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Great Drives: Doing The Dead Sea Float

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine
by Stephan Wilkinson
Originally Published 2007

"YOU'LL BE JUST in time for the afternoon traffic jam," the yarmulkaed New York businessman warns as the 747 touches down at four p.m. Fortunately, we are landing at Ben-Gurion, not Kennedy, and Israeli traffic jams compare favorably to Manhattan's.

My road is empty in any case, for this is to be a rarity: a Great Drive that begins virtually at the airport boundary. The obvious route east to Jerusalem is crowded, four-lane, divided-highway Route 1--a rarity itself, part of just over 60 miles of expressway in all Israel-- and I opt for two little backroads, 424 and 395. Within minutes, two lanes become barely a lane and a half, winding upward through a forest of cedars and cypress in the approaching twilight, and I realize I've stumbled upon "the Burma Road": the impossible goat track built by the Israelis to resupply Jerusalem by truck and backpack in 1948, when the Arab Legion's howitzers made the main road impassable.

Through the Honda's back window, the sun is a grayish orange over the Mediterranean. The tiny, no-guardrail road traces ridges and tiptoes through craggy gorges, great limestone boulders shining with the last of the day's light while history rustles and rattles through the darkening trees. No, nothing Biblical, though that is doubtless out there as well, but I can sense the ghosts of just 44 years ago--the men who had bulldozed this track in the dark, while the Arabs saved their ammunition because they assumed the Burma Road was an impossibility.

Ah, but there's your answer: Jerusalem ahead, its labyrinthine streets and roads stretching for miles over tortured ridges, mounts and valleys, still disputed.

DAY ONE: Jerusalem to Elat (243 miles)

In 1947, Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, a powerful opponent of the proposed Jewish state, warned that the consequent Arab- Israeli Armageddon would affect our access to oil and that within a decade, the U. S. "could be forced to convert to four-cylinder cars." Forrestal was only wrong by a few decades, so it makes sense to see how one of the cornerstones of our unwilling four-cylinder culture--the Honda Civic--itself handles the Middle East.

The original 1973 Civic--introduced just in time to shake hands with the first Arab oil embargo--was a 55-horsepower, 1,200cc, $1,819 rollerskate of a car that, not surprisingly, got a commendable 43 miles per gallon. (Not until the early 1980s, when horsepower was up to a minimum of 60 in the smaller Civics, could Honda bear to include the figure in the car's sales brochures, in a country accustomed to snowblowers with engines nearly as powerful.) The Civic's name, a rare example of Japanese nomenclatural logic, honored the fact that Americans seemed to particularly favor subcompact imports for city driving.

The top-of-the-line 1992 Civic EX four-door in which I am slouching south from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem, however, makes it clear that the open road beckons and minimalism is no longer so acceptable: it has a sophisticated 125-hp, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine and costs a minimum of $13,775. Yet despite the fact that the engine now displaces 1,600cc and that the car is considerably larger and plusher than that first fuel-crisis-fighter Civic, the biggest '92 Civic still gets 36 highway mpg. (A smaller model, the VX, gets as much as 55.) Even Forrestal might have approved.

Honda has always been "an engine company," putting its best technology under the hood, and this representative of the brand-new fifth generation of Civics is no exception.

In 1975, for example, while the American manufacturers were whining that California exhaust-emissions standards were impossibly stiff and could barely be met by adding expensive catalytic converters to cars sold there, Honda developed an engine for the Civic that was the first--and for some time the only--engine to meet California standards without a cat. Today, Honda's trick engine technology is variable valve timing, first put into production in Honda's $63,000 Ferrari-ish Acura NSX sports car and now available in the EX and certain other Civic models. It allows the engine to be slightly schizophrenic: tuned for economy below 5,000 rpm yet breathing and burning fuel for increased torque and power between 5,000 and 7,200 revs.

East of Qiryat Gat, I pick up my first soldiers. In Israel, giving rides to hitchhiking troops going to or from home for sabbath or furlough has long been considered a national duty, though backpackers and thumbing young tourists are largely ignored. With a clattering of M16s and ammunition clips--Israeli soldiers are never without their weapons--I get my very own carful of bodyguards.

The land is harsh, yet in places oddly beautiful: a wind-swept grove of cedars atop a hillock, a sudden terraced vineyard, the grain of the earth showing through in places like the striations of a weathered plank of cypress. "Boy, you had to really want this land to settle here," I say. "Or be welcome nowhere else in the world," one of the soldiers chides.

