Magazine article Geographical

Following Iran's Longest River: Despite Planning for Every Conceivable Possibility, during His Six-Week Expedition along the Length of Iran's Karun River, Tom Allen Discovered That the Most Valuable Piece of Equipment He Owned Was His Own Ability to Communicate

Magazine article Geographical

Following Iran's Longest River: Despite Planning for Every Conceivable Possibility, during His Six-Week Expedition along the Length of Iran's Karun River, Tom Allen Discovered That the Most Valuable Piece of Equipment He Owned Was His Own Ability to Communicate

Article excerpt

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.

LOADED PACKS

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.

DRAMATIC LANDSCAPES

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. …

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