MASADA and the Dead Sea

imageimageAfter a rather unpleasant night on the beach ( which by the way has an eclectic array of garbage on it- surprising, that Israelis, all who express a love for the beauty of their country, seem reluctant to pick up their trash!!), what with traffic and people walking along the beach in the early hours of the morning, we packed up, walked over to the hotel, helped ourselves to a couple of lemon Popsicles, and went up to the road to wait for the bus to Masada. Our painkillers had kicked in and, other than Arlene’s shorts suffering a major seam failure and the bus driver trying to cheat Arlene out of  50 shekels, we arrived at the entrance to the ancient fortress stoked with excitement. We bypassed the snake trail in favour of the cable car, stowed our packs and checked out the site. MASADA was built by Herod who, in typical megalomaniacal ( is that a word??) fashion, built a number of palaces complete with huge storage rooms and public pools. I can only imagine the labour required to fill the cisterns with water and then have that water carried up such a forbidding pile of rock. After Herod’s death the palaces fell into disrepair but the fortress was taken over by anti Roman rebels. ( Jewish freedom fighters). When besieged by Roman forces in 73AD they chose to kill themselves rather than be enslaved. Later inhabitants, included monks and rabbis, used the ruins as a spiritual retreat as evidenced by the synagogues and Byzantine church complete with mosaics. It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of viewing such a significant archaeological site!

Afterwards we treated ourselves to falafels and would have gone for ice cream but the concession was charging $7 for a bar. We were pretty sore after a couple hours of walking through the rocky ruins.  We must really look in need of a lift as people sometimes just come up and offer. We think we are  stoic, exuding an air of confidence and independence but we must, in reality, look quite desperate.  I have my Terry Fox limp and Arlene has this hesitant waddle as she cautiously plots  the positioning of each step. Our reliance on hiking poles, along with the backpacks and grimaces add just the right touch of pathos! On the way out of Masada, a woman about my age made a beeline for me,  clucking like a mother hen about me being in Israel, about the pain in my leg. She gripped my arm and said “May the Lord God bless you”,  and I sensed the blessing through her touch. Not that it translated into any physical improvement, but to receive a blessing from a total stranger was touching.

The next couple hours were spent getting to a decent campsite. The bus driver filled us in on why the Dead Sea shrinks to almost nothing in the middle ( diverting water from the Jordan river for starters, ) to how the sinkholes form along this portion of the sea. He dropped us at the David recreation area, which had no camping but ample fresh water and where two Arab boys insisted we give them each one of our hiking poles. After all, if we had two each, we could give one away.  I had to remind them we had two feet, but English was lost on them.

Then two older Dutch guys who were in Israel for the weekend, gave us a lift to the local kibbutz where we could supposedly camp. The view was pleasant, but it was right beside the road, had no water – overall not a great place. While Arlene and I were contemplating possibilities and rummaging for the Advil, a man drove up to take some pictures of the sea. He asked us what we were doing… we told him…which  is how we ended up at this latest great camping spot. Picture a deserted beach on the Dead Sea with hot pools and the Dead Sea au natural – mo chunks of salt due to the mining of minerals. This part of the sea had waves rolling in. Salt mineral water and hot springs. People pay big money for these amenities but it was all ours for free. After a short but wild 4×4 ride over a rocky trail, our driver showed us the pools, collected a store of the coveted black mud , left 2 bottles of water, then drove off. We put our tents up in the dark and relaxed. We ate, listened to the surf, chatted, then went to bed, pleased with our private spa.

Most days we can never imagine where we will be by dark. Today,  we were expecting an uncomfortable night outside a busy kibbutz. Instead we have another piece of paradise and for that we are grateful. We have food and water for two days so we’ll stay here, enjoy the solitude, soak our painful body parts in the hot mineral pools then cool off in the sea. How amazing is that?


