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Monday, May 3, 2010

The Sea of Salt

The drive from Eilat (which we reluctantly left -- could've spent a little longer there) to the Dead Sea/Ein Gedi region was somewhere between 2.5 and 3 hours.  So we decided to prepare ourselves for the long journey by dining at ... that's right, Achlah! :)  While driving somewhere the previous day and getting slightly lost, I had seen it out of the corner of my eye.  I figured at that point that it must be a chain.  When we ate at the one in Eilat, I asked for a business card only to discover that they have a total of 3 locations in Israel -- the third is in Petach Tikvah which we won't be hitting.  Next time ;)

Anyway after the morning snorkeling, the aquarium, and then all that food with all that yummy laffa BREAD, lo and behold, on the drive north I began to feel very verrrrrry sleepy.   I had to pull over at Kibbutz Lotan for a carbo-load-induced nap.  After that I continued on, but we didn't get to our guest house (Bet Sarah -- part of the Israeli Youth Hostel Association and really excellent!!!) till right around sunset.  I pulled over on the way to photograph humongous mounds of salt (they of course mine salt from the Dead Sea).  We also sadly since we were running late had to pass up Sodom (which is still a real place, but I suspect much less action than in Biblical days) and just got a passing glance at Eshet Lot (remember Lot's wife who turned into a pillar of salt?  Well, this would absolutely be the place to do it!)  Our guest house digs were actually quite lovely and located very close to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.  Once again we passed out from exhaustion ... and awoke fairly early in the morning.

That next morning, we had what I think has most qualified for Top Israeli Breakfast so far.  This means an incredible extravaganza of all products dairy -- cottage cheese, yogurt, sour cream or something like it, something like feta cheese, etc. -- as well as all different kinds of salads, including those featuring eggplant, amazing breads, fried eggs, and herring!  My mother really enjoyed the herring but regretted it later in the day when she was very, verrrrrrrrrry, thirsty ;)

From there we went to start the day at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve (  Ein Gedi is an oasis in the Judean desert right near the Dead Sea.  It has a remarkable number of types of wildlife unique to that area ... we were looking out for the ibex but instead found lots and lots of adorable rock hyrax, which I will be boring you with photos of.


I did a hike to David's waterfall -- actually it's a series of waterfalls with these amazing pools you can swim in, only I couldn't both carry my camera and go bathing as my mom was not able to hike this path.  The camera won.  Good thing I did this hike early, because there was a ridiculous number of school groups touring the area and the day was only going to get hotter!  I would totally recommend spending more time in this place.

It's close to Massada and Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Essenes (more on that later).  There is also a kibbutz around there that apparently has an amazing botanical garden worth seeing.  (Next time).  We also saw an archeologic site of an excavated temple from the 2nd century, one of the oldest in Israel.  It had great mosaic floors with designs.

From there we went to Massada ( which is the site of a massive rebellion/siege that took place about 2000 years ago during the Judeo-Roman war -- when it appeared the Jews were going to lose, they committed suicide rather than surrender.  The IDF (Israeli army) often take their vows at that site -- proof, I suppose, that they're really serious.  In any case, it has been excavated over the years and was a whole town and series of buildings, amazing archeology much like some of the sites in Turkey like Ephesus I would say.  Maybe not quite as spectacular but on the same scale.  And it's a fortress with incredible views and a MASSIVE hike up called the Snake Trail which I would have very much liked to do but once again my mom couldn't so we took the very efficient cable car which takes 3 minutes instead.

Next stop was Ein Bokek, which I would not recommend bothering with.  Too overtouristy with some nasty people manning the beach.  This is the place where everyone takes the photos of taking a dip in the Dead Sea while reading a newspaper and staying afloat with no problem.  That and applying Dead Sea Mud to treat whatever ails them.  I just waded in a little bit and found that a wound I had on my left foot started burning like hell.  So I aborted the attempt to heal myself, because I don't like the "no pain, no gain" type of healing all that much (see my blog on the healer from Bali to see what I mean by that)...

We then went back to Ein Gedi beach, but realized that though this beach was a LOT nicer, we had really kind of run out of time if we were going to make it to Jerusalem by 6pm, which was the original goal ... So we ditched it and I will go back to it next time.  And then we went to the Ahava factory outlet store (they made dead sea mineral products but turn out to be still ridiculously expensive at the factory outlet, so no purchases made).  At least there was an interesting exhibition of art made from salt.

And then I drove to Jerusalem which takes about an hour from there, passing through a town called Ma'aleh Adumim to buy gas once again.  Did I mention gas costs oodles!!?  We spent another $60 or so on that tank.  And I was going to drop off the car at the Eldan outpost in central Jerusalem, only ... I missed a turn on my Google map directions and got unbelievably lost in Jerusalem with godawful traffic and people honking their horns behind me.  Awful stress.  I called our host there, Noa, who tried hard to direct me but was limited due to the fact that she doesn't drive and nearly all the streets turned out to be one way streets!  We managed to pass through two very religious neighborhoods (we were definitely in Ma'alot Dafna and I think Mea She'arim) where we saw more penguins ... and then we passed the huge menorah of the Knesset

and a gorgeous rose garden, so it was a bit of an impromptu driving tour but one under great stress ... and we finally got to my host at 6:45 pm.  Eldan had closed at 6.  Luckily we found a place to park overnight and Eldan was cool about returning the car early in the morning the next day, but boy, I was never so thrilled to return a car!!!  More to come on Jerusalem.

