My time in Jerusalem was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip – walking through the Old City mixing with Ethiopian monks, Hasidic Jews and Palestinian shoppers all in such a small space. The city itself is a microcosm of the cultural make-up of the rest of urban Israel, however I wasn’t to find that out for a few days since my next destinations were distinctly lacking in people especially when compared to navigating the crammed streets and souks of the region’s historical capital.
To get the bus to Masada (and anywhere in Israel) a knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet is essential otherwise you will have no idea of the bus’s direction even if you know the number. All the bus stations (and some supermarkets) in Israel also have a high level of security with baggage scanners which while at first can seem ominous or a hassle actually make the country remarkably safe to travel through and these constant checks eventually become a routine part of daily life.
Masada, the rock plateau and fortification, besieged for months by the Romans, a siege that resulted in the mass “suicide” of the roughly 900 people trapped on the plateau to avoid a life of slavery. Since Jewish law forbids suicide, the killers where chosen by lots so that only one individual had to kill himself. This harrowing story combined with the amazing geography of the fortress make it one of the most visited sites in this country.
I wanted to hike up to the top of Masada to see sunrise (and also therefore avoid the insane morning/midday/afternoon heat) and since I can’t drive I had to stay at the very overpriced hostel at its base. Dinner there cost more than my budget would allow me to spend and since Masada is in the middle of nowhere I unfortunately woke up at the ridiculous time of 4am to start my climb on a very empty stomach. The walk up the snake trail began in the dark alongside a surprising number of fellow slightly unhinged individuals. After around half an hour of climbing, it began to get steeper and as I drained my first water bottle and started deliriously fantasising about breakfast foods, calling the ascent to the plateau enjoyable would be as far from the truth as possible. There was after all a reason the Romans spent a ridiculous amount of time and manpower building a ramp up the other site of the plateau.
However all these grumbles are completely irrelevant. The seemingly never-ending steps did in fact come to an end and the view is breath-taking, unforgettable, string of other cliché words etc. Slowly watching the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea whilst sitting knackered on the edge of a fortified plateau (health and safety completely forgotten) associated with one of the most tragic sieges in history was worth every drop of sweat.
After exploring the ruins of the palace complexes, ritual baths and caves on the plateau and admiring the view over the multiple playing-card shaped Roman military camps and the surprisingly mediocre ramp that surrounded Masada, the siren call of food back at the hostel proved to great and I hoofed it back down the path. Having both not eaten for close to 24 hours and having just completed a pretty strenuous climbs I may have eaten two trays of breakfast food in a state of hunger that meant I was beyond caring whether the chocolate mousse touched the herring!
Checking out, I headed to the solitary bus stop in the shadow of Masada, watching the busloads of tourist get the cable car up the plateau (it only works during sane hours), only to discover that the timetabled buses to the dead sea didn’t physically exist. After an hour of waiting in sweltering heat me and some other equally fed up tourists decided to hitch a lift to the lakeside and luckily swiftly found a willing victim.
The Dead Sea
I didn’t enjoy the Dead Sea. I’d been warned not to shave and cover any cuts before going to a dip, after all the saying “rubbing salt into someone’s wounds” does exist for a reason” but it was still agony, the salt causing the area around my nails and ancient scars to start throbbing painfully, although I have no idea if this is normal. You also don’t float as much as I expected – only a little bit more than in the British Briny (and there you’re not in pain so it’s slightly more enjoyable).
Ein Bokek, the resort town where I ended up was also awful – the whole town being a constant construction project filled with soulless tower-block hotels and having to navigate around exposed pipes, sand bags and JCBs to get anywhere. All the other travellers I subsequently met however had instead visited the Dead Sea to the north of Masada at the waterfall-filled oasis of Ein Gedi which sounds a more scenic option, although I doubt the properties of the water are any different.
Anyway after an day in which I saw two of Israel’s most amazing natural landscapes I headed even further south into one of Israel’s most isolated towns – Mitzpe Ramon, which is surrounded by the thoroughly hospitable Negev Desert, passing the rock-hewn caves in Qumran, once home to the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My accommodation here was possibly the most unique places I’ve ever stayed in and made a changed from hostels with their soulless rows of bunk-beds, instead being a dormitory tent, partially open to the elements a.k.a the stars and amazing sunsets. It also had no wi-fi so the guests actually talked to one another for once which was refreshing.
The reasons I’d travelled to the southern tip of Israel was because of a slightly crazy idea to go hiking in the desert, namely in the vast prehistoric crater which Mitzpe Ramon lies on the edge of. Armed with a map, a life-time supply of snacks and the essential 5 litres of water I set off on an enjoyably challenging 5 hour hike aiming to finish before the sun had morphed into an evil fireball.
The hiking trails were surprisingly well marked with coloured dashes painted on the occasional rocks showing you directions (the presence of these markers on other hiking trails in Israel is markedly more erratic) and the scenery was amazing, not just endless boring desert but acacia trees miraculously growing in the middle of nowhere, basalt mines and at the very end I encountered a wall of ammonites; all tiny highlights in an amazing landscape, the sheer scale of which these pictures don’t do justice to.
I ended up finally at a road on the edge of the crater where I reckoned on there being a bus stop back to Mitzpe (one problem with my desert tent lacking wi-fi) and although I found one it was only served by a bus to the Red Sea resort of Eilat (the only thing of note in Israel further south than where I was). Knowing this bus only ran a few times a day I carried on walking back home when one of these rare lesser-spotted buses annoyingly sped past. A bit further down the road I got offered a lift by an Irish expat who’d picked up two other hikers in a brakeless jeep (didn’t know that when I happily accetped the lift!) but it got me home for dinner and an early nap before yet another early start attempting to get to the other end of the country before the Shabbat shut-down.
To be continued at a later date (university workload dependent)…