»Wild animals? Here? No no, here we dig gold!« And a broad smile on the face, closely bordering on laughter. Long faces on our side. That was it. End of the story. Night has fallen, we have driven more than 600 kilometres since the morning, and instead of reaching a good place to camp in a wildlife refuge we’re stuck on a private land of a heavily protected gold mine in Iran.
When you look on Google maps at the area west of the city of Kashan in central Iran, you see a huge green section labelled »Mouteh Wildlife Refuge«. In the centre of it lies a small town called Muteh. Internet searching doesn’t reveal much, just a brief reference in Encyclopædia Iranica and a short description on toiran.com portal:
»Mouteh Wild Life Refuge is considered the best habitat for the Persian Gazelle. There are several different animal and bird species in Mouteh including wild sheep, leopard, wild goat, flamingo, and crane. There are over 300 plant species in this wild life refuge some of which have medicinal value.«
We started looking into Muteh in the early stages of planning our Iranian adventure. Uroš found a photo on Facebook by a musician from Tehran called Hamid Khansari. It pictured a beautiful shelf over vast desert lands and thus the idea was born to find it and spend a night or two there exploring the land. Maybe see a gazelle or two, as Hamid explained to Uroš that the shelf is located near Muteh, in the wildlife refuge. Unfortunately Hamid couldn’t provide exact coordinates, being more handy with a traditional Iranian music instrument of Oud than with modern navigational gadgets, but armed with GPS-supported satellite imagery and with knowledge of approximate location I had no fear we couldn’t find »The Shelf«, or »Polička« in Slovenian. This is how we addressed the location from there on through the long months of trip planning. Hamid though warned us that the area is protected, so we should be careful… even that was to be expected from a wildlife sanctuary. We figured out that once they see we’re not poachers and just want to enjoy the landscape, the rangers would let us wander around.
The long drive from the mountains of Kurdistan past Kermanshah and Khoramabad to the plateau of central Iran was tiring for passengers and drivers alike, but we made good progress. Regardless the great distance we had to cover it looked like we will reach the town of Muteh and the approximate location of the nearby »Shelf« before total darkness. The area we travelled showed marks of the great rain storm that passed over it the day before. But I we were approaching Muteh itself and I set navigation to the coordinates where I expected »The Shelf« to be, I noticed something strange on the OSM map of Iran I had loaded on my faithful Garmin GPSMAP 276c. The road leading to »The Shelf« was labelled as »Muthe Gold Complex Road«. Additionally two places near our »Shelf« were named »Muthe Gold Quarry«. I didn’t notice that before because whole of the planning process used paper maps and Google Earth, not Garmin Mapsource. My head began to fill with misgiving and I suggested that it would be maybe better to make camp someplace before and then continue exploring the next day with aid of daylight, but I was outvoted. It was already after sunset when we passed Muteh itself and drove north under a great arch bearing inscription in Iranian language, illegible to us. It could still be just a wildlife park after all.
There was no gates, no barrier, no sign to forbid entry, but we still tried to »stay under the radar« and we left the main asphalt road just maybe fifty metres after the arch. Too late. A guy on a motorbike came screaming after us. For his and our inconvenience he could only scream in Farsi.
The drama slowly unfolded with help of web translators, dictionaries and phone calls to some other guys that spoke at least a little English. Uroš bit the bullet and drove some 5 kilometres to find a high-enough ranking guy who was able to decide what to do with this bunch of crazy tourists. He was gone for half an hour and we were offered some tea while we waited. This was an indication that theirs intentions weren’t malevolent and that we might get out of the situation alive… however the whole affair was more a comedy than a tragedy. But our weariness from the long day made it hard to bear and not for the first nor the last time on the trip I cursed the Iranians for being so ill-educated when it comes to foreign languages. But this serves the purpose – the less people know the less they want to know, the less languages they speak the less information they can get, and it is easier to rule uneducated and uninformed people.
Bottom line, as we learned when Uroš returned with the boss, there was no wildlife refuge. Well yes, there are some animals, and the area is protected, but here we dig gold! It could be that the wildlife refuge is just a cover story for mining gold, who knows. We didn’t get to stay and search for gazelles, let alone gold rocks. We couldn’t even spend the night at the park by the road at the entrance to the compound which seemed great to pitch tents. The guards of the mine took photos of us, our passports and our car license plates, then we were finally allowed to leave. Go, just go, go to Kashan, don’t stop, that was the instruction given. Well, more of an order than instruction.
Tired, hungry and disappointed we went on, trying to find a proper place for a bivouac. Anyone who has tried that knows that it is essential to find a place for bivouac before nightfall. In the dark you never know where you can end on unknown territory. This attributed to our second “occupation” attempt of the day – first was the gold mine, second a military post at the end of a lonely road. Even if we turned around and went back to the main road, the military came after us and stopped us on the way to Kashan. Seeing we were just a bunch of crazy tourists they laughed and let us go on. On the sodden grounds of the plateau west of Kashan near the villages of Varkhan and Tjrh we finally found a place dry enough for our camp. The spirits were low but I, for one, was glad that the long day was finally over.
The entrance arch to the Muteh Gold Mining Complex is at N33° 37.860′ E50° 47.216′. Try not to venture beyond. As we were explained, special permits can be obtained in order to visit. But the information was scarce, we couldn’t even find out where to get a permit – in Kashan, Esfahan, Tehran,…
For us Europeans it is quite hard to imagine that Iran lies on a very high plateau and that the central flat parts (not just mountains!) of the country easily reach the altitude of 2.000 m ASL. Our bivouac was on the flat lands at the coordinates N33° 41.841′ E51° 02.179′ and 2.175 m ASL.
And before travelling to the area try googling “muteh gold mine” instead of “mouteh wildlife refuge”. It might give you some clues.