After identifying a line between several boulders in order to bypass a series of rapids – obstacles we had judged to be too violent for our pack rafts – Leon cautiously paddled out of the eddy.
Our inflatable boats were an admirable compromise between portability and handling, but there was a limit to how far we could push them. Plus, the past few hours spent negotiating this wild Iranian gorge had left us cold, wet and nervous.
Instead of floating elegantly through the rocky chicane, Leon collided with the first boulder. In the blink of an eye, his heavily loaded pack raft flipped over and he found himself swimming. I watched helplessly as half of our expedition equipment drifted towards a set of thundering rapids.
It was strange to think that this unstoppable mass of water had been a trickle beneath our feet just a few days earlier. We had hitched into the mountains as far as was possible, then staggered through waist-deep snow to where a tiny stream wriggled across a snowfield.
Here, in the heart of Iran’s Zagros mountains, we were standing at the source of the Karun River. It marked the start of our expedition – to travel the length of the country’s longest river by human power and in the process, explore Iran’s culture and geography.
Having located the source of the Karun, Leon and I took off our packs, carved out a shelter in a snowdrift with our paddles and prepared for our first night in the open. I had asked Leon McCarron to join me for many reasons, one of which was his experience on long walking journeys. But even with Leon’s expertise, planning the expedition had been far from straightforward. For a start, wilderness pack rafting formed part of our travel plans, but our total rafting experience prior to departure had amounted to a single weekend in Wales and a pleasant paddle along Regent’s Canal in London.
We knew that we would be encountering a range of climatic conditions on the six-week expedition, ranging from deep winter in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, to baking temperatures in low-lying Khuzestan. There were cultural considerations, too, particularly with regard to body-hugging wetsuits.
To top it off, we were hoping to shoot enough footage to make a documentary video. This project added several kilograms of camera gear to our already sizeable loads.
We suspected that striking a perfect balance between all of these restrictions, requirements and opportunities would be impossible. Our suspicions were confirmed that first night, amid billowing fabric and swirling spindrift, as we lay on the cold marble floor of what we now realised was an open-air tomb. At least our woollen hats muffled the eerie howling.
Morning arrived, and with it a barrage of wind-blown, stinging, ice crystals. We threw on every scrap of clothing we had and began our expedition downstream in a whiteout.
A few hours later, a family living in a hamlet invited us in for tea. We sat on the floor around a stinking diesel stove, chatting about life on the roof of Iran and the difficulties of overwintering in such a bitter climate. Then they mentioned the livestock-hunting wolves that prowled upon the hillside where we had spent the previous night.
During the following weeks, Leon and I followed the Karun on slender roads that coiled around the edges of yawning valleys – some of the most dramatic landscapes either of us had ever travelled through. Come summer, Iranian mountaineers would be a common sight in the Zagros mountains. Because our packs were festooned with kayaking helmets and trekking poles, villagers often asked us which peak we were planning to climb.
By choosing multi-functional gear, we had managed to squeeze all of our equipment into two 70-litre rucksacks. Rather than carrying thick wetsuits or bulky drysuits, we had brought neoprene paddling bibs and paired them with the same base layers and breathable waterproofs we wore while hiking.
In order to minimise the weight of our loads, we had elected not to bring a spare paddle. We figured that we would be able to improvise in the event that we lost one. This was an easy decision to make at the planning table.
In spite of our attempts to minimise the gear we required, the backpacks remained torturously heavy, and we whooped in liberation when the time came to unroll the packrafts and paddle on the Karun. As fishermen looked on from the steep-sided banks, we remained ignorant of the fact that we were heading towards a boulder-strewn gorge in which our assumptions about what would happen if we capsized would be put to the sternest of tests.
As I sat in the eddy and watched Leon struggle in the turbulent water, it suddenly struck me that I was going to have to rescue his possessions. I chased the stray pack raft by shooting un-scouted rapids with misplaced gusto.
My stupid gamble paid off. Leon hauled his sodden pack out of the current to discover his gear had survived the immersion, thanks to my idiocy and his watertight drybags. But his paddle was nowhere to be seen.
Under other circumstances, I would have written off our pack rafting ambitions at this point. After all, we were deep within the rocky folds of Iran’s most mountainous and impoverished province, far from anywhere that might enable us to re-stock our lost gear.
This region is dominated by the Bakhtiari tribe. Originally nomadic herders, the Bakhtiari are now largely settled and are struggling to adapt their traditional values to modern circumstances.
But Iran is different from Britain’s financial-transaction-driven society. I’ve spent enough time in the country to understand that one navigates Iranian life through an organic system of spontaneous problem solving. All that Leon and I needed to do to put this informal machine to work for us was to find some people and talk to them. Luckily, I had spent the previous two years learning to speak and write Farsi (Persian); I could hardly claim to be undertaking a cultural exploration of a nation without an ability to communicate with its people.
Soon enough, we met a pair of fishermen. They directed us to a nearby village. The football match between the settlement’s youths ended abruptly when two damp and scruffy foreigners appeared on the touchline. A telephone was produced and a driver called.
