April 2001 found me in Israel. Not a likely destination for me, giving its distinct lack of cold, glaciers and icebergs. Also, it's not one of the most peaceful places to travel to. Violence in the Middle East was escalating once again, and it's a rather weird feeling to watch the news in the hotel room, thinking "that could have been me". (Though actually that's rather unlikely. Israel is quite safe for the average tourists. Most of the violence happens between interested parties. There is an off-chance for a tourist to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, but that's about it.)
But I was in Israel for a business meeting anyway, so it seemed like a good idea to tag on a couple of days of vacation at the end and see a bit of the country (and go over to Jordan for a day to see the city of Petra).
The business part of the trip took me to Herzlia, from where we had a nice tour in the evening for dinner in Jerusalem (see dark green line on map of GPS trails) and also to the north of Israel on a guide tour (see light green line). That tour took me to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, to the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum und Tiberias. Unfortunately I'm not overly excited by places that have a historical or religious significance, but are otherwise rather uninteresting, so I won't dwell on this trip.
The next day my mini-vacation started and I rented a car and drove down to Eilat. I had been warned that the streets might be rather crowded, since the Pesach festival had just started and many vacationers would take a short trip do Eilat as well. (See the purple line on the map.) So when it took me more than an hour to get through the small town of Ramla, I was starting to get worried, but as usual during vacations, these were needless worries. Once I was on the road towards Eilat and past Beersheba the road was almost empty and driving down there was fun and relaxing. My first stop on the way was in Ein Avdat.
Basically it's just a small spring among the rocks. But the scenery is great and it's a perfect place to walk around, especially if you, like me, aren't to fond of sunny places and like a place with cool shadows to cling to. There's a long gorge between steep, light grey rock walls and a small waterfall at the end of it. (Ok, compared to most places in Iceland, it's more a waterdribble than a waterfall, but this is desert country, so it's appropriate.) The very bright rock walls give a nice contrast to the deep green stream flowing down the gorge (lots of green plants and algae). Unfortunately it doesn't come out that well on the photographs, but sometimes being there has to beat looking at pictures, otherwise, what's the point in travelling?
What surprised me about the place was that it was near empty. This is probably one of the most beautiful places of nature in Israel, and for most of the time I've been there, I was enjoying it alone. Seems that the current tensions in Israel had been scaring away more visitors than I thought. Anyway, no reason to complain. It's a great place and I was happy to be there and see it on a nice, warm, but not too hot, sunny day. Good start to a vacation. (Which, for some odd reason reminded me of Iceland. Near Askja, there is a gorge of which the travel guide said that it looked likes something that would belong more to Sinai than to Iceland. While Ein Avdat is not quite in Sinai, it's just about a hundred miles away and looking at this place made me think "oh, that is what they meant".)
Next stop along the road was at Mitzpe Ramon, a place on the edge. It's located at the edge of Maktesh Ramon, an huge, ancient crater. It gives you a good view over the desert and a preview of where you will be driving the next couple of hours.
The trip on the next day took me to the rock city of Petra in Jordan. (See the blue line on the map.) Since you can't take a rental car from Israel to Jordan, I had to go with a guided tour for this. While there are bus tours, there are also some companies offering private tours, where they drive you to the border and a driver picks you up on the other side and drives you to Petra in a private car and takes care of all formalities for you. Pure VIP treatment. Definitely recommended.
The place itself is amazing. It's a huge valley, which can be reached through a small gorge called the Siq. (Although there are other ways into the valley, this is the relevant one.) After walking between steep walls for ten minutes or so, the path opens up into the valley and you see the most famous sight in Petra, the treasury. (Not that it ever contained any treasure, but early discoverers were an optimistic bunch.) The sight is strangely familiar because the location has been used in the third Indiana Jones movie as the outside of the place where the grail is located. Beyond that place, the path winds through another short gorge and then opens up into the actual valley.
Which looks like a gigantic decorated dovecot. Seems like every available rock face has been converted in some kind of building. The odd thing is the mixture of styles. Seems like every culture that ever came along decided to hew some rock and put in some of their own favourite designs. While originally Nabataean, the places go from simple unadorned square doorways into the rock to egypt looking places, a roman amphitheatre, a byzantine church to buildings with greek and assyrian influences. Although the differences are almost exclusively on the outside. Beyond the entrance are nearly always just plain, rectangular, unadorned rooms. Most of them were tombs anyway, but even the lived in places look more or less the same.
It's a large place and I didn't manage to see all of it in the five hours I was there, but it was fun to walk around, see the different sights and find nice little quiet places with a view. Which is surprisingly simple. While there's a 'main street' through Petra where most tourists walk, there aren't actually that many of them (about 2000 per day or so) and the valley is huge and it's easy to walk along some side path to the buildings and feel all alone. Though that also means that you spend some time afterwards looking at places, wondering "Did I really just walk up there? An unsecured three feet wide rock path with a 50 feet drop at the side?"
