Jordan: How Low Can You Go?
You drop down to the Dead Sea, and your ears pop. At 409metres below sea level, it is the lowest spot on the surface of the earth, and it is somewhat unsettling to look up at the lofty peaks and realise, "hey up there is the real sea level"! It is a bit like driving in the Netherlands and seeing a boat cruising along the canal above your head, and you wonder if it all isn't the work of David Copperfield! Now, down there, near to where the trickle that has become the River Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, enterprising hoteliers, commercially mindful of the sea's curative powers, have established ritzy hotels and luscious spas. "Wouldn't be dead for quids" is an old English adage, but in these places, you pay quids to be pampered to death. Messers Marriott, Kempinski and Movenpick, amongst others, make it all so easy for you to be financially bled, voraciously fed, and free of dread, as they tuck you into your Dead Sea bed.
We came down to the Dead Sea along the road from Mt Nebo, through land as dry as a dead dingo's donga, as we Australians are not often want to say! From the appropriately, if not imaginatively named Dead Sea Highway, the sea looked misty and mysterious, a gun-metal grey all the way to the not so distant shore that we knew to be Israel and the West Bank. On the surface there was no life, nary a ripple, no wind, no boat, no buoy, and under the surface, not much going on either! It is nine times as salty as the ocean, so nothing bar small micro-organisms exist, no weeds, no jelly-blubbers, no barnacles. It is the Boot Hill of seas. So in amongst all this death and torpor, the Movenpick Resort and Spa have, with inimitable Swiss precision, created a wonderfully verdant oasis on the very edge of the Dead Sea. They have built an ‘Arabic village’ out of caramel-coloured sandstone, which tumbles down the hillside to the sea, and from there, you simply summons a golf cart to take you back up the hill again. Through the midst of the village is a babbling brook which flows amid orange groves, oleander and hibiscus bushes, and masses of plumbago. Somehow it all creates a feeling of being a part of the past, unlike the hotels next door which were high rise and squarish, and look as though they have been taken straight out of Gotham City!
We were fortunate to get an upgrade to a ‘room with private pool, and views to Israel’, and all was cool in white and marble, wrought iron and rattan. The pool was very nice to look at, but far too cold for wimps like us, but further down, there was a Jacuzzi set in a little forest, and a ‘winter pool’ where the water was heated, and a brandy-serving bar nearby, in case it wasn’t heated enough! At night, we sat on our veranda and the lights of Jerusalem and Jericho shimmered across the sea. It was hard to associate this tranquil setting with the place of turmoil and tension that daily fill the pages of our newspapers, but on both sides of the Dead Sea, there were men with guns and binoculars, watching, waiting. I wondered if those same lights, metaphorically speaking of course, had drawn Mary and Joseph nearly 2009 years ago! Now however, to make our occasion more memorable, a huge harvest moon came out and rested its beam upon the sea, all without any assistance from those special effects people. We both just sat, silent, staring, and contemplative, for we looked out on so much history. The land still looked the same as it probably did two thousand dears ago and there continue to be lots of sad little donkeys around, to say nothing of visibly pregnant women. Our veranda of observation and reflection was a simply wonderful place, to just look, read, relax, and savour the bubbles in our bottle!
The Dead Sea beach at the Movenpick, looking to the Israel shore
The next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we headed down the hill to the sea, past a series of infinity pools, a gaggle of restaurants amid hundred year old olive trees, a little make-believe souk, and the Spa that Conde Nast has claimed is “the best in the world”. As the guide books will tell you, “It is pricey, but worth it!” But before that, we would ‘take the waters’ and we rested our gear on sun-loungers under parasols, on a meticulously raked ‘beach’ where waiters came with drinks and large fluffy towels. The only detraction was the horde of flies which appear in these parts in the winter months, and are enough to make an Aussie homesick! We went down to the water’s edge and stepped, gingerly, on the rocks, all looking as though they had been designed by the Swarovski people, for each was covered with tiny, sharp, salt crystals. We went first to a huge barrel of black, oleaginous mud, and each proceeded to put a dab here, and a daub there, quite conservative in our approach. Others, however looked as though they were on a Special Forces night time operation, and spent ages ensuring that every centimetre of the skin was covered by the rejuvenating mud’, and then left to dry. It wasn’t very smelly mud, but it reminded me of that musty smell of slightly damp books, and the texture was as smooth as silk.
