The Dead Sea – Not Just a BSD
“Why do we need to go to the Dead Sea, anyway?” quoth my spawn. “We swam in a salt lake in Siwa, and we were buoyant there, so what’s the difference with the Dead Sea?”
“Well,” I say, feebly. “It’s the Dead Sea! We’re in the area! We should go.”
“I suppose,” he says, grudgingly. “We should do it as a BSD.”
“A what?” I say.
“B.S.D. Been there, Seen that, Done that,” he says. “BSD.”
And so, day one of our little Israel/Palestine road trip finds us en route to the Dead Sea.
Well, the first three hours of our road trip find us driving round and round Jerusalem trying to get back to our hotel to get our bags.
For the first day of Ramadan, with East Jerusalem chocker with Muslim pilgrims and every road into the centre blocked, is not the time to familiarise oneself with an absolutely enormous 2012-vintage manual. (Six gears, SERIOUSLY?! They have SIX gears, now? And what’s with this diesel crap?! Is this a TRACTOR?!).
After collecting our bags and shopping for our Dead Sea picnic, we spend a bracing half hour looking for Route 1, then driving the wrong way up it looking for somewhere to turn round.
Still, as we drop through golden desert mesas, plaques counting down our descent to sea level and below, towards the lowest place on earth, I’m rather excited.
And when the Dead Sea appears in a blaze of blue and pink, the mountains of Jordan reflected in the water, even Zac looks up from his Iain M. Banks to pronounce it good.
“Yeah,” I say brightly, to the guy at the checkpoint. “We’re looking for the camp. It’s supposed to be down there, somewhere?”
“There’s no camp there,” he says. Then he points to the mountains. “There are hotels up that way. You want a hotel, right?”
“No,” I say. “I want a camp. I was told that you could camp on the shores of the Dead Sea, right down there, and there’s a four-wheel-drive track leading down to this camp…”
What I was told, in fact, was this: “It’s an old hippie camp.There’s nothing there, but they have some beach mats and freshwater pools you can wash in. It’s a bit sulphurous, and you can’t drink it, but it gets the Dead Sea off you. Just stop at the checkpoint. You can leave the car there and walk down.”
The soldier looks from me to Zac and back to me, suspiciously. “Are you on vacation?” he asks.
Another soldier, with a slightly hipper hair cut, wanders up. “I”m looking for the camp,” I say. “I don’t want a hotel. I want to stay on the beach, at the camp…”
“Down there,” he says, pointing to a gap in the crash barrier that leads to rocks and Dead Sea. “You can leave your car there.”
“Thanks,” I say. I unload our stuff, plus food, plus water, plus (learning from bitter experience) coffee.
We don’t have sleeping bags or bedding rolls, but at this time of year it’s so bloody hot even a gellabiya’s sometimes too much to sleep in. And my lighter just broke, but, as Zac says, “Someone at the camp is bound to have one.”
This, I figure, is going to be an adventure.
Or, of course, I realise as we descend the stony slope towards the shore in temperatures that, even at 5pm, are well over 40, it’s going to be a complete bloody disaster.
I scan the horizon. I can see bulrushes, scrub, beautiful beach, and Dead Sea. No sign, however, of a camp, although there’s some tyre tracks leading to the right and what looks like a pickup further down.
I figure we’ll follow the tracks.
“Mum!” says Zac. “Can you carry my pack?”
“No!” I say. “I’m already carrying food, water, the camera bag and the book bag.”
Quite why I’m dragging five books plus assorted random crap down to the Dead Sea, I don’t know, but the bag’s been on the front seat next to me since Jerusalem, so I figure it must be important.
“It’s too hot,” he says. “And you have no idea where this thing is, do you?”
“Well,” I say. “The soldier was definite it’s to the right. And Todd said it was only a couple of hundred metres down the track. Why don’t you stay here with the bags while I go and look?”
“How’s that going to help reduce our walking time?”
Well, I think, it means I’m going to be blundering blindly around the salt-tolerant scrub and stubbing my toe on rocks without you bitching at me, for starters. And if the camp for some reason does not exist, then you’ll have less far to walk back up the hill…
“Look,” I say. “Sit down in the shade. Eat some cranberries. Have a drink of water. Guard the bags. I’ll go and do a little recce and come back.”