The next day I spent in Eilat. First I drove to the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, where they have an observatory build into the coral reef, so you can walk down a spiral staircase to the reef and look at the fishes outside. Sort of an inverse aquarium. But the main attraction is their submarine. They offer submarine dives to the bottom of the sea at 180 feet depth, passing a sunken ship and the going up to about 50 feet and diving along the coral reef. Unfortunately everything is just in shades of deep blue at that depth, so there isn't really much to see of the famous richness of colours in a coral reef. But I had never dived in a submarine before, so it was an interesting experience nonetheless. (I didn't really anticipate the smoothness of the ride. It felt almost like the fake submarine ride at Disneyland, which is actually on rails.) Been there. Done that. Got the picture.
In the afternoon I had my first scuba dive. There is a place at the coast where you can dive with dolphins, even if you have no experience in diving at all. Suited me fine. The 'Introductory Dive' requires a trainer to (literally) hold your hand during the dive all the time, so you can't swim around on your own, but that was the only restriction and it sure beats hanging around for ten hours in swimming pools before being allowed into the real sea. It's a perfect way getting into diving. The water was comparatively warm and comfortable, there was a nice beach for getting into the water, everything was cool and relaxed, the underwater scenery was interesting and the dolphins great diving companions. (Btw, the dolphins are in an enclosed area, but there is an open gate where they can leave and take a look at the rest of the Red Sea at any time. Still seems like they spend most of the time in the enclosure, though.) While I was worried at first, since I had a cold through all the previous week and having your nose and ears clogged is not a good thing while diving, the dive went without any problems. The only thing that was a problem was 'experience overload'. The half hour seemed to be over after what felt like five minutes and I was way to excited about it to actually notice much. (Though I've been told that fairly common and most divers need about five to ten dives before they stop concentrating on themselves and their equipment and can actually enjoy the scenery.) Pretty much a perfect way to spend an afternoon.
There was a rather odd moment at the hotel that evening, when I heard explosions outside at 11 pm. Though it turned out to be just a fireworks display by one of the hotels, celebrating the Pesach festival, this wasn't quite the first theory that formed in my mind... Lesson: Places usually aren't as dangerous as they seem to the tourist from the outside.
On the next day it was time to drive back to the Tel Aviv area to catch my plane back on the following day. This drive took me along the Jordan border to Timna park, the Dead Sea and Masada. (See red line on map).
Timna park is an national park in the desert. Like Ein Avdat, the place was almost empty. (Take a look at the parking place in the first picture. The only car there is mine. And that's in front of Solomon's Pillars, the main attraction in the park.) None of the sights is overwhelming, but the rock mushroom and the natural stone arch are worth a look. It's also one of the places where you can walk around and get a feeling for being alone in the desert, without straying too far away from the car and the cafeteria.
Next stop was at the Dead Sea, near Ein Bokek. The main reason for going there was to take the seemingly obligatory picture of myself, floating on the Dead Sea, reading a book. So I got to the beach, pressed a camera into someone's unsuspecting hands, went into the water, looked at the book and went out again. Unfortunately the pictures weren't quite as good as I hoped, but they'll do. Floating in the warm water was fun (though a bit lazy), so I went in again. It's a bit of a strange feeling to just hang in the water without having to do anything. Something that is probably fun to do for hours, but I needed to move on, so I just stayed a little while. At 1200 feet below sea level, it's also probably the lowest place I'll ever be, unless I manage to participate in a deep ocean submarine dive, which seems pretty unlikely. (Even diving with the submarine in the Red Sea got me only to about 180 feet below sea level.) The only downside to the whole thing was that I didn't have more time and also managed to scratch my leg on a rock while getting into the water, which, to quote my guidebook, will give "instant enlightment as to the meaning 'to rub salt in one's wounds'". (Wasn't really painful, but the effect of the salt was clearly noticeable.)
The final stop before driving to the airport hotel was Masada. It's an ancient fortress, built on a rock high above the Dead Sea (which means that it is above sea level). It is a surprisingly huge place. Originally I had expected a fortress with approximately the size of a Scottish castle, but the place is roughly half a mile long and about a quarter mile wide. They have used all the top of the mountain for their fortress (the stone wall around it goes all along the rim of the plateau), and even put some buildings on the side of the mountain. (Though as a fortress, from a military point of view, it was pretty much a failure.) While I don't care much about the history of the place, it is has got a great view over the surroundings and building this thing must have been a massive undertaking more than 2000 years ago. Nice place to finish my short vacation in Israel and head home again.