Wailing through Beersheba with half a tank of fuel and a soldierless Honda, it occurs to me that I'm about to enter the Negev, a large desert friendly enough to Bedouins and camels but ready to gobble up New Yorkers like dates. It hurts to back-track, but I U-turn to town and top off.

The Negev is not a desert of dunes, colors and monumental mesas. It is a lunar wilderness of sunbleached sandstone and dolomite, dirt and rocks, making the occasional flowers all the more brilliant: achingly red poppies, yellow mustardseed, strange violet blossoms. The only other color is the occasional bright orange of the standardized Israeli roadsigns that point to natural attractions, archaeological sites, scenic overlooks and other tourist fare.

One directs the dusty Civic to the small, charming canyon of En Avdat, where an extended family of rare Nubian ibexes--antelope-like desert goats--is climbing the vertical canyon walls. "They have a leader," a talkative Israeli lady says, "and he climbs first, then calls to say it's safe to come up." Do they ever fall? "Oh, yes." The walls are barely stairstepped in places with protruding layers of limestone, yet the kids play like kittens as enormous Egyptian vultures wheel and soar, looking quite big enough to snatch a baby ibex.

Just south on route 40 is the Ramon Crater, which turns out to be misnamed. It was formed neither by volcano nor meteorite but by five million years of patient erosion by a single tiny river. If the Negev were a tooth, it would be God's own cavity, 19 miles long and five wide. The road from the spectacular overlook at Mizpe Ramon switchbacks down the steep north wall, and eons of geology--the sedimentary pages of creation bared grain-by-grain by that patient river--flash by in minutes.

Beyond the crater, a rusty, six-wheel Israeli armored personnel carrier sits by the roadside where, says the artillery round's jagged hole just behind the driver's seat, its crew died in 1967. Air still fills four of its tires, but there is no plaque, no plinth. It is not a formal monument, simply a reminder.

DAY TWO: Elat to the Dead Sea (134 miles)

Elat, Israel's favorite winter resort, is a small, Middle Eastern San Juan. Resort-hotel ziggurats make a gaptoothed jawbone of the curving shoreline. It faces the surfless salt sea of the Gulf of Aqaba--Israel, ever the annexer, calls it the Gulf of Elat--and from the heights far above town, along the barbed-wire border, can be seen Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Aqaba's Jordan.

Five kilometers south of Elat is an unashamedly touristic yet quite wonderful underwater reef observatory--an aquarium with the people on the inside--that makes it apparent the waters under the Gulf are as vivid and busy as the Negev above is sere and deserted. (You can't miss it: head toward Egypt and park when you get to the half- asleep photo-opportunity camel with the "Coral World" bumpersticker pasted to its neck.)

Aha: civilian Israeli hitchhikers! Northbound now along the Jordan border, ready for some local culture, I pick up the two girls and the bearded young man. "Oh, wow, we thought nobody'd ever stop," says the girl who flings herself into the front seat. "Where you from? New York? Oh, neat, I'm from Scarsdale."

Never mind, they invite me to lunch at Quetura, the onion, turkey and date-growing cooperative farm at which they're volunteer workers, and I get a peek at "the Kibbutz Experience." Scarsdale's concrete- block hovel is every parent's nightmare, looking like an abandoned Bronx apartment in which a homeless person who owns a mattress and lots of dirty laundry has squatted. The door lists on a single hinge and must be moved like a packing-crate slab, and in the tiny, fetid anteroom stands a small shared refrigerator, an angry note taped to it castigating those who leave messes. (Who could tell?)

She works nine hours a day, six days a week, for 100 shekels a month--about $42.50--and it's not all fun. "Things we suggest while we're working aren't even acknowledged, much less taken seriously," she says. "It's the combination of being American and a woman--the worst. It's impossible for me to go anywhere alone. I'll go to the beach and an Israeli guy will immediately come up and I'll say, 'Look, I don't want you here, leave me alone, I don't want to talk to you.' He'll sit down anyway and say something like, 'Nice breasts.'"

She'd be safe at the Dead Sea, where most of the beachgoers are middle-aged tourists floating like human pool toys, scudding hither and yon as lightly as maple leaves on an autumn pond. "Look at the clock, Max, quarter after three, we have to be out be three-thirty," an American matron says.

"Yes, dear," Max answers, rolling his eyes at me.

"You're only supposed to do this for 15 minutes at a time--10 at first," she confides. What happens if you overdo it? "You fall asleep. the chemicals are a relaxant."

