Tag Archives: travel

Where to Go for Dark Skies?

No matter where you live on earth you have a chance to witness the incredible experience of watching bits of space debris streak through our atmosphere and create cosmic fireworks. In an older column I described How to Photograph Meteors – it is a daunting and luck laden process. Here I want to give some useful hints about WHERE to go to get the best view. These same hints may also help you find a location to view the Milky Way.

What I am not planning to tell you is where *I* would go because many of you are reading from all over the world and it would be little help to you for me to mention Yosemite, or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.  Instead, what I want to do is to give you the insight to figure out where the best place is for YOU.  Here are the parameters to weigh:

  1. Goals
  2. Weather
  3. Accessibility
  4. Distance
  5. Darkness

Goals

It might seem strange, but I pick different locations depending on what it is I want. If I just want to watch meteors then I will pick a place that may compromise the other factors.  Assuming my goal is to photograph meteors, I have a second important decision: Do I want meteors, or do I want meteors in the context of a landscape?  For me the answer is almost always in the context of a landscape for the reasons I illuminated in this article.  In my opinion a shot of a meteor might be interesting, but a shot of a meteor over a lovely mountain, lake or landmark is WAY more interesting. For example compare the two photos below. The first shot is an Iridium flare (not a meteor, though it looks like one). The second is definitely a meteor. Which one is the most interesting? Yeah, the second one!

Meteor or Iridium Flare? [5_028205-dk] Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The next part of the goal is to figure out WHICH direction the landmark needs to be.  For example the Geminid Meteor shower is one of the few showers where the “radiant point” is visible all night long. But that also means that it may be best to shoot East after sunset, or West before sunrise and around midnight you’ll want to point south when the constellation will be high in the sky.  Of course meteors appear anywhere in the sky, but I like to keep a part of the radiant in my shots.

Once I’ve figured out which direction I’d like to face, only then can I start including and excluding locations. Of course an ideal place would allow me to face ANY direction, but the truth is not many ideal places are left in the world.

Weather

Now that I know which direction I’d like to face, I have to decide how much I am worried about bad weather.  Out here on the US West Coast a drive of 4 hours will get me to a mountain – the Sierras, 5 to 7 hours can take me to a desert area where it will generally be clear – but often windy, and a shorter drive will get me to a coastal area that may be fog plagued in some seasons.  In short, I would like to be as certain as I can about the weather conditions and thus will always have a plan B.  I have previously discussed the tools I use to track and plan for the weather.

Accessibility

While I would love to pass the time at a High Sierra location watching a meteor shower (awesome!), it might be really impractical or impossible for me to get there with my equipment in the dead of winter – even if the weather itself is not the problem. Road closures, park closures, etc. may interfere.  If I want to take friends or clients I need to restrict the amount of schlepping and walking required.  Some areas, like state, county and local parks which might be ideal are usually CLOSED, locked and gated at night.  National Parks and BLM designated land are generally open at night so rank high on my favorite places list.

Not only should my desired location be easy to get to by car but I would prefer a short walk to a safe location, and preferably in an area that has little or no car travel at night to ruin my night vision or my night shots.  Sometimes little intangibles like the direction and slope of any nearby roads makes a big difference. If a location is the top of the hill but a road points directly at it means I probably want to be on the other side of that hill to prevent the intrusion of headlights.  The arch shot above is an example of that hazard – a bend in the road causes cars to sweep their headlights across the landscape at that location.

It’s also unwise to attempt to use private land without permission. Being an unwelcome guest could result in embarrassment, hassle or hazard!

Distance

I have already touched upon this, but by distance I really mean time, effort and cost to reach the location. Since meteor showers occur annually, I am less inclined to make a huge effort if the circumstances do not look like they will be ideal.  On the other hand, I had no problem driving 1,000 miles roundtrip to put myself in the path of the Transit of Venus – an event that will not happen again in my lifetime (or yours).

Darkness

The one commodity that we are perhaps in the least supply of is darkness. So many cities, so much light pollution. But I do not need TOTAL darkness. If I have decided the best view is to the south, I just need to make sure no major cities lie south of my location. If my intended view is east, then I want mountains or distance to insulate me from the glow of light pollution to my east.  Unfortunately darkness is also a function of weather.  Humidity, clouds, water vapor and air particulates can turn a generally dark location into an awful mess through the effect of human-made light sources. A place that is clear and dark during most of the winter might be horrible in the balmy summer.

