6am. The streets are empty. Into Georgina go backpacks, camera cases, clutter. Ale climbs on the roof and straps down the packing crates. One last check of the vehicle – yes, we’re ready for a 10-day excursion to northern Georgia. Time to hit the road.
It’ll be Ale and Vahagn’s first trip to Svaneti. They’re excited to visit one of the Caucasus’ famous hidden treasures. I was in Svaneti just a month ago, but I’m excited too: we’re going to witness the first blow falling on the route of the Transcaucasian Trail; the first piece of actual, physical construction by human hands on a route that will eventually – insha’allah – span the entire Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges.
It feels symbolic, moving the project out of the realm of abstractions and ideas and into that of solid, earthy reality – and also scary. Who knows what kind of Pandora’s box we’re about to open?
We drive north via Aparan. There’s a great bakery here. Amid clouds of flour, bakers are already pummelling dough in the huge open-plan kitchen, shaping it into a hundred different products, leaning so far into the tonirs – the stone-walled fire pits in which Armenian bread is baked – that it looks like they might never climb out.
Yezidi pasturelands pass by. North of Gyumri, the road winds up towards high-altitude meadows. Even in July, the hillsides are still painted green, and there is hope that a trail here won’t be the scorched, barren slog I’ve been afraid of. Though snowcapped peaks might be more dramatic, there is a different kind of beauty in this rolling plateau; a sparse, silent kind, such as that I’ve experienced before in deserts and steppes across the Middle East. Memories of Mongolia come drifting back. We switch drivers, and I bask in nostalgia.
It’s a day-and-a-half’s drive to Mestia. Entering Georgia, we trickle down through the forests of Borjomi to the country’s main east-west highway. In Kutaisi we buy SIM cards and eat Soviet-era ice cream in the city centre park, the sun dipping below the horizon. We check into a cheap hostel and await tomorrow’s early-morning pickup at the airport.
Ben has spent almost 24 hours in transit from Frome, Somerset, to Kutaisi International. Just like Frome, Svaneti is characterised by its fierce sense of independence. I toy with the idea of proposing Frome and Mestia become twin-towns before discovering that Mestia is already twinned with San Gimignano in Tuscany.
The thought fades as Ben emerges from the tiny airport. A cameraman and director by trade, Ben is also one of the few other people authorised to drive Georgina. Add to that his 4×4 driving and remote camp management experience and he’s just about the most qualified addition to the team I can think of.
It starts to rain as we head across the flatlands. I feel guilty for promising Ben delightful summer weather; so far it’s been indistinguishable from a crap day on the Fens. In Zugdidi, we discover that we have only enough change to share a single cup of coffee from a vending machine. So much for all that planning and preparation.
We trundle up Alpine-looking valleys for what seems like hours, gradually gaining altitude. The peaks are shrouded, rivers brown and churning, the road shiny. Georgina’s wipers are at full throttle. Drips of water begin to infiltrate the footwell. At least I know where to get a good lunch: Cafe Laila on Mestia’s main square. It’s already full of damp hikers reading shiny new copies of the newly-published Lonely Planet guidebook to Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. We dash across the road from Georgina; I order kubdari, khachapuri and a simple tomato and cucumber salad. The sound of Derek & The Dominoes drifts through the humid cafe.
Presently, Paul arrives and greets us all warmly, glasses steaming up. If I’m leading the charge on the north-south route of the Transcaucasian Trail, Paul – a former Peace Corps volunteer with a decade of experience in Georgia – is my east-west counterpart. The difference is that he scouted much of his route last year and is now piloting the first hands-on trailbuilding effort to bring the treadway up to the standard needed to support an increased flow of hikers. I’m hoping that our participation this week will help clarify how we might continue working on the north-south route next year.
Paul jumps in the Defender with us and we drive a little way out of town to where he’s rented a bunkhouse for the summer. This will be the TCT headquarters for the next few weeks. We meet Jonathan, a professional trailbuilder from the USA who looks the part with a cowboy hat and a massive beard, and Leah, an experienced trail crew leader who’ll be helping him run the project on the ground.
There’s lots to prepare for before the first international volunteers arrive tomorrow. Not wanting to get under people’s feet, we unload the vehicle, claim our patches of floor space upstairs, and set about making ourselves at home, while Ben collapses on the nearest available horizontal surface to finally get some sleep.
By the time I wake up, Ale is already deep in conversation with Jeff about digital maps and data models, so I take the opportunity to help scout out the work site and identify a potential campsite. Ben and I jump in the front; Paul, Jonathan and Leah in the back, and Georgina trundles back down the valley to where a badly-eroded dirt track branches off towards the snowy peaks in the north.
After 30 minutes of bumpy off-roading we come to the tiny hamlet of Gheshderi; a handful of families served by a road so remote that Google hasn’t seen fit to put it (or the village, for that matter) on the map. It’s lucky for us, in a way; if the region was comprehensively charted, Jeff and Ale would have precious little to do, and one of the main aims of our expedition – to bring the mapping of the region up to scratch – would be void.
Paul wants to spend at least a week working on the section of trail between Gheshderi and the next village west, Kichkhuldashi. We hike down to the dangerous river crossing that currently splits this section of the trail in half. Three wobbly logs span a raging whitewater torrent. We can barely hear each other speak above the crashing water. The locals say that they have to rebuild it every year – but if we could build a proper bridge here in its place, it would serve hikers and locals for years to come, and make the trail infinitely more accessible.
We tread carefully across the logs. On the other side of the river, the trail is saturated. The passage of cows and horses has churned large sections into mud. The same is true as we meander up the hillside towards the ruined village of Paledi.
