If you’ve ever been down under – and I don’t mean the “Australian under” – you know how cold and damp things can get. The down under of caves is at once wet and chilling, calling for proper preparations that ought not be ignored. I never thought about the possibility of caves in Iran, but that’s only because I think of what’s on top first – an Iran composed largely of arid mountains and vast plains, always interesting in its variation. Yet in places there does exist an exotic underneath as fascinating as the terrain above it. The Ali Sadr caves is one such place.
As we pushed on towards Ali Sadr from Hamedan, following our late afternoon close encounter with a caravanserai, our ever-resourceful driver Masood took the time to prepare us for a planned adventure he claimed was a “must see.” To be truthful, on most days we have no real plan. This is true wherever we go. Our idea of travel involves what we call “living close to the ground.” It’s an expression and a philosophy we created out of creative living itself. Eating in a local hole-in-the-wall, learning new words, wandering the dusty streets and alleys, stumbling into new people – in short, letting the world act upon us (rather than us upon it!) is what lies behind the idea. The result is travel that thrills from one moment to the next. One never knows what will happen next.
Ali Sadr is, of course, one of Masood’s ideas. Being an outdoors-oriented fellow, he really likes things such as”tenting” in the Iranian desert, climbing the Zagros mountains, or parasailing on the Persian Gulf. Dropping into the earth to explore caverns is part of that world of his he finds so exciting. Masood understands our desire to wander and play everywhere while suggesting big attractions as we go. We really couldn’t have done better than with Masood as our driver and expert guide.
“So, Okay,” Masood continued as he guided the Peugeot across the darkening landscape, “I think you will enjoy this. It is very famous. People come to this place from everywhere in the world.”
“Like us!” said Heather. Masood laughed. “Yes! Like you! Famous people go to famous places!”
Ahead, in the far distance, the lights of the Ali Sadr village were coming into view. With many towns and cities on the vast rolling plains of northern Iran, lights did not always indicate close proximity. A few days earlier we had driven through the night to reach the city of Hamadan. When we spotted its glimmering lights I thought we’d be within the city limits in a matter of minutes. It took nearly two hours. Tonight, much to our relief, Ali Sadr proved to be much closer.
In the morning, after our breakfast of naan, yoghurt, and goat cheese, we hiked up a path behind the small hotel that led us to the entrance of the caves. Along the way hedges of roses grew in abundance with a few historical monuments strategically placed honouring those who discovered and explored the Ali Sadr caves in the 1960s or explaining the caverns in terms of their geological features. Though the caves are extremely old, the visitor’s arrangements are not. At the end of the broad walkway, in a modern hall, we purchased our tickets, were handed life vests, and sent down staircases to a cave entrance swallowing us down a long watery path to a boat launch. From the number of chairs lined up along the wooden plank pathway near the launch point we could see just how busy Ali Sadr can get. This being off-season, we were fortunately part of a rather modest crowd. In the semi-lit underground, with cold air seeping under our clothing, we huddled and waited out turn to climb into small boats hitched together like a train. Once we got underway, we realized the entire affair was under the power of two men in a lead paddle boat peddling calmly. Lights strategically placed lit up dazzling rock formations and colours. Caves led off to the sides in multiple directions. The light chatter of the boaters echoed off the walls to the swish of the paddle wheels.
“You have been to this place before?” I asked Masood, who sat in the bow of our little plastic boat, ready to warn us of protruding rocks or low ceilings as we slipped along.
“Yes, this is my third time,” he said, smiling. “I love this place. A great place to swim on a hot day.” He laughed. Swimming was against the rules. Checking the clear water with my hand, I was surprised to find it much warmer than I expected. Highly swimmable. “Students study this place,” Masood went on. “There is much more here than we will see. This underground water goes in many directions. This is only one small part.” We sat back, snuggled in our Woolx, and watched the sights as they unfolded with each new turn along the waterway. Midway through our ride, we entered a vast internal cavern with layered walls that rose well over a hundred feet, giving us the impression of a cathedral interior. We disembarked here to follow a grand staircase constructed up one side. At the top, friendly, curious Iranians (who wasn’t friendly or curious on our trip?) struck up a conversation with us.
One of many interior domes
“Do you have such things in America?” asked a well-dressed middle aged man – who turned out to be an architect. A small crowd gathered around us.
“Yes, it is in a place called Kentucky,” I said. Our new Iranian acquaintances looked at one another. “Ken-tuk-eee,” they said, nodding to one another. “Ken-tuk-eee.” “The name is Mammoth Cave,” I went on, “but there is no water there. Ali Sadr is very different and very beautiful. You should come to America and see the big cave in Kentucky.” The crowd agreed, wished us well, and we all moved on.
Up top we peeled off our life jackets and handed them back in preparation to enter the warmth of the late morning. Before departing the main hall, we had a snap taken under a suspended image of the late supreme leader Khomeini and the current supreme leader, Khamenie. “Just for the record,” I said to Masood. Then a thought hit me. I asked Masood if he knew if they might have visited the caves.
“Maybe not,” he replied thoughtfully. “I don’t think people like that ever take a holiday.”
At Ali Sadr main hall with Khamenei and Khomeini