Surfing Under Northern Lights

Adventure photographer Chris Burkard is an expert at photographing surfers who ride the coldest, most punishing waves on the planet. He's used to battling the elements in order to get the perfect shot, but one fateful storm in Iceland nearly broke him. Still, he couldn't pass up the opportunity to capture an epic adventure under the greatest light show on earth.

Irish Surfer Easkey Britton Discovers Iran

Iran is a place where the stereotypical and the surprising, the ancient and the new co-exist. At every turn a complex, millennia-old Iranian culture, different to the culture of its Arabian neighbours for which it is often mistaken.

 It is a land of contradictions and a land not known for its surf-exposed coastline. In fact it wasn’t until I got asked to go on the trip that I even realised that Iran had a coast exposed to any swell at all. A very short strip of coast lies in a narrow swell window between Pakistan and the Gulf of Oman, exposed for a few months of the year during Indian monsoon season. This is a part of Iran that doesn’t feature highly in any travel guides, let alone the surf mags. It was a guaranteed adventure in a little understood country. However, the possibility of finding waves there was in fact quite good. Olivier Servaire did a trip there a few years before and scored it pretty good. Although there were no women on that trip and no obstacle of having to surf with your entire body and head covered in a 30-40°C desert climate!

During the European summer when our swell is quite fickle or even flat for weeks the waves can be incredibly consistent in the Arabian Sea thanks to the Indian monsoon which causes gale force southwest winds to blow non-stop out in the ocean between May and late September. The area we were going to was very remote and much of the time we would be completely alone which might make it a little less challenging having to wear a hijab in the surf. It would be a challenge for any woman but would no doubt make the experience much more interesting. As Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood”. And I understood so little of this conflicted, misunderstood, former ancient empire and now Islamic Republic of Iran.

TEHRAN

My first day in Iran stripped me of all my assumptions.

The first surprise was the ease of my arrival. I pulled my headscarf tightly around my head, underwear buried at the bottom of my bag, no reading material or books with any depiction of the female body in any form, my passport photo with my uncovered, long blonde locks, my surfboard packed in a camo-print boardbag, a female without a male family companion or husband arriving into Iran, alone. I had imagined all my belongings searched, my tinted lip-balm confiscated. I had expected to cross the threshold into a different frontier.

All my fears were for nothing it seemed. I was waved through immigration with only a cursory glance at my passport, my baggage arrived on time and I walked out of the customs hall with nothing more than some curious glances at my surfboard and into the waiting courtesy bus from the hotel, along with a tourist from America. At the hotel I met my fellow companions, French film-maker Marion, and Ben, a body boarder from Cornwall. Missing from our group was our trip organizer and photographer Stuart Butler. It appeared he’d missed his flight and we would be left to our own devices in a land we knew little about. The adventure had begun.

I felt safe walking down the main streets of Tehran, even the famously dangerous and chaotic traffic of the capital seemed subdued by Ramadan. The one opportunity we had to travel before we lost our swell window happened to land during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting where Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Travellers are exempt from fasting but it does make finding restaurants open and willing to serve food challenging. To escape the heat we went for a walk in one of the many local parks where we met an old shoe-maker, Mohammed, who wanted to practice his fluent English and French with Marion and I. Unbelieving when we tried to explain what it was we hoped to do, find surf in Iran, he showed us a picture in a magazine of a woman surfing asking is that what we do? The surfing world had even filtered into the land-locked capital of the Islamic Republic!

We ate kababs and drank tea sitting on Persian carpets surrounded by young cosmopolitan Tehranis, women in glamorous headscarves perched on beehive hair-dos, wearing tight-fitting belted coats over skinny jeans (a dress code that stays just within the law), and families picnicking in the park after sundown with girls playing volleyball with their fathers and brothers. This place was full of surprise where nothing was quite what it seemed. It’s been a little over 30 years since the revolution, and post-revolution Iran is first and foremost, a theocracy, with Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed for life, overriding all other authorities. He is regarded by his supporters as being incapable of error, and only answerable to God. For the ordinary people of Iran, family life is supremely important and education (for girls and boys) is highly regarded. Ironically the level of attendance of girls at third-level education has rocketed post-revolution. Women are allowed to vote, drive, buy property, sit in parliament, and to work. In reality though, post-revolutionary Iran also saw women’s right decline in many positions; banned from the judiciary (too emotional) with the imposition of a strict dress code and being treated as second-class citizens under many of the fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law. But still Iranian women continue to assert their rights and chip away at the oppressive regime—wearing a defiant splash of red lipstick, making visionary movies, becoming experts at interpreting the law, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