Nonetheless, a dip in the Dead Sea is a de rigueur Israel experience. Those who imagine the naturally chemicals-rich water will be vaguely more buoyant--it has a 25-percent salt content versus the Mediterranean's 3.5--are in for a rude shock. It's impossible to walk more than chest-high into the sulfurous lake before your feet come off the bottom; even forcing yourself into the water by gripping a handrail will only achieve chin-high immersion. And it's a good thing: put a drop of Dead Sea water on the tip of your tongue and you'll swear you've swallowed Drano.

DAY THREE: Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee (138 miles):

Masada is Israel's Alamo--the site of a massive defeat that, with the Holocaust, has become the bedrock of Israeli nationalism. On this immense mesa overlooking the Dead Sea, 960 Zealots massacred each other in A.D. 73 rather than surrendering to what may have been as many as 15,000 Romans who, after eight months of siege, had laboriously built an earthen ramp up to the mesa-top and breached the fortress walls.

It is also the most monumental of Israel's many archaeological sites. Masada lay virtually untouched until 1963, when Israeli general-turned-archaeologist Yigal Yadin began excavation and some careful rebuilding. Today the several hideout palaces of King Herod, who first developed Masada as a fortress, lie revealed, as do the baths and cisterns, synagogue and storehouses used a century later by the doomed Zealots. Only the Citadel of the meglomaniacal slave-king Henri Christophe, high in the mountains of northern Haiti, approaches Masada's remoteness, magnificence and poignancy.

"I myself took my oath at Masada, 20 years ago," says the middle- aged soldier I pick up near Jericho, well into the Israeli-occupied-- but never formally annexed--West Bank. "A Bible in one hand, a rifle in the other. All soldiers from you say it, the panzers-- yes, yes, the armored--they take the oath at Masada. The paratroops, the infantry, each has its special place, but to all of us Masada is sacred."

He also modifies my route, when I show him the roadmap. "No, no, do not go back to Jerusalem through Nablus [a Palestinian center in the heart of the West Bank region]. I was stationed there, and it is no fun. It's quiet over here, but it's bad in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron." What do they do, throw stones at cars? "Throw stones and worse. Maybe firebombs." Even at Americans? "They don't know you are American, all they see is the yellow Israeli license plate." So maybe I can put an American flag on the radio aerial? "I don't think they know it is an American flag."

Since my reverence extends no farther than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, hold the horse while I get on, I can only dimly remember that Jesus supposedly strolled the waters of the Sea of Galilee, which in Minnesota would be called a medium-size lake. From a table at a waterfront cafe in Tiberias, however, it gives a good imitation of being an ocean, since the far shore is invisible in the ever-present Jordan Valley heat-haze.

As night falls, the disco boat twinkles in the distance, midstream with a cargo of latter-day hedonists. Bass rhythm thumps across the water, competing with the strolling musicians who are appearing increasingly in Israel's cities as Russian Jews immigrate, far too many with no skills but the violin.

DAY FOUR: Tiberias to Haifa via the Golan Heights (161 miles)

I'd expected mountains, particularly while the Honda ground its way up and up the steep slopes east of Galilee, on a lane-and-a-half, no-guardrail road through a series of sporty switchbacks. Far below, softened by the haze, a Jordanian military convoy crawls along a highway on the other side of the barbed-wire border.

Yet much of the Golan Heights in fact is an Israeli Iowa: an enormous, flat, fertile tableland 2,000 feet above the Sea of Galilee, where farmers plow casually around the battered gun emplacements left behind by the Syrians. You don't need to be Norman Schwartzkopf to understand how tanks could romp across this immense drill field, how Syrian artillery could command every Israeli settlement from Nazareth to the Lebanese border, why there'd be no disco boats on Galilee.

An orange sign draws my eye, prompts a U-turn and leads me to Gamla, yet another Alamo. Here Herod settled pioneers to populate the frontier, in a small walled city on a pinnacle safely adrift from the Golan plateau yet high above Galilee. And here the Romans again breached the walls nonetheless, a massacre the consequence. The walls and many of the city's foundations remain, and you reach them by walking the single narrow access path along the spine of the rocky outcropping, your feet exactly where those of Jew and Roman strode. It is a vivid site, and it's hard not to notice the congruity of a nearby sign warning visitors not to stray, for there are unexploded mines still in the fields.

Back on the deserted road, I'm lost, but not alone. While I try to find Route 98 before blundering into Syria, a rocket-podded Israeli loach--a light observation helicopter--whistles overhead about 50 feet above the Civic's roof, then crabs sideways to take a look through my windshield. I glance to my right, and there's another one, the crew like video-game bugs behind their smoked-visored helmets. Hi, guys. I feel like an extra in Blue Thunder, but it's all very reassuring: in Israel, even when you can't simply pick up your own hitchhiking armed guard, the army will still keep its eye on you.