Saturday Feb 27 The Dead Sea

Why walk when you can crawl?
Salt crystals

I  am still totally disabled with the knee and I’m wondering if I tore the meniscus while trying to get a heavy pack on or off the bus. I stayed at Michaela’s until Thursday. She treated me to Israeli street food- falafel in pita, then took me to an emergency room doctor in Beer Shiva  who was totally useless. I had hoped he’d diagnose the injury with ultrasound or something, perhaps suggest a shot of cortisone to get me up and running, but he just brushed me off ” it’ll feel better in a week”, which given the continued severity of the pain on day 10, seems unlikely. I’ve gotten my travel insurance involved in the case… But let’s not go there at the moment.

On Thursday the plan was to get to the Dead Sea and meet Arlene, who would get lifts or bus from wherever she was (no easy feat, especially when her feet were killing her). I got a ride down to the Dead Sea with a friend of Michaela’s, an old sailor type who she assured me was harmless. He didn’t speak very good English but wanted my undivided attention. Of course after Arlene and I met up, I quit trying to decipher his broken English. He pouted, ignored us, and then rather unceremoniously dumped my pack in the parking lot. First bad behavior by an Israeli I’ve witnessed so far. I was shocked to see Arlene picking her way painfully across the sand on swollen feet, not  quite believing that this girl’s Achilles’ heel was indeed her Achilles’ heel! What a pair! A few weeks ago we were like two fillies prancing at the gate . Now we’re a couple of old mares waiting for the glue factory. How did this happen? Neither of us remembers a specific moment when something “gave”, no searing pain, no warning of trouble to come. Of course, it didn’t help to walk 40 km on a bum knee , but what choice do you have when you are in the middle of a desert wadi with limited water? And Arlene hiked 30+ km a day through rain, knee high mud flats and thorn bushes on tender tendons as well.

But we’re at the Dead Sea! It was cool coming down the winding road from Arad as there were markers on the cliffs indicating elevation every 100 meters – down to sea level, then -100, -200, -300, -400 and then the sea. There is a salt flat where you can walk across to Jordan, which if we were more mobile, we would  probably have tried. Just to the border, which is smack in the centre of the sea. We heard they put you in jail for trying to get into Jordan that way.

The Dead Sea is strange. Salt ridges along the bottom can cut your feet like coral. In places it looks like Arctic ice floes floating on the water. As for its healing properties, well it does nothing for knee pain. And don’t drink even a smidgon of it. Someone died here a few months ago. He swallowed a few gulps of the water and went into cardiac arrest due to the high sodium, potassium, magnesium content.

If you want to discover where all those hidden cuts are on your body, just take a dip in the Dead Sea. Granted, it does make your skin soft . The surface of the water is oily and almost impossible to wash off. The first day I went in with my leggings on. They have yet to dry despite the heat as the salt holds the water in the fabric.  When they do dry they’re as stiff as if you’d starched them. And we will never get the sand out of our undies… But wait, isn’t that how pearls are made??

Here’s something special that happened our first night in Ein Bokek. The couple who gave Arlene her last ride asked her if she’d ever had an Israeli BBQ. They said they’d come back at 7 and give us one. And so they did! They picked us up from the public beach and drove us a bit south to find a better camp spot. Then they took coals and a hibachi from their trunk. What a feast! Spicy meat balls, chicken, eggplant dip, pita, hummus, olives and tomatoes and some very smooth Israeli white wine. After chatting for a few hours, they loaded everything back in the trunk and headed back to Jerusalem (about a 50 minute drive). We’re quite spoiled, as you can tell.