CHABAHAR, GATEWAY TO IRAN'S SOUTHEASTERN COAST

The next day we took a two-hour flight to the south-eastern coastline, which borders Pakistan, to Iran’s largest ocean port and free-trade zone, Chabahar.

It’s a surprisingly big and developed town on the fringes of Iran in the middle of a desert landscape which is straight out of the Dune series, with a crumbling range of ‘Mars mountains’ and cliffs pock-marked with cave and pinnacles. I pointed in excitement at camel- crossing signs and a herd I saw cruising by the roadside but, as the coming days revealed, they’re the Iranian equivalent of sheep in New Zealand. There used to be camel caravans between all the cities with rest stops every 30 miles for the camels. Women of the house always rode on top of the camel in a special, decorated palanquin while the men had to walk or ride a donkey.

Arriving at Chabahar and we thought we might be camping out in the wilderness, but we pulled up to a three star hotel with sea views. The Iranian tour company were clearly keen to impress their first surf tourists. Arman, our guide, found a ‘Ramadan-free’ restaurant for the less devout as it made communicating with the women very challenging through a male interpreter. Abdullah said most women would not be allowed to speak directly and freely with another man they didn’t know and especially not without a chaperone.

THROUGH THE VEIL

The nature of the coast around southeast Iran means that the local winds are generally light but it catches a good part of the swell breaking primarily on powerful beach breaks with a few potential point-break set-ups.

The boss of the tour company showed us some photos from his recon missions along the coast before our arrival. He explained we had come a little too late, having missed the big swell season at the height of summer when he insists the waves get up to 15 feet. Now it was in the three-foot range and we were going to scour the coast. In the early morning we found a little beach outside Chabahar, not far past a military checkpoint. The wind stayed light and glassy until after 10am, the waves still broke close to shore and were difficult to catch—with very short rides and strong undercurrents—but I felt more comfortable in my custom hijab surfwear today without a crowd watching. I wore a long- sleeved black rashvest, with t-shirt over it. Black boardies with leggings underneath and a lycra hijab made by a Dutch company who design sportswear for Muslim women—I didn’t have to worry about sunburn!

We drove through a strange, alien-like desert wilderness; it was like crossing into Mordor. We found some promising set-ups further east of Chabahar, and further away from the swell shadow of Oman. Here there was a vast stretch of beach backed by sand dunes and the Mars Mountains where the waves seemed to peel along a sandbar. We drove to the most south-eastern point of Iran and stood looking across into Pakistan, with a huge fleet of pretty coloured wooden trawlers lining the harbour below. Fishing is the mainstay along this sparsely populated coastline. Marion stopped to take some footage when our guide and driver started shouting and waving wildly at us, I could see a tail of dust rise up out of the desert and a 4x4 pick-up approaching. We jumped back in the van and the truck passed by without stopping. Arman told us the area is rife with smugglers, you can never be too safe.

We stopped for a picnic in a barren ‘truck-stop’ in a desolate little village. Bob, our driver, and Arman cooked a Persian-style BBQ and we all took shelter from the searing heat under a tree to picnic. I still couldn’t get used to wearing a headscarf in the stifling heat. We sipped pomegranate Iranian beer (non-alcoholic of course) and tried Iran’s famous ‘doogh’ the most refreshing yogurt drink flavoured with mint and salt.

Back in Chabahar, after sundown, we decided to check out the local ‘bazaar’. I was expecting what you usually see in those action-movie chase scenes through middle-eastern markets but this was a western-style shopping mall dominated by cheap Chinese electrical goods and lingerie stores, followed by toy and shoe shops. Families came out in force once the sun was down and people were allowed to eat again. It was definitely more traditional here than the capital. People were still very friendly but there were more stares and a lot more women covered in chadors (full-length black coverings) and some even wearing burqas (full face coverings).

