When I came back home and wrote about the journey Into The Empty Quarter, I was surprised by some of the reactions from readers. People who I knew well (and knew to be smart and well-travelled) asked "But wasn't it dangerous?" and "Weren't you worried about terrorists?" Perhaps these are understandable responses. When Alastair Humphreys, my companion on the journey, wrote an article that hit the front page of a well-known search engine, I was in equal parts amazed and appalled by the the entries in the comments section - the vitriol and fear felt by some Western readers was astounding. (NB these were definitely not in the 'understandable responses' category, and I'm all too aware that very little creedence should be given to things written on internet forums!)
I am well aware that the majority of people in the West do NOT think the Middle East is full of terrorists who all want to destroy America. That said, there are still a lot of preconceptions, and misconceptions, about the region. Oman is one of the kindest and safest countries I've ever been to. Of course it is - there's no real reason why it shouldn't be - but because it is Islamic and in the Middle East, and quite close to Saudi Arabia, there's still a certain degree of fear and suspicion shown towards it by sections of society here in the West.
Last year my friend Tom Allen asked me if I wanted to accompany him for a trip to Iran in 2014. He'd been before, on multiple occasions, and is now emotionally invested in the country in a number of ways (see his film Janapar to find out why.) I couldn't think of a single reason not to join him. I didn't know much about the country (though I was fascinated with the Persian Empire when I was at school - I was a history dork.) This was the perfect opportunity to explore one of the most important countries in the history (and perhaps future?) of the world in the company of someone with a enviably adventurous and open mindset.
I would love to be able to go to Iran, and tell others that I'm doing so, without all this preamble about politics and bureaucracy, but it's undeniably a huge part of the country's representation internationally. However, once I get there, I will not in the slightest be exploring the country on a political level. That is not my interest (nor, probably, a wise idea for a wandering backpacker.) I simply want to see the country at ground level. I know from past experiences (China, particularly) that the government and the people of a country are two very different things (God forbid that any of us should be held accountable for the foreign policies of our governments.) I know plenty of travellers who have visited Iran, and all concur that Iranians are wonderful, generous and wildly hospitable. I have no absolutely fears about that. The landscapes are stunning. The cities are bustling. There are safety concerns, of course, but I sincerely believe they are no greater than in most other parts of the world.
Tom and I leave on our trip in early February. I want to see what Iran is really like, first-hand. I want to show that it's possible for a couple of silly, bumbling lads from the British Isles to have a safe journey through Iran. I would like for us to speak to people (Tom speaks Farsi) and get to know even just a little bit about life in rural Iran. And, honestly, most of all I want to have a great adventure! I am confident that we will.
We'll travel by the two methods shown below, and the plan is to follow a river from source to sea. When walking, everything we need will fit in our backpacks (including the fold-away boats), and when paddling, everything will fit on the bow of our inflated rafts. In this respect, we'll be self-sufficient. It's going to be very cold at the start of our trip in the high-altitude mountains, so we're hoping to encounter plenty of friendly Iranians who will have us to stay. Other than that, it's a standard winter camping holiday (with the occasional unplanned capsize into freezing cold water.)
Back in late March to welcome the onset of British spring. See you then!