The lowest point on our planet is the Challenger Deep, around 12 km below sea level. There is a slight problem with it though – it is underwater. The lowest place you can actually go there without getting too wet is the Dead Sea, a hypersaline lake on the border of Israel and Jordan. You are going to get all wet and sweaty, because unlike Canberra at this time of the year, that place is incredibly hot. Here’s a cropped screen capture of today’s forecast from the Israeli Meteorological Service:

A cropped screen capture of today's forecast from the Israeli Meteorological Service

Now, I could talk to you about the environmental crises occurring there because we’re geoscientists, or I could write something about the rich history of the place because some of us may be interested in that. I was going to do it when thinking about this post, but then I decided that I will not. That’s boring stuff and you can go and find some papers or articles about it. Being a native of the Israeli desert, just looking at some pictures of this area made me feel all emotional and stuff. That place can definitely take some deep feelings from your heart and throw them in you face until you start crying like a little baby because it makes you so happy (and sad because I’m so far away).

So instead of going all academic telling you that it’s lower than 400 metres below sea level and decreasing because of human activities, or that it occasionally spits out asphalt that starts floating on the surface of the water, I’ll try to convey some of those inexplicable feelings to you. Feelings work better with sound, so here’s a song to play in the background while you’re reading this:

That song is called “tzipor midbar” (ציפור מדבר), meaning “desert bird”. Some say the lyrics are about a town called Arad, the neighbouring town to the famous Masada fortress, where the Roman army lay siege until all the Jewish inhabitants committed suicide.

A view of the Dead Sea from Masada. © by CarmelH, source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/17257440
A view of the Dead Sea from Masada. © by CarmelH, source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/17257440

My own relationship with does not go too far in time. I only got to intimately know it in my early twenties, when I had a job there. My task was to operate a barge that extracted carnallite (KMgCl3·6[H2O]) from the evaporation ponds and pumped it to the factory where they produced potash, magnesia, bromine and all kinds of chemicals from it.

The author in his early twenties, driving a small boat to a barge
The author in his early twenties, driving a small boat to a barge

Occasionally, during night shifts, the factory would shut down for maintenance, so that means that barge has to shut down as well. This means no noise from the machinery, and no lights because we don’t need it. And then it hits you – complete silence. Complete darkness. It’s you, alone (well almost, we’re two on a barge) in the middle of nowhere. You are on the sea, and the closest sign of any civilisation is the factory itself which may be several km away from you. Then you look up, and see the sky. Completely clear, millions of stars. You can almost see shadows cast by the glow of the milky way. And then the sun rises:

Sunrise, looking east
Sunrise, looking east

I worked there for only six months, but I visited the region countless more times. Easy when it’s only 1.5 hours away from where you live! Now, most tourists only visit Masada and the hotels. That’s not a bad thing, considering this is how the beach looks:

Yes, that's salt. Halite. NaCl. © by volnat, source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/61624861
Yes, that’s salt. Halite. NaCl. © by volnat, source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/61624861

Once you go slightly deeper to the desert, you find amazing things. First of all, the entire thing exposes magnificent outcrops of sedimentary rocks. You can see beautiful patterns in clays and marls, huge ammonites, quartz geodes (locally known as תפוחי אליהו, Elijah’s apples), huge dolomite crystals and what not. One of the most peculiar things you can find there is a huge salt diapir. That’s a mountain made out of almost pure salt, called Mount Sedom (of Sedom and Gomorrah fame). It’s always hilarious making unsuspecting tourists to actually lick the mountain:

A Belgian friend experiencing some of the tastes of the Middle East, Mt Sedom
A Belgian friend experiencing some of the tastes of the Middle East, Mt Sedom salt diapir

Although this place is a desert and not much (if at all) can survive in the Dead Sea (hence the name), there are some green spots around it. One of my favourite ones is Ein Bokek, a small oasis in a canyon that flows all year. There’s nothing like wetting your feet in the cool water after a long walk in the scorching sun.

Ein Bokek. © by serstef, source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43352661
Ein Bokek. © by serstef, source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43352661

I will stop now because just writing this blog post makes me home sick. I will finish with another song. Don’t worry – this time it’s in English. The filming location, the vibe of the song, the choreography, the effects, and everything else in this song makes me feel like I am actually standing there, 40°C, facing a strong and dry western wind. Put it on full screen and plug in your headphones.