Sea of Galilee to Tel Aviv - 7th November 2011 - 9th November 2011
Well we always knew the Israeli border wasn't going to be fun... and it wasn't. We had to unload the whole car - including unbolting things and taking out the fridge and then run every item through a baggage scanner. Quite time consuming with several hundred kilos of stuff. So through the scanner went every dirty sock, can of tomatoes and bottle of shampoo. They even went through the pages of every book we had with us. All this took approximately 8 hours. And to top it all whilst busy searching the empty car (including taking off the spare wheels) they broke the ignition key.
So we headed off into the rapidly darkening evening and found a campsite on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Galilee is a beautiful area but we were keen to get the shipping of the car sorted out so the next morning we set off to Tel Aviv where the shipping agents we needed to deal with are located. Tel Aviv was the usual big city traffic nightmare without GPS or a decent road map and we couldn't find anywhere to stay and park - even for silly money. Eventually we found our way out to Jaffa, the old port of Tel Aviv and a lovely hostel there. Parking was still an issue - it took two hours to find a spot where we wouldn't be towed/clamped/exploded. After that we decided to leave the car where it was and spent a couple of days exploring the ancient port on foot. Jerry even walked back into Tel Aviv to see the shipping agent and we are now booked on a boat back to Europe.
Jerusalem - 10th November 2011 - 13th November 2011
It is hard to comprehend just how much history is crammed into the old city of Jerusalem. It has been there in some form or another for 4,000 years. Today it is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city though with an air of underlying tension.
Within a few days we have seen and done so much.
Highlights have been:
The Western or Wailing Wall - especially at the start of Shabbat where there was an amazing mix of different Jewish denominations, all in full regalia praying at the wall accompanied by lots of singing and dancing. We also took a tour of the tunnels that go under the Wall.
The Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - you can follow the path Jesus is said to have taken to his crucifixion, on Fridays a procession of monks lead the way. The church at the end was believed to have been built around Golgotha - the rock on which the crucifixion is believed to have taken place and thousands of pilgrims walk the route some carrying wooden crosses, singing as they go and then queue to enter Jesus's tomb.
Temple Mount - the site of the most holy place for Jews and one of the most holy for Muslims. Different religions have been building over each other's temples for millenia, currently the Muslims are on top with the astonishingly beautiful Dome of the Rock. The rock inside is believed by Jews and Muslims to be the foundation stone of the world and by Muslims to also bear the footprint of Mohammed. At present only Muslims are allowed to enter so we had to content ourselves with views from the outside. the plaza as a whole is a peaceful and beautiful spot and a respite from the chaos of the city streets below.
Mount of Olives - we climbed the hill which seems to have biblical scene around every corner. We sat in the Garden of Gethsename where some of the olive trees are over 2,000 years old and admired the view of the city from the top. At the foot of the hill is what is supposed to be the tomb of the Virgin Mary - it is very atmospheric with hundreds of lanterns hanging from the stone roof.
Judean and Negev Deserts - 14th November 2011 - 21st November 2011
We left Jerusalem and headed out through the West Bank towards the Dead Sea. I was expecting checkpoints and guns but there was nothing but a straight tar road all the way down (and I mean down) to the Dead Sea. It is quite a thing to be in the middle of a a mountain range and drive past a sign saying sea level.
We stayed a couple of nights at Shkedi's Camp - a real oasis with hot showers and indoor kitchen not to mention great hosts.
Our next destination was the Negev Desert, specifically the Small Crater. However, the large party of Israeli school chlidren soon changed our mind and we raced against the setting sun (it is now dark by 5pm) to find a more peaceful spot. We found a solitary spot right opposite a military camp and the inhabitants came over the next morning to check we hadn't been taking any sneaky pictures of them.
We were keen to do some walking so next we headed to Ein Avedat. We were thrilled to see our first ibex (a goat-like antelope with big horns - and very rare). Though before long we realised the ibex were semi-permanent residents of the picnic site where we were parked. We had a spectacular walk through deep gorges and found a great camping spot. We were planning to spend a second night but the rangers told us floods were predicted so the whole valley bottom was out of bounds. The flash floods here can be tremendously powerful and happen on the basis of rains elsewhere so we heeded their advice.
The most dramatic geological feature in the Negev is the Ramon Crater so we headed there next. It is a colossal crater some 40km by 10km and the views from the lip are incredible. As for Ein Avedat flood warnings were looming and on our second day huge clouds formed but we only saw a few spots of rain - this is the desert I guess. Again we found a campsite with amazing views and enjoyed the view as the clouds rolled in. We managed to get in some good walking again.
We also had a small adventure courtesy of our deteriorating battery. A combination of no distance driven for a couple of days and a cold night meant it wouldn't start. The campsite was positioned about 100m above the crater floor but we were on a reverse slope about 25 metres from the apex. It took us about two hours to winch the car inch by inch to the top of the incline where Jerry could start it on the ride down. We now have a new battery.
(Still in the) Judean and Negev Deserts - 22nd November 2011 - 28th November 2011
With our ship due to sail on the 27th (and already paid for) we didn't want to stray too far away so decided to explore the area further.
We revisited Shkedi's Camp Lodge and had a great off-road trip out into desert with him and some guests.
highlight was visiting Masada, site of the famous seige where Jewish
rebels in the 1st century held out against the Romans for years, finally
committing mass suicide when the Romans (who had built a massive ramp
up the cliff) were about to breach their defences. We walked up the
punishing Snake Path before day break so we could watch the sun rise
over the Dead Sea. It's an impressive spot with great views out over the
desert and the partially reconstructed ruins, including massive stores
for long term provisions and ingenious water collection and storage
systems, are very interesting.
also visited Ein Gedi home of an ancient spring and wadis full if
pools, waterfalls and wildlife. It was lovely to be able to get out
into the fresh air and tramp around a bit and the scenery was beautiful.
This is a much busier area than the Negev though and our camping experience wasn't quite so peaceful. We spent the night before we climbed Masada a couple of kilometres away in a system of canyons and wadis. It looked as though it would be deserted. However, as the sun set we could hear lots of children's voices, not just talking but singing and yelling. Soon literally hundreds started appearing all around us shining their torches at us and inspecting our camping gear all making a colossal noise. It turns out that night hikes are popular with Israeli schools and we were camped in an area famous for it's acoustics - hence the encouragement for them make a racket. I thought it was odd when one young Amy Winehouse lookalike asked if I was "the DJ" but a little later as Euro-pop and a lot of tuneless accompaniment blasted out of a nearby wadi all became clear.
Mediterranean Coast and sailing to Italy - 28th November 2011 - 4th December 2011
Daily calls to the ferry company established it was a couple of days late. Finally we arrived on the appointed day to be told that it still wasn't there. Just as well it turned out as we spent the full day in the port. Israeli security decided to scan the entire contents of the car again which wasn't much fun. I still don't know if the wine that mysteriously didn't come out of the other side of the scanning machine was a mistake or not. We were given permission to stay with the car inside the port and finally the ship docked at about 9.30pm. They would be loading through the night but the very nice first mate told us to leave our car on the dock and we could load it the next morning.
The ship was an interesting experience. It is a cargo freighter not a cruise ship so there are minimal entertainments though we did have a TV and a small pile of videos plus a little library. We spent most of the time lying down trying to overcome the effects of eating three courses for lunch and three for dinner - except for Sunday ... when there are four. The staff seemed to take refusal personally so we did our best.
The ship was on it's return leg and was mostly empty so the car had a deck all to itself.