Green scene

From salt to rocks, the Dead Sea comes back to life

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If you remember from last week, I’ve been sharing some experiences on a trip to the Dead Sea, part of a tour of Harei S’dom, otherwise known as the Mountains of Sodom.

Our Jeep entered this dry and forbidding landscape with plenty of cold drinks and high expectations.

We followed various empty streambeds — Hebrew for stream, by the way, is nachal — which snake through the terrain and can foam with flash floods after a spring rainfall.

The trail we followed as we entered the preserve was Nahal Hemar. Although outside the scope of this trek, a cave on a cliff overlooking Mt. Sedom along Nahal Hemar was filled with Neolithic materials circa 8310-8110 B.C.

Because of the dry local conditions, finds included wooden artifacts, basket fragments and embroidered fabrics, in addition to the more usual bone and flint artifacts. The Israel Museum showed these artifacts in a 2014 show as part of the permanent collection of early man in Israel. They can also be viewed online at tinyurl.com/y736r5no.

Since I was looking for a specific location, I did not expect any geological novelties. But our guide, Amit, was determined to give us a complete tour, and our first stop I can only describe as “Gills of Salt” in Nahal Sodom. The whole Dead Sea area including Mt. Sodom is practically composed of salt.

This particular spot contained layers and layers of salt coating the rocks with steeple-like formations as well as salt sheets, one hanging next to the other. No explanation about its formation was forthcoming, but given that there is a salt cave in the area — yes, its stalactites and stalagmites are formed from table salt by rainwater percolating through the rocks — I’m guessing that the very sparse rain (less than an inch per year) has something to do with these gills.

With an outdoors temperature of 110 degrees, when Amit asked if we wanted to cool off, we were interested. On our own we would never have seen the small opening into the cliff. We crawled into the narrow opening and were hit with a gratifyingly deliciously cold 62-degree breeze.

Again because of water action, tunnel openings were created on the tops of the cliffs, percolating downward, creating chimneys enjoying a cooling downdraft. We could also see all sorts of small mineral formations on the walls. It was very hard to leave and face the heat.

The Dead Sea receives fresh water both from the Jordan, which flows in from the north, and rainwater that flashes through the otherwise dry channels. Before leaving the Dead Sea itself, Amit pointed out small dead trees that had been growing up out of the Dead Sea waters. He claimed there were springs of sweet water bubbling up from underneath the salty waters that allowed for occasional plant growth.

And in one spot while traveling Nahal Hemar we saw a small lake filled with brownish water surrounded by a heavy growth of shrubs and small trees. This is apparently fed by an extensive aquifer system.

Plant life, however, in the areas without waterholes can be sparse and tough, and not particularly attractive in the hot months. Trying to work out the Latin names from local Hebrew ones can be tedious. There are, however, two excellent websites that makes it easier: WildFlowers.co.il/english and FlowersInIsrael.com.

The tips of the Rose of Jericho — Anastatica hierochuntica — curl up after setting seed. Dripping a few drops of water onto those desiccated fragments leads to the rapid unfurling of the structure.

This curling process prevents seeds from germinating when no water is available for their growth.

There is the Anabasis articulate, which grows in segments. Rubbing these segments with some water yields an oil Amit claimed was good for the skin. We also saw the Nitraria reutsa, a small shrub, whose Hebrew name yamluach references salt, and whose leaves have been used by desert dwellers as a source of salt.

But I was on this trek for one purpose only — to find the rounded crater created by the larger, earlier Mediterranean Sea, and the fanciful layering of stone in the surrounding area. We jounced along, moving from one streambed to the next.

The final streambed with the largest stone formations was Nahal Peratzim. As we moved down its stone corridors with layered towers resembling a small Grand Canyon, I recognized formations from that long-ago tour. With every turn of the nahal, I expected to see my crater.

Suddenly, however, we were back to where we started from and again we missed it.

I found some maps of the area afterward and tried to piece together our route. I believe that had we continued along Nahal Peratzim into Mishor Amiaz — a flat plain — ending at the Flour Cave, we would have been in the right spot.

Next time!

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