Prior experience is often the best indicator of where deepest darkness is found. Sometimes the easiest way to find a dark place is to simply look at a map – making note of the terrain and where the cities are in relation to your desired direction of view.  There is a dark sky locator that may help as well.  And you can do your part by joining the International Dark Sky Association and being an advocate for responsible lighting ordinances. I am a member.

Putting it All Together

You’ve probably already figured out that finding a combination of an interesting foreground that is easily accessible but a not too distant place with reliable weather is no small feat.  Some people think that if you go where astronomers like to go you’ll get all the right stuff. But that’s not true. Astronomers do care about almost all of these things, but the one thing that matters little to an astronomer is the landscape.  Astronomers are looking at the sky so a featureless high plateau is just fine. Oh, and if you want to light paint your foreground, you will really tick off astronomers!

So now you may have also surmised why I do not freely share my hard found locations. BUT if you join me on a workshop or webinar you will find out!

 

Mission: Peak!

Viewing Space [5_025469]

It is not a secret but one of my favorite places to be is right here, 18 miles away from where I live in Northern California.  The place? Mission Peak Preserve which is located in eastern Fremont California. The most popular access point is at the end of Stanford Avenue off of Mission Boulevard. Mission Peak is part of the Diablo Range which extends south all the way to highway 46 near Paso Robles. The northern portion of this range includes Mt. Diablo, Sunol Peak, Mission Peak, Mount Allison, Monument Peak. Farther south and east are a number of even taller mountains including Discovery Peak, Mount Isabel, and Mount Hamilton. Still farther south the Pinnacles National Monument lies in almost the center of the entire range.

Now lets move on to your questions:

  • What will I see?
  • How long is the hike?
  • How hard is the hike?
  • What should I take?
  • Where should I go for the best pictures?
  • What should I worry about?
  • Who can I go with?
  • What if I still have questions?

What Will I See?

I have posted at least 130 images taken at Mission Peak out of thousands. Mission Peak Preserve is a wonderful place especially when the sun is setting…

When the Lights Go Down in the City [5_018683]

Photo 3: Sunset over the San Francisco Bay as seen from Mission Peak, Fremont, California

Or rising…

Rosy Glow of Sunrise [5_019044ps]

Photo 4: Mount Allison and San Jose, California glowing in the pre-dawn light.

And when the sun is nowhere to be found:

Photo 5: Celestial Rotation over Mission Peak

How Long Does it Take To Hike Up?

Now that is a tough one. You might as well ask me “Steven, how many pounds can I lift?” or “Steven, how far can I hit a golf ball with a 5 iron?”  The answer, of course is I do not know. How fit are you? How much hiking have you done? What are you planning to carry? While Mission Peak is literally a walk in the park, it is definitely not the colloquial walk in the park.  The East Bay Park District guideline says it takes up to 5 hours to reach the summit and return. For some people that may be optimistic. It is a STEEP hike. Mission Peak rises 2,517 feet above sea level, and the longest trail to get to the top from Ohlone College, is a little over 3 and a half miles.  The steepest trail – Horse Heaven trail from Stanford Avenue – is a little under 3 miles.  Walking 3 miles on flat ground is easy for most people to do in about 45 to 60 minutes.  When I carry my 20 pound pack with camera gear, water, extra clothing, first aid kit, flashlight, etc. it takes me about an hour and 40 minutes to reach the summit and about 50 minutes to descend.  When I’m feeling fit and traveling light I’ve reached the summit in 55 minutes. I have friends who can run to the top in less than 30 minutes. I have other friends who, I fear, will never reach the summit.

How Hard is the Hike?

Hard. See above. For me, as for most people, going up a steep incline is daunting. People tackle this in two ways: set a slow pace and keep it. Or go at a faster pace and rest when necessary. I prefer the latter.  This hike is hard enough that I use Mission Peak as training prior to my summer backpacking expeditions into the high Sierra.  If I can summit Mission Peak twice in one day I know I can conquer Half Dome in Yosemite. Mission Peak is shorter and at a lower elevation but it is steeper than Half Dome.

