I sometimes wonder, often in retrospective, whether things have their underlying, deeper meaning. All the problems with Mosafer – were they actually a precaution to save us from boastering in Lut desert? I had the plan laid down for us to barely glimpse at dunes, just to get the taste of them, to praise them a little… and that was not a difficult part to achieve. The difficult part was not to wander any deeper and further.
In the planning stages of our Iran 2018 expedition and defining our route around the Kalouts, those formidable yardangs, rocks gnawed upon by wind, sand and time, but nevertheless still standing, I became aware of some weird formations on the Google Earth satellite imagery more than hundred kilometres east of Shahdad. The Kalouts formations I heard of from other travellers were easily discernible on the screen, an area measuring approximately 130 by 60 kilometres, then some grey plains, and then, as if mirroring the yardang field, brown-orange in colour, apparently immense expanse of sand, and after it, the mountains and the infamous city of Zahedan, Pakistani border not much further on. What could that be? Sand for sure, but… Dunes? Thus I discovered the existence of the 10.000 square kilometres large great erg or the Rig-e Yalan in the Dasht-e Lut desert, its dunes reaching as high as 500 meters above the level of the plain.
Iran is nothing but desert. I have stumbled upon this belief, false opinion, more than once, especially from people who never set foot out of their hometown, let alone the Persian territories, when planning our journey. Go to the cities, the people said, there is nothing but cities, people said, those of course who went to Iran, more exactly, went just to the cities like most tourists do. It is true that there are two large deserts in Iran, world’s 26th largest desert Dasht-e Kavir, and world’s 27th largest Dasht-e Lut, or the Lut Desert, meaning »The Empty Plain« or even »The Plain of Desolation« in Persian, the hottest place on our planet Earth. But as we were to discover, this area of approximately 200.000 square kilometres it was far from empty.
Iranian deserts were notorious, and for many, scary. This can be partially contributed to the historical fact that even armies of great emperors and kings, like Cyrus the Great who created the largest empire the world had yet seen, and of the undefeated-in-battle Alexander the Great, could not cross the desert proper. Throughout the 60-day march basically around the Lut desert, Alexander lost at least 12.000 soldiers, in addition to countless livestock, camp followers, and most of his baggage train. Some historians say he lost three-quarters of his army to the harsh desert conditions along the way. Well, he had horses and camels and wagons and no Landcruisers of course.
The Lut Desert is infamous for another reason altogether. Its proximity to the Pakistani border, its vastness and nearly impassable and uncontrollable terrain makes it the perfect place for Baluchi smugglers transgressing from the nearby Afghan and Pakistani borders, bringing opium to the west. The theory states that during the war with Iraq Iranians didn’t have enough manpower to protect the area, so they simply covered it in landmines. And thirty years later the landmines, covered in sand, still lie in wait for their victims. Another theory insists that landmines are still used today to counter smuggler convoys, and nobody knows exactly where they are placed. Two antivehicle mine incidents occurred in early 2014 in the Lut desert, resulting in civilian casualties, but who knows how many smugglers met their end there.
In October 2017, when I started my research, little could be found about travelling in the Lut desert. There were some videos on YouTube, and when I showed one to Mišo, he replied: »If we go to Iran and don’t go to this desert, I will not be able to look at myself in the mirror.« In January 2018 I found some GPS tracks on the internet and no other useful info. So the plan was simple – let’s drive to Shahdad and then see how it goes. For me this became the most important aspect of our Iranian expedition.
Long ago, it was trade and not tourism that made people cross the deserts, as it stands written in the book The Travels of Marco Polo:
»When you leave this city (Yazd) to travel further, you ride for seven days over great plains, finding harbour to receive you at three places only. There are many fine woods producing dates upon the way, such as one can easily ride through; and in them there is great sport to be had in hunting and hawking, there being partridges and quails and abundance of other game, so that the merchants who pass that way have plenty of diversion. There are also wild asses, handsome creatures. At the end of those seven marches over the plain, you come to a fine kingdom which is called Kerman. «
So after leaving the cities of Esfahan and Yazd the time came for the most important part of our Iranian expedition. The freeway took us to Kerman, and unlike Marco Polo, we needed only half a day, not a whole week to reach it. In the suburb town of Mahan we replenished our provisions of food and water, that went quite quickly, but afterwards we lost almost two hours to get diesel fuel. At the fuel station far down the expressway to Bam, occupied by dozens of trucks, we had to nearly fight our way to the precious liquid and only a good amount of bargaining, pleading, begging and screaming in the end resulted in full tanks. Then the time was finally ripe to go over the mountains to Shahdad. We planned to sleep at the Kalouts, to make a push for it, but the radiator of Cvek’s Nissan fervently disagreed. In the middle of the ascent to the tunnel that crosses the mountain range between Kerman and Shahdad the poor old piece of junk decided to finally give in.
