Last night we moved to our new berth, just a mile or so across the gulf. We swapped Jordan for Israel.
A 5.30am wake up, a quick shower, and even quicker breakfast. With passport and embarkation card in hand we were facing Israeli immigration control by 7.15am. They were thorough, polite and efficient and we were soon sat on the coach waiting. Leaving on time we set off on our 3 hour journey north up the rift valley that separates Israel from Jordan.
Unlike the other surrounding Arab countries, these two countries get on with each other because of some enlightened politicking. We Brits were the ones responsible for deciding on the border between these two nations, and true to character we drew a straight line up the rift valley. This created a problem. Many Israeli farms were over this border. Instead of being awkward or greedy about this blunder, the Jordanian King Hussein brokered a deal whereby the border moved to incorporate the farms and as Jordan was short of water, the Isreali’s agreed to provide the country with drinking water. And that is the situation today, and everybody is happy.
Yesterday, we drove following the valley, but high up in the mountains on the Jordanian side. Today, we followed the same valley but along the valley floor and below the mountains on the Israeli side. Both mountain ranges are just a few miles apart. There was no evidence of a border other than a rickety wire fence and certainly no military presence. Trust indeed.
We passed through principally a desert landscape with occasional Kibbutzes, villages and factories inter-spaced with stretches of sand and rock to break the monotony. The date palm plantations were a refreshing splash of green, though the Israelis make the desert productive, they hide their vegetables under acres of netting to protect them from the sun and conserve water.
Around halfway we stopped for a break at a restaurant and petrol station. Among the other buses taking advantage of the toilets was one containing soldiers returning from their weekly home visit; Thursday – Sunday. They were aged 18-21yrs on their National Service, all carried machine guns slung over shoulders and there was an equal mix of male and female. They looked smart and confident without being intimidating to all those around them, and (except we tourists) ignored their presence. It seemed natural. But it wasn’t. I don’t live here, so I am not qualified to comment, and I won’t.
We passed by the Dead Sea on our way to the mountain fortress of Masada. This stronghold was the site of a great Jewish struggle against the occupying Roman Army. The last remaining stronghold of Jewish resistance against the Roman occupation was at Masada. Around a 1000 rebels and their families held out and tied up the Roman Legions. To see the stronghold from below you would find it hard to believe that it could ever be taken by the technology of the age. From the fortress itself, you would be convinced of its impregnability. After many failures the Romans did eventually succeed by building a massive earth ramp in order to hoist a battering ram and smash down the gates. On entering the fortress they discovered that the inhabitants had all committed suicide rather than face a life of slavery.
Knowing its history, a visit to Masada has to be poignant to any Jew, but I would guess any visitor, whatever nationality or religion has to be moved when standing in this uniquely preserved monument. Yes, the views from the top are astonishing. Not just the magnificent sight of the azure blue of the Dead Sea far below, but the evidence of history itself. The massive Roman forts clearly visible below circling the mountain, the sheer height of the cliffs that they had to overcome and astoundingly the earth ramp that was built to reach the fortress gates, despite being rained down upon by rocks. For Israel, this story and location is a majestic statement of a refusal to ‘give in’ despite adversity.
The cream of the Israeli Army are selected each year into just a couple of regiments, their induction ceremony takes place at the very top of Masada. But first, they have to prove their worth by climbing the fortress in full battle gear with kit, up a pathway called the snake. Our guide told us with pride that two of her sons achieved this great honour.
We went up on a cable car.
From Masada we travelled back to the Dead Sea, where we had a very sumptuous buffet lunch at a hotel on the the very shore of the lake itself. Sue and I had a bottle of red wine to ourselves, thus making for a very pleasant afternoon splashing about in the briny.
What can I say about our swim in this flooded salt cellar? It is warm. It is salty. It stings like hell if you get it in your eyes. You float in just 20cm of liquid. It is near impossible to stand up in brine over 50cm as you can’t get your feet down without flipping over (and you don’t want to do that)! Once you get used to it; its magic, its relaxing, its wonderful.
Sue and I spent nearly two hours in the stuff. Apparently, it is exceptionally good for your health, so I guess we are now ‘good to go!’
The three hour journey back had one toilet break and saw us board the ship in the dark at 7.30pm. The lights of Eilat looked enticing, but as ‘Last Aboard’ was at 10.30pm and we were bushed (despite being invigorated into the peak of healthy fitness) we opted for a fast evening meal and a spot of TV watching in the cabin and an early night.