The weather here is perfect. Clear blue skies, 27 c, a slight breeze off the sea. At night there is no condensation on the tent; it’s mild and dry. This camp spot is only 1/4 km from a hotel which was hosting an exercise weekend so we were subjected to lots of loud music ( noise), preening girls showing off their abs, and a few Adonises in their little white bathing suits. Quite the spectacle. One of the guards, who was actually supposed to keep the riff raff, meaning non paying guests like us, from the property so we couldn’t get fresh water to rinse off the salt, relented and let us stay ( on the outer fringe, like a couple of lepers). The price for this privilege was to watch videos of his new pit bull puppy for 20 minutes and listen to him whine about his miserable pay. Apparently he is moving on to greener pastures ( Coca Cola ) on Tuesday. Now he can afford to feed his growing puppy and possibly get a girl. We ended up going back to our usual spot, under our makeshift canopy just to stop the incessant chatter. Nevertheless he redeemed himself later by bringing us each a Popsicle. Now that Shabbat is over, the crowds have gone, the exercise gurus are sleeping off their frenzy. Arlene made a great dinner of fried onions, zucchini, tomatoes, some kind of grain and a can of tuna, then tea. I think she posted a couple pictures of the sea and our sunshade.

Sabrina, Arleen’s daughter and Bens girlfriend slipped on the ice and broke her ankle . Surgery is scheduled for Thursday to have a pin inserted . What the heck? Strained tendons, twisted knees, broken ankles. What will a day bring? Now it’s time to hunker down, take our pain meds and get some sleep.- or maybe I should examine my air mattress for holes. Something is noticeably different.

Tomorrow we plan on hobbling to Masada to see the ancient fortress. There is a cable car on this side of the mountain, which will make this venture possible. We will either camp there or go on to Ein Gedi which is supposedly a lovely beach with springs and a wadi- sort of an oasis on the shore of the Dead Sea. Toward the north end of the Dead Sea are the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. So interesting! From there, the plan is to head to Jerusalem where we will reexamine the knee/ heel issues. It would be such a pleasure to walk freely again, to quit doing acrobatics to get out of the tent , to stop peeing on my shoes. Keep our ailments and Sabrina in mind when you say your prayers! Shalom.



Cooling my heels in Arad

It’s cold and rainy in Arad. The town only gets a few rain days a year and these are two of them. Arlene and I both stayed at the guest house Saturday and Sunday night as it’s impossible for me to hike at the moment and who wants to walk in cold rain? We blogged, chatted, talked to Michaela. I called Fraser. (I’m used to sharing my personal tragedies with him and he can certainly empathize with knee issues). So nice to have Arlene here for the extra day. I think the plan is she will push off tomorrow northwards to Jerusalem ( a 7 day hike  to the Jerusalem Trail if you follow the guide’s timetable.) I have no choice but to stay here and see what happens to the knee. I’ve been icing religiously, taking Advil- tonight I will take the big guns and hope they do their job without killing me). Arlene took a trip out tonight to get me groceries and some cash. Of course Michaela fed us and drove her around. Always helpful.  The name of her guest house is The Desert Bird. She has a website and is also a member of ILH which is the Israeli hostel network. Highly recommend this place for anyone – families, backpackers , anyone really.

I forgot to mention all the Orthodox Jews we saw on Saturday. I assume they dress that way all the time, not just on Shabbat – hopefully I can get a picture of the men in their black gowns and these huge round black fur hats. We were told it was some relic from Russian days when the weather was cold, but it is not really a hat to keep your ears warm as it sits too high. Sort of like the top of a spherical sewer grate perched on their heads. Apparently they wear this even in summer when it is 40c. Another version is more like a black cowboy hat.  The men walk like they have a board up their spine ( or something somewhere else), looking fairly unnatural. Orthodox women work outside the home, raise the kids, do all the housework, while the men “study”. Archaic. The kids go to their own school, just as the Bedouins do. This is certainly a very mixed, but tolerant society.


