On the one hand it seems a bit churlish to continue with this blog with a war going on; however I very much feel that we must continue to live as normal a life as possible. Indeed, the class continues, our trips continue, so I will continue to write about our activities.
For our third trip we headed southwards again to the Dead Sea region, taking a different route (so we could learn a new route, and also be told about new things that we were passing), and heading towards Mt Sedom. The day contained fewer sites than the first two, partly because of the long journey times from Tel Aviv (around 3 hours in each direction) and partly because of two reasonably long hikes which were part of the programme.
We began the day though, at the Meitzad Zohar viewpoint. I’ve actually stopped off here before; it is a small lay-by on route 31 from Arad down to the Dead Sea, not too long before the junction with route 90. It is a lovely view (as evidenced above), but it was nice to also know a bit about what we were looking at. There was some ancient history: beneath us were ruins of what archaeologists think was a Roman customs house. Salt was a major commodity in ancient times (some Roman soldiers were paid in it; this is the origin of the word salary), and the checkpoint was located in a narrow part of the road towards Mt Sedom (a major source of salt) to stop people taking it without permission.
In more modern times, we heard about the Lot Operation; part of the War of Independence when a company of soldiers hiked down this route to win back the Dead Sea factories which had been taken by Jordanian forces. I always find it interesting when you find these connections from ancient to modern history.
For our next stop, we turned off road onto a dirt track which lead us up to the Arazim Plane, which lies just past Mt Sedom. This was probably a lake many many years ago, now the lake has evaporated and the former bed slowly eroded by various streams; this sort of landscape is referred to as ‘badlands’ of which the most famous examples are in North and South Dakota in the US. We went into one of the small ravines created by a stream called Nachal Peratzim. As we hiked down the currently dry bed of the stream, we noticed beautiful patterns along the ravine walls.
These patterns were caused by centuries of wet (winter) and dry (summer) seasons. In the winter, rain would wash lots of mud into the former lake, creating a grey/brown layer of sediment. In summer, the water would evaporate with the heat, leaving a new layer of white sediment because of the minerals the water naturally contained. These layers are pretty straight, but in various places are jumbled up, looking a bit like a marble cake. The geological theory is that these were caused by seismic activity (the Dead Sea falls in the Great Rift Valley which is a fault line). The rocks were beautiful and it was very interesting to hear the theory behind it.
We continued hiking down the stream bed until we reached the entrance to the Flour Caves. I have very fond memories of trips to the flour caves with various different groups. They are covered in a white plastery powder, reminiscent of flour, and the fun part was to throw it at each other. Then, on emerging, we would be given some watermelon, leaving us with white faces and bright red lips. Very ghoulish. As you can imagine, this sort of activity was very popular with bus drivers. Sadly, the caves are now closed; some seismic activity caused some of it to fall down a few years ago and it is deemed too much of a risk to let people in, particularly in this sad age of litigation when things don’t go wrong. Our guide pooh-poohed the risk but still wouldn’t take us in; of course there is no way we could take tourists in there, sadly.
We returned to the bus and then a short drive took us to the start of a new hike, crossing Mount Sedom. We learned about the formation of the mountain, which is largely composed of rock salt (entirely composed of rock salt at its base). Without getting too much into the geological details, rock salt, when put under pressure, becomes malleable, a bit like plasticine. The pressure on the salt in the valley by heavier minerals is pushing the rock salt out and upwards, as it is constrained in how far it can go outwards by other rocks blocking its bath. This mountain is still actually growing, at the rate of 3mm per year (that’s pretty quick in geological terms). I never took much of an interest in geology before, but the guide made it pretty compelling. I tried to feel the mountain growing but cannot say I succeeded.
The hike was lovely, with stunning views over the Dead Sea pools and Jordan across from us. Perfect time of year; it was warm, but not too hot. A very steep descent though, not so kind on the knees. Huge respect to the 75 year old man on the course who took it all (literally) in his stride.
After finishing the hike at the bottom of the mountain, we travelled a very short distance south to the entrance to the Sedom Cave. The mountain has various caves created by the rock salt being surrounded by other, harder rock, and then being dissolved/eroded by rain fall. The cave had a very nice new sign outside it saying that, like the flour caves, it was dangerous to enter. But we went in anyway (having made it clear to us that it was at our own risk). Again, not somewhere we can take tourists, at least while the sign is there, but it was quite stunning to clamber through the darkness and arrive in a cavern with an extremely high ceiling and a hole in the roof, letting in light and lending a very special ambience to the place. Hopefully it can be reopened soon.
Our final stop of the day was by the Dead Sea factories. Not the most aesthetically pleasing sight, but still interesting to learn about the history of the factories which were originally envisioned by Theodore Herzl in his novel about the Zionist utopia, Altneuland. The factories are a huge part of the economy in the Negev region (indirectly employing 4000 families) but they do exact a toll on the environment and remain a controversial subject in Israel. For now though, they continue to operate, and are apparently the largest Bromine producers in the world.
And that was that; as the sun set behind us, it was time to head home to Tel Aviv.