There were plenty of signs warning you not to immerse your face, because tears and intense pain were sure to follow, and everywhere there were bottles of water to splash on the faces of the ignorant, and unlucky, alike. I say that because actually swimming in the Dead Sea is difficult even if you are Michael Phelps. The water was clear but felt a little greasy, and instead of swimming, you just bobble around, lying on your back like an over-turned turtle, ankles airborne, and hands splashing like ungainly oarsmen on an ancient trireme, merely to make some headway. Yes, I am sure that you could read the paper while floating, but it would be like trying to read a broad-sheet paper on the London Tube, possible, but decidedly uncomfortable! Turning over was extremely difficult, especially while trying to keep the water from my face, and I floundered among the rocks like a large, ungainly, Emperor penguin, my front similarly white, my back a muddy black, and everywhere the crimping tickle of the salt on my skin. The ‘Life Guard’ rose ever so slightly in his high-chair, water bottle in hand and ready to race to the rescue, like those people on Baywatch, but at the last moment my shallows flip rendered his services unnecessary. You should only stay in the Dead Sea for fifteen minutes at a time, said the signs, because otherwise, things could happen to your liver and other working parts, so we hastily made for the beachfront decontamination showers and had a good splashdown!
Muddying the waters!
Later we dried off and ordered liver-rejuvenating Pina Coladas, and did indeed feel re-energized, but more from the freshness of the waters (23 degrees) and the bracing showers, than from the mud-pack and bobbling. Our skins had been assaulted, and we felt decidedly relaxed, but the instant Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie transformation would undoubtedly take longer. We sat on our sun-loungers, brushing away the flies, and watched the coming and going throng of all shapes and sizes, and some of the Arab women rendered almost ‘gender neutral’, shaped as they were in long cover-all sheaths, which made them look a bit like bananas with faces, as they made their way into and out of the water. Not for them, I daresay, the rejuvenating mud. Many of the older wrinklies were Eastern European by their accents, and their micro-kini-ed corpuses looked far better when the mud coating was applied, and for one horrible moment, I thought a pomegranate shaped one was going topless. Now that would really have been the Pitts, in a saggy sort of way!
The following day, we drove along the sea shore, stopping at various checkpoints to amuse bored looking guards. At one place, we alighted to look at an almost Arctic scene, with the salt piled high on the rocks above the water, and those below it looking distinctly ice-berg-ish. It will come as no surprise to you to know that the Dead Sea is indeed dying, as the rate of evaporation far exceeds the trickle that the Jordan River brings, and there is talk that Jordan may actually pipe water, hundreds of kilometres, from the Gulf of Aqaba in a sort of defibrolative process. But that will, of course, take money, Israeli cooperation, and who knows what the environmental lobby may say. Maybe some things are just meant to die.
Salt encrustation along the Dead Sea
Along the Dead Sea Highway, we pulled up besides a busload of Americans, friendly, loud and curious, as Americans abroad often are. They marvelled at salt build-up on the rocks below and joked how the sea-side cuisine was 'salt with everything'. When their tourist guide started talking, I sidled a little closer, always keen to learn, and heard her say "And down that way was Gomorrah, and as the town was burning to show God's wrath, Lot's wife turned back to look at the flames, and there she stands today!" Like the others, I looked up to where she pointed to a Pillar of rock Salt, high on the cliff above the roadway, and raised my eyes and camera, like everyone else. Well, except for a chap in a Tiger Woods Nike black cap, and a red polo shirt, which said discretely, Augusta, Georgia, on a pocket. He'd wandered away from the group, to light a fag, and take a drag. From the look on his face, he seemed to be saying "Sodom all". And for just a moment, in the sun, beside the Dead Sea, he could actually have been the Tiger himself. "Sodom all", he would have said that too!
Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Travelling Editor for Wandering Educators