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TRAVEL

Dead Sea soak a hidden oasis

From CNN's Richard Quest

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He is 400 m above the water, but Richard is at sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth.

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(CNN) -- My escape begins at dawn on a rocky plateau above the biblical town of Ein Gedi.

The sun rises above the water far below and although it's hard to believe, I'm actually at sea level.

The Dead Sea, over 400 meters beneath me, is the lowest place on Earth.

A jeep safari is the preferred way to uncover the desert's secrets. My guides Dani and Merav follow camel trails and dusty wadis as we explore the land of Moses. It is an environment as harsh as it is historical.

Merav tells me: "When the Bedouin come with the sheep and the goats -- they're just taking it, like in the Bible. Remember the story of Jacob and Rachel how they met? Next to a water system? She couldn't take the stone and he helped her and they fall in love -- it happens all the time in the desert."

Standing by the well watching a herd of camels traverse a distant ridge I realize this is real Judean desert -- as hard as it gets. No easy tourist version.

In the midst of this arid desert there is an oasis: the Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens.

I spot a giant tree that looks at least 100 years old. Actually, it was planted just 25 years ago.

"The air, the sun, mineral water and the ground all come like a heaven for plants and a small plant planted three months ago growing up so fast. We don't understand exactly why but we're blessing with it. We say thank you," Merav tells me.

Next it's time to wash off the dust from my desert odyssey at the Ein Gedi Spa.

This is the real Israel, a melting pot of languages and cultures where the locals have been coming to sample the healing waters for hundreds of years.

First for me, the sulphur baths -- and they stink.

But I'm told the bromide in the air is good for me -- promoting calm and relaxation.

It's also my first chance to feel the extra buoyancy from these mineral rich waters.

But what I've really come for is the Dead Sea itself.

It really is an unusual experience. The lifeguard warns people to swim on their back and believe me, you don't want a mouthful of this stuff.

The other thing they don't tell you in the brochures -- this water stings. Five minutes is enough for me.

The waters are only half of the attraction though. The real fun bit is the famous Dead Sea mud.

Now, there's no two ways about this. If you want the authentic Israeli Dead Sea mud experience you're going to get very messy. But it's all good for the skin, if not the swimming trunks. And a must-do for every visitor here.

They promise it'll make me look five years younger.

All good things have to come to an end and when I finish soaking up the nutrients it's time to get rid of the mud.

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