I didn’t quite get Iran and I still don’t. Wherever you go, there are mountains. We were in Kerman, at the altitude of more than 1.500 m ASL, and Shahdad, not even 60 kilometres away as crow flies, lies at the altitude of 300 m ASL. But as we drove some 30 kilometres from Kerman, we were already at the altitude of 2.500 m ASL and still climbing. No wander the heavily loaded machines struggled.
At the altitude of 2.396 m ASL, at the plateau and orchards just outside the little mountain village with a peculiar name of Bolbolooiye, we were forced to make camp. What other options did we have? Poor Mosafer’s radiator broke water as if it were just about to give birth. The sun was setting far to the west over Persian plains way below us, and still high above us the peaks of the mountains we had to cross were covered in menacing dark clouds. As we prepared for bivouac and the disassembly of the radiator, another cold night settled upon the land and us. It started to rain. During the night some locals tried to persuade us that we should not sleep on the ground, but failing to provide any other sleeping possibility, the night was endured thus.
We were in low spirits, quite understandably. The cold and rainy weather didn’t help. Just a quick breakfast, then we put the broken radiator into our Landcruiser and set off down the mountain and back to Kerman. As always in the reputable countries where mechanics still repair vehicles and not just replace parts, we found a helpful mechanic that soldered the battered radiator back to the working shape. There he was, our saviour, sitting in a tumbling shack filled with engine parts and old car radiators and hoses, smiling as we were communicating with hand gestures, artfully wielding his tools, waving to the passing traffic, and us, standing on the rain and praying to whichever god that would listen that the solders would hold.
And they did hold and still do. The assembly of Mosafer was excruciating, the cold in the mountains was such that the rain nearly turned to snow. Our fingers were wet and freezing and we could barely hold the tools and nuts and bolts. But after two hours of wet icy labour we started the engines and set off again towards Shahdad. The road climbed for just about five more kilometres and just when I started wondering how and where it will cross the sharp ridges hidden in the clouds above us, a hole into the heart of the mountain appeared. Two kilometres of the tunnel launched us to the eastern slopes and then the road started losing altitude fast. As we came lower, the temperature climbed higher and our spirits with it.
Not knowing the possible official and administrative limitations of offroading in Lut desert, we decided to make just a brief stop in Shahdad and possibly refuel the vehicles. Surprisingly enough diesel was easily obtainable (if we knew that, we wouldn’t go through the fight for diesel with truckies in Kerman) and with full tanks we headed north to the Kalouts. Some 50 kilometres later we stopped for lunch among the great picturesque yardangs. We were in the desert proper at last and I could not help but smile. After lunch we took the asphalt road to the east for another 80 kilometres and then arrived to the proper plain of central Lut. This was time to go off the road.
The toiling to reach the dunes began. A long day of driving was already behind us, with hard work of enabling Mosafer to continue the journey, but the huge flat gravel plain still separated us from the sands of Rig-e Yalan. Unfortunately the plain was criss-crossed with dry riverbeds or wadis, the stones were sharp and thus danger for the tires, so we had to drive quite slowly and carefully, even more so because we were alone in the desert, far off from possible aid. We could not make a mistake, not there. So we rolled patiently, some 90 kilometres over the plain, over harsh rocks and gravel, under rain-threatening clouds, among rainbows, until at last, low on the horizon, behind volcanic ridges, the dunes of Rig-e Yalan shone in the last light of the day. This gave us energy to push on, toward the dunes, to the sand. The dune crests were rising high around us as we found a nice secluded spot for our bivouac. Even if the spirits were quite higher than the day before, we were tired and crawled to bed soon after dinner. Then it started to rain. But it mattered not. We were in the dunes of Dasht-e Lut.
We woke up to a brilliant morning. The rains stopped during the night. Freshly washed face of the desert gleamed all around us. The sky was blue and there was almost no wind. The colours of the sand were like saturated, the dunes of our valley over 300 meters high. I have seen deserts from Jordan to Mauritania, but I have never seen the likes of such great dunes. After breakfast we took it easy, travelling east along the valley between dunes, admiring them and fearing the deep pits that could swallow a whole caravan, not just our two cars. The sand was wet and hard and easy, pure joy to drive. The rain made a crust on the soft surface some five centimetres thick. The trouble was if you pierced the crust…
We drove, we took photos, collected firewood and finally stopped high on the slopes, deep into the valley, just about 120 kilometres as the crow flies from the nearest border with Afghanistan. And again, as the crow flies, we were 4.281 kilometres from home.
