After spending a few days wandering Jerusalem, I took a tour out of the city to visit Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. Normally, I prefer to do things on my own instead of paying for someone to shuttle me around all day on a tour, but the logistics of getting to Masada, the Dead Sea, and back to Jerusalem via public transportation were extremely time-consuming. It took a little bit of convincing to get me to sign up for the tour, but I met a group of travelers on my first day in Tel Aviv who had great things to say about the Dead Sea tour. After mulling it over a few days, I decided to take to plunge and sign up.
Special thanks to my friends Romi, Verena and Konsti! The trip turned out to be even better than I ever could have imagined!
The tour began at 7:00 am and I was not at all thrilled to be up so early in the morning. Thankfully, the ride to Masada took over an hour, so I begrudgingly took my seat on the bus, passed out again, and before I knew it we’d arrived. Masada is an ancient fortification built on top of a large plateau in the eastern part of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. I’m not a fan of heights, so walking along the edge of the plateau gave me a severe anxiety, but the views from the top are stellar.
For miles in every direction, there is a massive expanse of sheer nothingness with only a handful of giant mountain plateaus punctuating the landscape like enormous stone watchtowers. Off in the distance through the haze of sand and atmosphere lies the famous Dead Sea with its calm, tranquil blue waters like a mirage conjured from my own imagination. For the duration of my visit I couldn’t stop wondering just how anybody could survive in these harsh, unforgiving conditions. While the views were great, I was generally unimpressed by the old city ruins until I realized I spent all of my time walking through the dullest part of the plateau on the southern side! Once I noticed my error it was too late, so sprinted through old ruins of Masada as I raced downhill back to the tour van before it left me stranded in the desert.
Cheers to my time management skills!
Fortunately, all was not lost on Masada and I was lucky enough to cross paths with another traveler from the hostel, Chloe. Since the tour was mainly comprised of families and couples, it was great to spend the day with another adventurous solo traveler. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip so far it’s that travel (and life in general) is always better with company. Our next destination, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, was probably the least exciting of the three spots we visited that day, but thanks to the great company I hardly noticed. While the waterfalls like the famous David Falls weren’t particularly awe-inspiring, considering we were in the middle of a desert it was a miracle there was even water! Chloe and I spent the afternoon chatting as she attempted to photograph the various ibexes scampering around the area. Ein Gedi makes for a nice little hiking trip, but it was full of tourists and I was happy to leave - I had my eyes set on another, far saltier body of water.
The Dead Sea was easily the best of the three locations we visited on the tour and the feeling of effortlessly floating around in water is something I will never be able to accurately describe to another living soul. In addition to being Earth’s lowest elevation on land (1,407 feet below sea level) the Dead Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world (almost 10x saltier that the ocean). As a result of the sea’s exceptionally high salinity, no living organism can survive - hence the name - and the density of the water is such that the human body naturally floats to the surface.
For those of you unfamiliar with the science behind it, may I present the Wikipedia page on Buoyancy.
Everybody’s seen the pictures of people sitting back reading the newspaper as they float in the Dead Sea like they are reclining in a La-Z-Boy chair. I knew what to expect theoretically before I went in, but to experience it first hand is a feeling I will never forget. I've been a part of some organized swim team since I was seven years old and have spent more time in a pool than most people spend in their entire lifetime, but I’ve never been able to float in water. Without fail, I sink like a rock every time.
Well, not this time.
It was mind blowing!
As Chloe and I approached the water I tried to wrap my head around the fact I was about to go swimming in the middle of winter - December 30th to be exact. Surprisingly the water was far warmer than I expected, but my concentration was quickly broken thanks to a plethora of strange noises/squeals emanating from my companion as she waded into the water. The mud along the edge of the Dead Sea has a very strange texture that feels like cross between sand, mud, and clay and is remarkably unnerving when it squishes between your toes. It took a fair bit of time for me to become comfortable with the feeling, but much to my amusement Chloe couldn’t get over it.
We didn’t have to walk very far into the water before we realized we could just sit down and float the rest of the way. I bent over and slowly sat in the water as if it were a couch. I sunk about a foot below the surface before it was enough to keep me afloat and when I leaned back my feet immediately popped up to the surface without even the slightest amount of effort on my part. It sounds very straightforward and obvious, but it is an extremely novel experience. For a man who spent his entire life sinking in pools, there I sat in a recliner made of pure water where I didn’t have to expend a single bit of energy to float. I just sat back, put my hands behind my head, and relaxed like I was sitting on a foam pool lounger. It actually took a great deal of effort to sink in this body of water.
The entire time I kept thinking how the Dead Sea would be the perfect place to teach a person to swim. Assuming they can stand the saltiness (which is absolutely disgusting) there’s no chance of drowning! Even if I lied on my stomach and put my hands in the air I still didn’t sink! I couldn’t stop smiling! I felt like a child discovering water for the first time! As Chloe and I floated, we found a few rough patches underwater protruding through the mud that I mistook as stones, but when I looked down they were giant blocks of salt! There were actually very few rocks in the area and every “stone” I found was made of solid salt, even along the shoreline!
For centuries people believed mud from the Dead Sea had special healing properties (some of which is actually backed by science), but the one thing you must do on your visit the Dead Sea is cover yourself in the mud. Looking back, I’m tremendously thankful I met Chloe on Masada earlier in the day; a visit to the Dead Sea is definitely something that should not be done alone. Even though people from all around the world pay absurd amounts of money to have mud from the Dead Sea shipped to them, out of sheer awkwardness I probably would have skipped the mud treatment had Chloe not been there. From my experience, I can say that the mud does make your skin surprisingly soft, but I don’t know if it is the result of the mud’s chemical makeup or that the fine stones act as a mild abrasive to exfoliate the skin… either way it made for one damn good picture!
Even days like this where I know for sure something exciting will happen, it never pans out quite like I expect. I knew I was going to see the ruined city of Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea, but Chloe’s great company was a completely unexpected surprise that made the trip. I am endlessly amazed by how truly unknown the future is and how easily my travels can change based on who I meet. I never know how the people I meet will impact my life and I am astonished that this incredible day was all put in motion one week ago when I sat down next to three complete strangers (Romi, Verena and Konsti) over breakfast in Tel Aviv and simply uttered the phrase, “Hi there, I’m Andrew."
God I love traveling!