Hoots from the Archive - Journey of a Lifetime: The Iran Expedition, 1968

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 16 Jun 2022

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 08 Feb 2023

Iran Expedition

In 1968, a group of MGS boys and staff embarked upon a trip to Iran, travelling over four thousand miles across Europe and the Middle East via Berlin and Moscow. This was the first of three ground-breaking expeditions to Iran in the 1960s and 70s. Pat Spicer (OM 1963 - 69) has kindly donated an incredible collection of material relating to the expedition, as well as digitising it so that it could be shared on MGS Life. Many thanks to Pat for the work he has put in. Click these links to view the material:






Click on the below link for a step by step slideshow of the full story of the expedition:

The Expedition Story.pptx

A report of the expedition was published in Ulula. It was based upon a series of articles written for the Manchester Evening News by Martin Child:

As we ambled across the Northern European Plain, an almost endless procession of Customs officials kept John Abbott occupied, while the rest of us gazed at the monotonous landscape, summoned up the courage to take 'forbidden' photographs, and tried to discover whether our couchettes were 'bugged' or not. and whether our two Russian 'attendants' could speak English. Moscow, however, proved fascinating. Philip Boden, who had been there in 1959, told us that conditions had improved greatly. Nevertheless, wherever we went, we were approached by people who offered us large sums of money for clothing 25 roubles (approximately £12) for some jeans, and 50 for a pair of shoes. We refused to be tempted!

Our trip from Moscow to Baku took 40 hours on a somnambulant train which was obviously affected as much as we were by the heat. However, once we were installed upon the small Russian boat bound for Bandhar Pahlevi on the Iranian coast, the journey assumed the character of a luxury cruise. Built in Bulgaria and accommodating 60 passengers (with, surprisingly, three classes), the boat had a television lounge, showers on and below decks, air conditioning, and a cool, canvas-shaded space where we sat watching the Caspian sunset and singing songs. For breakfast the next morning, the main dish was caviar -and there was so much of it that, amazing as it may seem, we were not able to eat it all. By coach across the Elburz Mountains it took ten hours to reach Tehran, the capital city of Iran. With a population of over two million, it is a largely Westernised city surrounded by mountains and desert. Red double-decker buses, skyscrapers, dual carriageways and neon lights made us feel quite at home; blue-domed mosques, richly decorated palaces, veiled women, and the hot, enervating climate reminded us that we were more than halfway to China. The Oil Consortium, who were chiefly responsible for our being in Iran, entertained us regally. Apart from visiting the Shah's palace and seeing the Crown Jewels (a magnificent display), we enjoyed several hours at a swimming pool, and in the evening we were treated to a fine meal, which was also attended by an Iranian Cabinet Minister and several members of the British Embassy staff.

The next morning we were heading out into the Great Salt Desert in our coach, bound for Isfahan. After a night in a pleasant little hotel, we had a short coach tour of the city. The guide books tell us that the visitor who spends less than two days in Isfahan will miss some of the essential sights; we could spare only one and a half hours. All too soon we were on the road again, our destination this time being Shiraz, 250 miles away across the desert. Towards evening the awesome ruins of ancient Persepolis materialised out of the haze and for an hour we strolled among the columns, tombs and remarkable carvings of the
town which once echoed the commands of Darius and Xerxes and which now lie open to the desert, populated only by snakes and lizards.

The final day of the journey from Shiraz to Sisakht really merits a full report in itself. With its parks, gardens, and shrines Shiraz is known as the city of roses and nightingales, although such a description hardly does justice to the children and cockroaches that throng the hotels, nor to the extensive barracks that bear testimony to the recent tribal troubles in the surrounding countryside. We set out early in the morning in the lorry and Land Rovers at a breakneck speed over the rough dusty track through the mountains. Our drivers would consider an Alpine rally child's play compared to this route. The narrow track twisted and curved, clinging precariously to the hillsides (some corners took five or six attempts to negotiate, with horrifying drops waiting hungrily for any navigational error), or meandered across flat plains of maize and paddy fields, jolting the vehicles and their occupants agonisingly at each of the many unbridged irrigation channels.

The beauty of the site itself was sufficient compensation for all the rigours of the journey: a wall of snow-capped peaks to the north, 7,000ft. above us on our small 7,000ft.-high plateau; and the lights of the village peeping coyly at us from the more gentle, tree-covered slopes to the west. Between us and the village was a gorge through which a river clambered over rocks with a sense of urgency that seemed utterly foreign to these parts. The camp is in the middle of a parched, stony, semi-ploughed 'field', populated only by various species of thistle - all equally prickly some very straggly grass, and hundreds of crickets with dyspepsia. Consequently, at the slightest hint of a breeze, generally in the evening, the dust rises as if in protest against the intruders, and covers everything. Sleeping bags appear singularly susceptible to it, and on the volleyball court, painstakingly cleared of stones, there is a distinct advantage in playing upwind. The tents for sleeping are furnished with two camp beds, a table and a washstand apiece. Ten tents are taken up by our party; the remainder are used for stores, kitchen, and sleeping quarters for the camp staff. We are fortunate in having a staff of 12 Iranians, provided by the Oil Consortium.