My best advice is to try hiking Mission Peak. And when you try, be well prepared. See “What Should I Bring” below.

The last 1/4 mile of the trail climbs about 700 feet over sometimes slippery rocks. Good footing is important.  I do not think anyone – even the acrophobic will find the trail scary. Unlike Half Dome there are no sheer ledges to fall off if you stay on the trail.  By the way, there is no shame to not reaching the top.  The views are excellent once you get past the first bench. TIP: When walking up, use that big muscle (your buttocks) to pull you up – your calves and thighs will thank you.

Also, while traveling up can be exhausting, coming down can be downright painful.  On the way down you are much more likely to slip – especially in bad shoes – and the pounding on the knees and ankles is quite noticeable. You are also likely to notice your quadriceps complaining. They will be doing work they are not used to.

What Should I Bring?

Be over prepared!

  • Water – plenty of water (2 litres or more on a hot day)
  • Snacks for energy
  • Layers of clothing – including WARM clothing and windbreaker. It can be cold and windy at the top – very cold and very windy.
  • A cap or wide brimmed hat, knit hat and light gloves – yes, even in the summer.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Insect repellent is usually not necessary, but might be a good idea as there are ticks.
  • Flashlight or headlamp – even if you do not plan to be there when it is dark.
  • Moleskin or glacier ice (for preventing or managing blisters) and a knife or small scissors if not precut.
  • GOOD hiking boots or shoes with thick, comfortable hiking socks (take a second pair of socks, too)
  • A hand towel to wipe sweat or muck
  • (Optional) A camera and a tripod.  If you’re not taking a tripod you’re not going to get the best pictures, trust me.
  • (Optional) Hiking poles

How Should I Get to the Summit?

Stay on the trails, please. On the way up pick the trail that goes uphill – there is very little down on any of the uphill hikes. My favorite trails in order are:

The two main trails from Stanford Avenue

  1. Horse Heaven trail – the steepest but also the best views and the most varied terrain – and the least traveled by park goers so there is more solitude. Start at Stanford Avenue and take the first fork in the road down and to the right (here it is called the “Peak Meadow Trail”). This trail has a few locations where you can miss a turn so make sure you have a map. The most common mistakes are to take the very steep shortcut too soon or to miss the switchbacks which exit Peak Meadow Trail and become Horse Heaven trail. The Peak Meadow Trail makes a wide 180 degree turn to the left, but before you exit that elbow you must head up the Horse Heaven trail which is easily overlooked if you keep following the fire road.  The Horse Heaven trail joins the Peak Trail on the southern side of the Mission Peak summit closest to Mount Allison. After paying a penalty going up some mercilously steep sections (with a few down segments) getting to the summit involves a kinder, gentler, slip free ascent to the Mission Peak summit.  The Horse Heaven trail crosses very small streams about 3 times.
  2. Ohlone College trail (properly called the Peak Trail or the Bay Ridge Trail) is the easiest and the fastest route to get to the eastern wilderness side of the preserve. Easiest because it is the longest thus the least steep – not easiest as in easy. The Ohlone trail is interesting because a segment of the trail goes through a wooded section where you are very likely to see or hear a rafter of turkeys.  Except for the wooded section, the trail is mostly a fire road. Parking on Mission Boulevard is your best choice. If you park in the college, do not forget to pay!
  3. The “main trail” from Stanford Avenue is where the masses of people aimlessly go. It is the most obvious route and for me, the most boring. The trail (called the “Hidden Valley Trail”) is a fire road that winds its way up to the northern shoulder of Mission Peak. The road is pretty well maintained and drained. From the North shoulder a long scramble (not climbing!) up rocks is in needed to reach the summit OR you can follow the trail around the backside of Mission Peak past Eagle Springs Backpacking camp and then ascend on the easier southern side of the summit. There is almost no shade anywhere along this trail.

I have never taken the trail up from Sunol Regional Wilderness, but it is long and connects to the backside of Mission Peak.  While standing on the summit is a psychological boost, many people do not realize that the summit is NOT where the marker pole is. Also Mount Allison and Monument Peak are both taller than Mission Peak. Mount Allison is the next peak to the south with lots of radio towers on it – the summit area of Mount Allison is private property, but the trail does go around it on the way to Monument Peak.  It is possible to hike across Mission Peak, to Monument Peak and down into Ed Levin park.

