To visit the deserts of Israel and Jordan, we broke with our self-guided travel tradition and hired a tour company to provide plans and tour guides.
The first day was spent getting from Jerusalem to the Jordan border crossing at Eilat at the southern tip of Israel. Given the high security along the border, there are only a couple of places where we could cross.
During this four hour trip through Israel, we made stops at Masada and the Dead Sea.
This incredible, ancient fortress was originally built around 300 BC atop a spectacular rocky plateau. In 33 BC, Herod greatly fortified the facility and added a couple of palaces for himself.
Masada is best remembered as the final holdout of the Sicarii, the last of the Jewish rebels to face the Roman Empire’s fierce revenge for the Jewish Revolt against Roman rule four years earlier in 66 AD.
The Sicarii anticipated the Roman retaliation and so retreated with their families to the hilltop fortress. They had managed to capture the fortress several years before.
After the Roman army destroyed the city of Jerusalem, they turned their sights to Masada and the last remaining Jewish rebels. It took months to build a ramp to reach the walls of the hilltop fortress. When the Roman soldiers finally entered the fortress, ready for battle, they discovered that the 960 Sicarii men, women and children had committed suicide rather than be killed or taken as slaves by the Romans.
For us, rather than building a ramp or climbing the winding trail up the mountain, we had the modern advantage of a Swiss-made gondola ride to the top. We opted for a white-knuckle ride rather than the thigh-burning climb.
Like most Roman-era ruins, what remains of the Masada fortress is mostly stone foundations and a few walls. But the scale is massive and the hilltop location breathtaking.
The facility had massive food storerooms and large cisterns to supply water during a battle. The ability to build such a massive fortress on the top of a rocky plateau 2,000 years ago is mind-boggling.
But the feeling of being on top of the world like that was really the most amazing part of the visit. It was like being in a Roman ruin while at the same time looking out the window of an airplane.
Our Pistol-Packing Tour Guide
Our tour guide for the Israel portion of our trip was a former Israeli soldier. While all Israeli citizens must do two years of military service at the age of 19, many of them are assigned office duties or other non-combat work. Our guy was proud to have been combat trained.
Throughout the long drive across the Israel desert he provided us with his very pro-Israel views of regional politics.
He also put us a little on edge because he was carrying a mostly concealed handgun the entire day.
He explained to us the very limited circumstances when he could legally use the gun. But still, we made every effort to not piss him off. We also may have tipped him more at the end of the day, just knowing what was inside his belt.
After Masada, the site of mass suicide, we drove to the Dead Sea. In hindsight, it sounds like our trip had a slightly morbid theme.
Dead Sea – As Low As You Can Go
The Dead Sea straddles the border of Israel and Jordan. At 1,412 feet below sea level, it is the lowest land elevation on earth.
It is called the Dead Sea because it is so densely packed with minerals that no animals or plants can live in the water. It is four times saltier than the Atlantic Ocean.
This high concentration of minerals means that the water is so heavy that people float very high in the water without any effort.
That was the mandatory tourist thing to do, to go float on the Dead Sea. So after we left Masada we drove down to the salty shores of the Dead Sea.
We pulled into a low-key little resort. As long as you passed through their gift shop and rented a towel, they let us use their beach.
After changing into our suits in their dressing rooms, our biggest regret was to not have water shoes. Because when we got to the water we discovered the entire lake bottom was covered with razor sharp salt crystals that were extremely painful to walk upon.
Eventually, and with great whining, we made it out to to knee-deep water. At that point, you simply squat down and lay back in the water. Packed with minerals, the water is so dense and heavy that our bodies were half way out of the water when we floated.
It was warm and relaxing. The gentle breeze moved us along the surface so that we needed to occasionally paddle to get ourselves back to our own beach.
We didn’t bring our phones to the salty water so found a picture on the internet that reflected our flotation experience. Even Brian, a big sinker in a pool or lake, floated easily and could keep his head fully out of the water.
Just don’t get that salt in your eyes! With an unfortunate splash while paddling, Frank got a drop or two of water in his eye. Ouch! Super salty and stingy. And with wet hands, nothing could be done but blink and wait til we got to our towels.
Our guide told us that in the winter Germans love to come to the Dead Sea as the water mineral content is good for a variety of skin ailments. Also, due to the low elevation, the area actually has extra ozone protection against the sun’s damaging rays, so they can lay out on the beach with less concern about sun damage.
To minimize the crystal walking on the way back, we paddled as close to the shore as we could. Basically paddling until we scraped bottom.
After rinsing off, our skin did feel noticeably smoother. Maybe we will join the Germans some day. But with water shoes next time.
Next Day – We become Bedouins
Brian, I’ve been loving all the posts, but most curious to hear about your Israel experience once you have had a time to reflect. As you know, I lived in Israel and am very involved in several non-profits that support Israel. I’m so glad you are there…and at a fantastic time of year when the temperatures are mild. Looking forward to hearing from you when you pop back for a visit to SF.
Sent from my iPad
Man you guys packed a lot of good information in this one. I feel like I know something about the dead sea even though I have not been there. Travel on my friends travel on.
You kids are braver than I am…no way I was going into the Dead Sea.
Did you go down to Eilat, or cross over to Jordan and go to Petra.