Bearing in mind the importance of the work, and the necessity for absolute accuracy in all that we undertake, we decided to spend the first few days in a 'trial' survey of the area around the camp, which is separated from Sisakht proper by a narrow range of hills and a deep gorge. The tree and scree-covered slopes of the hills rise sharply from the plateau, reaching an angle of 60 degrees in places. This makes life difficult for the geographer lugging around a theodolite (most surveying instruments are specifically designed to be as cumbersome as possible) or measuring a base line with a chain. Nevertheless, despite these 'hazards', the trial survey was successfully completed.

Field work starts at 6-30 and continues until about midday, by which time it has become too hot for much physical exertion. After lunch at 12-30, everyone has a two-hour siesta. There is then time for further field work, plotting or writing up before the evening meal at 6-30. By 7-30 the sun has set; this is generally the cue for a singsong in the Mess tent for an hour or so. Most of us are ready for bed soon after nine o'clock; the prospect of getting up at five the next morning deters even the most hardened late-nighters!


. . . being an on-the-spot report of a typical day. The store tent is ransacked for equipment—compasses.
theodolites, hammers, tape measures, abney levels, surveying poles and anything else that may be required. The three vehicles are prepared for action, the drivers have their instructions for the day confirmed and, as soon as everyone is ready, they move off. At seven o'clock the camp is almost deserted. Now that comparative silence has been restored to the mess tent, the cartographers—Simon Hoyle, David Wolfson and John Hallatt—can star! their mapping. Plenty of patience is required lor this painstaking job. Each day, more information (generally in the form of compass traverses or transects) is being supplied by the other groups, and it is the cartographers' task to plot all the details on the base map which they drew up in the early part of the expedition.

The geologists, Patrick Spicer and Alan Jones (the latter also being our meteorologist) begin a long and
exhausting climb up the lower slopes of the 14,000ft. Kuh-i-Dinar. Reaching at last a suitable spot, they pause for breath and to admire the view (which alone almost justifies the stiff climbl before starting the descent. They work downwards in a straight line, making notes of the different types of rock.

Phil Hall, the botanist's work is equally divided between the scree slopes to the north and east of the
Sisakht Basin, and the oak-covered foothills to the south and west, for which the three are bound today. The boundaries of the natural vegetation are hard to define, as it is uniform throughout: soon Phil will be starting on a floristic study of smaller zones within the broad vegetation regions, which may provide more variety. The pedologisits, David Brunt and Alan Howard, are planning a two-mile soil transect, stopping at quite frequent intervals to take soil samples and to do some abney levelling (calculating the angles of slopes) for the cartographers. Nearly everywhere there is a very stony, slightly acidic intra-zonal soil which, when properly irrigated, is suitable for growing many crops.

Graham Croft and David Griffiths have begun a survey of S'sakht's shops. This is not an easy undertaking.
because most of the buildings look very similar on the outside, and merchandise is not generally on display. However, after a diligent search Graham and David manage to collect some interesting information. The village, with a permanent population of just under two thousand, possesses twenty shops. Fourteen of these are general stores, selling a large range of consumer goods, such as clothing, chewing gum. hair dyes, aspirins, tilley lamps, toothpaste and biros. Most of these goods come from the town of Shahrezah. over the mountains, which the shopkeepers visit three or four times a year, travelling on donkeys over a 10,00()ft. pass. The inhabitants of the area round Sisakht are drawn mainly from two tribes, the Bakhtiari and the Qashqai, who for centuries have led a semi-nomadic existence in the Zagros Mountains region. Today there are many permanent settlements—such as Sisakht itself- but for large numbers of people the most attractive way of life is still that of the nomad. They live in tents or shelters, move from pasture to pasture with their flocks, but spend some months of the year in 'seasonal' villages, either wintering or harvesting their crops. Philip Boden and Steven Hurst are engaged upon a land use survey in Beyari, a small village just across the gorge from our camp site. Using plane tables, they are carefully mapping the crops in the fields surrounding the village. The complex irrigation pattern which enables the crops to be grown has already been plotted; emanating from a single source well above the village, the water is cleverly diverted through an intricate system of channels, so that each field has its own water supply. As a result, there is an astonishing variety of crops.

An air of peace and quietude normally characterises the village of Kuhkhodan, two miles north-east of our camp. But the other day that image was rudely shattered. Pinned against the wall of one of the houses, pale-faced, quivering like a bowstring, Peter Smith is holding off an audience of all the dogs of the neighbourhood. Nearby, helpless with laughter, stands John Morris. These two, the final representatives of the ubiquitous economists, are in fact engaged upon a road traverse, and are timing the distance between two villages. The villagers are getting their money's worth today. Apart from being entertained by Peter and John, they have seen Mike Newton and Jack Steel pacing around the valley, pausing every now and then to squint through a prismatic compass, or to wave an arm indeterminately at a bare rock face or a scree slope, and hurriedly scribble something down in a notebook. Most of the time their faces wear the inscrutable mask of the geomorphologist at work ; but, judging by (the number of local children who can say "tattybye" or "jam butty", it would appear that a certain missionary zeal for the teaching of English also plays an important part in their work . . 

