The days following my trip to the Dead Sea went nothing like I imagined. Initially, my plan was to apply for my visa to India, finally tour Tel Aviv, and spending some days leisurely wandering the city before heading south to Eilat along the Red Sea on my way to Petra. Even after traveling for the last seven months, I’m still surprised how frequently I’m wrong when it comes to predicting the future, but I have to say it’s always an adventure. The very first lesson I learned way back in Faro, Portugal was never, ever, ever let an opportunity to travel with good company pass by.
Thankfully this is was just such an occasion.
My last day in Jerusalem I spent revisiting the main attractions, eating at wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and drinking with locals at a tiny bar in the middle of Mahane Yehuda Market with Chloe, the girl I met on my trip to the Dead Sea. The following day, we returned to Tel Aviv to ring in New Year where I planned on spending a few days in the city before moving on. I've been in Tel Aviv twice now, but I still haven't seen any of the city. Chloe and I both had plans to head south to visit a town called Mitzpe Ramon, but due to her limited time in Israel she was going to leave immediately after New Years. Since I planned on going the same direction anyways, I shuffled around my hostel reservation and off we went to Mitzpe Ramon.
Cheers to constantly changing plans!
The trip to Mitzpe Ramon from Tel Aviv was straightforward thanks to a direct bus that connects the two cities. As usual, I dozed off the moment I sat down in the bus and when I woke up the landscape changed from the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv to barren expanse of uninhabited desert. Chloe and I watched for hours as the never-ending stretch of sand flew by our window. There was nothing but a rocky, bone-dry terrain with a few gently rolling hills sparsely covered with skeleton-like shrubbery. Every so often we passed a cluster of little Bedouin shacks between the hills composed of whatever they could scavenge in area nearby. Both Chloe and I stared out the window in amazement at the incredible landscape before us.
I can't even imagine what it must be like to live out here.
After a few hours we were dropped off in a ghost town that the bus driver claimed was Mitzpe Ramon. We exited the bus and the driver quickly pulled away kicking up a small cloud of dust in its wake. Chloe and I stood there in the middle of nowhere with no hostel reservation, some meager rations, and only a vague idea where we were/needed to go. The feeling of complete disorientation that once terrified me at the beginning of my trip is now a source of tremendous excitement. Much like in Ukraine, we got off the bus and the race to find a hostel began.
Now find a place to stay in the foreign desert city of Mitzpe Ramon! You have two hours before the sun sets. GO!
You may think I’m crazy, but it’s thrilling.
Chloe is definitely my kind of traveler. First off, she has a tremendously laid back mentality when it comes to travel and is capable of easily adjusting to whatever life throws at her. She’s a tremendously experienced traveler who started backpacking early in life and her adventures put mine to shame. To top it all off, she has one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever heard of before, is perpetually planning her next exotic vacation, and is a huge foodie. After arriving in Mitzpe Ramon, Chloe and I walked around the presumably empty town and discovered that somehow every single one of the hostels in town were fully booked! Neither one of us expected this tiny desert town to have a single person here, much less find out all the places were completely booked! We visited three different places, and with each disappointment, we simply smiled to each other and walked to the next hostel; neither one of us ever became angry, frustrated, complained, or lost our temper. We knew we’d find a place… we just didn’t know where.
Many people claim to have the ability to deal with ambiguity like this, but rarely have I seen in in practice to this extent.
We continued our quest for accommodation unsuccessfully until finally resorting to our last option, a campsite by the name of Silent Arrow. We weren’t thrilled with the idea since the guidebooks recommended visitors bring plenty of blankets and a sleeping bag. Neither of us was adequately prepared for camping in the desert, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Silent Arrow is a small patch of land located 20 minutes outside of Mitzpe Ramon with a few old Bedouin tents on it. The only things provided by the “hostel” are a couple blankets that people are forced to steal from each other and a mattress on the floor. I instantly had a flashback of the bus ride when I wondered what it would be like to live in one of the Bedouin tents we passed by.
I guess I’d get to answer that question now thanks to Silent Arrow.
When we arrived, Chloe and I looked at each other with a smile, our new home for the evening was more akin to a refugee camp than a guesthouse, but it was at least slightly better than sleeping out in the middle of the desert. There was no electricity, no Wi-Fi, no central heating, and absolutely no insulation. In the common area tent, Chloe and I huddled with a group of other travelers around a wood-fired stove as we chatted by the light of a single flickering candle. In my 25 years of existence, I can count the number of times on one hand I’ve relied on a candle for light. The company that night was exceptional and we met an eclectic variety of people who were in a similar boat as us: freezing and one step away from homelessness. We spent the evening chatting, bundled under layers of sweaters and blankets while as constantly pestered the campground owner to put more wood in the small heater. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but damn if it wasn’t fun. It just goes to show that you don’t need much for a good time.
Although some heat is greatly appreciated.
Never in my life have I experienced such an abysmally frigid night like the one I spent at Silent Arrow. Nobody slept well and the next morning we awoke promptly at 8:00 am, ate a quick breakfast, and immediately booked a room at the nearby Green Backpackers hostel. If we had any choice in the matter, we were determined to sleep indoors the next time around. We organized everything within an hour and happily made our way to Makhtesh Ramon for our day of hiking.
Makhtesh Ramon is the largest natural forming crater in the world coming in at 24 miles long, 6 miles wide, and over 1,600 feet deep. Looking at a map of the crater, I thought Chloe and I could take a big hike and see everything in a day… I was dead wrong. The closest landmark was 2.5 hours away by foot while the most scenic location in the crater was either a multi-day hike or a 40-minute car ride away. Makhtesh Ramon is many things, but “small” is not one of them. From the edge of the crater it is an almost inconceivably vast expanse of sand and rock. While it does not align with the traditional idea of “beautiful” hiking like in Switzerland, the view from the top is truly awe-inspiring.
The hike down is well marked, but time consuming as a result of the tremendously uneven, rocky terrain. Once we made it to the bottom of the crater our trek became a surreal experience. The middle of the creator is a flat, barren landscape completely surrounded by domineering cliffs. The terrain looks exactly like the pictures I saw in National Geographic magazine when the Mars Rovers first landed. I stood there with a giant smile on my face mesmerized and for a split second I even felt I was on another planet! It took Chloe and me a little under five hours to complete our “short” hike through Makhtesh Ramon and looking at the map afterward the distance we covered was laughable. We ended up hitchhiking back to Mitzpe Ramon and much like my hitchhiking experience back in Europe, by the end of the day Chloe and I knew each other’s life story backwards and forwards.
Compared to the sparse accommodations of Silent Arrow the night before, the Green Backpackers hostel felt like the Ritz Carlton. The moment we walked in I noticed the common room of the hostel was full of light… from actual light bulbs! The entire room was delightfully warm, well decorated, and smooth jazz was playing in the background. Upon entering, the owner popped his head out from the kitchen and asked if we wanted a cup of coffee or tea since he was in the process of heating up some water. Chloe and I looked at each other in amazement as if we were poor little Ethiopians stupefied by modern technology and we couldn’t help but smile. It’s amazing how just one day out in the “wilderness” can change my entire perspective on a lifestyle I've taken for granted all these years.
Oh the sweet, sweet joys of modern living!