During my trip in Iran I decided to divert from the normal route and spend few days in the desert. The city of Yazd is already in the desert and you will notice it: heat, drought and dust will welcome you as soon as you step out of the bus. But what I wanted to do was to experience the Dasht-e Kavir, also known as Great Salt Desert: 800 km wide and 300 km high, it is one of the largest deserts in the world. As well as one of the most inhospitable: during the rainy season some small rivers and lakes come to life, but they would not be of much help if you get lost here: their water is extremely salty. If heat and salty waters were not enough, many areas are covered with quicksands!

Garmeh: an oasis in the desert

The journey started from Esfahan, where a car picked me and my travel buddy and transferred us to Garmeh, a tiny village-oasis in the desert. The village was at the edge of disappearing as the young generations moved to cities and some of the elderly people followed them. Maziyar, who also emigrated in search of a better life and became a known musician, decided to go back to his roots and help the village to survive: he took over few houses and adapted them to a guesthouse, pushing Garmeh towards sustainable tourism: all villagers cooperate in this project, working in direct contact with the guesthouse, called Ateshooni. The village itself is nothing exceptional: it is clearly still under renovation but the major asset is peace and relax and it is a good base for the exploration of the desert.

The guesthouse is really basic but clean (mattresses on the floor and shared toilets) and the common area in the main building is perfect to escape the heat and take a nap after a cup of tea or spend moments of relaxation with the music of Maziyar and his traditional bongos. This is a great atmosphere if you have the luck to experience it when most of the guests are outside, i.e. during the day; it may become a far less enlightening experience in the evening, when everybody is back and trying to snap the perfect picture (with flash of course).

Mesr and the first day of trek

Garmeh is at the edge of the “real” desert, so in the morning just after breakfast we transferred to Mesr with some bad news: a sand storm was sweeping the whole area. That sounded like a disaster: desert sand has the bad habit to find its way into anything, from your sealed backpack to you camera lenses and tripod. I knew it quite well after my trip to the Peninsula Valdes in Argentina. The beautiful pictures I planned to make were at serious risk. After a good lunch – and after removing contact lenses – we got on the move: the plan was a two day trek with overnight camping in the desert. We were three tourists, one guide and a great deal of wind!

After just a few minutes, it became clear that it would not be an easy trek: the wind was very strong and the sand hit our faces like many tiny slaps. We resorted to use scarves around our faces. The landscape was pretty dull: flat, mostly hard rock surface forming plateaus from which we had to descend. After a couple of hours and approximately 10km, we reached our base camp: three tents, two teapots and few toilet paper rolls J It was about 5pm and the temperature started to drop fast from the 30 degrees we had during the trek, so we put on some tea before moving to watch sunset on the dunes. It goes without saying that sunset was horrible: we could hardly see the sun behind the dust curtain, let alone we could hardly keep our eyes open! But climbing on the dunes, jumping, running and rolling down was a great fun. I do not have many pictures of the first day as I kept my camera sealed and protected most of the time.

Back to the camp for a home made dinner prepared on the spot, hot tea and few dates and it was already time to go to sleep. The temperature was approaching 0 degrees and I was freezing (I had only a couple of t-shirts as I forgot my jumpers at the guesthouse). The wind was still blowing hard but we asked the guide to wake us up at 3am to watch the nightsky. Luckily the dust in the air was less (although still much) and we had a glimpse at a beautiful milky way, before returning to the tents: we had only 2 more hours of sleep before waking up for sunrise.

Milky Way - Dasht-e Kavir Desert

Milky Way in the desert

Second day of trek

Getting up was hard after a night spent shivering from the cold, but well worth to experience the sunrise over the desert: unfortunately the sun was rising over the flats but it revealed a beautiful day with no dust and no wind. After breakfast we therefore walked back to the dunes, to get our storm free view of these beautiful sand waves.

In the second day we walked around 15 km: after the dunes we moved towards a flat area called “salt lake”, which is basically salt over hard sand: the cool thing is that the salt has crystallized in large mosaic-like plates (something similar to what I have seen in Badwater, in California’s Death Valley).

Bear Grylls MomentThere is no soft surface in this part of the Dasht-e Kavir, only solidified sand. Outside the area with salt plates, this surface is actually very smooth. You will notice however some tracks: they are not excavated by water (as I thought in the first place) but they are made by hundreds of camels wandering around the desert. If you are stuck here with no water, just follow one of those tracks: the camels know where the water is! If you are unsure which direction, follow the track for a while: if you see other tracks joining yours or yours joining another track, you are walking in the right direction! Otherwise turn around.

If you  have been diligent and you have plenty of water, your next chance to terminate your days in the desert are quicksands. We saw a few patches along our journey and I can tell that they look like normal (wet) soil, with the obvious difference that you should not step on them. The guide allowed us to walk on one of them as it was less dangerous than the others: it was really cool, like walking on a water mattress!! The terrain is quite cohesive and flexible, and it moves over a patch of fine sand and water. Until it breaks: after few jumps we found ourselves in this mud up just above the ankles, and quite difficult to get out. This is how many camels die: in fact we found the carcass of one camel that got stuck and died under the sun. Be careful.

There was a rocky hill in front of us and we decided to climb it. The view from above of the whole plateau was breathtaking: an astonishing inhospitable area in a very hospitable land.

The trek was almost over, we walked towards the meeting point where a 4×4 was waiting to pick us up (otherwise we should have walked other 10km!!). The trek was really good and the guide surprised us with her knowledge (she was an astronomer and entertained us when we woke up to watch the stars). So if you are traveling to Iran I highly recommend to keep three days for this trek; ask Ateshooni Guesthouse in Garmeh to organise it for you.

Do you have stories to share about desert life? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss it!