. . . Two red and white poles have been stuck in either bank, with a tape stretched across the stream
between them. Standing by one of the poles is a large man (John Abbott) holding three watches. At regular intervals he intones some Sitrange numerical chanting, whereupon one of his assistants upstream (Paul Smith) throws a stick into the water and blows a whistle. The stick is whisked downstream, past the poles, to where another assistant (Chris Whitaker) is standing up to his knees in midstream. He pounces, floundering, upon the poor stick, emerges with it triumphant, and immediately blows another whistle. The same procedure is repeated many times. The locals are convinced that their stream will bear many fish in the near future—or will dry up completely. The geomorphologists are pleased with their study of the stream's volume and rate of flow. They have completed four similar ceremonies by midday. Mad dogs—and Englishmen.


The three-day tour of the oilfields at Gach Saran, Agha-Jari, and Masjid-i-Sulaiman was the first stage on the homeward journey. It was from Abadan that the 12-day journey back to England really got under way. The first stage was an overnight coach drive to Tehran, more than 600 miles away, which took 22 hours. We arrived about midday, stiff and weary. Four hours later, refreshed after a bath and a short rest, and looking as immaculate as we could in our white suits, we were alighting from our coach in the grounds of
the British Embassy summer residence—where we had been invited to tea. The Ambassador, Sir Denis Wright, greeted us and led us to a magnificent Bakhtiari tent erected on the lawn.

Forty hours later, as we sped across the Iranian desert in another coach, this time bound for Istanbul, the distance to England had assumed more formidable proportions. Istanbul itself was three full days' driving away. Our more immediate target was Tabriz, near the Turkish border, Iran's third largest town. Our arrival at about ten o'clock at night set the pattern for the next few days—we managed to get to bed just before midnight, but were due to be woken at 4-45 the following morning, to ensure that we were away in good time for the next stage to Erzurum. By ten o'clock the following morning we had reached the Turkish
border. Five hours later we were still there. Anyone who had expected the passage through the Customs to be a mere formality had quickly been disillusioned.

It was while we were waiting at the Turkish Customs that earthquakes overtook the eastern part of Iran. The following day we heard vague reports about the terrible events we had been fortunate enough to miss. We had a night's stop at Kayseri (Caesarea of the Bible). We went through Ankara, the glossy and rather characterless capital city, and then found ourselves in the Turkish 'Lake District', a really beautiful region which was to suffer from an earthquake a few hours later. Luck was on our side. We were soon hurrying along the shores of the Sea of Marmara. Suddenly there were the lights of Istanbul dancing in the busy waters of the Bosporus. Our 2,400 miles in the coach were over. Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium— more than one alias suggests a decidedly disreputable past. The great joy of Istanbul is that the disguise is still fairly thin! We could hardly have chosen a more exciting city for a short break in our journey. 

The Tauern-Orient express took us on to Cologne, and though we left five of the party behind there, we met again in Ostend and sailed overnight to Dover. Somehow it will seem surprising if a geographical field week-end in the Lake District ever satisfies us again!


Philip Baldrey

1 Like Posted 2 years ago

Very interesting. I was a member of the 1972 Iran expedition. Not quite as dramatic (no earthquakes!) but equally rewarding And life changing - definitely sparked a desire for travel and ex pat living. I wonder if anyone has a similar report and associated photographs for that expedition?

Rachel Kneale

1 Like Posted 2 years ago

Thanks Philip. I've looked on the archive catalogue - we do have a report from the 1972 expedition. I will try to upload it to MGS Life.

Many thanks,


David Flacks

1 Like Posted 2 years ago

Likewise - I was on the '72 expedition.  How are you Phil - and others?  Maybe some photos could be uploaded of that trip?  I will try and dig some out. 

Peter Abbott

1 Like Posted one year ago

Rachel: my name is Peter Abbott, the eldest son of John Abbott who led this and several other expeditions whilst he was at MGS in the late 1960s/early 70s. Dad died in September, sadly, and it was in the process of researching a obituary for the MGS School Magazine that I came across this wonderful collection of photos and diary entries.  Some of these I'd seen before, of course, but others were new: thank you for putting them all in one place!  Martin Child, whose report you publish above, was my godfather - he also died earlier this year, very sadly.  Anyway, it's lovely to see all of this so wonderfully curated. If you'd like to get in touch, you can drop me an e-mail at peter.abbott@fcdo.gov.uk. 

Rachel Kneale

0 Likes Posted one year ago

Thank you Peter. I'm sorry to hear news of your father, but I'm glad you have found the archive material of interest. I can't claim much credit - Pat Spicer has done a brilliant job of collating and organising the material and then digitising it. I simply was able to provide the platform. 

Peter Abbott

0 Likes Posted one year ago

PS. Philip Boden, who also joined these expeditions and, along with Martin, was my other godfather, is however still alive and very much around. I will let him know about this wonderful resource!  

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