Where and When Can I Get the Best Pictures?

If you are reading this thinking I am going to tell you… wrong!  There are thousands of great spots and any time of the day or night presents great opportunities. You may notice I prefer sunrises, sunsets and night time. There are practical and photographic reasons why I prefer those times. The practical reason is that it falls outside my normal working hours, and the mornings and early evening are generally cooler than mid day and mid afternoon.  Early morning and early evening parking is more plentiful, too – except on weekends when huge throngs of humanity take on Mission Peak.

There is more to see than landscapes. There are turkeys, raptors, vultures, ground squirrels, coyote, cows (lots of them!), mice, deer, snakes (including rattle snakes), toads, frogs, lizards, and a variety of flowering plants including lupin, mules ears, venus thistle, clover, butter cups. There are two seasons: the cool lush green season, and the dry brown season. Both have their charms.

What Should I Worry About?

People worry about a lot of things which I think are a waste of energy. People worry about cows and snakes, for example. Both are docile. People worry about seeing or hearing coyotes.  Really, they’re harmless.  I suggest worrying more about good shoes, having layers of clothing, plenty of water and being prepared in case you or someone you meet up with needs attention due to a slip or a fall. And inspect yourself for ticks after a hike. Ticks tend to be abundant where the cattle hang out and Lyme disease is much more sinister and much more likely than a rattle snake bite. There is poison oak in a few spots – none that I’ve seen on the main trail, but some along Horse Heaven and the Ohlone College trail.

I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about getting lost either. Almost the entire mountain side is open so it is usually easy to see where you need to go even when its not obvious which trail is the correct one.

On the other hand vulgar and rude people are not that uncommon.  Cell coverage is extremely spotty. Full bars in one spot and no bars 3 feet from that spot.

There is no water on the trail – only at the beginning.  There is also a permanent pit toilet at the north shoulder where three trails meet, and at the trail head at Stanford Avenue.  Oh, and worry about car breakins! There have been many. Leave your valuables out of sight or not in the car at all.

Who Can I Go With?

I regularly schedule photography hikes with a limited number of participants through the Bay Area Night Photography Meetup. In each I post my planned hiking speed. Please do yourself a favor and know your speed if you plan to join. Often I plan these hikes to arrive in place near sunrise or sunset and slowness means missing the best light.

The San Jose Hiking Meetup also regularly tackles this summit.  They are hikers whose goal, remember is to HIKE for health, fellowship and enjoyment. They are a fun bunch and I always enjoy their company (in part because I have never heard any of them whine about how difficult the hike is). There are other Bay Area Hiking groups, too. Or just recruit a friend and try it first on a weekend when you have plenty of time.  I generally do NOT go on weekends. Too crowded and too many other great places to go.

NOTE: If you have somebody who will drop you off you can massively cheat. Study the maps and you will notice that Mill Creek Road connects with the Peak Trail at 1200 feet. That’s almost half way up – but there is NO parking on that road. Expect a ticket and a tow if you try to park there!

Still got Questions?

If you do not see the answer above and cannot find it on the Mission Peak site, use the comments to ask a question.

Israel and Jordan Trip Report – Final Installment

Jerusalem Street with Stairs [C_029200]

Photo 1: Street in Old Jerusalem

In my last column concerning my trip to the middle east, I left off with our visit to the Yad Vashem – Holocaust Museum. In truth we went many other interesting places before then: the Book Museum (about the Dead Sea Scrolls), St Stephen’s Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, and many other places within and nearby the walled Old Jerusalem.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre while it is unlikely that it was the actual place where Jesus was entombed after his crucifixion and where he was raised to life again was compelling nonetheless. There was a palpable somber, pious attitude and a great throng of respectful people. It certainly made me think about the roots of the Christian faith – the death burial and resurrection in a way that I’ve never really thought before. It was suddenly far less theoretical – I may be standing where it all took place.

The interior and exterior of the church (actually about 7 churches) told stories about the people within and without, and about the troubled birth pains of Israel as a nation. Outside the church is a bomb disposal chamber built of heavy steel. Fortunately it has been little (if ever) used, but is telling of the sad state of the human condition.

Courtyard - Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem [C_029130]

Photo 2: Exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Note the bomb disposal chamber at the extreme lower left.

Photo 3: Interior - Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Holy Sepulchre beneath the dome [C_029153]

Photo 4: The Sepulchre is within an Aedicule (the dark structure at the bottom) which is under a church dome.

We also visited around the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, known also as the Dome of the Rock to Islam. A small cadre of Israeli soldiers were touring as well.

Photo 5: Part of the Temple Mount Wall

There was one spot on our tour that was particularly difficult for my wife. She is claustrophobic and the tunnel along the wall of the Temple Mount was, let’s just say, difficult for her.

At it’s narrowest (which was most of it) two normal sized people would have to struggle to pass one another. Fortunately there were wider alcoves at various points that were better lit and slightly less “interactive”.

Eventually, of course, the trip must end. Ours ended well considering my getting separated from the rest of the group on the night we were to go to the airport.  We made a stop at Old Jaffa as it was growing dark. Dark!  Again I didn’t bring my tripod, I left it on the bus, so all of my exposures required using props to support my camera.   We visited several ruins, but before we even set out, our guide said: If we get separated, we will meet on the far side of the church. Good that I remembered that – but wish I had done it.

As we meandered around in the deepening dark, several things, of course caught my eye including a sculpture that our guide helped us to interpret. A few of us night photographers (i.e. Rick and I) were busy ignoring David trying to get the moon and the modern city of Jaffa in the shot.

Old Jaffa Sculpture [C_029415]

Photo 7: Sculpture of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in Old Jaffa

Right after I shot the sculpture, I noticed people were still around, so I shot the next scene on a whim. It was dark and I was surprised by what I saw, so I reshot it, reframed it, reshot it, adjusted my exposure. Improve the stability of my makeshift tripod (a wall with my phone and lens cap serving as additional support). Every shot was about 30 seconds. Eventually I looked up and noticed everyone was gone. Trailing off in the distance I could see a group walking together. I ran after them – literally. They weren’t going “behind the church”, but some of the pathways were closed and perhaps the guide knew the best way. Or perhaps they were visiting one last thing before heading to the bus. The group turned a corner in the distance. I ran faster. Eventually I got to the corner and it was looking much more residential. I surveyed the main street. No bus. The group I was chasing stepped into some streetlights and… well it wasn’t MY group. Who knows how long I had been photographing alone in the dark – it’s easy to lose track of time. I looked at my watch and it said about 7:05 – and our restaurant reservations were for 7:30 (I thought – later learned that they were for 6:30!).

Jaffa at Night [C_029419]

Photo 8: The image that separated me from my group. Old Jaffa and New

I wasn’t worried, but I decided to call my wife who of course informed me that they were all “on the bus”. “Where?” near the canons at the front of the church. Well, that was a tough one because I was a long way away. I found my way back to where we started the entire walk quickly – and the church was in the distance. My wife let me know that 3 people were out looking for me. Of course they didn’t have cell phones.

When I got near the church I spotted one of my searchers just as I also spotted the bus. Yeah! But now problem number two arose: some of the searchers are still out searching. And unfortunately, they weren’t ONLY searching for me.

We found our additional lost soul eventually – right around 7:20 PM and headed straight for the Magana restaurant in the old Yemeni section of Jaffa. The bus couldn’t get in those narrow streets so we walked a few blocks. Let me get right to the point now: the food there was the BEST of the entire trip. Wonderful! Scrumptious!

Photo 9: Magana for Dinner. YUMMY!

It didn’t hurt that we were the only group in the restaurant which had stayed open late just for us. We had fantastic service, great tasty food. And afterward, we all headed to the airport. Most left that night, my wife and I, and another couple went to a budget hotel to spend a few hours (from midnight to 4 am) after which we had to leave to catch our flight home.

Security was pretty thorough in Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv. My large backpack and tripod often attract attention of the screeners.

But the last few bits of the trip had us flying to London, and thereafter home to San Francisco with a plane full of London kids who were anxious to go skiing in Tahoe. They all complained when the plane touched down in San Francisco. The weather was dreary the day we arrived and the Londoners had left far better weather behind. I don’t know if they got what they wanted, but traffic to Tahoe was snarled for for the next few days as the last bits of a fierce winter storm dropped 8 feet of snow in the Sierra.

