Among the Badlands - A Tourist Attraction in the Negev

The badlands of Ruhama, which lie to the west of the kibbutz of the same name and to the south of Highway 334, are renowned as a tourist attraction that draws large numbers of visitors. We met with Ulla Hadar of Kibbutz Ruhama, the local cycle trail “trustee.”

The Nahal Shikma (“Sycamore River”) gully is the backbone of the area between Kibbutz Ruhama, Kibbutz Bror Hayil and the town of Sderot. This region attracts large numbers of visitors, especially in winter – the rainy season – when it is particularly beautiful: fields of wheat paint the landscape green, while uncultivated areas are red with anemones. A little later in the season poppies and crucifers (Brassicaceae) such as mustard stripe the fields with red and yellow. The area has its attractions in other seasons, too: on summer afternoons the stubble in the fields glows bright yellow, and in the autumn the glittering land is a rich dark brown – “Ruhama brown,” as it is called.

View over Ruhama Badlands at the end of March. Photo: Yaakov Skolnik

The Shikma Regional Trail

KKL-JNF has constructed a 45-kilometer signposted network of “single” cycle trails throughout this area. These trails can be accessed from five separate locations:

a) From beside the entrance to Kibbutz Ruhama
b) From beside the entrance to Kibbutz Dorot
c) From slightly to the south of Kibbutz Bror Hayil
d) From the parking lot at the northern gate to Sapir College, adjacent to Sderot
e) From the entrance to Moshav Nir Moshe (this single trail is marked in blue, and presents a greater challenge than the others).

At each of these access points, you will find a signpost bearing a map to show you the way, instructions for cyclists, and a box with route maps inside.

Being of a suspicious nature, we checked the map boxes at two of the entry points – after all, we weren’t born yesterday. We’ve checked dozens of boxes like this up and down the country, and have usually found them empty, at best. At worst, we have discovered that the public has used them as ashtrays. In this case, however, the boxes were clean, orderly and equipped with the maps KKL-JNF has produced for the benefit of cyclists in the region. “That’s all because of Ulla from Kibbutz Ruhama,” we were told by Talila Livschitz, KKL-JNF’s Southern Region Community and Forests Director. “She’s in charge of trails in the Shikma area.”  So we set off for Ruhama.

Ulla Hadar - the Shikma Trails trustee. Photo: Yaakov Skolnik

The Ruhama Trustee
Ulla Hadar was born in Denmark and arrived in Ruhama in 1982, just as the IDF was completing its occupation of Southern Lebanon in the First Lebanon War. “Everyone back home thought I’d taken leave of my senses,” she told us, “but my sister was already in Israel at the time. I came to visit her and to see this country I was so curious about. I asked for a place as a volunteer on kibbutz and they sent me to Ruhama.”

Ulla’s adventurous journey to the kibbutz included hitchhiking and a bus ride, all undertaken in the scorching heat of summer in the Negev. She’s been there ever since. In the meantime, thirty years have passed and she’s married to a native son of Ruhama. “I was really thrilled by kibbutz life,” she says, “and by all the expanses around us, too. I used to walk through the fields all the way to Tel Hassi (“Hassi Hill”), just enjoying nature and the historical sites along the way. I was looking for a way to connect to the land, and I felt very much at home, really connected, even though at first I didn’t know any Hebrew at all.”

Ulla has always engaged in sport and she is the veteran of two marathons and countless other runs. Around six years ago, she took up mountain biking. One day, on one of her cycle expeditions, she met a man who appeared to be walking around the countryside with a hoe. This seemed a little strange, even to nature-loving Ulla. A brief enquiry revealed the wanderer to be Rami Gold, an expert on the construction of single cycle trails, who was engaged in field work for KKL-JNF. The two formed an immediate natural bond, and Rami put Ulla in touch with Talila, who eventually “appointed” her to be in charge of the trail.

