Off the beaten track, in Israel’s southern Arava desert, the silence is so complete that your ears begin to thrum, searching for sound. There are no birds. No distant traffic hiss. No hikers or four-wheel-drives on our route as our two careful quarter horses follow a vertiginous mountain track along an ancient Roman supply route.
But here’s the strange thing about the desert: just when you think you’re most alone – the scuff of hooves the only noise in the deafening desert silence – you’ve simply got to listen with your eyes.
First, there’s the path. At times obscured by rockslides, but discernable nonetheless, a reminder that someone, sometime, trudged this same dizzy route to bring precious water from an Arava oasis to distant desert outposts. Next, the strange stone cairns perched in a row along a high rocky ridge. “No one knows,” says Amir, my guide, “how ancient they are, or who put them here – not even the archaeologists.” Perhaps, I consider, glancing down toward a barren horizon, they were planted by aliens, quite at home in this strange lunar landscape.
As the searing sun arcs overhead, we alight for lunch on a plateau between two mountain ridges, and secure the horses beneath the shade of a single tree. A fly buzzes by, then thinks better of it and wheels round to touch down on my arm, another traveller in this vast empty space. I watch as it takes off, swooping low, then purposefully off into the void. Under foot, something catches my eye. I bend down to pick it up, a strange-shaped rock, and realize it’s a fossil, a small, ribbed seashell.
“Sure,” says Amir, “this mountain’s full of them.”
Once, then, this huge space was deep underwater, an ocean populated by fish, clams, and prehistoric, gliding creatures. I breathe deeply. The silence thrums on. Me, Amir, the horses, the shellfish, the fly, I consider, as I sit down for lunch beside the campfire: all just drops in the desert.
Amelia Thomas travelled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow her adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.