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.
Moshe Meyers, CEO of Israel Extreme: "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."
By Desmond Bentley
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 don’t 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.
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.