On the other side of the stream I watch on as five elderly ladies help each other climb up a small rocky slope. One at a time each of them grasps onto whatever they can reach with a steely determination. The path they are following weaves its way up through shallow rock pools and passes protruding rocks. Passing me are a unit of off duty soldiers relaxing, chatting and joking. Each pushing their way down the gravel track by which I am stood. They have the look of a group returning from the beach, slightly sun burnt, windswept but happy. Below me I can see other tourists making their way up the side of the small stream. Varying degrees of fitness and determination will decide how far up the valley they go before they place themselves next to a plunge pool for the day.
Ein Gedi is an oasis in the middle of a desert. Waterfalls cut through a barren landscape diving deep into the rock to leave two adjacent blossoming valleys. Each valley has deep plunge pools that attract tourists from across Israel. The whole nature reserve stretches up away from the dead sea leaving you with views across the lowest point on earth and out onto the shores of Jordan. An incomparable location.
What sets Ein Gedi apart however is not the idyllic waterfalls and plunge pools or even the soaring mountain landscape that surrounds it. It is not even the fact that it extends up from the lowest place on earth. What makes Ein Gedi special for me is the people it attracts. Melting together in the scorching dead sea sun are Orthodox Jews, lefty kibbutz dwellers and Israeli Arabs all swimming together. Intermixing amongst all of this are a blend of bemused and astonished internationals, unsure whether to gawp at the beautiful King David Waterfall or the sight of Orthodox Jews splashing in the pools below it. Throughout the nature reserve and beach front, families, friends and foe all come together, transfixed by the natural beauty of their location.
Ein Gedi’s beauty attracts swathes of humans but it also offers a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of the religiosity and intensity which defines so much of Israel’s tourism. If you take one of the paths out of the valley bottom up into the surrounding mountains you can experience a sense of real isolation. Stood at the peak of Mount Yishai overlooking cliffs dropping sharply down to the crafted shoreline of the dead sea it is hard not to feel a sense of wonder at such a landscape. On a still day you might be able to hear the occasional cry of children playing in the valleys below but here on the mountain tops you know you are far from where others will make the effort to walk.
As you make your way back down off the mountain side you walk past people and nature stood side by side, together.