Unlike in Australia, 60 Series LandCruisers have become a rarity in other parts of the world. On our big drive from Europe back to Australia, it wasn’t until Iran that we encountered another Sixty, parked in a side-street just next to the bazaar in Esfahan. The owner is 29-year- old Vahid, who buys and sells gold from his hole-in-the-wall shop in the bazaar. He doesn’t speak much English and our Farsi is little more than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, yet our mutual passion for 4WDriving and the outdoors was enough to form an instant bond. After showing him our Cruiser, he insisted we come for dinner and meet his wife. Over a delicious Iranian meal of various kebabs and saffron rice with barberries, we came up with the plan to head out to the Karkas Mountains National Park the next day, a two-hour drive from Esfahan.
The next morning, we were greeted by Vahid and his two best mates Milad and Kamyar, dressed in camo gear and looking ready for an Iraqi invasion – if it weren’t for the schoolgirl giggles and infectious excitement. After an hour we turned off the highway onto a gravel road that took us past rural villages of mud-brick houses and shepherd’s tents made from camel skin. Dodging goats, villagers and 125cc motorbikes while driving on dusty narrow streets was an adventure in itself, especially when we had to reverse out when the road ahead was blocked by a landslide. A local man spoke to our hosts about an alternative route and soon Kamyar told us to lock the hubs, to which we happily obliged.
A little-used track diverted away from the string of villages and took us straight into the rocky desert. We were now on our own and driving into a remote area with people we didn’t really know. We suddenly imagined all the worst possible things that could happen. After all, we were in a country that has seen its share of kidnappings and terror attacks. We went over our when-sh*t-hits-the-fan scenario, which pretty much comes down to sending an EPIRB SOS-signal, kneeling down to our captors and begging for mercy. “Don’t be so paranoid”, said Claire. “Everything will be fine, just relax and enjoy being here. Look around you! Wow, we’re in Iran, off-roading! Doing exactly what we wanted to do!” Of course she was right. And this story is proof of that.
Kamyar is a mechanical engineer with an adventurous heart; he is a mountaineer, hunter and cave explorer. He showed us a nearby cave high up a rock wall above an ancient mosque and after a steep climb, we entered through the narrow opening. As our eyes adjusted to the light, the inside of the cave grew larger. We switched on our head torches and descended down to 80 metres, where we found some stalactites in a huge hall. This was the point at which we made our way back up. We were casually informed that “if you keep going, it takes five hours to get out on the other side. You go on your belly all the way.”
As so often when exploring a place, the deeper into the Karkas Mountains we went, the more beautiful it got. Deep-red hills of solid rock stand in contrast to sharp black shale, the stuff where fossils are often found. For a moment we thought we could have been somewhere in Central Australia. When the boys spotted a mother and calf ibex, we all scrambled up the hill to get a better look at them through the binoculars. After the ibex disappeared over the hill it took Vahid all of five minutes to find a fossilised shell, proof that this huge semi-desert was once part of an ocean.
In all this bone-dry country, we couldn’t believe it when we suddenly drove into a green grassy oasis, watered by a permanent creek. We pulled up for a cuppa and watched a large herd of goats slowly move by. “Now, we go for lunch. We go see my friend, Mohsen!” Going with the flow had become normality at that stage in our trip, so without further questions we followed suit. Another 15 minutes went by and the UHF sounded its familiar crackle: “Vahid wants to excite you! Sit next to him in the Cruiser! Claire will drive behind!” The 3F petrol engine of his Cruiser felt like a rocket launcher compared to our 2H slug, weighed down by all of our gear. He roared down the curving dirt road, with a drop-off into a canyon on the passenger side. He quickly passed 80kph and the big 60 swung side to side as if he was driving on top of a giant snake. As we gained more speed, I expected the vehicle to roll over each time he swung the wheel around to keep to the road. “Ok. We are here!” We parked up at an old caravanserai for the shepherds that roam the mountains with their flock. Mohsen is one of the shepherds who lives there all year round, during blazing summers and freezing winters. “He very hard man!” No doubt.
We rolled out a rug on the grass and picked some apples off the same tree that gave us shade. Milad went off into the veggie patch to pick what was needed for lunch. Soon we were all tucking into one of the best meals in a long while; a vegetable and chickpea stew with freshly baked bread. Two Afghani shepherds also turned up and we swapped jokes and stories in sign language and broken English. Our teacups were never empty for long. We exchanged gifts with the shepherds and under a sky of a million stars, we regretfully parted ways. While driving back through the darkness of the desert to the traffic chaos of Esfahan we reflected on a very special day. Not only did we learn about Iranian hospitality and culture; we felt that we made genuine friends that day. We trusted our instincts and were rewarded with an experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
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