Once we’d finished at Qumran, we drove down to Ein Gedi, on the south-western shore of the Dead Sea. It’s a little oasis on the edge of the desert, and is well known for its nature reserve.
Joanna had booked us a room in a hostel there, and it was surprisingly nice: our own room between us; clean and modern, an all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner; plus a balcony to sit out on late at night, drinking Goldstar and playing card games. Couldn’t ask for more!
In the morning we set out for the nature reserve. Ein Gedi, which literally means “the spring of the goat”, unsurprisingly has a lot of goats (well, ibexes really) and, you’ve guessed it, a spring. On the way up the hillside towards the spring, there are four or five waterfalls with natural pools at the bottom, which are brilliant bathing spots. We had a dip in most of them on our way up. In the desert sun, we dried out completely walking from one pool to the next.
There’s a huge amount of wildlife. There are hyraxes scurrying in and out of the rocks – they look a bit like oversized hamsters. Dragonflies buzz around everywhere. You can see frogs and crabs in the bottom of the pools, and occasionally lizards by the poolside. Looking up to the cliffs, there are ibexes camouflaged against the rocks; they blend in perfectly. The sky is full of little black birds with orange wingtips, called Tristram’s starlings.
We left the nature reserve, and headed towards the Dead Sea. Rather than just run to the public beach and jump in, we decided to treat ourselves to an afternoon at the Ein Gedi spa complex, which offers a range of different pools, and access to the Dead Sea (which is really a lake, despite the name).
We started off at the indoor sulphur pools. The first thing that hits you is the smell: eggy and acrid and tangy. The water feels warm and oily, but it’s actually quite pleasant. The most striking thing is how buoyant you are in it – you float on the surface without even trying. You’re strictly limited to 15 minutes in the sulphur pools, and to be honest, that was about the longest my sinuses could take.
Outside the complex, there’s a mud bath. Or to be more accurate, it’s a big flat area with a huge tub of Dead Sea mud in the middle. You’re supposed to rub the stuff all over yourself, exfoliate a bit, and then rinse off. You get a choice of showers: sulphur water or normal.
Then, there’s the Dead Sea itself. Or rather: the huge salt flat where the Dead Sea used to be. When the spa complex was built, it was right on the shore, but the waters have been retreating at an alarming rate for many years. The Dead Sea is fed by the River Jordan, but both Israel and Jordan use the river as a water supply, and have dammed it further upstream. There just isn’t enough water coming through to keep the Dead Sea going, and the waters have receded to the point where they’re now about half a mile from the spa. You have to travel there by shuttle bus.
On the bus journey, you can see placards in the sand, showing where the waterline used to be at various dates. It’s terrifying. At what looks like a quarter of a mile from the Dead Sea, there’s a sign reading 2001. Maybe a few hundred yards away, there’s a sign reading 2004. It’s shrinking fast, and it’s been shrinking very recently. The place is an ecological disaster.
You need proper footwear to go into the Dead Sea. The lakebed is hard crystallised salt, and it’s spiky. The water is about 35% salt, and when you get in, you can feel every single minor cut and scrape on your body. After a day and a half of climbing up caves and springs and chasing ibexes, I had a fair few, and they stung like hell for the first few minutes.
Because of the high salt content, the water is much denser than normal water, and denser than human beings, so you can float very easily. In fact, you can’t really swim – you just sort of glide over the surface, and it’s hard to get any speed. You also need to really work hard to avoid getting the water in your eyes, or else you’re in real trouble. At one point, I accidentally got a faceful (whilst wearing contact lenses, ouch!) and was more or less blind. Jonathan had to guide me back to the showers on the shore so I could stick my head under them. It cleared up in seconds, thankfully, but it’s best avoided.
Once we finished in the Dead Sea, we got the shuttle bus back to the spa complex, got cleaned up, and hit the road in the direction of Masadah – which is where I’ll pick things up in Part Three. Assuming I survive preparations for my Hebrew speaking exam on Thursday.