TOO BIG TO FISH... 

Only a few days had passed but already it felt like we’d been here much longer, absorbing so many new experiences every day.

 Our dawn patrol paid off and we scored the most fun surf of the trip at our now regular spot, a surprisingly good sandbar along an empty stretch of beach backed by those stunning Mars Mountains, with fun peaks and some head-high waves. Apart from fishermen passing by on their boats, waving, there was not a soul to be seen. I wondered if we were the first to surf this spot? Later in the afternoon we decided to explore west of Chabahar where there are a series of headlands that show potential for some point-break set-ups. In reality there wasn’t enough swell, but who knows when the Roaring Forties line up briefly in the middle of summer— when the fishermen say the sea is too big to go fish...

We continued to surf ‘our’ beach for the remaining couple of days. The swell stayed a consistent three-to-four feet with light winds, although it felt like the swell was dropping on the last day. During breakfast on the beach, in between surfs, we discussed religion with Arman, whose name means ‘hope’ in Farsi, and is typical of a lot of young, well-educated Iranians from the cities. He says he is not religious and doesn’t actively practice his faith. Unlike Bob, who was kneeling down in prayer facing towards Mecca before he stripped down to his leopard print boxers and decided to go for a dip in the heavy shore-break laughing until the under-tow caught him and pulled him out to sea. Ben paddled out and gave him a lift back to safety on his bodyboard. Despite the language barrier it was clear Bob had loved the experience and we could make a keen waterman out of him yet! Arman says it’s a problem when religion is used as a tool for oppression by those in power, especially to suppress women and blame them for the evils of the world. Despite Iran being a place that celebrates art, creativity and knowledge with a welcoming, warm-hearted people it is still a place where people suffer under an oppressive regime; Arman tells us that you can be sentenced to 75 lashes for being drunk, and be stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage (including rape in many cases). Yet the people are not victims. They are proud, resilient, and hopeful.

Surrounded by the emptiness of the beach and desert it was easy to feel tranquil but we were still out in ‘bandit country’, a place ignored by guidebooks and tourists, very near the Pakistani border where smuggling flourishes.

WATCHFUL EYE

On our way back to Chabahar after our last surf a camo-truck overtook us with a man in a white shirt and rifle slung across his lap and a stern look on his face, waving us to stop.

 They pulled over in front of us, Marion and I could hardly breathe. A military soldier stepped out with him, both fully armed. They came over and shook hands, smiling and chatting to our guide. I let out a big exhalation. It turned out they were our government ‘protection’ and had been keeping an eye on us to ensure our safety, and on our last day they wanted to meet us and say hello. Like I say, nothing is what it seems...

Iran is perhaps most famous amongst travellers for its ancient culture and the stunning art and architecture of its cities. So with the swell weakening and only a few days left we decided to travel inland and visit Shiraz, once the birthplace of the world-famous Shiraz wine. This was Arman’s hometown and he lamented the loss of Shiraz wine-making. He told us when a girl was born to a Shirazi family they made a special pot of wine that they kept until she was married and served it at her wedding.

Our hotel was in a maze of old, twisting alleyways, a traditional Persian-style house with an open courtyard and a cooling fountain in the centre. Shiraz is a city of captivating beauty and vibrant energy and quickly became one of my favourite places in the world. We visited the Citadel and an old bath house, one of Shiraz’s many famous walled gardens, and a maze-like bazaar with vaulted ceilings where I got lost and enjoyed the ancient art of haggling. In the evening we visited the resting place of legendary Sufi poet Hafez, a beautiful memorial to poetry and love called ‘Aramgah’, meaning place of rest, in the heart of Shiraz. Hafez’s poems speak of love, wine and the divine that captures the frailty of human endeavour, the fickle heart and transient nature of all earthly things. His poetry filled the air and there was a fairytale-like quality to the place in the soft evening glow. It was clearly a favourite social gathering place with the local after-work and school crew. I met rebellious tomboy Nasreen and her pretty young friends. A few days with them and I would have picked up Farsi in no time. Nasreen was kitted out in the local football team gear complete with football boots and had just finished practice. One of the girls had a crush on Arman and gave him a rose.

