You want to sleep in my cave?

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Egypt  , Red Sea and Sinai,
Saturday, November 14, 2009

It turns out the Dead Sea has been pulling a bit of a con-job on us all this time.

It is not the saltiest piece of watery real estate on the block.

Disregarding a few lakes basically lost to most of humanity, in the Antarctic, Lake Assal of Djibouti takes the salty honours.

In a slightly photographic finish, the Dead Sea logs in at 33.7% salinity, while Djibouti's crusty crater clocks up 34.8%.

And dispelling another bit of a wafty airbrushing is my reminder that the Dead Sea is not in Israel, but rather equally shared by Israel and Palestine on the west bank, and Jordan on the east.

Or perhaps that reveals more of my own ignorance than anything else.

But that's not to distract from the absolute whackiness of a visit to the photo-op lake while drifting down south along the King's Highway between Syria and Egypt.

Not that there are too many buses cruising up and down a zone somewhat politically challenged. Tensions run high in the western occupied territories as well as down the Jordan flank.

Flash a passport to have a dunk?

Helicopters buzz, and the odd machine gun flourishes from below hessian sacked observation posts.

The lake is a little commercial dream machine. For unlike any other river or sea, it is near impossible just to stop the taxi, have a dip, dry off and go home.

Nobody ever mentions the pain.

The salt encases one's body, finds the slightest cracks in the skin, torturously shrivels lips and tongue, and burns what feels like holes into the cornea.

Drop some light cooking salt on to a leech, and watch it shrivel away from you in agony.

Multiply the strength of the salt tenfold, then the dose a similar amount, and drop a dot of it on to your eye.

You have to have enough fresh water close enough to hand to wash and rinse, lest you turn into some kind of human bacalhau.

Up steps the cash register. Resorts line the banks. Want to swim? Pay to pass through the gates to the beach, and earn the right to wash down after the rolly-polly-floaty affair.

The water is pleasantly warm, and innocuous enough except for a mild iodene nose, until you reach around navel  level.

Then the magic of chemistry begins to take over, and you feel lighter on your feet than you should.

Warning signs everywhere strongly advise against diving, and even lying on your stomach in the water.

Lean back, and thighs, calfs and ankles are driven upwards by the unusual buoyancy for which the lake is famous.

It is impossible to sink. If you attempt to roll to one side, gravity fights buoyancy in a strange case of give and take on parts of the body unused to such parochial interplay. Legs and arms flop upwards in ungainly water ballet gestures. 

Manage to roll on to your stomach, and your calves and ankles fly up into the air. Hold that head up! Even a drop of water on your eyebrow is like a mini-bomb just waiting to unleash itself into your naked eye.

The black mud from local deposits 'naturally' carries ancient healing powers, and for a Dinar or two more, you can coat yourself in the shiny black goo.

All quaint and curious fun in a country that from a distance looks like a stretch of tarmac between Damascus and the land of the Pharoahs.

The Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, at 422m below sea level, was merely an introduction.

The area around the lake, fed by the River Jordan, is riddled with tales, relics and clues to sectarian history.  A road sign signals the supposed site of the baptism of Jesus. A few hundred metres along a huge, eye-catching banner promotes the Baptism Supermarket. Fully stocked with holy water.

Head further south, after a quick return to capital Amman, the somewhat ‘normal’ city of the Middle East, devoid of any classic tourist ‘must see’, and gently low-key for a large commercial hub.

An aural interlude interjects, intimating  we are no longer in the ‘axis of evil’. A Yankee twang whines through the minibus, as a tourist haggles a price with a less-than-amused driver.

"Where you from?" New York City. After grumbling about paying the meagre amount, the couple sits and speak uncharacteristically quietly, understanding their accent carries more than a nominal degree of unformfortability.

The Arabian desert begins to encroach on the fertile valley parallel to the Jordan River and Dead  Sea. Flat sand, hot sand, scrubby sand, lethargic sand.

Sporadic villages sport squared buildings, flat roofs, rough brick and concrete, lacking any finishing. This is not ‘finishing’ land. If windswept sand can mould mountains,  flimsy lacquer applied to any local abode would soon become dulled flecks in the desert.

A pit-stop for a cigarette and cup of tea, and a neighbouring minibus driver calls me over to chat with him through his window. In Arabic he asks me where I am from, where I am going, and learns I am taking the long road home to South Africa.

After smiles, heart touching and general good-affection communication, he stretches his hand out to the dashboard, and picks up his string of Muslim prayer beads. A long string has 99 beads, corresponding to the 99 names of Allah. The shortened version has 33 beads, and one moves them along the string one at a time, for three cycles.