Arlene decided to leave around noon and go partway to Amasa, a kibbutz in the mountains. She ended up taking a bus to Tel Arad and then walking back to find the trail. While she was checking the map, a car drove up and the occupants told her it wasn’t safe to hike up the mountain where the rain would likely become snow. How fortunate for her! They gave her a ride to the Kibbutz, which reserves a small room with a mat on the floor for hikers. We talked to each other on the phone, both feeling a little lonely and lost- uncertain about what might happen next, missing each other’s company. We wondered if we should go back south where it’s warm but I think the weather will improve here in a couple days. Nights remain cold!  We could take a bus to Cairo and see the pyramids. But I need to be able to walk freely- maybe not hike, but at least walk. We still have to get to Masada and spend a couple days at the Dead Sea, so that’s on the agenda, and of course I still plan on meeting her closer to the Jerusalem Trail and walk the 40 km into the city. Perhaps a shot of cortisone in the knee might help. I’ve suggested it to the insurance and if they agree I’ll pursue that option.

Rachel is going to Nome, Alaska for a year. Home of the Ididerod, Balto the dog and apparently of alien abductions. How exciting- a community without roads in or out and 24 hour winter days (or nights, depending on your perspective). We had a nice long FaceTime chat which was great!!

Sent off the answers for the Malahat Review’s interview, which will be published in their March issue, so for anyone who is interested, you can check that out on their website next month.

Michaela trains post army students to go into schools and do tourist things- history etc… She had a group of 4 girls over this afternoon for lunch and training. This morning apparently they went flood chasing. Since it rained last night the wadi was flooded ( the one we would have walked up today) so they were all excited and went  to check it out and take pictures. I joined them later for food, but can’t help feeling a bit lost without the discipline of the trail – of  not being able to walk freely, of missing any action Arlene is experiencing, of just missing my hiking buddy.

So today, TUESDAY day 16,  the feelings are heightened because I’m all alone in this big house. Even the dog goes to work with Michaela. I’m assuming Arlene is on the trail heading north, so she will be fairly occupied. It will be a long day to Meiter and hopefully the trail will not be too slick. I’m sure I’ll get a text or call when she’s done for the day.

So I sit here, admittedly feeling sorry for myself, knowing that when the sun returns tomorrow I will be itching to get out on the trail.  I hope our cache of miracles hasn’t been depleted because I’m counting on another one for this wretched knee.

Oh no, the sun is beginning to shine and it’s only  early afternoon.  I have never NOT been on the move when the sun is shining in Israel. 😒


Some miracles are not to be!

I have to admit the knee is in a bad way, but there was nothing for it but to walk out of the wadi ( about 7 km) and head for a road to Arad. Surprising what you can do when there is no alternative. We climbed boulders, ascended gradually up narrow trails only to find ourselves back in the wadi, confronted with piles of rock, or skirting deep pools of water. The weather was cool and overcast, which was actually a blessing. The sun came out as we were reaching the final ascent out of the wadi. We met a small group of day hikers who suggested getting to the top and following the transmission lines to a road where we might be lucky enough to catch a ride.

I had said, when we left Sapir, that I wanted to walk out if the desert into Arad . I got my wish. On reaching the mountain top, we kind of stumbled through several Bedouin camps with their  tin and  tarry looking papered shacks, mangy half feral dogs, and  roaming kids. The views were spectacular but the ground so rough and full of sharp rock. It seemed an unpleasant surface to live on! I’ve learned since that the Bedouin men can have several wives, that they get government welfare to support their nomadic lifestyle, but the kids are expected to go to school, especially the boys. They speak Arabic and have their own school s scattered about the settlements. After crossing through their property ( though who’s to know the boundaries?) we came to the road. A green trail sign! This was the shortcut given in the trail guide.

But on a sore knee, this was no shortcut. We ate our last cans of tuna just before making the descent into Arad. It was a slow and painful walk. And no cars except for ones driven by shifty looking characters – sorry for seeming guilty of racial profiling, but I did not see anyone who changed my impression of  Bedouins. Perhaps this is the persona they choose to put forward??

We walked into Arad and when we realized that Arad was much larger than we anticipated and that the simple directions to the youth hostel were hopelessly wrong, we were delivered once again. Arlene has a knack for stopping just the right cars. ( there were very few, this being Shabbat ) a young couple immediately took us into the car, drove us around to look for camp fuel,  took us to the hostel, which was full. So they found us another spot- a guest house called the Desert Bird, run by another Israeli angel. A lovely big  house, four bedrooms upstairs, large kitchen downstairs and huge sitting room with fireplace, pool table, a yard full of flowers and hammocks. Idyllic really and she charges only 100 shekels per person ( around 35-40).