LOOKING BACK...

The next day, my last on all too short a visit, I walked up the same steps as Persian kings Darius and Xerxes and Alexander the Great, to the heart of the once greatest civilization and empire on earth.

A place where records reveal everyone was paid for their work, and there were such things as life insurance and maternity leave. Three kings, 12 palaces, an unfinished ‘gate’ from when Alexander came rampaging through, burning Persepolis to the ground. It’s incredible what still survives today; Giant, detailed sculptures of warriors, lions and bird-gods, 30 foot columns that supported the palace roofs... Full of meaning and symbolism, ancient ‘newspapers’ recording who did what in battle. Built on a huge platform of cut stone rising up out of the desert. All this in 583 BC, over 2500 years ago when the Celts were forging iron and expanding west and north into Ireland and the British Isles.

Before I came to Iran I knew so little. A lack of understanding which gave rise to fear and a perception of Iran through the lens of western media: politics, the oppressive regime, Islamic extremism, axis of evil, generally a violent land and no place for a blonde haired, blue-eyed surfer girl. But there’s two sides to every story isn’t there?

And nothing is quite what it seems. You don’t hear about the people, ordinary people like you and me, in the news. The humanity and heart of the Iranians, their passion and pride for the Persian way of life, descended from the once Greatest Empire on earth. It is a surprising multi-cultural society with a diverse mix of nomadic tribes, religions and nations living together. I came with my own preconceptions too. I thought being a woman here would be very difficult, especially a woman who wanted to surf. When I first arrived in Tehran I found a cosmopolitan vibe and a contemporary city, although since, I have heard there have been further crack-downs with shop owners being ordered to chop the boobs of their plastic mannequins as they are too revealing and a woman’s figure must remain shapeless. Talking with locals and families in the park, girls playing sport with the boys, there was real friendliness and openness towards us strangers, a tolerance for others and happiness that we were visiting their country. They are a social people who love the outdoors (skiing in the mountains, playing in the parks, swimming in the sea), young people smoking hookah and drinking tea or non-alcoholic beer. It is a place full of contrasts. Women rebel in their own way in their fight for equality such as human rights campaigner and lawyer Shirin Edabi and one of the founders of the ‘One Million Signatures’ campaign, who insists that enshrined within Islam are all human rights and all that is needed is more intelligent interpretation. Her hope for Iran’s future lies with women and their powerful social movement, and with young people, over 70% of Iran’s population are under 30.

It’s very unlikely Iran will become the surf destination of the Middle East, especially given the growing political hostilities. However, I wholeheartedly recommend you visit this fascinating land and beautiful people with an open mind and open heart and take in its treasures, while you can. And along the way you may even catch a fun wave or two...

PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN SURFGIRL

EASKEY BRITTON


@easkeysurf 


Easkey has surfing in her blood. She comes from Ireland's first surfing family and grew up in Rossnowlagh surfing. Her Mum and Dad taught her to surf when she was 4 years old and her life has revolved around surfing ever since. She got her first taste for travel when she went to Tahiti and became the first Irish person to surf the infamous hell-wave Teahupoo aged just 16 and hasn't looked back since! Ireland's 5 x National Champion she is leading the charge of the next generation of Ireland's surfers taking on the International surf scene. She has done surf-related humanitarian work in Cuba and East Africa, and is also a founding member of Wellcoast.org, a human wellbeing and coastal resilience network. 

NICARAGUA: Surfing for Change Travel Guide

The mission of Surfing for Change is to spread awareness that tourism, and surf travel, can bring dollars and along with it a lot of destruction to surf destinations in the developing world. Their vision is that there is a better way. Here, watch Nicaragua's Wave of Optimism (WOO) implementing a new model for surf tourism, and Courney Hull, social entrepreneur, building the world's first plastic-free hotel.

CONNECT WITH SURFING FOR CHANGE