A shadow skims the pale desert sand as a solitary bird labours across the sky, lost and out of place. The sun, angry and unforgiving, comes at our white 4WD with the aggression of a snarling, solarium-tanned, Lycra-clad 1980s WrestleMania character. The full force of the hostile mid-afternoon heat means that the inside of the car goes from air-conditioned comfort to sweltering, sauna-like conditions as soon as outside air invades through an open window.
Coming over the mountain pass, a vast turquoise lagoon spills out across the valley. The scene is otherworldly, with sun-scorched barren hilltops framing one of Jordan’s best known tourist attractions: the Dead Sea.
A long and winding road
The road we are on winds and twists a path down to the water. Our driver—seemingly intent on testing the claim that no one present is prone to car sickness—brakes late into corners, and sometimes not at all. When we arrive near the water’s edge, the smell is of another place. My nostrils fill with the scent of the seashore; wafts of briny, salty air bring back memories of beachside family vacations. I half expect to hear my mother yelling in the distance for me to put on another layer of sunscreen before I go swimming. The smell is of the beach, but we are nowhere near an ocean.
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, sitting some 430m (1,410 ft) below sea level. Despite its name, it is in fact not a sea at all; it’s a lake, and a rather salty one at that. It’s because there’s no drainage: A lot of water goes into The Dead Sea—including the saline waters of the River Jordan, its main tributary—but nothing flows out. Water evaporates, but the salt and minerals stay behind, making the Dead Sea even saltier than the ocean.
Meet the mud people
Suddenly, someone grips my arm, nails digging into my flesh. I am about to protest when I see them, staggering limb-locked at the water’s edge, moving slowly, awkwardly. Their dark brown skin is hard and scaly, giving the impression that they just emerged, freshly baked, from a giant oven. “The migration of the Mud People,” a friend says, channelling his best David Attenborough impression, and no one disagrees.
Mud-covered tourists are a common fixture along the banks of the Dead Sea. People bend and scoop mud from clay buckets, spreading it liberally across their skin. They sit and cook in the mud into their skin under the giant sunlamp in the sky before wading out to soak in the lake. The mud of the Dead Sea, reputed to cure a range of skin ailments, is so renowned for its cosmetic benefits that today it is packaged and sold around the world. Travellers to the Sea’s banks can test the mud’s healing properties quite literally in the flesh.
A history of health
The Dead Sea lays claim to being one of the world’s first health resorts; records of people soaking in its mineral-rich waters date back to the time of Herod the Great. In ancient times, the lake was central to many of history’s key events: it was where King David sought refuge from King Saul, where Abraham fought a war, and supposedly where Ezekiel had prophecies. But today, the lake is not in great health. Due to damming and industrial overusage on both its Jordanian and Israeli borders, the Dead Sea is slowly shrinking. Resupply programs, with the aim of regrowing the shoreline, are in the works.
I plunge my hand deep into a clay pot, immersing it in the thick, dark mud. I smother it over my skin, and it feels warm and sticky. My friend with the David Attenborough voice notes how much it reminds him of Nutella, and no one dares ask if he is basing his observation on the mud’s appearance, taste, or how it feels on his skin as he gleefully slathers it on.
In the distance, freshly cleaned bodies float in the water. Faces, arms, and feet emerge as archipelagos of visible human form in a vast salty bathtub. I wade into the Dead Sea and watch as the skin on my legs begins to clear of mud. I feel an intense burn as the waterline reaches a small cut on my knee, the salt cleaning and stinging the small wound.
A family of tourists with muddied faces stands waist-deep while they talk and laugh. I sink into the water—or try to, at least. My belly rises at once out of the water like a gluttonous iceberg; a cruel forewarning of the post-holiday diet to come. The feeling of floating is unnatural. Every time I force a limb under the water, it’s like an invisible hand pushes it back up.
The late-afternoon sun sits fat on the horizon as its rays weaken and recede on the valley floor. A light wind dances across the lakes surface. Water ripples against my chest, pushing me gently toward to the shallows. All I can see is a wide, cloudless sky; a pale blue that seems to stretch into forever. I drift and think of nothing, like many have done here before.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Jordan encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this enchanting country as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Jordan here.