(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Iran’s Dead Sea — البحر الميت لإيران

New video after the jump.

For $15 an hour, any taxi driver will take you the length of this Long Island and back (about an hour and a half between the furthest points). Whether you’re stuck or just visiting or visiting and stuck — return flights are often delayed by twelve hours or a day — there are at least two full days worth of informed wandering. The otherworldly caves and mangroves and beaches of Qeshm are exceptional and untrodden, and without parallel on the more visitable coasts of the Persian Gulf.

Our driver balked when the paved road turned to dirt, making a machine gun sign with his hands and charading I don’t think you are supposed to go here with worried eyebrows. We had heard half-formed rumors about gunfire in the empty areas towards the south, potentially the army (or someone’s army) in training, but we coaxed him onwards and never had to duck and cover. We never saw anything remotely unsafe.

If the island were a dolphin — it is shaped a bit like one — the magnificent mangrove forests would be just behind its dorsal fin. The tangled roots of mangroves work to solidify the coastline, holding the mud in place and extending out into open water that covers the roots completely at high tide. A mangrove forest looks like a Venetian neighborhood. Greenery lines more than ten miles of the northern coast, stretching across the narrow Straight of Khuran almost to the shores of southern Iran. A sign points to the Jengel Hara (a.k.a. the Hara Protected Area, established 1972).

Geshm’s particular mangroves are home to the hara tree, lushous green with yellow flowers and an almond-like fruit in the summer. For twenty-five dollars a boatman singing old songs in Arabic motored us out through the shallow channels, past blue and white herons and flat-billed birds flaunting their mandibles from higher ground. When the spot looked right, we hopped off the side into the mud.

Heaven. After showerless nights at the Hotel Diplomat, it was like seven star hotel treatment. It was salty and clean (the way only mud can be), thick like Dead Sea clay and heavy like something a spa might call a skin product. I coated myself in the gray-brown mud and waited for it to dry while I sank up to my knees in the marsh. More than any other beach in the Persian Gulf — more than downtown Abu Dhabi where the water tastes of salt excreted up the coast by the desalination plants, more than (mostly) quiet Failaka island off Kuwait that smells a little of jet ski oil — the water felt natural and safe.

Well, it was at least natural. An oceanographical study from the University of Tehran records five species of slithering marine reptiles. Wikipedia says the area is home to “venomous aquatic snakes”.

The standalone wonder of the island is further south, hidden in a rocky red hillside partway along this dusty road from Dustku to Salkh. Situated on the southwestern perimeter of the island, the hillside is home to two hollows — these are the Ghar Namak, the Salt Caves most locals know but have never visited. The larger is a cavern about twenty feet high with walls marbled in red and brown swaths and heaping piles of salt crystals on the ground. The ceiling tapers back into the depths and looks like the inside of an icebox, dripping with pure white salt stalactites.

Across the salt flats, clear water disappears into a smaller cave like the pool at Wilt Chamberlain’s house. Our taxi driver was mystified as we shucked our shoes and ducked inside. Here is Iran’s Dead Sea, nearly as saline as possible with all sides soaking in salt and red earth, just waiting for tourists to come and float.

The water is about a foot deep and the cave is only waist-high, but sliding face up like a mechanic on a creeper, the curious can slip dozens of feet inside using the hanging crystals as handholds. Like the Dead Sea, (pending an analysis of the chemical make up of these salts) there are likely benefits to the skin and muscles from just a few short dips. The driver peeked in inquisitively. It is clean and cool inside with a smell of ocean and kosher pickles.

There was a man napping in a one-room house at the intersection of the main road and the short driveway up to the caves. A fishing boat idled near a perfect beach with a dead battery. But apart from our taxi blasting Persian rap at the cliffs, the bottom half of Qeshm was quiet, gorgeous, begging to be explored.

→ A slideshow from Qeshm with more surprises.

A man bundles nutritious Hara leaves, nutritious for farm animals.

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