In the north, the Israel of stony desert and concrete settlements turns quite beautiful. South of Quneitra, the Golan becomes Biblical, even to an unbeliever. Roiling gray clouds press down on the Heights, but the sun breaks through in places, outlining strangely regular hillocks and painting the empty land in unearthly colors. Turn your back on helicopter and Honda, imagine all the tribes that have contended for this space, and one's aloneness is quite tangible.

The road soon becomes as sportily minimal as anything you'd want to mark on a highway map for tourists. Often it is a single lane, sometimes with no shoulders, and occasionally there are enormous, elemental chicanes of huge boulders--enforced zig-zags impassable to tanks, designed to veer not Romans but armored columns off the road.

And as Highway 91 traverses the shoulder of the Golan, descending toward Rosh-Pinna into the Jordan River valley again, for the first time even I can sense the land of milk and honey. Here Israel is placid and content, fertile and blooming, well-watered and fiercely tended. The road onward toward the coast, Routes 89 and then 899 along the Lebanon border, is superb--the best of the trip--and the Civic handles it with aplomb, under-steering--"plowing"--through the hairpins far less than you'd expect a front-drive, front-engine, forward-biased car to do. Its only vices seem to be a driver's seat with a built-in backache and an engine that buzzes and thrums obtrusively at high rpms.

Near Rosh Ha-Niqra, 899 tees at the coastal highway, Route 4, and traffic tells me Great Driving is over. But that road leads south toward Haifa, past the ancient Crusader capital of Acre, one of the loveliest towns in Israel. The small Old City is cluttered with Byzantine sites and mysteries, and its sea-walled quarter looks like a set for an Errol Flynn swashbuckler. As I sit with a beer and a plate of hummous and pita bread (it's amazing what you can convince yourself tastes good while you're sitting outside a Mediterranean waterfront cafe), a column of relentless invaders marches past, the leader holding high a banner--well, a piece of cardboard--that reads "Bus 1."

Haifa is another Israel--not milk and honey, not romance and history, but cargo and commerce. The Hotel Dan Panorama stands on Mt. Carmel, in the more elegant quarter high above Israel's prime port city, and from its windows you get the unmistakable feeling that below you is spread the real Israel, not the cliche version--not the blue- eyed young Paul Newman of Exodus, the motherly Golda Meir or kibbutzim dancing the horah. Here it becomes obvious that a European civilization has colonized a Middle Eastern country and will not be moved.

DAY FIVE: Haifa back to Jerusalem (115 miles)

As I park the Civic in the small Druse village of Daliyat el- Karim, an ancient, bent-over Druse, dressed in black and wearing a small, sailor-like Druse cap, walks purposefully over and says something to me in Arabic. "Alternate side parking regulations are in effect today," perhaps? I'll never know. The main street of his village, in the hills southeast of Haifa, is a dusty bazaar selling tarnished brassware, old clothes and dark Druse fabrics. Sidewalks are going in so tourists will come to the bazaar, but today I'm alone.

Yet the short diversion inland from the coast to Daliyat el-Karim is itself studded with the serendipities that fill every day in Israel. Near Bet-Oren, I blunder upon the ancient Roman quarry from which the stones of old settlements were hewn, the rectangular chiselings in the dolomite so apparent that the stonemasons might have walked away 20 years ago rather than 2,000.

The narrow road to Daliyat el-Karim tightwalks along a deep, lovely, rocky gorge. It is only when I'm forced to stop because two groundhog-like marmots are duking it out in the middle of the road that I notice the rusted hulks of Fiats and Subarus that have tumbled over the edge. (The marmots finally themselves tumble off into the underbrush, still snapping and squealing, as inflexible and combative as Arab and Jew.) And as the road winds back down to the coastal plain, there are occasional broad vistas of the Mediterranean, and once a panorama that stretches nearly to Tel Aviv, still 45 miles south.

Israel is a land little larger than New Jersey. If it too had a turnpike, the entire country would be a day's drive. But it doesn't, and it isn't, and the roads you'll find full of the serendipities are sporty little byways. This is a country full of delightful backroads.

Some of them are little wider than your car. You'll play chicken, seeing whether you or the oncoming car puts two wheels off the pavement so the two can pass, and you'll invariably lose. You'll occasionally be stuck behind a truck broader than the pavement, but none of them are going very far, so soon you'll be trafficless again. Near the borders, you'll go through plenty of roadblocks guarded by bearded, middle-aged troopers with machine guns; if you're like me, you'll eventually drive through one at which you were supposed to stop.

And whenever you get lost, just pick up a soldier. They know the way.