As you’ll recall, come Day 5 we were due to transfer from Tel Aviv to Ein Gedi for the weekend… but we’d had to make a hasty change to our plans for transit, thanks to the Shabbat. We had sojourned across the city to the airport – risking life and limb – to rent a car for a Dead Sea road trip (given the lack of public transport options). Rentalcars.com was our true saviour here – we got an amazing deal on the perfect vehicle, despite the totally last-minute booking. We highly recommend them!
As we prepared to depart, checking out of our accommodation, the hotel manager dropped a delightful little knowledge bomb on us: apparently, there are car rental services in Tel Aviv city, rendering our entire little drama-filled expedition to the airport earlier that week completely unnecessary. We tried to explain that we had looked online and couldn’t see any places closer than the airport, to which she replied (seeming somewhat, and most understandably, miffed) that we “could have asked her”. Bloody Aussie tourists…
Still, we weren’t going to let it get us down. After all, here we were! Road tripping our way to a luxurious resort at the Dead Sea. This is living!
I’ll remind you all here at the outset that we are safe and well, and everything turns out just fine. But the journey was interesting…
See, our beloved GPS mapped out a route for us that appeared to run down the length of the West Bank. It’s a somewhat controversial area, perhaps you’ve heard of it?
We could trick the GPS into finding an alternative route for us, but that alternative would take us halfway around the country, and the drive would take twice as long. We were apprehensive, at first. We talked it over, consulted our travel insurance policy, and also checked the Smart Traveller website for guidance. Ultimately, the deciding factor was the previous day’s tour to Jerusalem. We’d been taken along the West Bank on the return journey, and aside from cruising through a single military checkpoint (without even stopping, no less!), it really didn’t seem that different from any other highway. We decided to go ahead (exercising a high degree of caution, of course). As much as we made it through unscathed, it’s definitely a better idea to prepare for a trip through the West Bank with a guide like this one from Lonely Planet.
Dead Sea Road Trip: Leg 1
We had a couple of minor missteps in navigation coming out of the city. These were born mostly of driving on the opposite side of the road for our whole lives. I can’t even describe how weird it is for a couple of Aussies to come out of a roundabout in the right-hand lane. Every single one of your senses tells you that you’re about to die in a firey head-on collision, every single time. Still, thanks to our trusty GPS, we were always course-corrected in seconds. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: GPS hire is worth every damn penny.
Once we were out on the open road, heading through the West Bank, it (once again) really didn’t seem like anything special… aside from the huge walls and 8ft barbed wire fences lining either side of the highway. We pulled over at a service station to use a bathroom and pick up a snack for the driver.
First Military Checkpoint
Not long after, we hit our first military checkpoint. We were on High Alert, with our passports and our best “we’re just larrikin Aussie tourists!” smiles at the ready. The checkpoint was manned by a single soldier. His IDF uniform was neatly pressed, and his assault rifle was slung casually across his shoulder. And he Did Not Look Twice at us.
Seriously! He didn’t approach the vehicle, he didn’t say a word to us, and I’m not sure he even bloody noticed me in the passenger seat. He just half-heartedly waved us on over his shoulder, and on we went.
This happened twice.
Guys, the West Bank is actually really boring for tourists. Don’t get me wrong, the views are stunning, the weather is perfection, and we had a grand old time singing along to Israeli 88FM, but we saw no excitement or military unrest to speak of. We were an odd combination of relieved and disappointed. We didn’t want any trouble of course, but to think that we’re not even rock’n’roll enough to rouse the suspicion of military personnel when entering occupied territory? We can’t be that old and boring a married couple yet, surely!
The Jericho Turn-Off
We faced a single opportunity to fight this identity crisis, and I’m afraid to say we chickened right out. It was the sole potentially-hairy moment of the journey. We spontaneously decided to turn off and visit Jericho on the way. Jericho is widely believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, so it had to be worth a look.
We followed the signs and cruised down the road for a minute or two… until we started to see signs that said things like DANGER! and NO ISRAELI NATIONALS PERMITTED! We were travelling on our Australian passports, of course, but we were keenly aware that we were driving a vehicle with Israeli plates and really had no bloody idea what we were doing. We quickly back-tracked, making a hasty u-bolt and getting back onto the road to Ein Gedi as soon as possible. No regrets!
Of course, we Googled it later. Jericho is part of the Palestinian Territories, with administrative control having been handed over by Israel in the ’90s. The Israeli government imposes a number of restrictions on Israelis travelling in those territories. Mostly, the guiding principle seems to be: “Look, we don’t want you going there, and if you sneak in and get into trouble, we’re not going to send the IDF to save you, it’s too much hassle!”. Tourists seem to be welcome pretty much anywhere, and they do quite frequently visit places like Jericho under the Palestinian Authority. We almost certainly would have been absolutely fine. Ah, well!
The Second Pit-Stop
Really, the biggest danger on the highways as far as we could tell was a rockfall. Massive cliff-faces hung over the side of the road most of the way to Ein Gedi, with no mesh or similar mechanism to prevent rocks from simply tumbling into the path of traffic. It must be a public liability insurance nightmare! (Though, upon reflection, that must be just one reason among many…)
We made one final pit stop, to pick up a cold beverage and a hat for Rowan. His head was looking a bit pink – clearly the SPF 50 wasn’t cutting it. We also took the opportunity to check out some of the local “wildlife” tethered at the front of the truck stop, and the lookout over the Dead Sea and surrounding sinkholes.
Arriving at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz Hotel
As we pulled in to the gates of the hotel, we were immediately waved down by a security guard. At first, we thought it was just that we were blasting Kylie Minogue too loud on the car’s stereo, but they asked for our details and checked their list before waving us on. They continued to do this every time we drove in. Can’t be too careful in that part of the world, I suppose!
We loved the hotel immediately. It was like some kind of luxury resort crossed with a caravan park, plonked into the middle of a botanic garden and surrounded on all sides by postcard views of the desert.
We did have one heart-stopping moment at check-in. The manager seemed to be under the impression that the room rate was not pre-paid, and we would have to pay in full, up front. We had to insist pretty vehemently that he check again, but when he did he apologised sincerely, and offered us a complimentary dinner to compensate for any inconvenience. We were happy enough with that!
Time to relax!
By that point, the sun was well and truly past the yard-arm, as far as we were concerned. What else were we to do but check out the glorious pool?
We had a great time frolicking about in the water, looking out over the desert and the Dead Sea. On the recommendation of the bartender, we tried an Arak Orange. In case you’ve forgotten, arak is the ubiquitous anise liqueur sold everywhere in Israel, and we never would have thought to mix it with orange juice if not for this guy’s endorsement… and it was fucking delicious!
A Quiet Evening
We wandered up to the hotel bar for a quick snack. We shared a Mediterranean platter, and an “Ein Gedi Special”. The latter was some kind of fig/lemon/lime cocktail concoction – it was fine, but it was no Arak Orange. We spent the rest of the afternoon showering and properly settling in to the hotel room.
Later, we walked back up to the hotel restaurant for our (complimentary!) dinner. It was a buffet set-up, and it wasn’t too bad as far as those types of meals go. The real highlight was the opportunity to sample some Israeli wine. We’d been hoping to do so since we arrived. It was a little on the sweet side (as am I! HA!), but it went down just fine.
We called it pretty early. Given what we had in store for the next morning, we’d need a good night’s sleep…