When we arrived, four families who had met up in Arad for the weekend were just finishing their gathering with a bbq . We were invited to join this eclectic group of people and nine kids, so we ate and chatted and ate some more. The day before when it had been so hot I had told Arlene I felt like an ice cold Coke (something I have not had in probably 30 years) and she agreed but it had to be diet. And lo and behold, did they not offer her cold Diet Coke?? This is what I mean about the little things that make us feel protected and cared for.

That said, there has been no miracle for my knee, which has decided to quit. I can’t put any weight on it at all and have to drag myself upstairs. But how lovely to be fed and showered, clothes washed etc… Michaela took me to a medical clinic and for 130$ I got a diagnosis of tendinitis and given a prescription for anti inflammatory pills ( though I was warned a side effect was sudden heart attack or stroke)  rest and ice. How inopportune. I never have had knee trouble and would have thought if I was prone to it, it would have happened back in those early mountain climbs near Eilat.

We will have to come up with a plan and see how the knee recovers. Fortunately the weather has turned cold and rainy so we are content to stay put here for at least a couple more days, but after that?  Hard to say. Stay tuned.

There are angels among us. I have been reminded that I too can be an angel,that I can go out of my way for others, that compassion helps keep the world in check.

PS I have a lot of pictures I want to post but have to figure out how to get more than one feature picture up per blog.

Shalom for now.

Friday, Day 12

A very hot day. At least 30c . We carried on over the plateau, came across several 4×4 trying to make it up one of the steep ascents. Lots of people headed out to the Dead Sea as this is almost Shabbat , the Jewish weekend. One guy spoke French, another gave us some extra water which came in very handy. They took our picture.IMG_0846

Eventually the plateau descended into a series of wadis – expansive wadis that seemed about 1/2 km wide in places. It was almost impossible to find the trail signs. But the trail guide steered us in the right direction, north and it was with relief that we saw those comforting orange, blue and white stripes. The effort of walking over jumbles of stone through the wadis with a painful knee, in the heat, was very trying. I had to take a break under a rock ledge and cool off. ( poor Arlene having to put up with all my aches and pains. She’d have  been off in a cloud of dust, probably in Arad by now, if not for me slowing her up! this journey is a lot about endurance – for me physical, for Arlene, patience.

I prayed for a breeze and we got one. The wind blew up by about 3:30, and turned into wild, blustery blasts that nearly knocked us off our feet at times. We walked through the rock strewn wadis  until almost dark. At times we were surrounded by cliff walls, then rocky hillsides. There was green on those hills and I think Arlene mentioned some if the landscape reminded her of northern Scotland- an impression I also had. Bedouins grazed camels and sheep on the hills. Must say they seem to be a scruffy, rather mean lot. (The bedouins, not the animals)The kids make lots of weird vocals ( to the animals perhaps??)

Where to camp? Nothing like a pile of boulders to try pitching a tent on. Then we discovered a cave- deep enough to be out of the wind but still lots of air, large enough for our gear and two mats and sleeping bags. Another trail fantasy fulfilled ( we’d read about this in the walk the land book)  the wind had turned cold and the cave, which was the only one we encountered that day or the next, for that matter, was providential. We treated ourselves to a freeze dried meal and went to sleep – warm for really the first time at night. Again, my knee was ready to give up the ghost, but ever hopeful, I dreamt of a miraculous recovery overnight.IMG_0897




Day 11

We have decided to skip a section of the Negev because it requires caching water in about 8 camp sites. It is hard to coordinate these drops because we never do the distance as outlined in the trail guide. How would anyone ever find us in the midst of these wadis, boulder fields and canyons?? Additionally, there is the expense: it seems the standard drop fee in these remote sections of the desert cost about 650 shekels each ((around 200$) Arlene could likely carry enough water to tide her over a few days but 5 litres is my max. This section of the desert also includes the dreaded Karbolet ( two craters where you ascend steeply and walk along a very narrow rim, up and down, ( Karbolet means ” like the comb of a rooster”) If this is the most challenging day of the trail, as the guidebook indicates, then it must be terrifying ( based on previous experience). Arlene was warned not to try it alone.

