Following the longest river in Iran from source to sea by human power.
I don’t know what image comes to mind when you think of Iran, but I’d wager it is unlikely to resemble that which greeted me when I began my journey there in February this year. I’d flown into Tehran with my friend Tom Allen and from the capital we’d made our way first to Esfahan — a beautifully busy and bustling Persian city — then onto the Zagros Mountains in the southwest. A friend from Esfahan had offered to drive us, and we climbed to around 3,500 meters on an increasingly narrow, winding road. All around jagged ridgelines slashed at the empty space above, the deep blue of the sky clashing wildly with the ubiquitous white of snow on the slopes. It felt — and looked — more like the Alps than what I’d come to expect from the Middle East. Passing villages became smaller and smaller until finally, at a small outpost of just a handful of houses, the way ended in a six-foot wall of snow. By default, the expedition would begin here.
The idea was simple, as all good adventure concepts are. Tom, a traveler and filmmaker from the U.K., wanted to follow the longest river in Iran from source to sea by human power. That river was the Karun, and from its headwaters in the Zagros it would meander south and west to the Persian Gulf, some 500 miles away. The journey would be a good excuse for an adventure (if ever one is needed) and it would also provide us with an opportunity to get a unique perspective on Iran — a country with a severely unfair image problem.
Tom had traveled extensively in Iran and even spoke the language. He was the old hand here, I the naïve newcomer. The fact was though that neither of us really knew what to expect from the particulars of this trip, as accurate details and good mapping had been hard to come by, much of the journey ahead was a mystery. This too makes for a great adventure, of course, but does lead to the occasional moment of mild peril — more on that in due course.
Here at its headwaters the Karun was just a trickle, and with blazing sunshine offsetting the bitter cold of winter we began our journey on foot. For half a day we pottered along the narrow bank between snow and water before taking shelter in a tomb high on the hillside. It proved a wise move; all night a blizzard raged, the battering wind almost managing to obscure the howling of wolves in the mountains around. If the first 12 hours were any sort of indicator, we were in for one heck of a trip.
The first week was something of a slog, as all walks through tough terrain with heavy packs tend to be. We followed roads and paths alongside the river, cutting through some of the most stunning valleys I’ve ever had the pleasure to plod. The scenery, however, could still only come a distant second place to the other great joy of this trip: the famous Persian hospitality. The majority of Iranians value very highly the idea of kindness to strangers; after that first night in the snow, Tom and I wouldn’t spend another evening in our tent for the next five weeks — the entire duration of our expedition. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but always someone found us just as we were considering pitching up, and instead we were whisked off to a home to meet our new family for the night. Tom would chat away in Farsi while I sat and watched body language. All our hosts seemed genuinely delighted to have us to stay — to give up their time, energy and food. It was a character trait that would never get old.
We descended close to a thousand meters before the river finally grew fast enough to look worthy of an attempt at padding, the reward for our days on foot. We had carried collapsible paddles and packrafts — inflatable kayaks that fold down to the size of a two-man tent —- and at the water’s edge we set to putting in. It’s always a deep joy to transfer pack weight from one’s back to one’s boat, and the first few miles of that bliss will last long in my memory.
It was early in the year to be paddling, and low water levels meant the gorges that dominate the Upper Karun were still rock-strewn boulder fields. It was in one of these narrow passageways, due to an unfortunate combination of bad luck, poor judgment and a lack of skill, that disaster struck. I got my position wrong in a fast flowing section between rapids and within seconds I was upside down. I remember briefly bubbles, then panic, then kicking wildly. Adrenaline came to the rescue and I broke free of my raft, powering my way to the bank. It wasn’t until I was on dry land that I realized I’d let go of both my boat and paddle.
Tom and I did manage to retrieve my packraft where it had snagged against some rocks downstream, but that paddle was gone forever. We hiked up and out of the gorge and, against the odds, were able to locate another one in a small mountain town (“Anything is possible in Iran!” we were told by the taxi driver who found it in a run-down old sports center.) Another week went by on the river, but it was never quite as good as those first few days. The rapids were continually out of our comfort zone and we did much more portaging than paddling. It was a tough but necessary decision at the midway point on the river to decide to call it a day and try something else.
In the spirit of spontaneity, we both agreed that bicycles would allow us a very different — and pleasant — view of the river from this point onwards. We didn’t have bikes, of course, but then anything is possible in Iran. Retreating to Esfahan by bus to regroup, we began the hunt. Within twenty minutes of asking around the city center we were redirected to a local clock shop where the owner happened to be a collector of Cannondale bikes. Immediately he offered us two of his best models on loan. His friend turned up with some panniers, and we were all set. As ludicrous as this scenario may sound, it’s crucial to remember that almost everything in Iran works like this — it’s mad, confusing and heartwarmingly wonderful.
We returned to the river and pedaled along roads high above the Karun — a new perspective on a familiar sight. Bicycles are so much more physically forgiving to the traveler than walking or paddling. Tom and I spent a glorious week cresting mountain passes with abandon and taking on the resultant down-hills with whoops and cheers — this is the stuff adventure is made of — before finally descending to the flat, fertile plains by the water’s edge near Abadan, a large industrial city that had once been the front line of the Iran-Iraq war. The Karun here was swollen and unrecognizable from what we paddled further north; now it was nearly a kilometer wide, full of shipping traffic and operating as an international border. A little further on and it emptied into the Persian Gulf, a sight that signaled the end of our trip.
This journey took us through only a small portion of Iran, but we really got a feel for the country. For me, there is no better way to explore than by human power; it allowed Tom and I to form a tangible a connection with the landscapes and people around us. I feel lucky to have seen Iran in the manner that we did, and I’m equally excited by the endless possibilities of following other rivers in other countries in a similar way. Adventure really is everywhere; we just have to decide to look for it.
Leon McCarron is an adventurer, filmmaker and motivational speaker specialising in long-distance, human-powered expeditions. In recent years he has cycled from New York to Hong Kong, walked 3,000 miles across China and trekked 1,000 miles through the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert on the planet. He has released an independent film, Into the Empty Quarter, as well as his flagship four-part TV series for National Geographic, Walking Home from Mongolia.
His first book – The Road Headed West – tells the story of his bike ride across North America. More info at www.leonmccarron.com