My sister Liz flew down from Zimbabwe and I drove up to Pretoria on 26 December 1997 where we spent a day with very good friends of mine (Theo and Brenda) before flying out on El Al to Tel Aviv. We were met at the airport by our guide and our first bus driver (who had a bad cold - by the end of the tour after spending lots of time in a small bus, the whole group had had the cold!). Our tour guide (Shlomo Mizrahi) was excellent. His grasp of the history, religion and politics of the region was astounding (he used to work part-time as a lecturer in history and politics at a university in Tel Aviv). There were 19 of us in the tour group.
On the first day we drove North up the coast to port of Caesarea where we saw ruins dating back to the time of Christ. From there we went to Haifa where we visited a church commemorating various events in the life of the prophet Elijah. For lunch we stopped at a Druze (Arab) restaurant and had a lovely meal of falafels, pita breads with various salads and dips, and lovely sweet gooey pastries for dessert. In the afternoon we visited the site where Elijah had done battle with the prophets of Baal, overlooking the plain of Armaggedon, before driving to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee where we stayed for the next three nights. The next two days where spent in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee, including visits to many of the Biblical sites, a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, a visit to the "Galilee Experience" (a sound and slide show on the history of the area), a visit to Tel Meggido (on which James Michener's book, "The Source" is based), etc.
The day we left Tiberias we visited the traditional site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, the towns of Cana and Nazareth, and Mt Tabor, before driving down to Kibbutz Almog near the Dead Sea. There we had a slide presentation on the Dead Sea scrolls which were found nearby and also a talk on life in the kibbutz. The next day we visited Jericho, including Zacheus' tree and the tel of old Jericho, before driving up through the desert mountains to Jerusalem where we stayed for the next four nights. Again, in Jerusalem we visited many of the Biblical sites, the highlight of which was the Garden Tomb - a real haven of peace and tranquility. We also shopped in the narrow alleys of the Old City, walked part of the city walls of Jerusalem, visited the Western Wall (which was also a very moving experience; one could sense generations of prayer having been offered there), went to a synagogue and to an excellent folk show (all sorts of traditional Middle Eastern song and dance items). While we were based in Jerusalem we also visited Bethlehem and the Shepherds Field.
We left Jerusalem to travel down to Eilat (in the very south of the country, on the Red Sea). On the way we stopped at a Dead Sea resort at Ein Gedi and swam in the Dead Sea, covered ourselves in black mud (supposed to be very therapeutic!) and enjoyed hot sulphur showers and baths! We also visited Masada that day which was fascinating. The next day, in Eilat we went on a boat cruise to the Coral Reef, and Egyptian island in the Red Sea. That was a very pleasant, relaxing day. The following day the rest of the tour group went to visit the city of Petra in Jordan. Neither Liz nor had been able to get Jordanian visas (apparently Zimbabwe is considered an enemy country by Jordan!), so the two of us had the services of our Israeli tour guide and bus driver to ourselves for the day! We decided to go to the dolphinarium, which was excellent, one of the real highlights of the whole trip. The dolphins are enclosed in a horseshoe section of the Red Sea by nets, and during the day a gate is opened so that they can get out into the sea if they so wish. Of the seven or eight dolphins there only two of them actually do go out and they don't go very far. The dolphins are fed and trained, using food as an incentive, but once that is finished (they are shown the empty fish buckets) they can decide for themselves whether they want to hang around and play with the trainers or not. The day we were there three of the dolphins decided to stick around and play for the fun of it. It was absolutely amazing to see dolphins interacting so freely with humans in such a natural environment. For US$50 one could swim with the dolphins (in supervised groups). That seemed a little expensive, especially since one could swim (freely) right up to the nets and see the dolphins from very close up.
The next day we visited the aquarium in Eilat which was also amazing. Part of it is traditional tanks of fish on display, but the highlight there is an underwater observatory where the humans are in the tank and the fish in the Red Sea! The observatory is situated in a coral reef and the fish life is incredible. After that we climbed in the bus and headed up to Tel Aviv through the desert, along the Egyptian border. We stopped for lunch at a Bedouin tent (no knives and forks!), where we also enjoyed a fifteen minute camel ride. Later in the afternoon we visited the grave of David Ben Gurion which overlooks the desert which he loved and dreamed of reclaiming.
The next day in Tel Aviv we visited the Oppenheimer diamond museum which was very interesting (we didn't buy anything in the shop though!), then went to the old city of Joppa (now Jaffa) where we visited a church and then went to the fresh produce market which was amazing (I have never seen such big and perfect egg plants!). That evening the group split up with nine people returning to SA, while the remaining ten of us headed on to Egypt for three days.
On arriving in Cairo we were met with flowers and red carpet treatment (they are trying very hard to get the tourists back after the killings in 1997, as tourism is their main industry!) and taken to our hotel. The hotel was rather run-down in comparison with the Israeli hotels we stayed in, but comfortable. Our Egyptian tour guide was also excellent. He has a degree in tourism studies and Egyptology, and is currently working on a PhD in Egyptology, working as a guide part-time.
The next day we visited Memphis, the very first pyramid (the Step Pyramid) and the three great pyramids and the sphinx at Giza. We also visited a carpet factory/shop, a jewelry store, papyrus shop, leather goods shop and a perfume shop where we treated with the utmost hospitality (free tea, coffee or cool drinks) and given a superb demonstration of "soft sell" techniques (very pleasant after having been hassled incessantly at the tourist spots by vendors using very forceful "hard sell" techniques!). Liz and I ended up buying at the carpet, papyrus and leather shops so their techniques seem to work!
The next day we started off at the Citadel of Saladin, including the mosque of Mohammed Ali (no not the boxer, although that was what we all thought at first, but an Egyptian king from about 400 years ago!). After that we went to the Egyptian museum where we saw the treasure of Tutenkhamun along with many other ancient Egyptian artefacts.
Our last day in Cairo was spent doing some shopping and relaxing before returning to Tel Aviv. The last day in Tel Aviv (which was freezing cold - Jerusalem had had heavy snows) was spent similarly, spending our last few shekels, before returning to SA on the El Al overnight flight.