Dying to go to the Dead Sea

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Monday, July 16, 2007

Our Group of Eight decided to head to a little known but attractive sounding place called Dana Nature Reserve. The only problem is getting there. Being very isolated as it is there is no scheduled public transport to or from the tiny village of Dana. Being in a largish group comes in handy sometimes, such as now, when we can order our own minibus to take us from door to door. The scenery is very monotonous - stony desert on one side and stony hills on the other - so it doesn't take long for a boisterous and completely tone-deaf singalong to break out. I pity the driver having to sit through awfully off-key versions of 'Ice Ice Baby' and 'I'm a Barbie Girl', he must have been really longing for his twangy, warbly Middle Eastern music.

The settlement of Dana is a one-horse, two-hotel village that rests precipitously on a ridge above a deep gorge called Wadi Feinan. Dana is an old fifteenth century village with rubbly old houses, cobbled streets and no signs of life outside the two hotels. Ours is the Dana Tower hotel, a very cozy and charming old place, very much in an old traditional hotel, with little rooms hidden away in various nooks and alcoves, graffiti from previous travellers, Bedouin carpets and other paraphernalia lining the floor and walls, and an energetic host named Hamzi. Hamzi plonks us down some cushions on the comfortable covered verandah, brings us tea and then shows us the roof, where we can also sleep if we wish. Dana is a unique place and worth a visit for the hotel alone, regardless of whether you do any of the walks. We decide to do a quick walk before dinner up to the very top of the hill to watch the sunset. As it happens we can't really see the sun setting from up there so we scramble back down just in time for the most amazing buffet dinner we've had all trip.

We could have spent all the next day slothing around at the hotel too but we feel we should do at least some walking. The area surrounding the village of Dana, particularly the gorge, has recently been designated as a 'nature reserve', a kind of eco-tourism park. You can walk all the way down the path to the bottom of the valley but it takes the best part of a day and then you have to catch a taxi back up to the top. It's another scorching day, in the high 30s, and there's no shade around. Accordingly, we decide against trying to see the entire wadi (gorge) and just walk until we feel like coming back. 
It surely is a picturesque walk, with sheer cliff faces plunging down into the valley and the odd herd of goats jogging around looking for the sparse clutches of grass. Mostly, though, it is similar to the rest of what we have seen in the Middle East - rocks, stones, pebbles and no trace of water anywhere. We stop a couple of times to chat with some young Bedouin goatherds who are lounging under the half-hearted shade of a flimsy tree drinking tea straight from the kettle. They tell us excitedly about the wedding due to take place in the village at the bottom of the hill later today.

"At four o'clock we can return our goats and go to wedding! Do you have any gift we can take to wedding?"

We were kind of hoping for an invitation to the actual wedding instead of a request for donations to it. Sadly no one has any wedding gifts in their daypacks. George hadn't eaten the can of tuna that we all got as part of our packed lunch.

"I don't have anything for the wedding but you are welcome to this as a snack," she offers apologetically. The young boy takes the tin in two hands, as if receiving the Holy Grail and says, "this is great wedding present." Later in the day we think about how the wedding is going and how George's tin of tuna would be the highlight of the night.

Having huffed and puffed our way back up the steep slope we are exhausted and feel much more justified in slothing around for the rest of the evening. Rene and Mark, the two Dutch guys, have three bottles of rum with them and they kindly donate it to the team fund while we sit on the cushions and play cards under the stars. It is late when we crawl onto the roof and say our goodnights.

Two nights in Dana is just enough and we are very ready to go when morning comes around. Hamzi organises our onward travel, a minibus from Dana to the Christian town of Madaba, via the Dead Sea. We think he forgot to tell the driver, who doesn't speak English, where we are going though. The driver thinks we just want to see the Dead Sea so, having driven alongside it for twenty minutes, he veers up the hill towards Madaba.

"Hey!" we shout in unison, "we want to swim in it". We all make swimming motions to make sure the message gets across. Before we get to the beach, the driver pulls into an anonymous little car park and gestures for us to get out. He ushers us towards a wall and some chicken wire fence. On the other side of the fence is a waterfall with some obese topless Jordanian men sitting under it like hippos. The water is actually piping hot, so hot that you can hardly bear to stand under it for more than a few seconds. Behind the water are the womenfolk associated with the obese topless men. Although they are equally wet they are still covered from head to toe in their burqhas and hijabs

This Dead Sea area is very interesting. At 400 metres below sea level it is the lowest place on earth. That in itself is quite a cool experience, having recently been at one of the highest, Mount Kilimanjaro. Needless to say, the temperature is a bit different too, probably 60 degrees hotter here. As everyone knows, the Dead Sea is where you can float and have funny pictures taken of yourself reading a newspaper. This is because the Dead Sea is 20 percent salt, as compared to a normal ocean or sea, which is around two percent. The extra salinity makes your body very buoyant and you can float around, spin on your back or pretend you are a skydiver. If you are part of a group, you can even pretend you are a synchronised swimming team, although that always looks a bit gay.

