It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’m sitting on the curb in front of my house, dressed in hiking boots, hiking pants and a long-sleeve thermal shirt. In my bag is a t-shirt, hat and sunscreen. I’m still not quite sure how I got talked into accompanying my friend Yehoshua on this trip to the Dead Sea. I’m still trying to figure it out when he pulls up beside me and I get into his car. He offers me coffee, which happens to be in a thermos in the trunk. So no coffee.
Descending the road to Jericho, we leave the lights of Jerusalem behind us, and I am struck that there is any traffic at all. Does no one sleep in this country? Once upon a time this road was probably a donkey track, but today most of it is a two-lane modern highway. As we progress we see ceramic signs showing our elevation in relation to sea-level: +200 meters, +100 meters. Then the “Sea Level” sign. There is always a camel waiting at the Sea Level sign to pose for portraits, but it’s missing. I suppose camels don’t work the early shift.
The road levels out at the plains surrounding Jericho. The lights of Jericho are to our left, but we continue straight and east. The sky is still dark. The coffee is still in the trunk.
Following the road south we pass the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, in the dark. We are headed to “Mitzpe Dragot”, a hostel located about 14 km north of the Ein Gedi reserve on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. After an hour’s drive that has taken us almost 250m below sea level we make the final vertical ascent of 300m on a road with sudden twists and hidden turns.
The paved road ends suddenly giving way to a dirt road and we drive on for a few more kilometres. There is a hint of blue in the dark sky. The outline of the hills is just visible. Yehoshua stops the car and we begin to unpack. Yehoshua’s job is to photograph the hills at first light for a book he is working on. My job is… to carry Yehoshua’s stuff.
Not content with the view from road level Yehoshua decides that we need to climb to the top of a hill following a steep, narrow path quite possibly made by a goat – a goat with no fear of falling. The hint of blue in the black sky has now turned into a deep indigo and we can see more and more of our surroundings. We need to hurry to be in place before the sun gets any higher.
At the summit the photographer sets up his equipment and begins his work shooting the landscape in all its changing shades and colors as the sun begins to work its way up from the direction of Jordan. To the East the darkness begins to separate into the Gilad Mountains and the Dead Sea. The stars fade in the West as the sky turns to orange in the East. There are only two sounds, the wind and the sound of the camera’s shutter.
Yehoshua finishes shooting and we still have time to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains. He pulls out his thermos and offers me coffee. French Vanilla, cold.
It’s 6:30 AM and the day’s work is done. But this is a special place. We are at the top of the Darja Canyon. Before we enter the Canyon I change into my t-shirt, hat and apply sunscreen and we explore the surrounding hills, climbing places where no one may have walked before, and descending into the folds between the hills. Finding a bit of shade we drink water and have breakfast. A hiking breakfast is simple, but wonderful: pita, hummus, vegetables, and sliced cheese.
In the distance we spy movement in the cleft between two hills. The first camel emerges, then another and another. All these camels and no “Sea Level” signs to be seen anywhere.
We return to the Darja Canyon. It is the continuation of the Tekoa River which begins its journey to the Dead Sea at the foot of Herodion, just outside of Jerusalem. Rushing water has carved the walls of the canyon from different types of rock, exposing a palette of layers and softening the rough edges of the boulders that occasionally fall into the riverbed. Hopefully they will be kind enough not to fall in today, or at least wait until we leave.
We continue through the canyon, feeling the textures of the rock, walking around puddles of water until we reach a point where we can descend, but the slippery rock is like a slide and we won’t be able to climb back up. Darja has a history of trapping groups of people who begin hiking too late or without the proper equipment. We decide to turn around and explore the upper portion of the canyon until we return to where the car is parked. We enjoy the last few minutes of true silence until a helicopter makes its way through the canyon overhead. Flying may be the first-class way to see the Dead Sea region, but I think our way, feet on the ground, is the best way.
Next time we’ll do the whole Darja.
Photography by Yehoshua Halevi/Golden Light Images: