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Iran: Mission impassable

Back from the international wilderness, Iran presents the hardy traveller with plenty of tantalising new options. But crossing the world’s hottest desert on foot is not for the faint of heart

Iran: Mission impassable
Trekking across the Kaluts canyons. Image: Mark Stratton

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Rendezvous: Ten hundred hours, downtown Tehran. After arriving throughout the night, our team assembles bleary-eyed in a dingy hotel for our mission briefing. Over the road is the US Embassy, defunct since 1979’s Iranian revolution; anti-American murals remain on its compound walls. Unshaven, tanned, and arriving directly from the Sinai is our leader, 36-year-old Italian Luca Alfatti. The mission we’ve chosen to accept has its risks. It’ll be the first ever crossing on foot of the world’s hottest desert, the Dasht-e Lut.

In Persian ‘Lut’ means ‘emptiness’. Marco Polo travelled through it around 1271, as did British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, in 1964 — but both used camels. In more recent times southern Iran’s Lut has been a conduit for Baluchi smugglers transgressing from the nearby Afghan and Pakistani borders.

“Our objective is exploration in a desert never crossed this way before,” says Luca. “We’ll be miles from anywhere, so we must look after each other. We go in together and leave together.” We’d travel light and fast. Rough camp on sand, no water to wash, squatting among dunes for… ahem… bodily functions (the burning of loo paper de rigueur), and if rations run short we’d “deal with it”.

This is no ordinary holiday, but then Secret Compass is no ordinary tour operator. In fact, don’t call it a tour operator at all. The team hates that. If ‘exploratory expedition company’ sounds militaristic it’s because it is. Co-founder Thomas Bodkin was an officer in the Parachute Regiment, trained in jungle warfare and served in Afghanistan. “The military gave me confidence to plan robustly and get to places nobody has visited before,” says Bodkin. “Thereafter, the world becomes
a playground.”

The list of destinations Secret Compass covers may read like an encyclopedia of the axis of evil (mountain-biking in Afghanistan, climbing in Iraqi-Kurdistan), but it showcases these countries “in a different light”, says Bodkin. “The reality is conflict is often geographically localised or the threat — as in Iran’s case — is completely misunderstood.”

On the edge

Our team of wannabe explorers (six women, six men) ship out of Tehran that afternoon on a short flight to Kerman in south Iran. With an ever-improving international détente, Iran is fast reopening to tourism, yet the arid south remains infrequently travelled.

Kerman hovers on Dasht-e Lut’s western fringe, framed by mountains whose weathered foothills prettily reveal mineral hues of silvery grey, salmon pink and coal black. The city’s busy bazaar has mounds of plump pomegranates, while sickly smelling shisha from ever-present hubbly-bubblies or hookah pipes infuse the tiled interior of an old hammam teahouse.

Our plan is to drive to northeastern Lut and trek for 10 days westwards back towards Kerman. “There’s no defined route because there are no maps,” says Luca. We’ll simply navigate between uninhabited Lut’s significant geographical features using GPS supplied by the 4WDs used to carry the required six litres of water per person per day. Our Iranian connection is wily desert fox, Mehrdad Ghazvinian, who knows the Lut better than anyone alive. His support crew includes his two brothers: Amir, our trekking guide, and Hamideh Razavi, a female filmmaker.

During a soporifically hot 230-mile drive to the start point, we skirt the northern Lut’s mosaic-cracked saltpans and wind-sculpted sandstone pedestals. It looks so beautiful, though it’s hostile to life. We pause for lunch at an adobe-walled caravanserai in Shafiabad on the ancient Silk Road. The locals are agog at our presence. “They think you’re CIA,” quips the ever-mischievous Mehrdad.

A final 22 miles through the Sand Sea of Yallan delivers us in darkness to our first desert camp. Mission status: good to go. No turning back now.

The first desert camp. Image: Mark Stratton

The first desert camp. Image: Mark Stratton

Highs & lows

First light. There’s a sunless chill. My bare feet touch cold sand as I struggle inelegantly out of the snug tent. I lace up my desert army boots and knot my Palestinian keffiyeh scarf with eager anticipation.

After a breakfast of Iranian flatbread and fried eggs we enter the surreal Borzof Rig, one of the world’s highest dune fields. Iconic barchan dunes, some over 330ft high, have been teased into curvaceous croissant shapes by the prevailing Bad Sandobist Rozeh wind, which blows for 120 days a year, from April.

We settle quickly into a rollercoaster mentality, averaging over 12 miles each day. Up and over and down, repeat, repeat, repeat. We climb knife-edge ridges forming sinuous trails up the mega-dunes. The sand is soft and the final effort to crest them requires fast footwork. “It’s like walking the wrong way up a travelator,” says team-member Karen, an IT specialist from Birmingham.

