Living in London is a privilege; it’s a wonderful, vibrant, modern city. In the UK we’re never too far from links with the not-so-modern either; on a daily basis we brush past, walk on and catch our heels on stonework and buildings that go back centuries. There’s so much living history knocking about that our eyes play tricks on us and we don’t even register the old shizzle amongst the newer stuff.
I still don’t think we do it as well as Paris does, but we’re pretty good nonetheless.
It’s easy to become quite complacent about it until you find yourself in somewhere like India or the Middle East, where all of a sudden you’re tripping over antiquities that are far more ancient than those you ignore every day in the UK.
Certain iconic sites around the world are now being protected to a greater extent than they ever were when I started travelling, including in the UK. Here, no longer is it possible to get up close and personal with Stonehenge – something I regret not doing when I had the chance, but it’s always the same when things are on your doorstep, you’re far less likely to take advantage.
I was too busy stomping all over and generally contributing to the demise of sites elsewhere in the world instead of home-grown ones.
One that I managed to get in before it too rightly became restricted was the incredible Masada in Israel.
Masada is the site of King Herod’s fortress between 37 and 31 BC, situated on top of a 400m high isolated rock plateau with nigh on impossible access up its sheer faces. It took the marauding Romans almost two years to scale it, at which point the resident Jews on top decided to commit mass suicide – all 960 of them – instead of waiting for the fate that lay ahead.
What remains is remarkably well maintained – if you use a little imagination – and its setting is one of the most eerie you’ll ever come across. It’s undoubtedly maintained even better now than when it was when I first visited.
It was 1983 and my first trip abroad. I’d been working on a kibbutz called Cabri (I remember it clearly as I associated it with Cadbury’s chocolate, mmmm) up in the north and was now travelling around the country with a friend. Never having properly left the UK before (two school day trips to Boulogne and Calais plus a couple of ski trips to Italy don’t really count), I was still quite nervous of throwing myself fully into the kind of things you end up doing when backpacking.
Nowadays there’s a cable car that can get you to the top of Masada in no time, but back then you had to do it the hard way. Actually, there were two routes up, one much easier than the other, but the rewarding way of doing it was to do the more challenging face.
Which we did.
Luckily for us, this was back in the day when you could camp out on top overnight. Seems unheard of now but this was true then. So, having made it up there in one piece we then rushed around with dozens of others trying to find the best spot in which to bed down. We had no bedding, not even sleeping bags and it was simply a matter of locating a slightly elevated part in attempt to avoid the very prevalent snakes, scorpions and other beasties.
It was rocky, dusty, dry, full of ruins and nothing else. It was getting dark and we’d been beaten to the better spots by those quicker and more decisive than us.
‘Psst. Psst. Hello.’
If it weren’t for the ‘hello’ I’d have sworn there was a snake close by.
‘Hello, over here.’
A kind of site caretaker was shyly trying to make contact while respectfully maintaining his distance.
Mussa, as we discovered was his name, eventually summoned up the courage to approach us, saying that he knew of a great spot that hadn’t been discovered and if we were quick we could probably nab it. It was on top of some flat ruins that offered safety from any unwanted, poisonous, biting residents. We gladly followed him and were able to stake our claim on the rocks.
We got talking to him and before long he explained that he enjoyed inviting tourists down to visit his home and family, a little way away.
Bet you do, I thought, while rolling my eyes at my friend.
‘Oh wow, we’d love to come,’ she said with no consultation.
Despite my mounting silent protests (ie more aggressive eye rolling), within five minutes Melanie and I were being led back down the easy face of Masada by torchlight and had reached the bottom within about 20. We then bunched up into the single passenger seat of Mussa’s pick up truck and sped off across the dessert.
He had limited English but we established that he was Bedouin and lived in a tent in the middle of absolutely nowhere with his small family.
I was shifting noiselessly in the restricted space I had (it was too dark for any more eye rolling) and tried communicating my nervousness to Melanie through the medium of elbow nudges and kicks – which she chose to ignore.
Mussa cranked up the music – which to my unaccustomed ears was obviously horrific – as we continued along the road lit only by the moon.
Mussa was getting increasingly into the excited party mood while I was retreating into the seat and praying to a god I didn’t believe in.
We’d been travelling for about half an hour when he veered off the paved road and shot off into the unknown. I panicked, lurched forward in my seat (grabbing the windscreen thinking it would offer me security) and shouted, demanding to know where he was taking us.
No doubt used to this, he laughed and told me to calm down, it was alright, not far now.
There was very little I could have done so I decided to resign myself to fate.
After another 30 minutes, lights appeared on the horizon. I had the impression we were closing in on a large camp. In my mind’s eye I filled in the gaps by envisaging a slave trade in which Melanie and I were to be kept for years to come, sex slaves to all nomads who passed through the area.
I very nearly passed out with worry.
And then we stopped. Two men approached our vehicle, black as night and wrapped in a variety of layers from the head down, giving nothing away.
They looked sinister.
Mussa embraced them, smiling. They responded but maintained their gaze on us.
‘Come, meet family. These my neighbours, live some hours away, we welcome them with food for journey home. You too, please, come eat.’
Melanie and I were pushed into a huge tent, inside which we were introduced to Mrs Mussa, Mrs Mussa’s sister and lots of little Mussas, all giggling shyly.
We sat on the floor and watched as Mrs Mussa made some kind of unleavened bread. It became obvious that, despite my concerns, the only thing I needed to be wary of was the fact that Mrs Mussa was handling copious amounts of dry camel dung to use to keep the flames going without going to the trouble of washing her hands before continuing with the preparation of our food.
The camels themselves were outside and for the entire night displayed a bout of flatulence in an extraordinarily loud and smelly fashion which broke the ice and kept us all amused.
After a few hours Melanie and I had had a wonderful off –piste experience that couldn’t be bought in a brochure and, having bid our fond farewells to Mussas big and small, we sat in the truck and headed back to Masada.
Mussa guided us up the easy face again and delivered us to our door. Well, our rock.
We were in high spirits and it was very difficult to suppress them, it was almost like being drunk.
We got the strangest of looks off our neighbours the following morning when we all awoke for sunrise. They simply couldn’t figure out where we had disappeared to for hours. The massive lump of rock that is Masada is completely remote in the middle of the dessert and needs to be scaled. Yet we had seemingly gone out for the night, returning in the wee hours, accompanied by the sound of thumping music emanating from Mussa’s truck, totally high on life.
Our little secret.