Hugh and Colleen Gantzer float on the waters of the Dead Sea enjoying the unreal feeling.

In Jordan, we plunged 1,300 ft into the depths of the earth and came to the Sea of Death: that is what the Arabic name means. But that’s misleading. The Dead Sea is not a sea. It is a saltwater lake and it lies within the deepest place on the surface of the earth: the Great Rift Valley.

Here, a gigantic fault, a crack in the hard upper crust of the earth, extends for 6000 km. It stretches from the eastern part of Turkey to Ethiopia in East Africa. According to many anthropologists, the human race evolved in a sheltered gorge deep in this mysterious depression. Wandering around the fascinating Dead Sea Museum we saw geologic eras rewind and then flicker fast-forward as, long ago and far away, our Indian peninsula nudged into Eurasia, pushed up the Himalayas, drained the ancient Tethys Sea, created the Mediterranean and the land-locked Lisan Lake. But though the lake received the waters of the Jordan River they couldn’t flow out. There, sun and the sandstone cliffs around the lake became a monstrous still, sucking out the waters of the lake faster than the river could replenish them, concentrating its salts. Adding to this saline soup, deep underground springs pumped up concentrations of chemicals related to petroleum. This was a volcanic region, according to the museum.

We had driven all the way from Amman, the capital of Jordan, through patches of lush farmland, past groves of succulent figs and gnarled old olive trees and into landscapes that looked increasingly as if they had been teleported from the Moon. They were bare and eroded, filled with bizarre outcrops of rocks. The official had said “This is the Holy Land of all Semitic people: Jews, Christians, Muslims. This is where the wicked Cities on the Plains, Sodom and Gomorrah, were destroyed in a deluge of fire and brimstone.” After a while he had added, dramatically, “They were swallowed up by the Sea of Death.” He pointed, “Behold, it is there ...”

When we stopped the car and stepped out, the stretch of water between the bare mountains of Jordan and Israel looked as cold and uninviting as the Arctic Ocean. And that, in spite of the fact that the temperature outside was 30°C. But when we drove down and checked into our hotel, the Movenpic, built like a Greek village, we felt much happier. A marmalade cat purred on our patio, a breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees dripping cool shadows on the paths meandering between the cottages. We changed into swimsuits, strolled down to the beach, left our towels and cameras on a beach-chair under an umbrella, stepped into the Sea. The water was comfortably warm but so saline that our bodies couldn’t sink in it. The heavy concentration of salts and minerals buoyed us up so much that it was impossible to swim in this unique Sea. Other visitors were either standing in it up to their chests, or floating effortlessly on their backs, No one was splashing, no one was swimming.

It’s an unreal feeling at first. Then, as we learnt to flip our hands very gently, pushing the water back, we began to control the direction of our floating. One of us plunged under the surface, swallowed some of the water, and regretted it. It tasted like liquid alum. Later we learnt that it was the raw material for a chemical complex further down the beach. There they produced agricultural fertilizer some of which was exported to India! But the buoyancy, given by that salt-rich water, was comforting. So was the fact that every stretch of beach had its two vigilant life-guards. No one can drift out too far because there is a line of yellow buoys, linked by yellow ropes, to indicate the safe area. Beyond that, the sea deepens and extends to the forbidden shores of Israel. Swimmers accustomed to fresh water will probably find that the texture of the water in the Dead Sea leaves a slight film of dissolved salts on the skin. In fact there is a thriving trade in the sale of Dead Sea Salts: very popular as Bath Salts. But the true Dead Sea fans go further. Not content with letting the salts dry on their bodies, after floating on the Sea, they dip their hands into large urns placed on the beach. These contain Dead Sea sand. They scoop out handfuls of this black stuff and spread it on their bodies till they look like variations of the Creature From the Black Lagoon! Strangely, while women seemed to delight in using this unusual ‘body lotion’, men appeared to shun it like the plague.