From the crest of each dune we’re able to admire nature’s finest artistry. Wide, sine-wave horizons, with peaks like whipped, sandy meringue; sometimes pale magnolia, at others darker caramel or hazelnut brown. Snowploughing down them with giant moonwalking strides violates their perfection. But it’s fun.

Thrown together in extremity, my fellow explorers bond quickly. It’s a mixed group, all of whom have differing reasons for the trip. They include stoical Singaporeans, Jason and Eric, who’d never camped before; gentleman farmer Ian; restaurateur Peter; Welsh twins Andrea and Nic, who manages rock superstar, Robert Plant; and Megan, who’s in training for the Marathon des Sables. “I don’t do beach holidays,” says tough-cookie Andrea from Merthyr Tydfil. “I have a sedentary desk job, so I need something extreme and out-of-bounds.”

The daily routine is simple. Break camp after breakfast by 6am. Hike all day. Sip reviving sweet tea upon arrival. Erect tents. Attempt to de-sand. Dine beneath gazillions of starry galaxies, cooing at the shooting stars and meteor showers. Sleep comes early.

We’re not totally alone in the Lut — some life does prevail. Scrawny tagh trees that cast miserly shade attract dragonflies. Small cat and bird tracks imprint the dunes and we see lizards and endemic foxes with their pointy Spock ears. Near our third night’s campsite in a wide breach in the mega-dunes, camel tracks lead to a herd of feral dromedaries. I wondered if we could’ve used camels to support the trek?

“No. They’re Iranian camels, not Arabian,” says Mehrdad. “No good for carrying anything.”

The plain of pain

Day four. Mission status: team still standing but feet taking heavy flak. The mega-dunes ahead are more like mega-mountains. “It would take months to cross these,” says Luca, so we thread our way around them onto a slowly broadening salt-and-pepper plain of black lava and bleached quartz. Time has reduced ancient bedrock to shattered shingle. We wouldn’t see another living shrub for five days.

There’s no shade at all. Lifelessness takes hold as we sink towards the Lut’s central depression. Not far away is Gandom Beryan, a lava-covered plateau whose name means ‘burned wheat’. It’s here, in 2004, that the world’s hottest ever temperature of 70.7C was recorded — the Lut was the world’s hottest place from 2004 to 2009. Only the ‘cooler’ winter temperatures enable us to pass through this landscape in the relative comfort of 25C-40C.

But a 25-mile yomp across the plain takes its toll on our feet, thanks to the dual irritants of sand grains and heat swelling. Luca, a trained paramedic, is soon running blister field clinics. “I’ll carry on even if my feet are in shreds,” vows Andrea. By the end of the trek they are.

We hobble on the next day for another punishing 25 miles, sinking into the Eye of the Lut. You could call this huge circular crater a plughole, if water ever gurgled down it, but it’s believed the Eye probably originates from a massive meteor strike. It’s magnificent. Fudgy-looking calamine escarpments ring the crater; within it isolated blocks of weathered sandstone resemble a post-apocalyptic city reduced to long-wind-burnished ruins.

Beyond that, after passing an intensely hot 2.5-mile-wide desiccated lake with a crust cracked like eggshells, we footslog across a horizonless expanse. It’s in the upper 30s at least. I walk, trance-like at times, taunted by moving mirages. The team’s blisters mount: blisters upon blisters in the blistering heat. The shattered black lava delivers knockout thermal undercuts.

A stunted black mountain eventually rears like an overcooked pudding. Amir says it’s named Malek Mohammed after the camel driver of the Austrian explorer, Alfons Gabriel, who came here in the 1930s. The team christens that afternoon’s gruelling expanse ‘the plain of pain’.

Small things, however, maintain our spirits. Juicy watermelon or chocolate biscuits await us in camp. The warmth of our camaraderie, joking over dinner, is interspersed with intakes of breath as iodine is applied to blisters. And I sleep out under the stars, waking frequently (too much tea) to stare directly up at a diamante-encrusted Orion’s Belt among a dazzling 180-degree star map.

I’m feeling liberated too, having survived so far without the clutter of modern life in such an extreme environment. Mehrdad recognises this freedom. “NASA asked me to photograph the Lut to show what landing conditions might be like on Mars,” he tells me, adding that only two places in this 51,800sq km desert bear water. Yet despite its harshness, Mehrdad has spent two decades exploring the Lut away from his carpet shop in Tehran. “Here, Iran’s religious ideology and politics don’t matter,” he says. “Here, I can just feel nature. Your soul flies.”