In a smattering of baby-talk Arabic and English, the driver quietly said: “My name is Suleiman, I am a Bedouin. You would do me great honour if you carried these beads to the end of Africa.”

Stunned, I carefully took his precious pearls from him, and vowed that they would cross the great continent.

Onwards, the reknowned ‘lost city’ of Petra beckons. A quest of decades, since stumbling upon a picture of the pillars and portal of the iconic Treasury.

Recently voted one of the  Seven New Wonders of theWorld, Petra is also regarded as one of the three great rediscovered mystery cities, along with Macchu Picchu in Peru and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The Nabataeans (peoples of Israel, Palestine, south Jordan and west Arabia) constructed it as their capital  around 100 BC, and its perennial water in the middle of the drylands made it a crucial waypoint for early east-west trading.

The Romans intervened, spruced the place up. Islam found the broader shores and commercial influence waned towards Damascus and filtered out into new sea routes, leaving the hidden citadel to the dusty storms of local time.

Bedouins in the area kept it secret from the world, until Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt stumbled upon it in 1812 while disguised as a Muslim holy man.

The land is flat, dry bone grey around, as far as the eye can see. Then the rocks begin to form on the encroaching horizon. Lumps and lumps of big bouldery, bulbous rocks. Mini-mountains. Up to 400m or 500m, at first, from a distance the vast extrusion from the earth looks like one huge pile of monstrous, misshapen boulders.

Closer, the hills pull apart, streams of weaving stretches of sand separating them - threads of passage for broad-footed camels.

Find accomodation in the adjacent tourist town of Wadi Musa, and wait for the gates to open at 6.30am.

There is an autumnal chill in early November air, before the sun has poked its nose over an easterly mound. The town is quiet, not yet awake to spoil my 2km walk down to Petra’s entrance.

The citadel is protected to the south, towards Saudi Arabia, by hundreds of kilometres of inhospitable sand. A huge semi-circle of solid rock wards off all other ill intent. The only way in is through a crack in the soaring hill shield, down a 1.7km fissure known as ‘the Siq’ (the Shaft).

The thin, rambling, jaggedy and twisting needle-thin passage is neither gulch nor valley, but the result of a split in the great rock eons ago. The eye can easily make out how the uneven puzzle edges once interlocked.

Dawn light filters down, vertically. There is complete silence at this time, not another soul in sight. How many had trod the same dusty, smooth, rounded, broad paving stones?

The iron-laden sandstone walls are surreal of their own making, often bizarrely rounded edges smoothed by uncountable sandstorm furies. Regular incisions show where objects of beauty once stood. The wall was once a spiritual touchstone, down which priests would walk, making devotions to the array of gods.

At waist height runs a now irregularly-shaped wending and weaving aqueduct, cut from the face, down which precious water ran, and was collected in ingenious basins and dams below.

Through a distance edge, the sought sight makes its first tiny appearancy. Straight columns, a second floor of columns. The end of the Siq opens into a square, fronted by the face of the awe-inspiring ‘Treasury’.

Hewn directly into the rock face, 45m high by 35m wide, there is no option but just to stand … and stare.

Its common name is a misnomer, having originally been built as a tomb for Nabataean King Aretas III around 50 BC. Legend has it an Egyptian pharaoh once hid his treasure in the massive vault while on the heels of some pesky Israelites.

The columns front a cave tomb dug into the cliff face, red stone and pink.

Indiana Jones popularised the image in The Last Crusade, but that’s like ‘copping a feel’ more than anything else.

Around the corner, and the internal valley opens up, with  50m high tomb after tomb lining the cliff walls.  The cave diggers and dwellers of Mamallapuram in south India and Cappadocia in central Turkey pale into semi-insignificance at the size and intricacy of Petra’s offerings. The cliffs are pocked with caves, sandstorm scoured and hand-helped, long since shelter for the local Bedouin.

Hundreds of tombs line the cliffs, built for nobleman and kings, in a city at first believed by archeologists to have been a burial centre. What vaingloriousness was it that drove such extravagance? How rich must people have been to have spent a decade on a burial site?

The pyramids were built for ‘gods’, these tombs are for mere mortals.

Roman influence appears deeper into the valley, a half-moon theatre hewn from another rock face, a collonaded street down into the middle of the town, past grand temples.

Almost alien in feel, yet as real as the rock that scratches the elbow in passing – the glory days are displayed in well-preserved magnificence.

It is a beautiful setting, in the most classic sense of the over-used adjective, immortalised in the poem, Petra (John Burgon ) as “a rose-red city half as old as time”.