Single cycle trails require constant maintenance: heavy rain can wash away part of the path, a herd of cows can obliterate the route, signposts can vanish and someone can even come along and stick a fence right in the middle of the trail. As there are now a considerable number of bicycle trails, it’s important that each should have a local “trustee” who can report any problems that need dealing with.

Riding from Kibbutz Dorot at the end of summer. Photo: Yaakov Skolnik

Independence and Confidence

Ulla has taken the whole business of cycling one step further than most, and that’s without even mentioning the personal cleanup campaigns she conducts along the Ruhama road and the verges of the local paths (“I’d rather clean up myself than waste time complaining,” she says). She recently completed a cycling instructors’ course at the School for Professional Sports. As this course is recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, she is now a qualified instructor and teaches cycling courses for children and teenagers. If she comes across a particularly talented youngster, she also has the skills to prepare him or her for competitive cycling.

She has dreams, too. She would like to study psychology and learn how to use cycling as a means to help youngsters who have suffered trauma. “Cycling is a wonderful way to achieve confidence and independence,” she says. In the meantime, she fantasizes about a constructing a practice trail on a small slope near the kibbutz’s perimeter fence. At present, the area is covered with thorny undergrowth and eucalyptus trees, but she’s waiting to see what next year will bring.
The Trail Trustees
KKL-JNF’s Southern Region has some thirty trail trustees, who, as they use their local cycle paths for access or exercise, can report on any problems that crop up and answer questions on cycling forums. Together these trustees compose KKL-JNF’s trail patrol, and the help they provide contributes greatly to the upkeep of these routes. As a symbolic gesture of thanks, Talila has presented each one of them with a professional cycling shirt bearing a logo that promotes solidarity and pride in their shared task.

Cycle Route: The Ruhama-Dorot Circle

The route appears on the map that accompanies this article. Other cycle routes are also indicated.

Starting and finishing point: The entrance to Kibbutz Dorot or the entrance to Kibbutz Ruhama

Length of route: Around 17 kilometers

Level: Intermediate

Time required: About 2 hours

Markings: The route is marked throughout by KKL-JNF wooden posts.
We cycle eastwards from Kibbutz Dorot down a level single trail along Nahal Dorot, through the Ruhama Badlands Nature Reserve, heading in the direction of Kibbutz Ruhama. Before we reach the kibbutz, we carefully cross Highway 334 (on foot) and continue along a winding trail that takes us to Ruhama. We cross the kibbutz access road and ride on until we reach the KKL-JNF firewatchers’ tower. From there, we continue westwards along Nahal Ruhama through orchards of fig and pomegranate trees until we reach Kibbutz Dorot. Before completing the trail we cross Highway 334 on foot carefully once more.
Places to stay in the Ruhama area:
Ruhama Guest House (Orhan Ruhama):
Tel 08-6807715.
27 guest rooms
Mountain bikes are available for hire
The kibbutz has a blacksmith’s workshop
From the kibbutz you can ride straight out on to the Shikma regional trails.
Dorot Gardens Guest House (Orhan Ganei Dorot) at Kibbutz Dorot:
Tel 08-6808875
17 guest rooms
From the Kibbutz you can ride straight out on to the Shikma regional trails.
For cycle equipment and maps of the Shikma region single trail
Yaron Elbaz, Moshav Zohar, Tel 054-4684118
Columbia Bike Planet, Bicycle Center, Moshav Kelahim, Tel 052-3666598
Geographical location: The northern Negev

Suitable for: Cyclists with an intermediate level of competence

Recommended season: All year round. In summer, cycling should be limited to the early morning and late afternoon hours.
Other recreation areas in the locality: Beit Rishonim in Ruhama, Horshat Ibim near Sderot, the Yiftah memorial site at Kama Junction.
Additional sites: The Water Museum at Kibbutz Nir Am, The Pioneers’ House (Beit Rishonim) at Kibbutz Ruhama, the Nahal Shikma scenic trail.

Text and photographs: Yaakov Skolnik