Editor’s Note: We’ve heard a lot of great things about traveling Iran — history, hospitality, cuisine — and Tom Allen’s unique journey traveling the Karun River from source to sea proves that and more. Be sure to watch the trailer to his film below, a successful Kickstarter project and “Official selection of the Kendal Mountain Festival 2015.”
There’s no harm in dreaming big when it comes to adventure. And that’s exactly what happened when the idea of a long, slow and meandering journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran first came to mind.
I dreamed of a kind of crazy cultural-geographical circumnavigation of Iran, using means of transport appropriate to the region – sea-kayaking the Caspian coast, cycling the north-western mountains, trekking the Zagros, descending to the Persian Gulf by packraft, motorbiking the south coast, then finishing up with some kind of desert crossing back up north.
When I brought my dreams back down to Earth, of course, the journey that emerged was something more realistic. Yet it preserved the point of seeing as wide a variety of Iranian culture and geography as possible and the idea of a multi-disciplinary adventure.
So when I landed in Tehran, I was carrying everything I’d need for a journey by foot and by paddle, which – thanks to the fantastic invention known as the packraft – all fitted in one tightly-stuffed expedition backpack.
Leon McCarron was the only person I knew who owned a packraft and was, therefore, the obvious partner for the trip, and we began the trip by walking a couple of hundred kilometers through some of the most sparse and spectacular Alpine landscapes I’ve come across in all my travels, high above the treeline at 10,000 feet above sea level – and all of this on the same latitude as Beirut, Los Angeles and Casablanca.
In doing so, I learned a few things about walking – specifically, walking all day with half my own body weight on my back. And the most immediate thing I learned was that it hurts. It hurts bad.
Pounding the ground with your heels – the repetitive burning of skin against tightly-strapped fabric – it’s no wonder that, after just a day of it, I was hobbled by deep aches in my shoulders, my hips, my knees, my feet… my feet!
But with the pain came a strange kind of mental clarity. Not just any old pain – rather, the regular and rhythmic discomfort of walking seemed to be both the price paid for progress and the ever-present reminder of my existence in the world. It seemed to encourage a heightened state of awareness, simply because it was impossible to ignore the alarm signals the body was sending to the mind.
These signals seemed to ignite and then fuel at some times trains of thought, at other times threads of conversation, and at yet other times simply a keener-than-usual receptiveness to all that was stoically trudging past me as I walked. Walking created space for a deeper kind of conscious thinking alongside the actual action of putting one foot in front of the other.
A week of walking took us to a suitable put-in for our packrafts. As a paddling novice, I had assumed that seeing a slice of Iran from water level would simply result in a more nuanced perspective on the country. This proved true – but not at all in the way I’d imagined. We discovered that paddling a river – particularly an uncharted river with abundant whitewater – is no simple undertaking.
While the water remained smooth, as it did for the first day or two, we drifted contentedly among the rugged, awe-inspiring peaks and ridge lines of the Zagros Mountains – away from roads and people, and with ever-changing rock formations rising and falling beside us from one hour to the next, this was as close to true communion with nature as we could have got, short of actually swimming the river – a passage through the heart of a geological process millions of years in age.
But when the conditions became tricky, when we could no longer see a clear passage for boulders and foaming water, when the muffled roar of the approaching rapids began to drown out our voices… that’s when paddling stopped being a spectator sport and became an intense problem-solving exercise; how to get two bodies and two boats down a potentially deadly obstacle course while maximizing our chances survival. Our efforts were concentrated upon the physical act of paddling, scouting and portaging. The world around us shrank and disappeared; we could have been anywhere on the planet for all the attention we were able to give to our surroundings.
Under other circumstances, I imagine that packrafting (or kayaking, or canoeing) would indeed be a fantastic way to engage in a different way with a new place and the people who lived alongside the waterway. As it turned out, we spent much of our time negotiating the river itself, rather than reaping the rewards of being on it. Though the several days of whitewater paddling were enjoyable, I look back on it more as an extreme sports experience than as an adventure travel one.
In Esfahan, we were offered two bicycles by a shopkeeper – free of charge, as long as we brought them back – and we enthusiastically accepted the offer. I’ve tried to articulate the freedom of bicycle travel many times in the past; the joy transcending of one’s physical limitations by means of a highly efficient machine powered by nothing more than the body itself, requiring nothing beyond the body’s existing basic needs in order to function.
It stems from the dual nature of the bicycle as both a passive and an active pursuit – you may, when pedaling, feel entirely at one with your bike, but as soon as you stop and let it freewheel, you notice that you are perched upon a being with its very own momentum, requiring little more than a nudge in the right direction.
And these cheap, basic bicycles took us up, over, down and out of the Zagros Mountains and across the plains of Khuzestan, where the river we were following belched its payload out into the Persian Gulf.
Now the journey is over, people often ask me which of these modes of transport was my ‘favorite’.
But I think that there are more important questions than that when it comes to travel.
What kind of experience is it you seek? Are you looking to engage directly with the world, or float above it? Is it about you, your skill and tenacity, your physical abilities; or it about your social experiences, the relations you forge? Do you want clarity of thought, space for intellectual work, the ability to observe and absorb, or to shed the baggage of self-reflection?
The sheer variety of experiences I had in Iran prompted all of these questions and more. And I learned many things about life in the Islamic Republic along the way. As always, I found that this journey both satisfied long-held curiosities and at the same time sparked new ones. Iran has only strengthened my appetite for adventure, and that, to me, is the way it should be.