The extra salinity also makes the water very painful if it gets in any open cuts or, heaven forbid, your eyes. I get some in my eyes a couple of times, while pretending to be part of a synchronised swimming team, and it stings like hell. They say you should flush your eyes out with fresh water straight away when this happens. Problem 1 is that the nearest fresh water is 200 metres away at the showers. Problem 2 is that your eyes sting like hell and you can't open them to see where you are going. 

Apart from floating and clowning around in the water, the other cool thing to do is cover yourself in Dead Sea mud. The mud contains all sorts of soothing and revitalising minerals that make the Dead Sea an attractive spa resort. More importantly, you can rub it all over yourself and make like the Incredible Hulk, minus the muscles.

We all frolic in the salty waters for about an hour. After this amount of time the novelty wears off and we realise that we are covered in a slimy coating of salt. The powerful outdoor showers are alone worth the 5 Jordanian Dinar ($7.50) beach entry fee.

Our driver says he has never been to the Dead Sea.  He makes a very half-hearted effort to get involved by just removing his shoes and socks and walking in the water a little bit, thus defeating the whole purpose of coming here, which is to float. 
In fact, it doesn't seem like he has ever been to Madaba either, judging by the way he drives the wrong way down one way streets, gets stuck in narrow alleys and hasn't the faintest idea where our hotel is.  Not to worry, we make it there eventually.  Madaba appeals to our group for no other reason that that it is a Christian town and therefore sells alcohol freely.  As soon as we have eaten we clean out the nearest liquor store and proceed to drink it all on the hotel roof while yakking and playing cards. 
We are in fairly big group, eight people, and this presents challenges as well as advantages.  On the plus side, we are a large enough group to often persuade a bus driver to leave straight away or change his route, we can get discounts on hotel rooms, we get on well and we have a ready-made party every night.  On the other hand, it can sometimes be difficult to make quick and mutually-satisfying decisions.  A single or a pair of people are the equivalent of a Nifty Fifty, darting through traffic, making nippy little 180 degree turns and taking shortcuts.  A group of eight is a bit like a big old bus - good top speed on the motorway but a bit cumbersome and hard to manoeuvre in the tight.  For example, going out for dinner is the simplest exercise for Jane and I when we are by ourselves.
"Yup, let's go."
"How's this place?"
"Great.  Waiter!"
In a large party you have to wait for everyone to feel hungry.  Then you have to wait for everyone to get ready.  In a 'new' group such as ours, everyone is still too polite to hurry anyone else up.  Once assembled, we pour out onto the street then immediately begin to disassemble as one person window shops, another forgets their wallet and two others have charged off ahead.  If we stay together long enough to find a potential restaurant, it then has to pass the Group of Eight screening process.
Person 1: "What about this place?"
Person 2: "Looks okay, I guess."
Person 3: "Or there's that place across the street."
Person 4: "So which one then?"
Person 5: "I don't really mind."
Person 6: "I don't mind either."
Everyone: "I'm not fussed either way."
And then we stand there, between the two restaurants, all trying to sound diplomatic and easy going by not ruling either option out but not expressing any preference.  Finally Person 1 will say, "well, shall we just try this one then?" in an attempt to turn the bus in a certain direction.  By doing so, however, that person is inadvertently asserting themselves as a leader and must take full responsibility for their 'decision'.
"How was your hummus?"
"A little oily actually."
"Mine too."
All eyes turn accusingly upon Person 1 as if to say, "it's his fault, he chose this place!"
All in all though, we get on really well as a group.  Fadi speaks Arabic so he has the burden of translating and having to listen to all the local assholes trying to rip off such a big group.  We'll hear him arguing and throwing his arms up in frustration as some driver who said he would take us to our hotel now decides he is going to drop us on the side of the road.  The two Dutchies are pretty laid back and are happy as long as they have a sheesha pipe to smoke.  Hamish and George are generally flexible and Hamish will often step in to a circle of indecision and put his head on the block to become Person 1, as above.
With slightly sore heads, we wake up on Thursday morning and catch a bus off to Amman, Jordan's capital city.  It is there that our Group of Eight begins to separate.  Rene is flying back to Holland, Mark is off to Thailand, Sophia is heading down to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, and Hamish and George and embarking on a five month trip around India.  One by one they catch their taxis off to the airport, leaving Fadi, Jane and me alone at the hotel. 
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