Hai Bar, the spectacular Timna Valley and the underwater world of Eilat!

We continued to enjoy the desert ... this area of the Negev is where a lot of the stuff in the Bible happened.  The landscapes are so spectacular that it's easier to understand why the language the Bible uses is that of hyperbole.  Our next stop on the tourist trail was the Hai Bar Wild Animal and Nature Reserve -- here are some links:, and  Endangered and extinct animals mentioned in the Bible are bred here for possible reintroduction to the Negev desert.  There's an area where you can view noctural animals, another one to see Israeli birds of prey, and the main area where you drive through with your car and the wildlife roams free.  Pretty cool!  We saw lots of Arabian oryx, some Somali Wild Ass, lots of Nubian Ibex, and a ton of ostriches!!!  And the ostriches were so bold that they waddled right up to the car and started tapping on my driver's side window with their beaks!!  So I'll have some extreme close up photos to show :)  They were literally seeing eye to eye with me :)  Don't know why I have this Dr. Doolittle thing going on but it sure is fun!

Our next stop was the incredible Timna Valley Park -- see this link:  This is an area of much history made into another national park ... there are 9 km of driving trails and then many many different sites that you can explore by foot.  It features amazing sandstone formations, nicknamed "the mushroom", "the mushroom and a half", "the arches", some copper mines dating back 6000 years with ancient tools found as well (everything in Israel turns out to be archaeological), King Solomon's pillars (which actually have nothing to do with King Solomon, but the name stuck, and I got to climb around there with a German tour group and then exit through a shrine to Hathor, the female Egyptian goddess of mining.  They also had built a life-size replica of the biblical tabernacle, which was described in exact dimensions and such in the Bible, kinda interesting to see...  It's too bad it was about 100 degrees that day (38+ for you Celsius fans)!

The following day we left for the hmmmm... not greener, but wetter pastures of Eilat, which is just a half hour south and on the very very southern tip of Israel at the Red Sea.  (  Israel is incredibly narrow at that point of the triangle and therefore very very close to land borders with both Jordan, to the East, and Egypt, to the west.  Luckily these are fairly friendly borders.  The Red Sea, of course, is a misnomer.  For more on that see  It's not red.  Also, in Hebrew it's not called that -- it's Yam Soof, which I have to assume meant that they thought it was the sea at the end of their world.  This is also the sea that parted in half during the Biblical escape of the Jews from Egypt.  In order to observe this phenomenon, my mom and I took a little boat trip with a company called Yam Yisrael -- they have glass bottomed boats with a few decks where they go from Eilat to the edge of both Jordanian and Egyptian borders, and back.  It passed an area called "Dolphin Cove" where you can see dolphins surfacing, for some reason they especially like that area though they are not contained there (free food? ;)  You can see all sorts of amazing sea life through the glass bottomed area, and coral, especially in one area that I have not been able to figure out why they call "the Japanese Garden".  Most of the other passengers on the boat were Arab or Russian.  The boat people turned up some catchy Arabic music and the Arabs entertained themselves and others with some inspired dancing.  The Russians didn't do much to entertain -- there being no vodka around.   Anyway, folks, I have to tell you, the Red Sea did not part AT ALL during our little boat trip, tragically.  I asked for a refund but those folks have no sense of humor! ;-)

Later that evening we went on a search from our hostel to find Eddie's Hideaway, an aptly named restaurant which was really just a block or two from the hostel and featured delicious fish and seafood, apparently owned by an American.  Because it was so hidden away down an alley which emptied into a courtyard, it was just us and a large number of locals who all know about it, but no identifiable other tourists.  Very nice :)  They feature denis, which is also known as sea bream and local to that area.

The next morning we got up super early and went to the Coral Beach Nature Reserve ( and I got to go snorkeling there and it was AMAZING.  I'd say the fishies and coral in Malaysia in the Perhentian Islands which I went to 8 months ago were even more amazing, but this was pretty cool indeed!  I loved floating past all that color and sea life.

Just sorry I couldn't do it for longer -- but we had to move on to the incredible Underwater Observatory ( where there are terrific and beautiful tanks of unusual fish but also a large area where you descend into the ocean inside this building and get to see the sea life all around you through windows without getting wet.  They also have tortoises, a shark tank where we got to see the feeding, a small Amazon section, and very lovely and patient staff who go through all sorts of interesting information and explanations in both Hebrew and English.  As a result I got to learn more words I never learned in bilingual school, important words like anemone שושנת-ים, shark כריש, fins סנפירים, etc.  I had so much fun I didn't want to leave!

But we had to move on, from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea (I think it was called that because no life could exist there, it's 10x more salty than other oceans, but recently microbiologists have ruined all the fun with discovery of 11 bacterial species that can survive there -- but once again in Hebrew the name is more appropriately titled ים המלח or "Sea of Salt").  More on that in the next blog entry, but till then here's a link: