What does your ideal birthday look like?

I’m not sure whether Mike’s ideal birthday involves waking up at 3AM, but this year that’s how we celebrated his. We drove through the desert to Mount Masada, hiked up the mountain to view the sunrise from the top, and finish the (early) morning with a swim in the Dead Sea. Despite the lack of (very) early morning coffee, I’d call that a pretty accomplished birthday.

A pretty happy birthday!

On the morning of, we trudged up the “snake path” amongst several dozen other hikers. Even in the dark, with no sun beating down on us just yet, sweat poured off of my forehead and onto the dirt. Mike and I were both so hot that we sweat through our shirts and finished the hike as we stripped layers off.

Towards the top, I momentarily questioned why on earth we had been so determined to hike up a mountain in the desert in the hottest month of the Israeli summer. But once we were perched on the rocks, waiting for the sun to rise above the Jordanian mountains and cast its glow onto the Dead Sea, all I could think was, “This is pretty cool, and it’s something we’ll never forget”.

The sun rising over the Jordanian mountains and the Dead Sea.

Getting There

It made the most sense to embark on this somewhat ambitious birthday plan during our stay in Jerusalem. Masada and the Dead Sea are only a little over an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. We rented a car to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and back, and to use to drive to Masada and the Dead Sea from Jerusalem. If you go yourself and do not have a car, there are many tour groups that will take you to both the hike and the swim, and will even take you early enough for the sunrise hike. My friend specifically recommended Abraham Tours, but there are many other options out there!

We mapped out our driving route beforehand, just in case our phones died or our GPS didn’t work, and since we’d be driving through the West Bank we wanted to be cautious. Route 1 and Route 90 are secure roads to drive on (though you do go through security check points, so we took our passports just in case), so we planned to drive east on Route 1 out of Jerusalem and then turn south on Route 90 to Masada.

At 2:30 AM, we were startled awake by my alarm, drowsily dressed for the hike, and found our way to our car. Mike brilliantly navigated us through the dark from the city and down into the valley. The descent was almost unsettling as we wound our way down the dimly lit highway, enclosed by steep outcrops of rock on either side, our ears popping so frequently it felt like we were swimming deep underwater and never coming back up for air. When we passed the marker for Sea Level, my stomach did a flip as I realized it felt quite different to be below Sea Level.

After about an hour and twenty minutes of driving through the dark, we turned right into the car park for Masada. There were already a few dozen people lined up outside of the entrance gate (there’s a small fee to climb), all eager to get going on the hike to make it up in time for sunrise.

Climbing up Masada at around 4:30AM.

After paying the entrance fee (fees vary and are listed here), we wound our way up the beginning of the “snake path”. The path is aptly named since you wind your way up a series of switch backs all the way to the peak. We were initially surrounded by the other hikers, but everyone naturally spread out at different paces over the course of the hike. Mike and I mostly hiked in silence, taking in the experience and thinking about the people who have marched up the same path throughout history. The night before, my friend who met us for a drink had told us a bit about history of Masada.

At the top of Masada stands the remnants of Herod the Great’s fortress which he erected between 37 and 31 BC. The fortress was constructed using incredibly advanced engineering techniques, including water distribution facilities and communal bathing areas with running water, that are still visible today.

Masada is considered by some as a symbol for the Jewish right to life.

The fortress was conquered and used for defensive measures by the Jewish revolters against Roman rule in the early first century. In order to ultimately conquer the Jewish revolters who had barricaded themselves within the fortress, the Romans constructed a ramp leading all the way up to the gate of the wall, and then constructed a siege tower to break into the fortress. When the Romans finally broke into the fortress, they found 960 men, women, and children dead and the food supplies burned. The Jewish revolters had committed a mass suicide, deeming that a more respectable end than being conquered by other people.

Masada is now viewed as a symbol for the Jewish right to life. Heavy stuff to be thinking about as you march up the same mountain where an event like this occurred in history, and it honestly did make me think a lot about living life every day to the fullest as we climbed towards the top of this rock sitting in the middle of the desert.

Started from the bottom and now we’re here!

