מחוז הדרום, ישראל [South District, Israel]

Before and after my stint in Jordan, I got to spend some time in the South District of Israel, aka the Negev Desert, going to several places in a short period of time. It was some of the most fun and disappointing parts of the trip so far… for various reasons.

From Jerusalem, Keith and I rented a car with the hope of driving straight to Ein Gedi to hike in the nature reserve, then spend an afternoon in the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, when you rent a car in Israel, you can’t drive in the West Bank, and our quick drive down the Dead Sea coast to Ein Gedi turned into a several hours-long drive through the arid desert. We had to forgo Ein Gedi and rushed to the Dead Sea. In the end, it was okay, because the Dead Sea was really worth it: floating in the warm water was surreal… even better than you’d expect. But we barely had any time there as well because the beach we went to closed at 16:30. Everything closes early in Israel. (True, we could have gone to another free beach up the coast, but we also realized we didn’t have proper shoes for the Dead Sea. Salty, sharp, super hot sand hurts to walk on!! If you ever go, bring some water shoes or at least thongs.) So, a highlight for sure, despite the poor planning.

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Keith floating in the Dead Sea
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Look, no hands! Floating in the Dead Sea is like nothing else.
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Salty ridges in the Dead Sea
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The Dead Sea

After our Dead Sea float, we ended up going to our hotel at the base of Massada (click on the link to see an impressive aerial photo of Masada). I have to quote the UNESCO page here because it’s a great way to capture in words its awesomeness in ways that I can’t describe:

Masada is a rugged natural fortress, of majestic beauty, in the Judaean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army, in 73 A.D. It was built as a palace complex, in the classic style of the early Roman Empire, by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, (reigned 37 – 4 B.C.). The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.

Keith and I woke up at 4:30 to hike up to the plateau and see the sunrise over the Dead Sea. It was grueling, and the complete opposite of our hike up Mt. Fuji, at least in terms of weather, almost two years ago to the day. It was freezing cold hiking up to the summit of Mt. Fuji, but brutally hot hiking up to Massada. Okay, granted, Mt. Fuji is an actual mountain, the highest in Japan, and Massada is 400m high. But still. Climbing up it was no easy task, especially in 90*F+ weather before sunrise. But worth it!

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Sunrise over the Dead Sea from the top of Massada
The desert from the top of Massada, with the Dead Sea in the far background

I expended so much energy climbing up and down the plateau, all before 8am, that a well-earned breakfast was in my future when I got back to below sea-level. (Masada is virtually sea-level, despite being 400m high, because the Dead Sea if you recall is the lowest point on earth.) Our hotel/hostel, while nice enough, had lackluster food options with one exception: the bourekas. Like the burek I had in Bosnia, but in a different shape, bourekas are essentially meat pies encased in flaky pastry dough. I balanced its richness out with some cucumbers, and some white cheese that I still have yet to figure out the name of.

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A well-earned breakfast of some cucumbers, bourekas and white cheese after climbing Massada before sunrise

Coming back from Jordan, the freak dust storm was still raging, bringing what had been crystal clear skies for the first half our trip into something resembling a constant orange Instagram filter, and we could barely see anything. Since we had again rented a car to drive up to Tel Aviv, we took the opportunity to stop at the Ramon crater (actually not a crater but a makhtesh, a unique geological formation only found in the Negev and Sinai) and see what was described to us as an “surreal moonscape” and “similar to the Grand Canyon/deserts of Arizona.” We actually drove through the makhtesh/crater but it wasn’t until we noticed we were increasing in elevation did we realize this. Too bad, because on our way to the Dead Sea, the geology of the whole desert is just insanely beautiful.

Irregardless of that disappointment, we stopped for a late lunch at this place called Hakatze and had a low-key but delicious dinner. The place was cool, located in a converted hangar in the industrial park of Mitzpe Ramon (the town bordering the makhtesh). We ordered a LOT of food, yet again failing to realize just how communal food can be in this part of the world. At least, I hope the intention is that the dishes are communal because look at the size of the bowl of couscous I got. That’s bigger than even a serving size at a horribly generic American chain restaurant , no?

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Couscous and stewed vegetables for me, chicken and rice for Keith

We had some inkling that we had ordered enough for a small army when the owner/server asked Keith if he’d be able to help me finish the labneh I’d ordered as a starter. And really, I could have eaten just (all of) the labneh and have been content. It was so, so good. Labneh is just like any other strained yogurt, which in the States is largely known as Greek yogurt. Labneh is typically made more savory, paired with olive oil and za’atar, rather than sweeter like we’ve eaten in Greece and back home.

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The best labneh in Israel, some skhug (סחוג‎), pita and salad
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Israel is for hipsters, and so we eat at converted hangars in the industrial park of Mitzpe Ramon

This trip is too quickly coming to a close… we’re on to our final destination now in Israel: Tel Aviv. And I’m sure it’s going to be a good one!

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