A final dash on the bikes would bring us to the beginning of the fourth and final leg of our journey along the Karun. (Start with Part 1 if you’re new to this series.)
With visas ticking (ever the bane of the Westerner in a restrictive country with endless potential for travel), we returned the bicycles to their owner and set off once again on foot — though with significantly lighter loads than those with which we’d departed a month previously.
We’d heard that a series of dams were being constructed along the Karun. We hadn’t quite realised the extent of what this meant. No fewer than 3 major dams were already in existence on Iran’s longest river, including what the locals had told us was the biggest dam in the Middle East, and we heard of several more ongoing construction projects on the river’s tributaries.
As we neared the confluence of the Karun and the Armand rivers, the prospect of paddling through hundreds of kilometres of politically sensitive building sites and manmade lakes was not one we were much looking forward to.
So we decided to continue by bicycle as far as Shushtar, the ancient summer capital of the pre-Islamic Sassanian Empire, a few kilometres below the last of the river’s dams.
The only problem with this plan was that we didn’t have any bicycles.
But this was Iran. And in Iran, anything is possible. (Especially if you’re a Farsi-speaking foreigner and you’re not afraid to roll the dice.)
We unshouldered our packs by the riverside after a week of gruelling winter trekking along roads that appeared on no maps or GPS. A couple of hours later we floated away from the riverbank and began to travel downstream by packraft. No trace of our presence was left on dry land, save for a couple of discarded apple cores. There was something childishly thrilling about the sense of subterfuge afforded by these little inflatable boats.
We hadn’t known whether or not the river would have been navigable. A veteran paddler we’d met up with in Wales had said that we were going there about two months two early, and that the land would be frozen and the river a trickle. A week ago, he’d been right. But now the rising waters carried us easily down among the vast mountain ridges of the Zagros.
It wasn’t long before we found the river’s rocky walls rising vertically as the water cut through the ancient landscape. The sense of foreboding was amplified by the sound of white water approaching. I had just a week or two of paddling experience to go on. Leon had none. Suddenly we were out of our depth, scouting and tentatively running boulder-strewn rapids far bigger than anything either of us had encountered before. With this many rocks and boulders obstructing the river’s flow, the consequences of a capsize could be deadly.
Leon promptly capsized. His paddle vanished in an instant. (More on that in the film!)
As always in Iran, help was at hand — this time in the form of Iran’s most exuberant, comical and forcefully-hospitable small-town taxi driver, who also happened to double as a second-hand white water paddle dealer.
Heading back to the river, the water volume continued to grow, and our paddling routine alternated between gentle, sweeping meanders below unearthly peaks…
…and treacherous boulder gardens that took forever to safely descend.
And our continuing attempts to find a place to camp continued to be thwarted on a daily basis.
Time, however, was not on our side, and with our visas ticking we elected to clamber out of the increasingly dangerous gorge and continue for a day or two on foot.
It seemed that winter was well and truly behind us. In the meantime, our minds were hard at work. The river was growing unwieldy, and a series of politically-sensitive dams was fast approaching. How could we safely expedite our progress along this fascinating, challenging river?
Camping equipment for this trip was kindly sponsored by Big Agnes. Our Iranian visas were procured with great efficiency courtesy of The Visa Machine. We’re also grateful to the folk at Lyon Outdoor for supplying Exped drybags and Aquapac waterproof camera cases wholesale for this journey.
At £26.99 they were the most expensive pair I’d ever bought. But I couldn’t have been more glad of my knee-length, wool-lined waterproof socks as I slogged through waist-deep snow in a cheap pair of trainers. My shoes were soaked through; I couldn’t feel my hands or nose; the 30-kilo pack dug into my shoulders and made my hips ache; but at least my toes were warm.