Ad Hoc Desert Trip: Judean Edition

MSNBC visited MEET two weeks and spent a lot of quality time with my students, many of whom are featured in this clip. While it doesn’t show much actual Java or business, they did manage to capture a lot of the chaos of the water slide and of the perpetual singing of Shakira’s song with the “waka waka” chorus. Despite being pictured having water dumped on his head, Business Ben does a great job selling MEET.

We’d originally intentioned to leave last Tuesday morning for Eilat, but because of the rocket attacks, MEET cancelled our reservations and we were on our own for finding a “relaxing” activity for the instructors and staff. While Talya opted to find us bungalows at the beach for Wednesday night, several of us in the dorms were developing cabin fever and were itching to head to do something now and not wait another day. After three days of writing student evaluations, filling out surveys, and documenting the summer for the next generation of MEET instructors, the prospect of spending another day in Jerusalem was not very exciting.

In the spirit of last summer’s rather ad-hoc trip to Death Valley (seat of the pants planned and executed), all the instructors piled into the vans on about an hour’s notice and headed for the Dead Sea sometime on that Tuesday afternoon. Where exactly we’d go, or if we’d spend the night anywhere were undetermined. Yela!

Because of the State Department’s travel restrictions for the area, which MIT applies to folks traveling with MIT money/on MIT business, we weren’t able to take the direct route to the lowest point on earth, which takes a little over an hour and looks something like this:


Even though we wouldn’t have to pass through checkpoints, if MIT says we can’t enter the West Bank, we can’t enter the West Bank. Instead, we had to go all the way out of Jerusalem to the west towards Tel Aviv, turn south, pass through Be’er Sheva and Arad, then take a long (three hour), winding mountain road:


The highways to the desert start off along agricultural fields, but the expanses of corn and grapevines quickly give way to arid desert and Bedouin villages. In contrast to the lush green campus of Hebrew University and the tree-lined streets of Tel Aviv, these villages lack sanitary services, sidewalks, or any sort of infrastructure. Trash collects along the highways and in depressions in the towns. Houses are built out of corrugated metal and wood scraps. This is not the route the tour buses take.

After navigating the twisty desert road past markers indicating how far in meters we were below sea level, we arrived at the inland seashore, opened the van doors, and almost fainted due to the heat.

Where the dry, barren mountains meet the Dead Sea are a cluster of hotels and shops selling Dead Sea mud and other skin treatments. I’d rather not know what their bills are for air conditioning and fresh water.

Dead Sea Hotels

Ignoring the stores, we changed into our bathing suits and stepped into the intensely (magnesium) salty water. Maybe the sea would be cooler than the air? No such luck; it was probably 105˚F outside, and the water couldn’t have been much colder. Despite the lack of temperature differential, we had a lovely time effortlessly bobbing in the water.


Floating discussion


Parallel floatation

Blurry sea

Like the rest of the region, the Dead Sea is home to numerous feral cats and kittens, picking through trashcans, climbing trees, and generally looking forlorn in the darkness.

Dead Sea cats

Around nine at night, one van of sane, boring people opted to return to Jerusalem, while a group of seven intrepid instructors remained in the Judean Desert, hoping to climb Mount Masada at sunrise. The Magnificent (or Stupid) Seven set out in search of food for the next morning. Heading up Route 90, we passed Masada and eventually reached Ein Gedi where the beachside convenience store was still open around 10 pm. Despite being disgustingly hot for 10 pm, Ein Gedi was rather alive: feral cats were eating pita bread out of trash cans and a bonfire was roaring near the edge of the parking lot.