You might almost feel you were one of the ancients, or could hear the clank of a Roman sword on plated thigh guard.

But today’s denizens carry a different call. “Only one Dinar, cheap, only one Dinar,” goes the Bedouin stall cry. “ Be the lucky first to open my store,” I hear, after already seeing two or three tourists choosing wares.

The tourists begin to throng in as the group buses begin jamming the parking area outside the Siq around 8.30am.

The peace is shattered, and the circus begins.

Kids offer donkey rides, swathed men offer camel rides, every 50m covered women sit in the shade behind their ornament-laden tables abusing the time-honoured custom of a Bedouin tea offering. “Come share tea with me, it is old custom,” and while you’re here don’t make me lose face by not dipping your hand for a trinket or two.

The edifices and history is glorious, the commerce is tacky, and uncommonly rank.

Sweet and sour too, comes the whispered call of prey to lone females: “Would you like to spend a night in my cave?”

In 1978, New Zealand traveller Marguerite van Geldermalsen took up just such a call, fell in love, married, lived the Bedouin transient cave dweller life, and recently became famous in her own teacup with her eponymous biography Married to  Bedouin.

But since then, it seems that every lone male of the zone worth his salt reckons on the caveman come-on line.

Two world-wise,and faırly year-worn, fellow travellers recounted their interactions.

 “Let me show you a secret place”, … “don’t worry, for free” … “ride with me on my donkey” … with roaming hands. “Let’s go and visit my family” … stroke the hand … “come see my cave” … adorned with dusty, uncovered foam mattress, a rumpled blanket, locked tin trunk and dented, blackened kettle on cold coal bed. “I will cook Bedouin food, just for you.”

Want to spend a night in my cave?

Hours of negative responses amps up the salacious loquacity: “Do you know how many women would die to be in your shoes right now?” Then the guilt trip: “You just take, and don’t give. I give you everything all day, and you give nothing.”

Both women friends were left disturbed and uncomfortable at the "aggressive, skilled" seduction ploys, when all they wanted to do was feel enjoy the view

A doctoral thesis awaits a sociology or psychology major investigating the phsychological impact of living an entire life within a tourist cage.

“I have been brought up with tourists,” says Oudi (42). He has seen millions of dollars walk past his nose since he crawled in the Petra dust. He has heard dozens of languages, and is adept at saying “only one Dinar, cheap” in most. He has been bantering, selling, looked down upon, seen as exotic, turned down, trodden on, dusty, proud, for four decades. He can banter with anyone, to get what he wants in the valley. Caged, cooped, “I am a Bedouin, I am of the desert and ages, I am free”, yet he is trapped within a world cocoon completely woven by the small talk of cash and carry, money on holiday, gawkers and passersby for the most.

I take pity, yet could never come even close to this disclosure.

But , too, there is much warmth and wit. Horsemen offer their steeds for the long uphill ride back to Wadi Musa: “nice Ferrari, use my Mercedes Benz, don’t walk, my car is 4x4”.

Pony traps take the mickey,  back along the Siq, proving themselves the most expensive taxi rides on the planet. 40 euro (approx US$50) between 2 passengers for 1.7km! One can take a taxi across Hong Kong, for 30km to the airport, and still expect a healthy dollop of change.

Should these hustlers garner 5 rides a day, they will earn 5,600 euro per month (US$8,300, 61,900 South African Rand).

Camel and donkey rides come in at the same quantum economics.

Seeking one or two cynical capital venturers – and one or two strong-arm boyos. We’ll make a mint.

The town exhibits the confluence of the trapped psyche and the gouge cowboys. Four-wheel drives are the new camels, heavy Arabic metal rock blasts out of rolled down windows. Laconics lounge under Texas-style hats: “You want to sleep in my cave?”

Further down the road are the wastelands, interspersed with the sparse beauty of the wadis (rocks and valleys), immortalised in The 7 Pillars of Wisdom by WW1 soldier legend TE Lawrence.

With luminescent purple and red sunsets, and desert grit in my eye, I seem to have all the time in the world to ponder the existence of Lance of Arabia.
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Jean on

Hey Lance !
Seems you're approaching Cairo. I just arrived today after a race against time in France. Tell me when you reach here !

katherine-anne on

following the cherry trail - enchanted and slightly breathless. so boarding the magic carpet, next stop cairo? safe ride k

Faith Cherry on

Just magical son. Ride the high winds and let the sands drift through your fingers like hours of your life.

Tracie on

I love the unsinkable Lance! almost home now, how long do you think before you get restless again?

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