Oh, and I almost forgot. On the night flight out I got to see (and photograph) the Auroroa Borealis. Sweet. Next I have to try it from the ground!

On the Wing (and Under it) [C_011575]

Photo 10: Aurora Borealis through the window of the 747.

More “Long Way” Updates for Jordan, Israel

Wadi Rum - Outstanding in the Desert

In my prior installment, I left off with us in Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is a marvelous desert with amazing color. Reminiscent of Death Valley except Wadi Rum has much more sand, and is towering on a grand scale.  It also reminds me a bit of the Cochise Stronghold area south east of Tucson, Arizona. On our penultimate day before the official tour started, I had taken an early excursion into Petra and my travel mates picked me up. Wadi Rum is south of Ma’an and north east of Aqaba. As you drive there the desert becomes more lively. We were also blessed with blue sky and plenty of puffy white clouds.

We arrived at the entrance to Wadi Rum, there is a parking area to the left. Several men dressed in typical Arab headress motioned us to park in a particular spot and asked us what our plans were. They didn’t have “park badges” or any sort of official looking uniform, so it was at first a little off-putting. We later came to realize that the Jordanians are as a whole marvelously lovely people who are flexible, accommodating and honest.  We told him that we wanted to visit Wadi Rum and he told us we’d need a 4×4 to explore in there. I knew that this was probably true. He asked us how long we wanted to stay and what we were interested in. I told him 3-4 hours and we’d like to visit at least one or two arches, and anything else that would “make a nice photo”.  He quoted us a price which included the 5 Dinar per person admission charge.  It seemed reasonable (about $35 per person for a 4 hour driver led jeep ride through the desert).  But we needed a bio break and I wanted to check the posted prices to prevent being “taken”.

In the end we took him up on the trip. Never quite got his name, but he was patient and informative, and took us to many lovely places.  Here he is with our ride in the background as we park near a narrow slot canyon with a natural spring in it. An Oasis in the desert, literally.

Our Ride and Our Driver [C_020285]

Photo 1: Wadi Rum: Our Driver and our ride

Adjacent to the slot canyon was a Beadouin tent where we were served – for free – Beadouin Whiskey – sweetened tea made over a fire. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the hospitality and charm of the Beadouin people everywhere I met them was so comforting. The shop keeper explained that it was his special tea. At once when I tasted it I said, mmmh, I taste cardamom and sage. His face lit up, “Yes!” and he named a few other ingredients. I regret that I didn’t buy a packet to take home and savor.

Beadouin Tent - Tea in the Making [C_020308]

Photo 2: Beadouin "Whiskey" in the Making

After returning to our ride our guide and driver asked us if we wanted to “go faster”. Our lady-folk declined. But at one point, just after visiting “Lawrence’s House” (a Nabataean ruin), he took us up a steep sandy hill and back down. FUN.

Lawrence's House [C_020332]

Photo 3: Lawrence's House, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Big Arch, Wadi Rum [C_020324]

Photo 4: Big Arch, Wadi Rum

I’d relish the opportunity to spend the night under the stars there. The Beadouin’s have well furnished tents with modern conveniences.  The scale of the place is huge and as photographer, a 4×4 and plenty of time there are both necessities. The place is so remote, I can imagine the incredible starry skies and tales of the Arabian Knights.

After leaving Wadi Rum, we drove about 3 hours north to Amman, the largest city in Jordan with a population just shy of a million. It felt like a big city and at night the streets were a bit bewildering. The maps we had were not complete – showing only one out of every 5 or six streets. We definitely found some gaping potholes but it took us about an hour to find our hotel. We stopped and asked a Tourist Policeman directions. As with the other Jordanians, he was very helpful. He talked to about a half dozen people and then brought a person over who gave us accurate directions. I wonder if the police in your average big US city would have taken such time and care.

We awoke early the next morning and headed north to Jerash, a Roman ruin which is largely intact and apparently the second largest ruin in the world after Ephesus in Turkey.

Nymphaeum in Jerash [C_020404]

Photo 5: Nymphaeum in Jerash, Northern Jordan

Nothing is quite exciting as walking through 2,000 years of history and imaging the bustle and the people.  After our Jerash tour we made an 8-minute stop at Ajlun Castle.  Mind you it took us about an hour and a half of driving to get there and back, but we were up against a time deadline to return the rental car. Our official tour would start the following morning.

