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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Exploring the Iranian outback

Beautiful rock formations caused by water-based erosion in Chahkooh Valley in Qeshm.

Beautiful rock formations caused by water-based erosion in Chahkooh Valley in Qeshm.

Fascinating rock formations, salt flats and dunes make the desert a must-see

VENTURING off the usual rainforests and hiking trails for a change, we bring you a story about the canyons and unusual landscapes of Iran.

Back in November and December, my travel partner Natasha and I travelled through Iran, and while the big names like Isfahan and Shiraz beckoned, our target was the island of Hormuz, off Bandar Abbas in the south.

However, while staying at Shahab, a Tehrani couchsurfing (meet and stay with locals) contact’s place, we were advised to visit the city of Kashan, a couple of hours south of Tehran.

If you fancy a drive into the desert, there’s the Maranjab Desert, part of the larger Dasht-e-Kavir Desert on the Iranian plateau, a couple of hours’ drive out of Kashan.

Our local contact Mohamed Ghavami helped us arrange for a drive-out and after a traditional Iranian breakfast of soft feta cheese, flat bread and jam with tea, we set out in an ordinary Peugeot sedan.

One of the attractions in the Maranjab desert is a refurbished caravenserai, which one can rent to rest and experience the desert clime.
One of the attractions in the Maranjab desert is a refurbished caravenserai, which one can rent to rest and experience the desert clime

The 15°C weather made for an enjoyable drive, and to my surprise, almost every other visitor to the desert was also going around in Peugeots or local Iranian cars. Only a few well-equipped thrill-seekers were driving around in 4x4s.

Maranjab Desert is famous for its salt flats, desert dunes, an underground city as well as a caravenserai – a rest area for traders travelling long distances.

Along the route, one is likely to spot herds of camels. Well-behaved, they will even come up to investigate any new face.

Alireza, Mohamed’s son, informed us that the salt flat stretched out for kilometres, and every day workers would shovel up whole lorry-loads of salt and drive them back to the city of Qoom for processing.

The caravanserai, a stop in the olden days for traders to rest after crossing the massive Dasht-e-Kavir before reaching Kashan or other cities, has been refitted. And for a fee, you can rent one of the rooms at night.

Interesting rock formations in the Maranjab Desert.
Interesting rock formations in the Maranjab Desert.

One stop which we had to miss, as we were rushing to Isfahan overnight, was the underground city of Oui or Nushabad.

But as Mohamed explained, the city was constructed underground to shield its inhabitants from the desert heat, which can climb past 40°C in summer. It also served to protect them from invaders.

Further down south, we were advised to visit Qeshm, Hormuz’s larger neighbour and a popular local destination in its own right.

Qeshm has several “geosites”, ranging from canyons eroded by the elements, to large mangrove swamps and a salt cave called Namakdan.

As we only had one night to stay on the island before heading to Hormuz the next day and then back to Tehran, we only managed to visit the Chahkooh Valley and the Stars Valley, both quite some distance from each other.

A curious camel that went over to investigate Natashas selfie stick.
A curious camel that went over to investigate Natasha's selfie stick.

When we first arrived at the Stars Valley, near Qeshm town, nearly an hour’s drive from our disembarkation point of Luft Port, our guide Assad had told us that we would only need about 40 minutes to walk around the park.

In the end, we spent over an hour wandering about the various rock formations.

Stars Valley, so named because the locals believe a star impacted this site and threw up the unusual geological structures, has an interesting layout of pillar-like columns supporting an upper layer.

A closer look at the rocks shows fossilised shells – evidence that the island rose up from the sea millenia ago, resulting in the shellfish being caught out and calcifying in the soft, chalk-like rock.

Alireza scoops up some sand from a large, crystallised salt rock in the Maranjab desert.
Alireza scoops up some sand from a large, crystallised salt rock in the Maranjab desert

In other parts of the valley, especially when you climb to the upper layer, you can see rocky protrusions where the wind and rain have worn away the terrain, exposing the different geological layer of the valley.

Chahkooh Valley, located in the northeastern part of the island, was about 30 minutes from Assad’s home village, our stay for the night, and he had arranged for us to visit the valley so that we could watch the sunset from a vantage point.

Again, this is another example of nature’s elements coming together, and you can see how rainwater has eroded the landscape into something quite spectacular.

Chahkooh, I was told, means “well mountain”, and indeed, further into the gorge, locals have sunk some wells to collect rainwater that had accumulated there.

A panoramic shot of the Stars Valley in Qeshm Island with the wind-worn table features.
A panoramic shot of the Stars Valley in Qeshm Island with the wind-worn 'table' features.

Tags / Keywords: Central Region , Iran , Maranjab Desert , Kashan , Canyons , Qeshm Island

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