Sensing mission fatigue from the two tough previous days, Luca schedules an easier half-day. A striking morning rekindles our love of soft sand through a picturesque six-mile field of star dunes, which grow upwards rather than laterally. Shaped by winds from multiple directions, the dunes split into tentacles, golden and rippled.

They peter out in a broad valley, where we enjoy an afternoon’s R&R in the lee of crumbling sand escarpments. Someone compares them to chunks of cheesecake. The conversation then turns to food. Our flatbreads are now pure cardboard, but we’ve still got rice and eggs. One of our group, Tina, takes charge and suddenly Japanese-style maki rolls and Mexican huevos revueltos eggs are on the menu.

Arg-e Reyan adobe fort near Kerman. Image: Mark Stratton

Arg-e Reyan adobe fort near Kerman. Image: Mark Stratton

Sands of sorrow

T-minus 72 hours. Blister status: critical. Morale: still high. The final three days involve a journey through landforms unique to the Dasht-e Lut: the Kaluts. On our satellite map, the Kaluts canyons resemble unnaturally parallel, cat claw scratches linearly aligned northwestwards for 93 miles. Reflecting the prevailing winds, abrasive wind erosion has fashioned the canyons’ broken massifs into isolated pedestals that have contorted into fantastical shapes.

This southerly section of the Kaluts has never been entered on foot and we need to cut across them in a westerly direction to end the trek. Amir scouts ahead. He’s looking for breaches in the walls as we follow a broad canyon that forks into smaller arteries.

The Kaluts are beautiful. The normally sandstone bluffs inflame marmalade-orange at first light. Our voices echo off ancient walls. The dunes inside the canyons ensure that walking remains tough. We christen them ‘the sands of sorrow’. The windblown pedestals take on many shapes in my mind — Buddhist stupas, cathedral façades, shark fins. Sometimes they’re gullied like the ribcage of fossilised dinosaurs. Our incorrigible foodie Tina reports she’s seen a cottage loaf.

We remain in the first canyon that night having failed to break out of it. But by the following mid-morning Amir discovers our Holy Grail: a huge schism in the walls leads successively westward crossing four or five canyons. Each one is choked with sand and the Kaluts rear higher into hilltop Crusader citadels and Disney castles.

Sandstorms & salvation

We’re dozing under a ledge of shade picking over a bare-bones lunch of overripe tomatoes and flatbread so dry it’s crumbling to dust. There’s nothing Tina can do. Re-energising our torpor, Luca’s shortwave radio crackles into life. It’s a message from Mehrdad.

“Guys,” Luca announces. “There’s a sandstorm on its way. Cover your faces and put your goggles on. If it hits, stay together.” At last. So I haven’t carried these damned goggles all this way for nothing.

The weather turns weird. A clammy warmth prickles the skin then big raindrops start to fall and are instantly drunk by the thirsty sands. That evening, within a pinched wind-strafed valley, we hunker down less than 12 miles from our endgame with our tents flapping furiously in a minor storm.

The mission ends around noon the next day as we exit the Kaluts onto the expansive Kashit Plain. The distant mountains around Kerman are now veiled in snow. We’d covered 138 miles in 10 challenging days. We’d crossed Dasht-e Lut.

We’re driven to the quiet former Silk Road town of Kashit to camp in a palmed oasis. Goatherds amble past our tents and friendly locals with hunting rifles drop by to sip tea. The store is promptly cleaned out of ice creams, fresh bread, dates and eggs. We begin the process of re-humanisation, dipping in a shallow brook watched by herons and egrets.

My emotions are contrasting. I’m basking in the group’s euphoria at our achievement yet also experiencing disbelief and slight sadness to be exiting a routine and environment that’d temporarily become my entire world.

Karen echoes this. “I feel like this never happened,” she says. “The whole experience was slightly unreal. It was more a mental challenge rather than a physical one to keep going, but to achieve it feels like something special.”

For those of us with only two-week vacations, it was an opportunity to live the dream of being a groundbreaking expeditionary. Teamwork, a passion for adventure and lashings of blister tape had seen us through.

Essentials

Getting there
Pegasus Airlines has daily flights from Gatwick and Stansted to Tehran via Istanbul. Tehran to Kerman is a 75-minute internal flight on Iranian airline Mahan Air.

Visas
Contact the Iranian Consulate in London or Dublin well in advance of travelling for advice on visas.

How to do it
Secret Compass’s next Iran trip — Desert Stars and Solitude — costs from £2,999 per person and will take place from 30 October to 12 November 2016, crossing the central Lut desert, Dasht-e Lut, from east to west.


Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)