I blunder, blindly, into the salt-tolerant scrub. Litter proves a promising indication of human habitation.
Then I come to a tent. A very old tent. With a shopping trolley outside it. Such an old trolley that it’s virtually embedded in the sand. Someone has clearly been staying here for a while. Years, probably.
OK, I think. This is definitely a hippie camp.
Through the bushes, I catch a glimpse of a skinny, sunburned man, with a profile halfway between Moses and how Willem Dafoe would have looked if Martin Sheen hadn’t killed Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now and they’d all been sitting in the jungle for the last thirty years or so.
He is dragging a mattress behind him with a purposeful air.
Ooooookkkkaaaay, I think to myself. Further out of the scrub are patches of sheeting, strung between bushes, then an open expanse of sand, with campfire stones scattered around it, more sheeting, and a 4WD parked, with a tent attached to it.
And, finally, joy of joys, a sign!
Right, I think. This is definitely the camp. But where is the person who runs it?
“Hellloooooo!!!” I yell.
A naked man emerges from the bulrushes, where there is, I realise, a pool. A rather beautiful, spring fed pool. Behind him, a naked lady is donning a sarong.
“Hello!” I say. My inner hippie, increasingly less far from the surface the longer I travel, is rather pleased with the prospect of running around the Dead Sea naked. “Is this your camp?”
“My camp?!” he says, wrapping a sarong around him with a rather perfunctory air. “This is everyone’s camp. It’s a free country!”
“OK,” I say. “So we can stay here?”
“Who are you with?”
“Just me and my son,” I say. “I left him back there.”
“How old is he?” he asks.
“Eleven,” I say.
“Yeah, sure,” he says. “We’ll help you.”
Help?! I think. I don’t need your help.
We have a hunting knife, a flashlight, food and drink, and garments in which to sleep, but no method of lighting fires, implements for boiling water or anything to sleep on. We probably do need the naked people’s help.
And, well, the Dead Sea IS different from Siwa. And this beautiful, almost deserted beach is a great way to experience both the sea and the overly marketed mud.
Full disclosure: it’s not a wholly pleasant experience, initially at least.
The water is so full of salts that it feels more like oil than water. Well, the marketing term is “minerals”.
Given that Dead Sea water poisoning is a medically documented phenomenon, I’d be more inclined to describe them as “chemicals”.
Wading in, slipsliding the gloriously gloopy mud, the skin begins to tingle and sting. And then, as we sit down, and bob insanely high above the surface, the joy of hyper-buoyancy kicks in, and the stinging fades.
It’s kind of crazy. You can sit up in this water, if you balance your hands on your knees the right way. It’s almost impossible to swim properly, as the buoyancy throws your legs up when you try to kick.
And the mud – particularly the black stuff – is so gloriously gloopy it works as a shield on the skin.
We throw it at each other for a while, quite happily. But there is a limit to how much fun one can have in water that you don’t want to taste or get in your eyes.
And so we head off into the bulrushes, to the shallow blue pools of sweet water, to wash away the “minerals”.
“Oh, you saw Moses?” says the no-longer-naked-man (whose name, for the record, is Amit). “He’s been living here for fourteen years. He’s American..”
“He looked like a hermit,” I say. “A hermit who wasn’t pleased that we disturbed him…”
“No, no,” he says. “He likes it when people come. Because they leave him food and water.”
“So he was the first person here?” I ask.
“No. That was the Rainbow people. They had naked parties here. They were here for fifteen years until the army moved them on.”
“Why?” I ask. There’s a strong hippie element to Israeli society, and I’m fascinated to find ourselves on the fringes of it.
“Back then relations with Jordan weren’t good,” he says. “And the army had machines along the border to sense movement – because this is the border region. The Rainbow People kept setting them off…”
“Oh,” I say. “So they’d send a squad out in search of intruders and find some naked hippie chick, out of her mind on drugs…”
“Running around saying, “Wooooo!’” Amit completes, miming some take on the parachute dance. “So they came here, put all their things into police vans, picked them up and took them to Jerusalem.”
Later, we share out our food and drink, while Amit builds a fire we can cook on, and we sleep on mattresses at the lowest point on earth.
The sunrise we wake up to is really rather beautiful. In fact, I even horrify my spawn by swimming nekkid.