Leaving Jerusalem on our way to the Dead Sea, I am struck by the overwhelming energy and excitement that fills the bus. Having met in person for the very first time only 24 hours prior, our team has instantly united with a connectedness of purpose and meaning. Having followed the previous aquatic quests of many of these swimmers with much admiration, to finally come together from across the globe for this incredible cause feels particularly significant.
As our bus winds its way through the endless desert land – barren and seemingly uninhabitable - except for the handful of remote Bedouin settlements scattered across the land; shanty homes of this nomadic farming community surrounded by small makeshift fences housing modest flocks of sheep. Devoid of modern comforts, amazingly these small collectives are completely self-sufficient, despite the arid surroundings. Being a New Zealander who grew up on a sheep and cattle farm surrounded by an abundance of fertile, lush and very green landscape, I am awestruck with the sight of a lone Bedouin farmer leading his small flock, small as it is, of sheep across this desolate land. Even more amazing to consider that this iconic scene has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.
Continuing our drive to the lowest point on earth (400 meters/ 1410 feet below sea level) along the twists and turns of the renowned Highway 90, Evan announces exuberantly over the loud speaker “ladies and gentlemen, we have just officially gone below sea level!!” With the pressure building in our ears as we make our way even further below sea level, this sensation is the oddly familiar; it is exactly the same feeling as taking off from land in an aircraft and flying towards cruising altitude. We observe with a child-like giddiness the novelty of our travel into this new terrestrial territory, and very quickly share an experience around releasing the pressure in our ears using a variety of methods - feigning a yawn or chewing gum to clear our ears.
Seeing the Dead Sea for the first time is nothing short of extraordinary. This strange greenish-blueish body of water set against a barren backdrop, except for nearby date palm plantations set along the perimeter, is mirage–like. It is easy to mistake the Sea for an abundance of life. Yet the depletion and the ill-health of this body of water is readily apparent; the water line has receded many kilometers in my lifetime alone. This is undeniable proof of a rapid decline, and the reason we are all here today. Random collections of huge sink holes collapse deep into the earth. Indeed it is a sobering sight. Health spas set up decades ago are now abandoned due to the lack of proximity to the water line. Remnants of outdoor showers that were once mere steps from the Dead Sea, litter the land some 2-3 kms from the sea.
After a brief pit-stop at our generous accommodations at Ein Gedi, we are ready to swim in the Dead Sea together for the first time. Now seated on the tractor-trailer transportation, we make our final journey towards the Sea, though still at least 2 kms away. Approaching the Sea, we are welcomed by a narrow passageway showcasing each of our national flags, my Mum squeezes my hand with an acknowledgment of the journey ahead. I am the only New Zealander on the team, and very very proud. Personalized kits await our arrival containing team shirts and swimsuits thanks to the generosity of our sponsors.
A lifeguard is stationed at the small authorized public swimming zone along the water’s edge in case of an emergency - something we witness during this first practice swim in the sea. Without warning a tourist flips over on his stomach, face down, flailing and unable to right himself (the density of the water makes it very difficult to turn your body over if you are unexpectedly face down). Together with the lifeguard, a few of our teammates come to his rescue.
Indeed, as a swimmer, it is a strange notion not to be able to dive into a body of water without full face protection. To know that you cannot – under any circumstance - swallow the water, or inhale the water. And the fact that you cannot do either, oddly makes me want to do it even more. Each body of water that I have had the privilege of experiencing has a unique taste and sensation. But knowing the risks of the Dead Sea, and I will not dare test those limits; there is no question, we must wear our specialized masks. Yet wearing the mask in this environment is very different from where I practiced – at sea level in my training pool and in the San Francisco Bay. Here the air feels thicker with oxygen making it easier to breathe, yet the air temperature is a stifling and very dry 78 degrees, and the restriction of the mask begins to trigger my sense of claustrophobia. It feels awkward and cumbersome to say the least.
Determined to fulfill my commitment to the team and the cause, I keep my fears and complaints to myself. It is a huge honor to be here, and tremendously exciting. And so, after eight long months of apprehension, my moment of truth is finally realized in a single, very memorable moment; gingerly tiptoeing barefoot across the crystalized bed of salt in the shallow water I make my way to a depth in which I can actually float. It is not easy for any of us. Equal gasps of anguish, and giggles of disbelief fill the air. We must all be mad. Moving further from the shore and closer to the Sea, my high pain tolerance is duly tested. Ultimately, however, the discomfort yields to an overwhelming sense of wonderment and disbelief. Here I am about to launch my body into the Dead Sea for the very first time!!!
Finally, desperate to relieve the pain of the sharp crystalized salt on the bed of the sea floor slicing my feet, I carefully slip my body into a depth of about 5 inches, only to feel my body pop up instantaneously to the surface, and remarkably effortlessly. It is the strangest feeling. “We’re floating! We’re FLOATING!!” I exclaim. The repetition of my delight is only exceeded by my immense grin. I am completely captivated by the surreal sensation of the salinity of the water allowing for such buoyancy. Cautioned against shaving my legs or underarms in preparation for the swim, I am still surprised to experience previously undetected cuts over my body, with an undeniable, piercing pain.
After a couple of hours of planned drills in the Sea, we return to Ein Gedi to rest. I soon discover my body is covered with a rash. All over my body. I look like I have a terrible case of the measles. After some hesitation and consultation with Mum, I decide to seek medical treatment from the lead Intensive Care surgeon. Due to my recent medical history with pulmonary edema and a pneumothorax, he orders a full body check, finally deciding that some medication might help with my condition. He cautions, however, that if my rash has not cleared by morning, he will not consent to me participating in the swim.