With plenty of firewood we returned to the shelter of our bivouac. It was time for a little rest. We set up the awning, pulled out the hammock and spent the afternoon talking, playing, eating, resting. After a glorious sunset we made fire in the sandpit under the shine of a billion stars. Kea Pika took great pleasure in throwing sticks on the fire. As I sat by the fire, content with myself and our trip, watching the playful kiddo under the billion stars, i was thinking: »Never mind the historical landmarks. Never mind all the fancy ceramic tiles painted in blue. Never mind the bridges and the mosques and the souqs. Forget even the mountains and the lakes. This was what I came for to Iran.«
Wind picked up next morning as we headed back west, out of the dunes and over the central plain, past the Eye of the Lut or Malek Mohammad hole. This is a drainage hole in the desert, hiding a dry salt lake about a kilometre across, named the Eye because it resembles one on satellite imagery. The Malek Mohammad were supposedly an Iranian tribe that gave name not only to the drain hole but also to the most distinct and high mountain just west of Rig-e Yalan, the Kuh-e Malek Mohammad, reaching its peak at 881 m ASL and being one of the most important navigation points in the Lut desert.
The plains turned from gravel to soft sand and the driving was not just fun, but hard work too. We reached the star-shaped dunes after crossing the plain. Huge dunes rise up at the eastern edge of the Kalouts, like alien forms, springing straight up from the flat ground. Here and there a little yardang is formed. The sun bakes the ground and the winds are relentless. We headed north, at first on the upper edge of a huge canyon, then we took a spectacular descent and drove on the canyon bed. At last we reached the Zaban-e Mar, or Snake Tongue Canyon, where the ancient river cut its path through the softer rock. Some 7 kilometres long and mostly just about 30 metres wide this canyon is a notable feature of the desert. Unfortunately the falling debris prevented us from driving all the way through. After Uroš obliterated a large chunk of rock with the wheel rim, we decided to stop. We didn’t have enough willpower to move all the rocks that blocked our path and we didn’t want to destroy a tire or two, so we exited the canyon and set bivouac a few kilometres to the south, among yardangs that gave us at least a little protection from the wind. With the night settling in the wind grows weaker and we could even take some photos of the night sky.
The Lut is so quiet. Day or night, the only sound that breaks the spell of silence is the wind. Nothing ever gets as quiet as the desert during the night. It is almost a sin to speak and disturb the silence. So you just stare up at the stars and enjoy the moment. So quickly will the desert forget all about our brief visit. All evidence of our presence was being quickly erased by the blowing sand, and rarely you feel so deeply that we really are no more than just dust in the wind.
On our way north along the eastern edge of the Kalouts we visited the Snake Tongue Canyon again, this time from above, then we found our way among the yardangs and to the gravel plains, back where we came from. Before reaching the road we met a German couple in an Unimog truck camper that traveled to the desert accompanied by local guides from Shahdad. We would have reached the road soon if not for Mosafer, who suddenly decided it was time to stop. Having no idea why the engine stopped working all of a sudden, we tried with changing the fuel filter, but it sparkled back to life only after some tweaking of the fuel pump. But fortunately we were moving again, slower than we would wish, but moving nevertheless. And only when we were getting fuel and food and galian in Shahdad it struck me that the Lut desert experience was slowly coming to its completion.
But not quite yet. First we tried to break the language barrier in search for a bolt in the suspension that Mosafer seemed to have lost in the desert. Then we had a jolly experience looking for a camp in Shahdad, asking locals, studying GPS and satellite imagery. When we finally located a place called Shahdad desert camp it was totally deserted and in ruins, so we went straight on to the Kalouts and found a superb place for a bivouac. We made fire, smoked galian and drank tea. A little desert fox came to visit us, staring to our flames with its big eyes.