Once the sun peaked up over the mountains, night turned to day rapidly. We were surrounded by a totally different environment. Golden sands and fascinating geologic stratigraphy (fascinating to me, anyways) lit up by a bright blue sky. The fortress itself was interesting to explore. The cisterns (tanks for storing water) from the last century BC were still in tact and on display for visitors. Many of the walls of the fortress were still standing, and they gave you the feeling that you had traveled back in time.

Exploring Masada.

The sun warmed up the valley pretty quickly, and the heat became unbearable. After a good walk around the fortress, we descended the snake path back to our car. On the way down, I kept ooing and ahhing at the pronounced stratigraphy while Mike just rolled his eyes.

I feel like R2D2 and C3PO may appear at any moment.

When we arrived back at the car, we realized it was only 7AM and the beach at the Dead Sea that my friend had recommended didn’t open until 8:30AM. We decided to head towards it anyways, hoping that a mirage somewhere in the desert would in fact become a coffee shop (it never did, but there’s a business idea! Coffee stand in the dessert for all of the early morning Masada hikers).

To swim in the Dead Sea, you can technically just find a path towards the beach and head down on your own. However, there are sinkholes (big, dangerous ones) scattered throughout the seashore, so a friend had warned us that it was probably safer to find one of the established beach facilities and pay their entrance fee.

My friend recommended Ein Gedi Sea of Spa, with the caution that it was “an interesting place”. (If you do go, this should not be confused with Ein Gedi Hotel which is five minutes north of Ein Gedi Sea of Spa, next to the Ein Gedi Reserve. We did confuse the two, and spent a good twenty minutes wandering around the hotel grounds until we realized we were in the wrong place.)

Interesting was certainly an understatement. When we first arrived, the spa was deserted and the parking lot was empty. The spa’s plastic entrance with faded colors reminded me of what Disneyland would like like if it was abandoned after a zombie apocalypse. We wondered if we were in the right place, until a car full of six members of a family pulled up, packed to the brim with beach chairs, towels and coolers.

The Ein Gedi “Trolley” is an experience.

We followed the family up to the main doors and through to the welcome desk where employees were turning on lights, laying out towels, and preparing the facility for the onslaught of beach goers for the day.

Once we’d paid our entrance fee and changed into our suits, we inferred that we should go wait down under a straw umbrella for the spa’s “trolley” (really a loud tractor towing rickety wagons full of benches) to take us down to the beach.

“Rinsing off” from our hike in the Dead Sea.

After a very wobbly ride in the tractor down to the beach, we discarded our possessions and tip toed across the bulbs of salt down into the water.

A few pro-tips before swimming in the Dead Sea:

  1. Wear an old bathing suit that you don’t care about because the salt will soak into it and take several washes to come out.
  2. Bring flip flops or water shoes and wear them into the water. The salt crystalline beach is unpleasant to walk on barefoot.
  3. Do not go underwater unless you want to feel like someone has poked your eyes out with a skewer.
  4. Don’t shave for several days leading up to your swim. Recently shaved skin burns in water that is 34% saline (or 9x the salt content of the ocean).
  5. If you have a cut, maybe just forget about swimming altogether. Mike had several cuts, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in tears from pain except during this swim in the Dead Sea, though you can’t tell from the photos.
Look Mom, no hands!

All of these pro-tips having been said, swimming in the Dead Sea was a worthwhile and unique experience. You really do float on top of the water, and have trouble putting your feet back onto the ground. The water is a beautiful turquoise, and sparkles in the desert sun.

Mud with “spa” qualities. Someone was skeptical.

We took the tractor ride back up to the main spa facility to bath ourselves in mud that supposedly has special properties. I didn’t feel magically different after this mud bath, but it was fun to play around and we did feel clean after we washed it off with the Dead Sea water that the spa funnels up to the mud bath area.

Mucking about!

We had been waffling on whether to actually make it to the Dead Sea. Some of our Israeli friends had scoffed when we told them that we planned to go, warning it was hot and unpleasant water, too touristy for their liking. It certainly was hot, and the water definitely burned, and boy was the spa touristy. But in the end, we’re really happy we decided to go. Especially since some climate scientists and ecologists predict that the sea is on track to disappear within 50 years.

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