We took the bus up to highway 25 through the most scenic desert terrain I’ve seen -huge cliffs of rock, sheer canyons, reddish plateaus and breathtaking vistas. When we had climbed almost to the top (kilometres of winding road) a sign proudly announced that we had now reached sea level!! Such a strange sensation.

As usual the bus was packed . The driver couldn’t stop at the trailhead so we had to walk uphill in blistering heat several kilometres with all our water bottles and the camel pack filled to the brim . Somewhere in all the bus commotion I must have twisted/ strained my knee. The pain worsened after we reached the trail and headed north towards Arad.

We passed a quarry and large conveyer belt strung across the hills , looking very much like a Roman aqueduct . Then we noticed the camels. Two young Bedouin boys and their unfortunate donkey were pasturing their herd on the scrubby, rocky ground. How cool to see camels. We noticed some had their front legs roped together, presumably to prevent them from running off? Our first impression of the bedouins was negative.IMG_0841image

We walked on for a few hours, almost til dark on a high plateau. The ground and trail was very rocky but we noticed countless sea shells littering the ground, evidence this place was likely under water. We found one of the few sandy spots around to set up camp, ate a can of tuna each and half a power bar . Camp fuel is getting low so we forgot about tea. Mountains in the distance, a waxing moon, high up in open country and the silence after that last eerie camp out in Ein Yahav. Everything is good. My toes have healed though two if them look a bit odd, my back is fine again…..but my knee is starting to be a problem. I go to sleep hoping that in the morning all will be well with  the knee.



Moa and north

About an hour into our days trek we came to the ancient ruin of Moa,  a Nabatean settlement along the spice route. Very cool. I’ll have to check the date in the trail guide but this whole area was traversed by caravans carrying spice and other trade goods. An ancient fortress, a multi-roomed structure perched on a hill complete with grinding stones, mortals and pestles.  We took a load of pictures, then carried on to what we thought was Zofar night camp. Somehow we missed the camp. I think it might have been near another moshav ( a farming community where each family has their own livelihood – non communal) but we ended up walking an extra few kilometres to Sapir. This town boasted a park with GRASS. Real grass but an extraordinary colour of green which looked totally out of place against the surrounding desert. Arlene has posted in her blog about how the grocery store was closed in Sapir so someone gave us a lift to the supermarket in Ein Yahal, a large moshav that seemed to specialize in pepper growing.  We loaded up on veggies and cheese, hummus, olives etc… and picked up assorted melons and peppers that had fallen from the trucks along the road. I’m talking about perfect peppers ( export grade)  Arlene can’t bear to see anything wasted so we had a couple bags of freebies.  A young guy gave us a ride to the campground with all our grub. Joy! A campground with a water tap, bags of fresh food and again, we got there as a result of the kindness of strangers AGAIN!  We decided to take a rest day there, rinse out clothes, catch up on writing and of course eat a couple bags of peppers!!

The following morning the same  guy who drove us from the grocery store returned with 2 more bags of assorted veggies, melons, a cabbage, onions and …more peppers. He invited us to flafel night in the moshav but after 9 days of walking neither Arlene nor I could face walking back into town in the dark. We were kind of creeped out that night by howling dogs or coyotes right in the campground. The farm animals were restless. Do roosters typically crow all through the night? Sheep bleating, cows bellowing, dogs barking. Some kind of strange vibe in the air, in a place that had seemed perfectly benign earlier in the day. My guess was that a volcanic eruption was imminent or that, more than likely, an  alien spaceship had landed nearby.