The majority of visitors to Israel will spend most of their time enjoying the beaches and nightlife of the hedonistic Tel Aviv or immersing themselves in Jerusalem’s immense history but there’s a lot more to the Holy Land than these two diametrically opposed cities.
There’s a fun excursion available that shows some of Israel’s highlights on a 12-hour, well arranged itinerary, which takes in the ancient fortress of Masada, the Ein Gedi nature reserve and finishes at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.
The tour requires a lot of walking so you need to be in decent physical health, you must take snacks and drinks as these aren’t provided and this is a transportation service only, there are no tour guides leading you.
The coach departs from The Grand Beach Hotel in north Tel Aviv at 2am, making its way to Masada via a pick-up in Jerusalem. With the driving in Israel erratic at best, any hope of catching some sleep on the coach is fanciful; with our driver doing his best to emulate driving on a go-kart track.
You arrive at Masada at about 04.55 for the Sunrise walking tour. Masada was a hilltop fortress and scene of the mass suicide of over 950 Sicarii Jews in 73 CE in one of the final acts of the first Jewish-Roman war.
Completely surrounded, defeat was inevitable and with suicide prohibited by Judaism, the defenders drew lots and killed each other, preferring death over enslavement to the Romans. The Romans broke through to find almost 1,000 dead, with only two women and five children, who hid, alive.
This account is according to Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was captured in battle and released into Roman servitude; he subsequently recorded the Roman campaign and is the only chronicler of what happened at Masada. The events have since been questioned by modern Historians but it makes for fascinating (and macabre) reading nonetheless.
It’s a fairly challenging hike. The park opens at 05.00 and unless you’ve passed SAS basic training, it is next to impossible to reach the top by the time the sun rises. It takes around 45-60 minutes depending on how many stops you make and how physically able you are, and with the sun rising at 05.35, it’s a tall order from the start.
It matters not though, as the scenery is breathtaking. The views from the hillside stop you in your tracks with the horizon stretching as far as the eye can see. The sun rose over the distant hills, running the sky through a kaleidoscope of pastel colours, firstly pink, then orange and finally yellow as dawn broke over this magical landscape. Despite the bleak history, it’s a surprisingly romantic excursion and is best enjoyed with a loved one.
Cut between two dramatic canyons, this nature reserve is a magical oasis in the heart of the Judean desert. Home to an assortment of wildlife including Ibex and boulder-hugging hyrax, there are cool streams and waterfalls in this slice of paradise in the arid landscape.
With only an hour here, there isn’t too much time to explore, but it’s enough time to complete the Wadi David Hike, a fairly relaxed, circular hike from the entrance to David’s waterfall, it takes an hour to complete and we managed to spot several of the Ibexes which are more elusive, generally visible only at the earliest of latest times of the park’s opening hours.
The Dead Sea
For me, this was the least enjoyable of the three experiences; you’re led into a gift shop for a surprise, pre-prepared sales presentation. Listening to someone pitch Dead Sea products allows free entry to the club. It was only brief, but it was unexpected, and truth be told, I felt a little uncomfortable.
The lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea is high in oily minerals and salt content and has renowned healing properties for the skin. Flip-flops are advisable as the sand leading to the sea is sharp but wading into the sea and immediately floating is something that must be experienced, at least once. You can also cover yourself in mud from the bank, a common practice used to remove dead skin and impurities from the body.
This trip is a fantastic experience but you must be prepared. The temperature at Masada was 30 degrees at 5am in late May. Without fresh water, I don’t think the climb would be achievable: the heat was absolutely oppressive. Likewise, the climb through Ein Gedi was made much more difficult by the heat. Climbing onto the air-conditioned coach was a relief such as I’ve rarely felt.
It’s a long, tiring day, with constant flies, energy-sapping heat and challenging hikes and it’s not for the faint-hearted but climbing Masada at dawn is an unforgettable experience. Maybe the most rewarding travel experience I’ve ever had.
Thanks for reading,
I booked through touristisrael.com. It cost around £55 and it was worth every penny. Pick-up and drop-off in Tel Aviv and transport to the three attractions is included. It doesn’t cover admission to Masada (31 shekels) or to Ein Gedi (28 shekels).