A Northern Ireland adventurer who followed the longest river in Iran from source to sea has said it was like dicing with death.
Leon McCarron walked, kayaked and biked along the waterway from snowy mountainous headwaters in the south west of a country still largely shrouded in mystery to the Persian Gulf.
In a state once named by former US president George Bush as part of the “axis of evil”, the film student turned advocate of challenging travelling was invited into ordinary people’s homes and enjoyed great generosity.
At one stage he was loaned a bicycle and equipment free of charge by a kind benefactor after the rapids of the River Karun became too dangerous to boat down.
Mr McCarron said: “A lot of Iranians would often say anything is possible in Iran, it is their motto and one has to agree; within 20 minutes we were fully kitted out for a bicycle expedition, we had to promise to have lots of fun and take pictures to send back to him.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to Iran. But tour operators have reportedly seen a rise in the number of bookings for holidays to this evocative destination.
Mr McCarron spent more than a month earlier this year following the river and is planning to make a film about his adventure along its 450-mile course.
Settlements along the way include the summer capital of the Persian Empire, Shushtar, which has beautiful water features. The city is famous for engineering works constructed in ancient times for the disposal and use of the river water through a historic hydraulic system recognised as a World Heritage site.
Mr McCarron and a friend walked for around a week from the source of the river along its banks before it became wide and deep enough to float their kayak. They navigated using a map drawn up by Russians during Soviet times.
“You could see a deep gorge but you don’t know what you will find in there,” he said.
Eventually he lost his paddle after capsizing in deep rapids, watching it sucked under the water by a powerful whirlpool.
“It probably scared me more than anything else I saw on my trip.”
They bought a replacement in a nearby town and continued down river, braving a few more rapids.
Mr McCarron added: “Eventually we decided we were dicing with death a little bit too much with the kayak.
“I think I am more of a low-adrenalin adventurer.”
At that point they decided to obtain bicycles but had little spare money because they were unable to access extra funds while in the country, which is a “financial island” not recognised by the international cash machine network, Mr McCarron said.
They were directed to a local shop whose owner had hundreds of cycles and loaned them his two best touring bicycles plus pannier bags and sleeping bags with instructions only to send him pictures of their adventure.
The pair finished their trip at the Gulf, near the city of Abadan and near Basra, where British forces were based during the Iraqi conflict.