Photo 6: Gus and company

The official tour guide was Ghassan (Gus). A charming man who clearly knew his land (guides are required to pass courses to get their official guide license). Guess where we were going? Petra!   Early in the morning we checked out of out the hotel and boarded a bus. We traveled along the Kings’ Highway which at times overlooks the Dead Sea as at Karak Castle.

We arrived later than we expected at Taybet Zaman. Taybet Zaman is a reconstructed town where each room was formally a house. Lots of stone and a pretty setting. Unfortunately the late arrival – and the longish ride to the Petra entrance meant we would not be able to tour Petra at night for their “Romance Night”.  The next morning we checked out and headed via bus to Petra for my third visit.  Gus pointed out many things along the route in that I had missed in my prior two visits, but I had already arranged with my “taxi” driver, Mansour to travel by donkey from the area near the Roman street to a place he called the “Snake Monument”.  So off I went on donkey well away from the normal Petra group. It occurred to me at one point that I was going who-knows-where with a man I didn’t know all that well. He could have knocked me down, taken my backpack full of expensive camera gear and the donkeys and I’d have been hard pressed to do much. But that’s just not the way it works in Jordan.

Donkey not Pictured [C_020669]

Photo 6: Mansour and Me at Snake Monument

Mansour was careful to make sure I was safe as we hitched the donkeys at the end of a canyon and clambered up the slick rock for the all important photo opportunities followed by tea at an honest to-goodness they-live-in-their-tent Beadouin people. Mansour told the boy (in Arabic) that I was there to kill him. I wouldn’t have known otherwise why the boy went away crying, but I told Mansour that if he wanted to be paid he’d have to be as kind to children as I would be. Thereafter the little lad cheered up and behaved like a normal curious, well mannered little one.

Photo 7: Beadouin Hospitality near Petra.

Time was short so on the way Mansour would take me to the Beadouin village of Um Seihun where I’d catch a ride to the bus parking lot. Um Seihun was built when Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The government provided housing for the Beadouins who otherwise would continue to live and graze in the Petra site. In turn the Beadouin still take their flocks down into the area and sell trinkets, donkey, horse and camel rides to the tourists. If you’re willing to bargain just a little, the prices are more than reasonable. Few of the locals are getting rich from this trade.  Beware, though: the Beadouin children are very charming. “One Dinar, lady, One Dinar” a six year old repeated to my wife. I bought a twelve pack of postcards from him. $1.60? That’s cheap.

When we reached the spot where I was to catch a ride I paid Mansour and he then started a long negotiation with the man with the car. Apparently it was not “all arranged”. In the end, I think 8 Dinar of my donkey fee went to the driver who made the comment that “Mansour was a good negotiator – normally he charged 10 Dinar” ($15) for the 15 minute drive.

I arrived back to the bus in plenty of time. I do miss Petra though – so much yet to see and photograph there. The bus drove north, stopping a time or two enroute back to Amman where we’d spend one more night in the same so-so hotel before heading to Bethany Beyond Jordan (historical site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ), Madaba (where amazing stone tile work has been found), Mount Nebo, Mount Carmel and then across the Allenby Bridge into Israel for lunch at Genesis Land.

Photo 8: Genesis Land.. before the yummy date-honey chicken arrived.

Genesis Land was kitchy. Eleazar, Abraham’s servant greets you and takes you (after you don your period cloak) to a Beadouin tent where Abraham insures that you are well fed. The date-honey glazed chicken was, mmmmmh good, as were many of the other traditional period authentic dishes.

The next 7 days of the journey we ran ’round like, well, tourists. Our guide in Israel, David Jacobs is a walking encyclopedia of history, culture, and a bit of traveling wit. I can’t even remember a fifth of the places we visited. Many frankly were remarkable for their history rather than their current state of being. Of our time in Israel, my favorite places were Masada, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Tell Dan, and the Sea of Galilee.

Roman Ramp built to Besiege Masada [C_029013]

Photo 9: Masada and the Roman Ramp built to beseige it.

