My alarm went off as I’d just fallen asleep and I stirred to get dressed in the dark in my Jerusalem dorm room. I grabbed my bag and made my way to the walls of the Old City, where the bus picked me up. The tour bus was already full and all I could focus on was how little sleep I’d had. I tried to curl up against the window as we made our way south, through the dusty lunar landscape.
Climbing Masada in the Dark
The reason we’d embarked so early was to see the sunrise from Masada, a landmark south of Jerusalem. We parked in the dark, paid for entry in the dark, and started the climb in the dark. I wore every layer of clothing I’d packed. I stopped for water frequently during the switchbacks as the large group of French girls from a Birthright trip passed me, taking selfies along the way. Called the “Snake Path,” the 700-step trail of loose gravel made it easy to see why. There’s also a cable car to take you to the top, but it doesn’t start running until after sunrise.
Masada is a rock plateau in the Judean Desert that overlooks the Dead Sea. A popular day trip from Jerusalem, King Herod built a palace on the mountain in the 30s BCE. It was well fortified for many years because of its high location but was eventually the site of a siege by the Romans that ended in the deaths of over 900 people. Since then, it’s been saved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When I finally reached the top of the 400 meter (roughly 1,300 feet), I realized that I’d left my camera at the hostel. Phone pictures would have to suffice. I inhaled all my water and watched the Birthright groups pose for photos under the waving Israeli flag. The view didn’t suck when the sun lit up the desert bumps on the horizon. I quickly made my way back down, unsure of who was in my group, afraid I’d get left behind.
A Real-Life Oasis at Ein Gedi
Our next stop was Ein Gedi Reserve, a 3,500-acre nature reserve a short drive away. As I joked in my Instagram posts from the trip, travel writers frequently use the term “oasis,” but this was an honest to God oasis. Waterfalls and rivers cut through the sandy landscape, bringing green plant life and animals like ibex and birds like Tristram’s Starling. I walked the loop to David’s Waterfall, but there are even longer trails you can experience over the course of a few hours. Grab a brochure to identify all the creatures in the reserve.
Not Floating in the Dead Sea
Surviving all the hikes, I was glad to finally reach the Dead Sea, what I’d actually signed up for the tour to do. But we soon found that conditions weren’t ideal for floating. The wind was roaring and the walk down to the shore was long and rocky. Waves lapped, making it difficult to actually sit down to float. Instead, I stood waist deep in the salty water, trying to avoid getting it in my eyes. I also rubbed the famous Dead Sea mud on my arms and legs, trying to let the minerals soak in. But it left my skin feeling greasy for days, despite showers.
Quickly tired of the sea, I instead went to the restaurant for a lunch of hummus, my frequent meal. Thankfully, I went back to a better spot along the Dead Sea on my way to Eilat. The group piled back into the van to return to Jerusalem by late afternoon. I got in thousands of steps in a matter of hours and the day wasn’t over yet.
If You Go
I booked the Masada Sunrise Tour with Abraham Tours, which is how I saw just about everywhere in Israel. It cost around $70 USD and leaves at around 4 am, running daily except for Saturdays. There’s also a non-sunrise tour. The excursion is self-guided and doesn’t include entry into Masada or Ein Gedi. I recommend bringing your own snacks as well, but there is a small kiosk to buy snacks at Ein Gedi. Wear layers and comfortable shoes for the Masada portion.
The photos of me were taken using my Podo, my favorite new gadget. Buy your own here.