Israel: Embracing All Things Adrenaline
Extreme Israel: For the Thrill-Seekers of the World
Fast Becoming the New Zealand of the Middle East
By Samantha Wilson
We've all encountered dare-devil Israelis along our travels. The toned, physically fit ex-soldier who doesn't wait for the safety instructions or helmet before launching himself down a sand bank in Peru on a surfboard?
Well, head to Israel and there's a whole country full of them. Israelis love nature and the outdoors, and adrenaline sports are becoming huge business. The country has endless opportunities for thrill-seekers and combined with its varied and dramatic scenery makes for the perfect combination.
Most of Israel's extreme sport business is home-grown, but more and more tourists are taking advantage of the wealth of facilities and what is a unique way of getting to know a country famed usually for its religious, historical and cultural treasures.
As Israel's tourism is undergoing a massive transformation, and independent travellers are flocking to the country in ever-greater numbers, it seems that it won't just be Israelis looking to get their hearts pumping. And business owners and locals alike are more than happy with Israel's rapidly growing reputation as the New Zealand of the Middle East!
On the water
With four main bodies of water –- the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea -- the little country of Israel isn't short of wet activities. The Mediterranean coast boasts idyllic conditions for wind-surfers, and Israel has even hosted the International Windsurfing Championships.
In fact, the country's first ever Olympic gold medal was won by Gal Fridman for wind-surfing. Despite its long-standing popularity however, kite-surfing looks set to over-take wind-surfing in the popularity stakes, and come weekends the coastal skyline is decorated by colourful whizzing kites. The Biblical Sea of Galilee, famed throughout Christianity as the site where Jesus walked on water, is another top spot for kite-surfing fans.
Beneath the gentle, warm waters of the Israel's narrow stretch of Red Sea, scuba divers enjoy the vibrant marine life and colurful corals. Despite being only 6.8 miles long, the resort town of Eilat is home to dozens of scuba diving centres.
Being at the very top of the Red Sea, Eilat's waters are well-known for being at an almost constant water temperature of 75F degrees, and while its marine life doesn't compare with that of Egypt further south along the coast, it is a hugely popular destination.
In addition to Eilat, scuba diving centres can be found along the Mediterranean Coast, where wrecks form the main interest, while for something truly unique and extremely daring, the Dead Sea has a single outfit offering carefully planned dives beneath the salty surface of the World's lowest point. Kite surfing on the Sea of Galilee. Samantha Wilson Photos.
Head back up to the Galilee, and kayaking and rafting on the Jordan River and its tributaries is on many a bucket list of travellers visiting the Holy Land. There are a few kayaking centres, frequented in great numbers by Israeli teenagers.
In the air
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it's yet another load of thrill-seeking Israeli's gently drifting towards earth. Perhaps fuelled by the number of current and ex-paratroopers in the country, sky-diving, para-gliding and even hang-gliding are some of the most popular activities in Israel. And with such a vastly varied landscape beneath them it's no wonder.Leaping out of a plane or running off a cliff edge isn't for the faint-hearted, and maybe that's why Israelis love it so much.
The weather in the country is ideal, with warm air currents favourable for soaring through the blue skies, and you can take your pick of cliffs from which to launch yourself into the air; the Manara Cliff, hugging the northern border with Lebanon; Mount Gilboa, known both for its Biblical connections and purple iris blooms; or Mount Tabor, located in the heart of the Jezreel Valley.
The scenery doesn't get any less impressive for sky diving either. Skykef based out of Beer Sheva in Israel's Negev Desert even boast that skydivers can see 'the blue of the sea, the green of the centre, and the yellow of the desert' in one jump.On the ground
While the lakes, rivers, seas and skies might be buzzing with all manner of inherently dangerous activities, at ground level there is still a lot going on. Mountain biking across the green, wooded hills of the north, skiing on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, or hiking through the desert terrain, merely scratches the surface of opportunities.
And while you may be thinking 'Hiking isn't an extreme sport', try hiking the Israel National Trail, a 584-mile-long trail that sweeps the entire length of the country. It takes seasoned hikers 30-45 days to complete, and has been so popular since its creation in 1991 that a new bike trail is currently being created alongside it.All Terrain Vehicles (ATV's) are another big hit in Israel, in particular the Tomcar, which was – as all Israeli's will proudly tell you – created in Israel (originally for the Israel Defence Forces). Whether it's on a small, nifty quad-bike, or a more substantial (and substantially faster) Tomcar, there are so many different landscapes to explore and it is a great way to get off the beaten track. Perhaps better described as 'on the way to/from the ground' kinds of sports, hanging from a cliff-face is is considered exponentially great fun in Israel.
Known as abseiling in the UK, or rappelling in most other countries, Israelis know the practice by which you lower yourself down the vertical side of a cliff as 'snappling' – and they love it!
Of course, what goes down must have once gone up, and rock climbing is also widely enjoyed. There are dozens of suitable spots which – for those predisposed to leaving the ground attached by only some rigging – have great appeal.
In the north, the Dalton Cliff, the extremely challenging Black Canyon Trail, the Alma Cave, and Yehudiya Nature Reserve are just some of the top spots, Take a risk and see all of Israel with Skykef! while down south the great Ramon Crater is a spectacular (and spectacularly heart-pounding) spot for rappelling.
Under the ground
As if there aren't already enough dare-devil activities on offer, Israelis are now venturing underground. Caving (or potholing as it's also known in other parts of the World) involves lowering yourself into a dark subterranean abyss by a piece of rope.
Ok, so the rope is actually a reinforced safety harness, but it's pretty scary none-the-less! And that's not all of it. Once down inside the cave, there is a lot of scrambling, wriggling, hiking and climbing involved too.
Caving is undertaken in a few areas in Israel; the hills around Jerusalem, Peki'in in the Upper Galilee and most famously, Mount Sodom on the shores of the Dead Sea. Mount Sodom is in fact a huge 230m high tower of salt through which weaves a labyrinthe of tunnels, holes and caves.It is considered one of the World's top caving destinations and attracts die-hard cavers, amateur enthusiasts and newbies alike.
Israel is a small country with huge appeal for travelers. It's ancient historic cities, magnificent archaeological sites, beautiful landscapes and varied culture (not to mention the food!) are worth a visit in their own right.
Yet Israel's appeal as an outdoor destination, where nature and extreme sports can be enjoyed at the same time, is just starting to be recognised by tourists. So take a deep breath, dive in head first, don't look down and take the plunge in Israel, the extreme sport capital of the Middle East!
There are countless outfits offering extreme sports, but the following are well-recommended and offer high quality facilities and good customer service.Skydiving
Skykef – Based in Beer Sheva at the northern end of the Negev Desert. Tel: +97286108413
Rappelling, rock climbing and caving
Israel Extreme – offer guided adventure days throughout Israel, particularly the Upper Galilee and Dead Sea regions.
Manta Isrotel Diving Club – based in Eilat on the Red Sea.
Shamaim – based off the coast of Netanya and the Gilboa Mountain in the Galilee
Sitvanit – based near Mount Tabor
Levin – based just outside Tel Aviv
Kite- and wind-surfing
KiteAway – based in Tel Aviv.
Samantha Wilson is a travel writer, guidebook author (Bradt Travel Guides, Thomas Cook Publishing) and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers currently living in Spain. She is also co-founder of VisiTour Pass Israel, money-saving coupon guidebook created for independent travelers to Israel.