The high fortress of Masada overlooks the Dead Sea. The Jews living there managed to thumb their noses at Romans and their mighty army for three years. The Romans camped around Masada and built walls so that the Masadan’s could not leave, but the Romans were unsuccessful besieging the city until they built a huge ramp. The Israeli military are frequent visitors to Masada where the rich, tenacious history of their forebears inspires them to keep up the good fight and remember the sometimes high cost of freedom.

Qumran Cave [C_029058]

Photo 10: Caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found

The entire Dead Sea area was an interesting contrast of barren desert and occasional oases. In a comedy of errors I left my bathing suit in the bus and didn’t partake of the Dead Sea floating experience. I don’t think I missed all that much, frankly.

The exhibits and terrain at Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found were fascinating. Imagining living in such an arid place where the summer temperatures get very hot is, well, it’s making me sweat just contemplating it.  Ritual mikveh’s (baths for purification) were everywhere about.

Caesarea along the Mediterranean Coast found us walking through another well preserved Roman ruin and included a large aqueduct built by the crazy Herod the “Great”.

Photo 11: Herodian Acqueduct

Photo 12: The oldest gates from the ancient city of Dan. Note that they are made of Adobe brick.

In the north eastern part of Israel near the Golan Heights, Tell Dan was such an amazing contrast.  The place is lush by comparison to the desert like areas elsewhere. Our hike to the ancient ruins of Dan found us enjoying rushing creeks, heavy woods, cooler weather and fantastic views – including a view from the bunkers overlooking the Israel – Syria border. We waved at the military outpost high up on the heights.

Photo 13: Bert in the trenches at the Syrian Border

We spent several nights using Nof Ginosar along the Sea of Galilee as our base of operations. It was good to stay in one place (if you could call it that!) and the large food buffet was generous and varied. Fresh squeezed orange juice, and a variety that boggled the mind.

Photo 14: Boat on the Sea of Galilee

The most surreal, and in a way disheartening experience was our trip into Bethlehem to visit the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Bethlehem is a Palestinian controlled area perhaps 8 miles from Jerusalem. Entering Bethlehem means passing through a security checkpoint and exchanging a Jewish guide for a Palestinian guide. The signage that previously was always in Hebrew, Arabic and English now was only in Arabic and English. Our Palestinian guide, like the others was a good ambassador. He almost seemed to be pleading with tourists to come. We spent several hours touring the area, visiting a cave that may have been the birthplace of Christ, or at least a stable where the animals may have been kept as well as an elaborate confined area deep in the bottom of a series of churches. It’s hard to imagine these places as they may have been when ornate (and to my eye tacky) buildings cover them over. But on the other hand, had the various churches not preserved them two thousand years of various occupiers would certainly not have thought twice about using these “holy” locations for whatever purpose seemed best at the time – and many were. As evening fell we passed the “Stars and Bucks” coffee shop as the bus took us back to our hotel in Jerusalem – a very nice hotel I might add with excellent food and comfortable accommodations. The wait to cross out of Bethlehem was quite long… perhaps 45 minutes.

Later in the trip I saw with my eyes something that literally made me weep. Walls. I felt as if I had just been transported back to Berlin and the east and west had been carved up to  separate brothers and cousins. I remember visiting the Mauer Museum (Wall Museum in Berlin) and realizing how naive I am as an American about what happened in Berlin. The walls in Israel are fairly recent and were meant to slow the violence and the attacks on motorists passing between the mostly Jewish sections of Jerusalem and the mostly Jewish sections of western Israel. Apparently the walls are working, but they don’t just protect the freeways as the sound barrier walls do in California – they encircle whole towns.

Yad Vashem - Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem [C_029329]

Photo 15: Yad Vashem Holocause Memorial, Jerusalem.

I did weep at Yad Vashem. The Holocaust memorial high on the hills overlooking Jerusalem – especially at the “Children’s Holocaust” memorial where simple sculptures and a moving “million candles” exhibit wrench the heart.

Children's Holocaust Memorial Sculpture [C_029333]

Photo 14: Children's Holocaust Memorial Sculpture

I’ve been teaching a first grade Sunday School for nearly twenty years and hearing the names, ages and nationalities of the children killed during the Holocaust sent me in search of a tissue. I imagined the names of the children I have known being read only here it takes 22 months to cycle through the million and a half names each one a young soul.

For the final installment of my Middle East Excursion, please see Part 3.