What do you call a Team Outpost Jordan member in the Dead Sea?
Okay, so it’s a really old joke, but it’s startlingly accurate for anything that sets foot in the Dead Sea, because no matter whether you’re Michael Phelps or the world’s worst swimmer, it’s pretty much impossible to do anything other than bob in it.
Our first glimpse of the legendary body of water at the lowest point on earth came from an escarpment in the rugged hills that overlooks it. From approximately 1000 metres above with the sun beginning to dip below the horizon on the far side, it looked like any other sea—or lake, as it more correctly —anywhere in the world. But up close it differed considerably.
We descended the steps at the back of the hotel towards the rocky shoreline more than 420 metres below sea level. We doffed our shoes and t-shirts and took the plunge, careful to keep the salty water out of eyes and away from any shaving nicks or other wounds lest our screams awake the only life forms therein: three recently identified microscopic forms of bacteria.
Most oceans boast 3 percent salt. The Dead Sea has a zesty 33.7 percent salinity, making it comparable with the rim of the average Marguerita. The water glistened viscously in the late afternoon sunlight, and no sooner was it above our knees than we felt like corks being forced to the surface of a glass of sparkling wine.
Reclining on our backs, it quickly became apparent that drowning would be difficult unless you rolled onto your stomach, in which case it might be mandatory. We bobbed around, gazing at the setting sun and the misty hills that surround the Sea. The water was warm and soothing and felt slightly oily on our skin, like being in an overly bath-salted bath. Its high mineral content make it a popular destination for those with skin ailments, or anyone seeking natural remedies for their ailments.
As the air temperature began to drop with the autumnal sun, we decided it was time to return to the shore. Easier said than done. I extended my legs towards the sea floor, but the reaction was akin to two magnets having a face-off, and I didn’t get far. As I began to tilt sideways, fears of my head becoming like a large salted pork hock caused me to panic and I began to flail with my arms. Finally, regaining stability, I again attempted to lower my legs to no avail. I dog-paddled towards the shore, keeping my head sticking skyward like a periscope, until the floor was almost within arm’s reach, and then I thrust downward again. This time Houston, the Eagle had landed…and my feet made contact with the rocks. But all was not well, yet! My feet slipped on the rocks and I teetered forward again, my eyes shrivelling with fear of being pickled. Finally, I steadied myself and clambered free.
I began the walk towards the showers at the back of the beach, feeling the salt crystallize on my body with every step. Eventually, I reached the showerhead and washed off the Sea water, leaving behind skin as soft as a baby’s…well, you know. I wrapped my towel around me and returned to the water’s edge.
The sun had now set behind the mountains and the cloud-covered sky was a blaze of red. To my right the lights of Jericho burned brightly while the feint glow of Jerusalem and Bethlehem caught my eye in the hills to the left. We were the only people on the shore, and it was blissfully silent. No voices, no traffic, not even the more customary seaside sound of water lapping the shore.
The following morning we were to fly home from Jordan, and already I felt melancholic. We’d had two fantastic weeks in the country. We’d lived history, seen incredible scenery and met wonderfully warm people. Ending our journey at the lowest point on earth seemed appropriate, because finding a better destination would certainly be an uphill task.