We retraced our drive back to Masada and prepared to sleep in the “campground”, a generous term applied to a broad, flat parking area carved out of gravel, sand, and small rocks. Picnic tables? Grills? Nah; just rocks. Spreading our towels on the desert floor, we admired the stars, listened to a group of French pilgrims party at an adjacent campsite, and eventually drifted off into fitful sleep, interrupted by gravel and pebbles poking into our backs.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I hear a very very strange noise: somewhere between clearing one’s throat and squeegeeing a bathtub. I turned over, unable to place the sound, focusing instead on how absurdly warm it was—without blankets, we were still baking in the desert night. Whatever that sound had been, it was not worse than the nocturnal heat keeping us awake.

At 4 am, we woke up and began repacking ourselves into the van. I started the van and turned around from the parking spot, waiting to flip on the lights until we were pointing away from the French pilgrims. Once the high beams were on I found that the windshield was covered in streaks of dust so thick that I could hardly see outside. There’d been no wind at night; what had happened to cover the windshield? Eugene and Jenny had attempted to sleep on the roof of the van, but Eugene’d given up sometime before we awoke and slid off the roof via the window, hence the odd sound and dusty streaks. Mysteries solved.

We parked at Masada and unloaded in the predawn stillness. Michaela was so pleased that she had trouble containing her glee at being up before sunrise.

Leaving before dawn

After paying 25 NIS to enter the park, we began the 350 meter vertical ascent up the side of the mountain along the Snake Path. Winding over two kilometers along a sheer cliff, the Snake Path was a secret route taken by rebels to avoid the Roman legions laying siege to the rebels’ mountain stronghold.

Eventually, the sky began to lighten and we could make out the cables for the cable car against the eastern sky. Even before sunrise, we’d worked up significant sweats in the relentless heat.

Dead Sea Dawn

Clouds drifted over the waning gibbous moon.

Moon over Masada

The path seemed like it’d never end.

Last few steps of the Snake Path

Finally, we ascended the summit.

Pre-Masada sunrise

Intrepid hikers

The sun rose over the mountains of Jordan, a bright magenta orb ascending rapidly over silhouetted peaks.

Sunrise over the Dead Sea

Mountains, sun, and clouds

We headed to the northern end of the mountain to see the ruins of King Herod’s formerly luxurious palace, but were deterred by the hordes of tour groups swarming the mountaintop.

Ruins of Herod's Masada palace

One tour guide dressed in a white toga and a huge floppy blond wig was leading a group of British students around Masada. I stepped aside to allow his group pass me on a staircase and said “boker tov” (good morning) to him. Without missing a beat, he brightly turned to his group and stated, “And here’s a rebel! You can even practice your Hebrew with her.” I think I uttered something along the lines of “toda” (thank you), smiled, and went on my way.

Turning south, we left the crowds and went to the other end of the plateau, which was mostly deserted except for us.

Hiking to the south

Our next destination was a staircase leading into the mountain. We descended the stairs into a giant water cistern carved by King Herod’s workers.

Entering the cistern

Moon from inside the cistern

Carved into the living rock and sealed with eight layers of plaster and large enough to hold thousands of cubic meters of water, this cistern was part of a complex network of water diversion and storage chambers. As Masada gets only a few millimeters of rain a year, it was important in ancient times to gather as much water as possible during the winter rains in order to last during the dry months.

Cistern interiror

Ascending out of the cistern, we headed for the southern point of the rhomboid known as Masada. The southern lookout point was too windy to experience the echoing cliffs, so we turned around and three of us descended along the Snake Path, burning hot even at 8 am. The remaining four took the cable car down the mountain.

Cable car terminus

We were treated to some beautiful views of the Dead Sea and the surrounding valleys, filled with rills and wadis.

Dead Sea morning

Valley of rills and wadis

After drinking several liters of water, iced tea, and Gatorade, we loaded into the sandy and salty van and headed off for points west. I took the first driving shift, and after a few minutes I glanced in the rearview mirror to see that all my passengers had passed out. We stopped at some nameless desert town, purchased “lunch”, switched drivers, and continued off to the coast. For going from having no plan to climbing Masada 16 hours later at dawn, I’d say we did pretty well.