By Chris McBeath

Camels can be mighty disagreeable. But when you’re riding one to cross Israel’s Negev Desert to the Dead Sea, their tempers dissipate under the sweltering sun, and you both settle into an awkward, rhythmic, sway.  For the curious mind, it’s not long before you also come to appreciate the finesse of a camel’s engineering.

Camel Quirks & Other Contradictions

For example, camels urinate backwards to cool their hind legs; areas of dead skin areas enable them to sit on scorching 40C degree sands while their bulbous joints raise their bodies just enough to let oncoming winds cool their torso. And their iconic humpy backpacks keep them fed and watered for up to a month, after which they’ll drink a 45-gallon fill up in a mere 10-minutes. But camels have an irritating hang up. They simply refuse to go over ditches, forcing camel trains to take long and winding detours from a simple ‘A to B’ route.

So for safari purposes, you’ll need to trade up to an all-terrain desert vehicle of the motorized variety. The ride isn’t necessarily any more comfortable, but a jeep will get you to places that camels fear to tread – across ditches, and through the crevices, canyons, and plateaus of the Negev Mountains.

Like the country itself, these desert landscapes are a study in contradictions. They are still home to a handful of Bedhouin tribes whose black tents and sheep herds hint of their nomadic authenticity. The Negev is where you’ll find the simple homestead of Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father; Sde Boker, one of Israel’s few remaining kibbutz; as well 2nd century Bezantyne stone- walls, colonies of desert snails, and not infrequently, spent shells from army training exercises – the Israelis practice only with real ammunition.

However you explore the desert, the topography promises the unexpected.

Crater Expectations

Ramon Crater is such a place. Measuring 40km long, and up to 10 km wide, it is the largest of three Negev craters, and contains fascinating geological formations, and a rock-strata found nowhere else in the world. Some sculpted outcrops are 200 million years old, which strut their stuff at every sunset with brilliant hues of salmon and cinnamon, pink, orange, and various hues of hazy blue.

Barren Beauty

Crossing the desert mountain plateau is a rough ride. Except for the occasional free-roaming camel, Nubian ibex (mountain goat), or furry Hyrax that resembles a rabbit without ears, the sunbaked, hard-edged vistas of craggy slopes, dry riverbeds, and fractured earth are endless. It’s a starkly beautiful part of Israel that few visitors experience. Although the almost vertical descent to the Dead Sea is a shade hair-raising, the prospect of floating one’s (now sore) backside in the sea’s soothing, mineral laden waters makes the entire adventure worthwhile.

Lowly Delights

Until you’ve tried to defy its buoyancy, the reality of the Dead Sea is hard to comprehend. But as the earth’s lowest land elevation, more than 430 meters below sea level, the uber-briny waters are as much a tourist attraction as they are an economic resource for magnesium. The sea is, however, diminishing at an alarming rate. In the last 50 years alone the level has dropped about 40 meters, leaving behind crystalized, salty-mud flats which are quickly transformed into visitor-friendly beaches – sand is an easy import. Then there’s the mud. The same glorious mineral-rich mud that Cleopatra daubed all over her body, and that today is packaged into expensive mud therapies. The do-it-yourself slathering technique is a fraction of the cost and way more fun.

Masada Magic

Nothing, however, quite prepares you for dawn atop the Masada.

Spread over a 9.3-hectare plateau on a singular mountain bloc that rises straight up for 450 meters, this palatial fortress includes the remnants of a three-story, cliff-clinging palace as well as residences, storerooms, baths, terraces, vast water cisterns and a synagogue. Built by Herod the Great in 67BC, the genius of architecture is undisputable. And as the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters that chose suicide rather than submit to Roman attackers in AD73, its mythology is the stuff of legends – although intriguingly, no human bones have ever found on or anywhere near the site. The western gate is still reached via the Roman’s original siege ramp path and as the sun casts its morning glow across the Dead Sea and over Masada’s crumbling maze, it can’t help but stir the imagination as to what has gone before. But that’s the pull of Israel. With every step and every breath, you are following stories of biblical and multi-faith proportions, which for such a tiny country is a story unto itself.

If you go:

Israel Ministry of Tourism:

Photos (in the order they appear):

  1. Camel Quirks
  2. Camel Speaks – Chris McBeath
  3. Masada at Dawn – Chris McBeath
  4. Ramon Crater
  5. Jeep Safari Negev Desert
  6. Mud Bask in Dead Sea
  7. Dead Sea Mud Sisters
  8. Ibex – Mountain Goats in Negev Desert