Travel Story Floating in the saltiest sea on Earth

The Dead Sea from Jordan.
Picture: Supplied
Photo of Rick Ardon

Fed by the River Jordan, the Dead Sea lies in a land of ancient tradition, hospitality and deeply rooted belief.

Floating in the saltiest sea on Earth is one of life’s exhilarating experiences, especially when you see other travellers near you recline in the brine without support while reading a magazine.

And you’re floating in the lowest place on earth, containing pure mud renowned for its age-defying properties. It’s almost like what I imagine floating in space is like, complete with slow somersaults. But be warned: don’t get this uber salt water in your eyes or broken skin because it’ll sting all the way home.

I was last in Jordan during the Gulf conflict in 1990, when locals were so friendly we were invited home for dinner with the family but became upset if visitors didn’t agree with what Saddam Hussein said across the border in Iraq.

Jordan is more relaxed in 2017 and there’s an unforgettable, quirky new place to stay on the banks of the Jordan River, as it runs out into the Dead Sea.  

The palatial Russian Pilgrims’ Residence has been built for travellers in general but, specifically, for people who come for what Jordan claims as the archaeologically proved religious site where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. 

There’s another location a kilometre away that, for many years, has been the main tourist site of the Baptism; here you’ll see an ever-narrowing stretch of the River Jordan separating sightseers in Israel on one side, and tourists in Jordan on the other bank. 

I was surprised to see the River Jordan appeared only waist deep at this point, with no sign of the heavy Israeli military presence further upstream at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. 

So what happens if people try to simply wade across the river into Israel? I found out for myself soon afterwards. Back at the Russian Pilgrims’ Residence, as you wander down to the River Jordan directly in front, there’s a small wooden platform with a section of the river that’s only metres wide to the Israeli side.  

You can see the biblical bulrushes on the banks but, as you look into Israel and its desert landscape, you can just make out an Israeli settlement in the distance, with no sign of anything remotely military.

Intuition told me it wasn’t a good idea to wade across to Israel ... and I was right. When I asked Elias the effervescent resort manager what would have happened, he calmly replied: “They would have shot you.”

I told him it was so barren there was no one out there. Deadpan, he said: “Don’t worry, they’re here.”

The Russian Pilgrims’ Residence is a magnificent complex, opened by Vladimir Putin himself five years ago.

 But because it’s not on the Western tourist radar yet, it was nearly empty when we stayed. This added to the atmosphere of being in a protected, natural place where you can rediscover yourself. And the food was typically Russian, with generous servings of chicken Kiev and Russian salad included on the limited menu. The hotel rooms vary from pilgrim-style with single beds to well-appointed suites with all the extras.

Next day a friendly young Russian pilgrim staffer wearing a modest long dress and scarf took us with great piety to the archaeologically correct Baptism site, where we were allowed a quick dip in the water so revered by different faiths for thousands of years.

As we left the Russian Pilgrims’ Residence, Elias the effervescent — who’s actually Palestinian — drove us the 5km upstream to the military border crossing into Israel at Allenby Bridge, also called King Hussein Bridge by the Jordanians. 

When you cross the border, it’s only an hour into the historic, walled holy city of Jerusalem where different faiths co-exist in peace, despite external Middle East conflict.

Top picture: The Dead Sea, as seen from Jordan, is the saltiest sea on Earth. Picture: Supplied

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