In a flash, we were in the town of Ardal, where I explained our paddling quandary to a gaggle of taxi drivers. No sooner had I done so than one of their number, Mehdi, made it his mission to find us a new paddle. The next morning, we were back on the water with a shiny new oar, having spent the night in Mehdi’s home with a number of his friends, several kilograms of barbecued chicken and a shisha pipe.
As tributaries joined the Karun from enticing side valleys, the river evolved from a churning white-water creek into a wide, deep waterway. Soon, we came face-to-face with the first of several enormous and politically-sensitive dams. We reluctantly continued on foot. The roads became busier. Large cities loomed in the surrounding valleys. Contact with people became more frequent. Encounters of the type that we had enjoyed with Mehdi became commonplace. It seems possible to achieve anything in Iran simply by expressing an intention and letting people know about it. This is how we managed to borrow two bicycles from a clock repairman in Esfahan, one of Iran’s oldest cities.
We cycled for a week, following roads that drained from the mountains into the irrigated plains of Khuzestan province. Yet the dammed Karun river remained inaccessible to us until it made a dramatic reappearance in Shushtar, the summer capital of the ancient Sasanian Empire.
After returning the bicycles to their owner and dumping our obsolete gear in the Khuzestani capital, Ahvaz, we prepared for the final leg, cramming rain jackets, toothbrushes, painkillers, snacks and a camera into a couple of miniscule daysacks. So ubiquitous had Iranian hospitality been, we now felt able to rely on local people for shelter during our march to the former British oil town of Abadan on Iran’s border with Iraq. Here, the Karun fused with the mighty Shatt al-Arab River which, for most of the 1980s, was the front line of the 20th century’s longest armed conflict.
Visas ticking, we walked long and we walked hard. On the final day, we covered 64 kilometres in 14 hours. A riverside war memorial signified the end of our expedition. We hadn’t unpacked the tent since that first snow-blown night at the source of the Karun.
This journey challenged my perception of travel, in particular the idea of self-sufficiency as a tenet of long-distance adventure. Spare paddles aside, Leon and I tried to prepare for every conceivable eventuality before flying to Iran.
Our expedition took on a new dimension the moment we embraced the one thing that took up no space in our rucksacks – the ability to be understood. This lesson will have an impact on every trip I undertake in the future, regardless of how much gear I bring along.
Tom Allen is a writer and award-winning adventure filmmaker. He speaks Persian and has travelled extensively throughout the Middle East. www.tomsbiketrip.com
Trekking across Iran is no simple feat and required Tom Allen to negotiate a wealth of differing terrains and needed a variety of equipment to match his own improvisational and language skills. His recommended gear includes custom-built rafts, merino wool tops and socks, and a mummy-shaped sleeping bag that is fit for every occasion
Osprey Aether 70
Placing a sensible limit on the capacity of your rucksack can prevent extraneous items from being packed. The Aether’s moulded hipbelt ensures long-haul comfort with a load of 70 litres. It comes with a full quota of straps and clips, along with the Osprey assurance of durability
2. Pack raft
Alpacka Denali Llama
This US company’s build-to-order rafts are durable, packable, whitewater-capable and available in a variety of sizes and configurations. Remember to factor in the cost of a custom spraydeck, a throw-line and importation fees
3. Whitewater kayak paddle
Aqua-Bound Manta Ray
With large blades and a lightweight fibreglass shaft, the Manta Ray can be broken into four pieces, making it easy to transport on land.
4. Base layer
Howies Classic Merino
£49/230 grams (medium)
This long-sleeved top is both functional and fashionable. The merino wool helps to mimimise body odour without feeling itchy. I wore mine while hiking in the Zagros mountains, paddling on the Karun river and cycling to the city of Ahvaz
5. Ultralight tent
MSR Hubba Hubba HP
Dual entrances make it easy to enter and exit this three-season tent. The flysheet and the inner tent can also be used to provide a waterproof bivvy shelter and a hot-weather, bug-free sleeping zone.
6. Sleeping bag
Big Agnes Bellyache Mountain SL 17
This mummy-shaped sleeping bag maximises the amount of body heat that its water-repellent insulation is able to retain. Filled with 700-fill-power down, it’s ideal for a journey that passes through differing climates. I wore a Big Agnes Shovelhead down jacket inside my Bellyache to boost the bag’s thermal properties in the Zagros mountains
Exped Fold (four-pack)
On river journeys it’s vital to protect valuable gear from water damage. The most effective method is to put kit inside a drybag and then pop that drybag inside a second drybag. Exped’s roll-top drybags are available in a range of sizes and colours for easy organisation. Rucksack liners are also available
8. Waterproof document wallet
£30/147 grams (large)
I keep important documents and money inside this durable and waterproof document wallet. The submersible Whanganui has sufficient space for cash, passports and small electronics.
9. Hiking shoes
Quechua Arpenaz Flex
Expedition equipment doesn’t always need to be high-end. Decathlon’s own-brand hiking footwear is multi-functional, durable and affordable. I paired mine with Sealskinz waterproof socks for maximum versatility
10. Waterproof socks
Sealskinz Mid-Weight, Mid-Length Sock
Sealskinz has a reputation for producing waterproof and breathable accessories that are suitable for a variety of wet and cold activities. These socks are lined with merino wool. They’re sufficient for wading across a river, comfortable enough for hiking, and are available in several lengths and thicknesses
This story was published in the October 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine