“A confused mass of impassable tangled dunes” was how explorer Alfons Gabriel described the Lut Desert in 1938.
This strip of land that runs across Iran is a place that’s so forbidding, it’s been said to be one of the few places on Earth that resembles the planet Mars. ‘Lut’ means emptiness in Persian. It’s here in 2004 that the world’s hottest temperature of 70.0C was ever recorded. Yet, this combination still didn’t manage to dissuade 12 women from deciding to become the first all-female team to walk across one of the most barren places in the world.
The team that included city-dwelling lawyers, bankers and marketeers from Singapore, London, Paris, Dubai, Bangkok and Hong Kong, would now be following in the footsteps of explorers such as Wilfred Thesiger and Marco Polo and trek 200 kilometres across the Dasht-e Lut of Iran. Their aim was to raise more than SGD$100,000 for Women for Women International, an independent humanitarian organization to help women survivors of war.
The WOAM Iran team, split all over the world, worked on their own training schedule. But when they arrived in Iran during November 2016 they were more than ready to take on the challenge together.
They knew the challenge they would face would be immense, but when they left the capital Tehran behind and arrived in the Lut desert they were still blown away by what they saw.
“Many of us felt excited, but also apprehensive,” says Christine Amour-Levar, co-founder of WOAM. “We knew it was going to be a tough challenge to cover that kind of distance in those extreme conditions.”
And as they began their trek across the desert they soon realised what they had taken on.
The task would comprise walking 200 kilometres in seven days with wildly contrasting temperatures and climates. The team would start hiking at 6am and average around 30 kilometres a day. “The Lut is truly exceptional and full of contradictions. From the sweltering heat of the mega-dunes to the icy cold nights in the valley of the Kaluts, the desert kept us captivated by its raw beauty,” says Amour-Levar.
So that they didn’t burn themselves out too early in the expedition, the team maintained a steady pace and took a 10-minute break every hour. When the sun was at its highest, the team would stop for lunch, then they would charge ahead again throughout the afternoon, lured by the serpentine curves of the Lut’s hypnotic landscape. However, the desert threw up constant surprises for the team. “The sheer force of the howling sandstorms, which rendered walking along the narrow ridges almost impossible, caught us off guard,” says Amour-Levar. “When we trekked along the top of the 600-metres high dunes, the strong winds would engulf us in a cloud of razor-sharp, golden sand particles and made it almost impossible for us to maintain our balance. It was quite a daunting experience.”
During their seven-day trek the women and their guides didn’t see anyone else en route. The only signs of life along the trails were a few wolf, fox, snake and camel tracks. But this was a plus point as they were told that over the past few years, drug smugglers from the nearby Afghan and Pakistani borders had used the southern part of the Lut as a travel route.
One of the longest and most challenging days of the journey was the day they crossed the Eye of the Lut. The Eye is a huge crater believed to have been formed when a large meteorite struck the earth. It was this landscape that really pushed them to their limits. They covered close to 35 kilometres and arrived into camp in total darkness. “I was so exhausted I didn’t even have the strength to unzip my bag and set up my tent that day,” says Amour-Levar. “However, the Eye of the Lut was truly spectacular to behold. At the end of the day, as the last rays of sunlight glimmered and the sky turned a rich shade of amber, it literally took our breath away.”
After finding the strength to put up the tents, the team would then follow a strict routine of trying their best to “de-sand” without water, treat blisters and other sores. Then their guides would serve them a hearty dinner, which usually consisted of a bean and vegetable stew served with white rice. Some of the team would chat around the campfire and stare up at the stars, but at 8:30pm most of the team were sound asleep or tossing and turning in their sleeping bags, trying to ignore the aches and pains in their muscles and bones.
While their support team would take their tents, each team member would carry a 10kg backpack, including water, food, medical supplies, sand goggles and sun block. They would face scorching temperatures, unyielding aridity and the sheer force of the winds, which converge from all four directions at once, causing the formation of massive star-shaped sand dunes. “Despite the long and tiring days of trekking, the team stayed positive, motivated and fiercely determined,” says Amour-Levar.
After seven days, the team finally crossed the line and finished their challenge. Yet, Amour-Levar admits that this vast desert that had gotten in their hair and eyes, was now also well and truly under their skin. “The team was overjoyed and I shared in the genuine pleasure of our achievement; yet, a part of me didn’t want it to end,” says Amour-Levar. “My emotions were conflicted. I felt slightly melancholic to be ending a routine and leaving a world that was like no other I had ever experienced.”