The problem, of course, is getting up there...
We drove 2 hours south of Tel Aviv, stopping at the Gates of the Negev for a short break to empty and refuel. The bus ride itself was typical of an Israeli organized trip. Somebody in the back was celebrating their birthday with a big bottle of vodka. Waffle biscuits were being passed up and down the aisles, people tried not to drop their sunflower seed shells on the floor - and mainly succeeding - at any given time (even though it was well and truly deepest darkest night) there were at least 12 people talking on their cell phones, and like any bus trip anywhere there were conversations going on across the aisles and from one end of the bus to the other. All of this was going on while a classic 1970's movie was playing on the bus's video system. Everybody knew the characters, the actors, the words and the lyrics except me. Though the setting was an army outpost in the middle of nowhere, it was a basic Feydeau farce so I didn't have trouble figuring out what was going on and what would happen in the end.
We had a pitstop just outside of BeerSheva, where even some of those who had already eaten an early dinner at home and snacks on the bus, got some munchies, just in case there was no food available later, and then we continued on via Arad to the Dead Sea. Now this last might sound innocuous, but Arad is located at the edge of a plateau about 600 meters (2000 ft) above sea level and the Dead Sea is 400 meters below sea level. The road to get from A to D is a twisting, turning nightmare, known for its adverse effects on the equilibrium of even the strongest stomach and its fatal attraction to motorcycle riders (points B & C are actually a fair number of cairns and memorials set out for the hapless dearly departeds). In other words, getting down can be really unpleasant, if not fatal.
Once down, we drove to Lot's Wife, which is a pillar of mineral salts that stands out noticeabley from the surrounding cliffs and is shaped vaguely like a person. Waiting for us in the light of jeep headlights, beside an old, abandoned way station made of blocks of mineral salts, was a table with coffee, tea, real lemonade and iced water, with rugelach and halvah danishes to keep us going until our moonlight supper.
Our energy levels increased substantially we were ready and raring to go. So back onto the bus and into the night we drove, passing the Dead Sea Products factory mining the sea for salt to help it earn almost a billion dollars a year!
This is salt, not ice...
but it is not edible without some serious processing.
We turned off the main road onto a track that wove through a crack that slowly appeared in the side of the hills. Having driven through a maze-like track, we arrived at a plain ringed by hills the we had just driven through. Now we had to follow a track that was marked with stones that were outlined fiercely in the bright white light of the full moon. When we eventually stopped I felt rather like milkshake in a carton must feel like after being shaken vigourously!
We walked down into the entrance of a wadi, passing a clump of bushes that smelled seriously of cat urine. There are no cats out here, so I wondered if it might not have been from a Negev leopard. I know they were still around a few years ago when I saw pug marks while I walked through Ein Gedi, I hope they still are, we can't afford to lose another beautiful creature.
The wadi, as they usually do, meandered its way through the plain, open from above to the stars and the moon, but sometimes closing in overhead like the entrance to Petra in Jordan. The rock walls were cool, smooth and soft to the touch with an almost oily feeling because of the high concentration of salts. Swirled in the most psychedelic way, the rockface shows the upheavals of the earth and the layering of sediments in a most graffic way.
Having climbed through a tube to get back up to the plain my black trackpants and t-shirt were white from the chalk and salt dust and I was direly thirsty - which is a natural byproduct of being in the desert in summer, even if it was nighttime.
Once on the bus a mass nap-attack took place and for the 1/2 hour drive to our next destination all that could be heard was the gentle breathing (and occassional snore) of 50 happy people.
An extra specially large bounce woke me up to a track lined with candles in paper bags leading down to a campsite complete with bonfire, mats and mattresses laid out on the ground, surrounded by chairs for the less adventurous. A guitarist and keyboard player were playing quietly in the background in front of a screen welcoming us to an evening of sing-along folk music. Our midnight supper was laid out on a buffet table on one side and more drinks, beers and fresh fruit were set out on a table beside the blazing fire.
Beer in hand
I went to the buffet lineup.
There were freshly grilled kebabs (kind of like well spiced hamburgers in the shape of little logs), Israeli chopped salad - tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, there was good houmous, green tehina, pita, pickles, freshly fried falafel balls, cabbage salad and roast potatoes. A very invigorating dinner for 3 in the morning.
All the time that we were eating the musical duo had been quietly playing, accompanying the munching and slurping of myself and my fellow travellers. Once ours mouths were no longer so occupied with chewing they started to sing Israeli folk songs. Phooey, I had hoped against hope that maybe this time there might be some music I knew, but like the movie on the bus, I hadn't the faintest clue. Karaoke style people would follow the bouncing ball singing lustily, or more often than not, in a melancholy style, not because they were sad or particularly bad, but folk songs here tend to be of the I lost my boy to the war (which war?) vein. Quite a few people asked me why I wasn't singing and my answer was "'cause I don't know the songs" but the real reason is that I am totally inhibited about performing in front of people and all that comes out are frogs.
Sated and refreshed, having used the boulders conveniently placed around this little valley, we set off for the final part of our trip... Masada.
The Snake Path that goes up to Masada is so named because it turns and twists and doubles back on itself exactly like its namesake. It is 350 meters straight up, has 700 steps, most of them at least 2 millenia old and correspondingly worn smooth and slippery, and between the steps there are stretches of rock strewn paths with sheer drops down the side of the hill.
Aside: How tall does a hill have to be before it becomes a mountain? According to the Britannica Student Encyclopedia, the term "generally refers to rises over 2,000 feet (610 metres)" so even though this felt like a mountain, it was only a hill.
Our guides said that the climb should take between 45 minutes and an hour. In the dark.
Ha! That is for the extremely young and fit - like the soldiers who passed us at a run as they climbed to their posts. Well, I am no longer exactly young, my fitness level is not what it used to be, and I happen to have a bad hip, and lousy feet that I inherited from my dad, so it took me about an hour and a quarter - but I also didn't push myself and took lots of "breathers" to drink water and pour it over my head like you see marathon runners do.
But the climb was worth it, the view is spectacular (the climb was breath-taking, so I had none left for the view) and watching the sun rise with nothing but the morning song of the birds, rustle of the lizards and soft hush of the breeze to keep you company is worth all of the exertion needed to get to that point.
Having recovered, and noticing that the heat of the day was already starting to send heatwaves shimmering at 7 in the morning, we set off down the other side of the hill, using the ramp the Roman's built to invade the fortress, to the breakfast that was waiting for us.
After still warm bourekas and pastries, fresh fruit, instant coffee and lots of water we piled into the bus for the ride/nap home.
Overall it was a very successful trip - we got our exercise, sang songs, and nobody went hungry!