Gandom Beryan, or the hottest spot on Earth, was our next destination. Approximately 80 kilometres north of Shahdad, there is a hill with a surface of over 100 square kilometres (some sources cite that the plain of Gandom Beryan spreads over 480 square kilometres) covered in black volcanic rock. Dasht-e Lut is not only famous for smugglers, landmines, dunes and yardangs, but it is also considered the thermal centre of the Earth. Measurements of MODIS (Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) installed on NASA’s Aqua satellite from 2003 to 2010 testify that the hottest land surface on Earth is located here and land surface temperatures reach 70.7 °C, even if the air temperature is lower. I guess the measurements were correct, because the heat became unbearable as we progressed along the piste further north. Gandom Beryan means scorched wheat, as legend says after a load of wheat left in the desert that got incinerated in few days. Nothing survives here, not even bacteria. Thanks Japanese engineers for air conditioning.
We were rolling over scorched plains, over salty marshes, over rocks and some sand, but we had to stop short of the Gandom Beryan plateau. Not only the heat, but the rains that blessed us in the Rig-e Yalan caused the river Shoor (only permanent river in the area) to swell and cut us away from the volcanic field. For hours we tried, in the searing heat, to find the way over its steep, muddy and salty banks, and then we gave up. Leave something for our next visit to Iran, I guess… We went back to the Kalouts, fighting the heat, fighting the most annoying biting flies you can encounter. The sand between the yardangs is firm and formed in ripples that make driving extremely uncomfortable. We were all very tired and soon decided to stop and wait for the evening to bring some relief from the heat. Only then I realised how lucky we were in the Rig-e Yalan, because we went there with the cold weather front that brought rain and lower temperatures. But the cold weather front was now far away and the heat returned. The desert was taking its toll. We had enough, all of us. So the next morning, after taking some photographs and looking for an exit out of the field of Kalouts, we headed back to Shahdad and Kerman and embarked upon the long journey back north, to the shores of Caspian sea and to the sacred mountain of Damavand.
Bear in mind a few things, if you plan on visiting Rig-e Yalan:
– you are officially not allowed to go to the Lut Desert (possible exception are the Kalouts near the main road, which are the tallest and most pictoresque) without payable authorisation from the military and a guide (We tried to avoid that by just getting provisions in Shahdad and driving straight to the desert – and succeeded). I don’t know what happens if they find out you are on your own.
– the last fuel (and food) is in Shahdad (gas station coordinates N30° 24.754′ E57° 41.352′), if they have some. Gasoline is quite easy to get compared to diesel. I don’t know about the quality, we didn’t have any problems.
– at the point “Lut Max” – N30° 32.466′ E 59° 25.052′ you’re about 120 km from the tri-border of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The area is supposedly landmined, but locals (very few of them) cross the dunes and there are many vehicle tracks visible, especially on the gravel plains (however the area from Bam to Zahedan is only to be travelled in convoys, we were told, because of the smugglers). I have seen dunes from Jordan to Mauritania and Sudan, but these dunes scared the shit out or me. Very high, extremely deep slopes, terrible huge holes/pits to fall to and never get out. And so far from all civilisation. I have been told that similar dunes can be found on Arabian Peninsula, but I cannot confirm. Even in Libya I didn’t see anything like it. Drive with caution.
– we didn’t make it to Gandom Beryan (N31° 2.333′ E 57° 39.389′) – the hottest place on Earth. There was quite some rain and we should cross the river to get there, which was impossible. There might be a track leading to Gandom Beryan to the east of the river on a plain that looks dry – check it out on Google Earth, we didn’t have enough time to try once more.
– we were two quite capable cars, but our speed on the plains of the Lut Desert was no more than 40 km/h. Lots of dry riverbeds, quite soft, and you have to take care of the tyres. The sand was OK (because of the heavy rainfall earlier), but I am sure it can get quite soft. Navigation is quite complex because of the many canyons and hills that can cut your passage and cannot be judged from satellite imagery. And don’t forget the pits between dunes.
If you plan to go there, keep in mind the distances and fuel consumption – the shortest trip from Shahdad to Rig-e Yalan and back over the plain to Kalouts and Zaban-e Mar (without Kalouts and Gandom Beryan) is close to 500 kilometres, more than half of that offroad on soft surfaces. We carried nearly 400 litres of diesel for two cars, just to be on the safe side.
Our great place for bivouac in the Rig-e Yalan is at N 30° 30.464′ E 59° 19.463′. I would really like to go there again.
Zaban-e Mar, or Snake Tongue Canyon, has the confluence at N30° 34.887′ E58° 41.635′.
The saviour of the Nissan’s radiator was at N30° 15.845′ E 57° 8.210’ at the outskirts of Kerman. Other automotive services can be obtained in that town area.
And of course great thanks to Duško Dokošič, the official photographer of our expedition for granting the use of some of his photos.