one of our greatest desires: to fly. A hang glider, with its aluminum frame, outperforms a paraglider in terms of speed and glide ratio - but landing a hang glider requires more skill. A paraglider flies more slowly and takes advantage of light conditions, can land in the smallest field and easily folds into the car trunk. Hang gliders are more suitable for blustery conditions. A hang glider pilot flies prone (suspended face down), while paraglider pilots fly supine (seated).
Israel, where the weather conditions are considered ideal, has no fewer than 25 official launch pads - and thousands of aerial sport fans. The country is blessed with favorable soaring conditions almost year-round. There are several popular launch sites in the Galilee including the Manara cliff near Kiryat Shmonah in the Upper Galilee; the Gilboa mountain; Zichron Ya'akov; off the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean coastline; and Mount Tabor above the Jezre'el Valley - an excellent thermal machine where, according to a fourth-century Christian legend, Jesus underwent the process of his Transfiguration. Ever since, the hill has been known as "The Mountain of the Leap."
Several professional schools offer courses and equipment rental for everything from glide parachutes to flying dune buggies.
Into the drink
When the waves are high, thousands of surfers and windsurfers can be spotted frolicking in the Mediterranean waters all along Israel's coastline. The sea often throws up sufficient swell, and the country has produced some fine surfers, including its first Olympic gold medalist in windsurfing, Gal Fridman.
Surfing here can be traced back to the 1950s, when young Californian physician Dorian Paskowitz immigrated together with six part-balsa longboards and introduced the sport to incredulous Tel Avivians. The days of learning to surf by trial and (drowning) error are long gone, and surfing schools now dot the country's coastline.
Not that local adventurism is limited to above sea level: The Red Sea coastline from Eilat, with its magnificent coral reefs and multiple marine species, is renowned worldwide for scuba diving. The Mediterranean coast also has several popular scuba-diving areas, among them the biblical sites of the ancient port of Caesarea and Tel Shikmona near Haifa.
OK, it's not Aspen, but Israel's sole ski slope features a wide range of ski trails at novice, intermediate and expert levels, plus winter family activities such as sledding and Nordic skiing. The highest point in Israel, Mount Hermon (the chairlift operates year-round) is also a wonderful base for summertime activities such as mountain biking.
In the past decade, mountain biking has become an incredibly popular weekend pastime in Israel, with dozens of biking clubs boasting thousands of members. This compact country boasts myriad bike routes through some of the most diverse terrain you'll ever ride - you haven't lived until you've ridden through the Negev desert by moonlight.
And those who thrive on the vibrations of a rumbling engine through their bones will find that Israel is rife with off-road routes for dirt bikes, four-wheel drives and ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). There are dozens of tels (biblical mounds) for drivers/riders who love shooting up and down the slopes.
You don't see the same numbers of skaters tearing up Israeli sidewalks as you do in North American metropolises, but Israeli cities have many new marble-lined plazas that come alive after office hours. The country also has a number of skate parks. The Sporteque in Tel Aviv, the best and biggest park in the country, has a vert, a mini ramp, a mini vert, four quarters, three fun boxes, four banks, two rails, a pyramid and a pro shop. Golda Park in central Tel Aviv is the city's best unofficial skate spot. Jerusalem boasts a newly rebuilt concrete skate park at Gan Sacher, adjacent to the Supreme Court, while skaters also hang out at Safra Square, next to City Hall.
Crazy Roller in Herzliya has a mini-half pipe and a 3.4 meter high vert, and there are also skate parks in Ra'anana, Katzrin and Shoham. There's even a major skate event in the ancient Roman amphitheater at Caesarea, sponsored by Red Bull.
Skateboarding has been around in Israel since at least 1978, and is alive and kicking in this corner of the Middle East. And unlike in other countries, skateboarding is not a crime in Israel and there is no police harassment of skaters.
That might not be the case with parkour, also known as free-running - the non-competitive, utilitarian discipline of French origin in which participants negotiate a route lined with urban obstacles using only their bodies' natural abilities. Law-enforcement officers are keeping a wary eye on Israeli city teenagers taking to their local concrete jungle using a gamut of skills involving leaping, climbing, vaulting, rolling and swinging. Sometimes they can even be spotted leaping from one rooftop to the next.
|Parachutists get a birds-eye view of the country's coastline.