Paul suspects that Paledi would make an ideal location for our remote basecamp. The cluster of half-collapsed stone buildings is completely overgrown with head-high nettles, but there’s a water source nearby, and plenty of spots among the walls and houses to set up tarp shelters and tents. If it was cleared out properly, it would be an ideal location for a work crew to be based – not to mention that camping for a week in a ruined village in the forest would be awesome.
The volunteers arrive late in the afternoon, driven by Austin, another former Peace Corps volunteer, who immediately regales us with the tale of how he survived an exploding hotel on the way to Tbilisi, before settling down in the kitchen to cook five kilograms of houmous for the week ahead and earning himself immediate ‘legend’ status in the process.
At the morning orientation meeting, after Paul’s introduction to the project, we get a glimpse of Jonathan and Leah’s professionalism. Their experience and expertise shines through as they run through the context of the work, the process by which it’ll be done, and all the safety concerns of working in a remote location far from help. In opposition to the devil-may-care attitude to life in the Caucasus, their Western approach puts safety front and centre – but this is carefully balanced with people enjoying the work and camp life being fun.
Meeting over, the volunteers sleep off their jetlag. Jeff, the TCT’s Georgia-based mapping guru, demonstrates how he’s using a drone to create high resolution aerial imagery of Mestia. It’s a clever system, involving pre-programmed flight paths, special software, and a great deal of trust that the drone is going to return home at the end of each ‘mission’. (So far, so good.)
He also wants to use the drone to create 3D models of landmarks along the route of the trail. I had no idea such a thing was possible. This innovative use of the drone makes me wonder how else we might put our own drone to work (beyond shooting videos of Georgina on epic mountain roads). Perhaps as a pre-scouting device to check for the existence of trails in remote locations…?
It’s an early start. There’s an air of quiet excitement over breakfast. We bundle into the 4x4s; people, tools, packs, food, camp supplies and equipment – everything we’ll need for a week in the wild. It’s been raining over the weekend and I’m concerned about the track up to Kichkhuldashi. Neither vehicle is set up for tackling mud.
Sure enough, half an hour up the track, we come to a badly rutted and washed-out switchback bend. Georgina almost makes it but slips sideways into a rut on the far end of the bend; the only way forward is backwards. We deflate the tyres to half their normal pressure while the rest of the group watches nervously; the Defender crawls forward easily through the mud and I park it a couple of vehicles’ length up the trail. Then I take the wheel of the second vehicle, tyres also deflated, and apply an appropriate amount of gas to power through the worst of the mud. Everyone jumps back in, and off we go again.
In Kichkhuldashi we meet a character whose reputation precedes him. Valeri, a larger-than-life Svan mountain man, asks us exactly where we want him to build the bridge, where else the trail needs clearing, and generally what else he can do to make us redundant. Then he invites us in for a few shots of homemade vodka, which we politely decline.
There seems little doubt that he’s capable of extraordinary feats – anyone who heads out alone on wooden skis to hunt bears is clearly a force to be reckoned with – but Paul takes the diplomatic approach of suggesting they talk more about it in a couple of days, leaving the group free to set up camp, make a plan, and begin the week’s work. Jonathan is already distributing tools among the volunteers, and the group edges towards the trailhead, eager to keep moving, as the journey here has already taken longer than expected.
Valeri and his family are the only remaining inhabitants of Kichkhuldashi, the rest long gone to find work in the cities. He speaks frankly of his desire to rehabilitate the village of his birth and make it a viable place for his children and grandchildren to make a living. This gets me thinking about whether a carefully-negotiated partnership might not allow Valeri to one day take ownership of this trail section as a ranger, guide and host. If the TCT will deliver hikers to this dying village, it seems that such an arrangement could benefit all involved, helping make the trail sustainable, and helping Valeri revitalise the community before it, like Paledi, becomes a cluster of fallen buildings, inhabited only by cows and passing backpackers who stop to make camp.
We tramp quietly through the forest, negotiating eroded trails, clambering down slippery rock steps, tip-toeing around mud baths. I suspect that Georgina is capable of making it at least half way to the camp, and volunteer to go back and get her, along with the remaining tools and packs. For one thing, it’ll bring electricity within a few minutes’ hike of the camp; important mainly for Ben, who has a limited supply of batteries and little idea of how much filming he’ll need to do.
Back at camp, I find that Ben has abandoned his job as filmmaker in order to help Jonathan and Leah build the camp. They’ve already created two large clearings for the tents and shelters using the gigantic Grim Reaper-style scythe that Valeri insisted we borrow. A tarp shelter big enough to house the entire group has also been built, and Paul and Jonathan are busy setting up hand-washing stations and water filters for drinking water.
I throw up my tent and join the group for a camp orientation meeting with Jonathan. We visit the newly-dug latrine, go over safety and hygiene in more detail, and get divided up into groups for the camp chores of cooking, water collection and washing up.
Paul takes on the job of cooking on the first night. His homemade pesto pasta receives rave reviews.
Post-breakfast, we gather round the tool cache. Spades, shovels, hoes, pick mattocks, jack-hammers, hand saws and lopping shears are handed out and we trudge off into the woods like true pioneers, packing wide-brimmed hats, safety goggles, water bottles, and houmous.
Paul has gone ahead and flagged the trail with strips of orange surveyors’ tape tied to branches and shrubs. The first task – ‘brushing’ – involves standardising the width of the trail by selecting branches and saplings to prune away or dig out. Jonathan demonstrates how to do it in such a way that our work is invisible to the untrained eye. The aim, he says, is to retain the primitive character of the trail while ensuring that it remains passable – and if future seasons of brushing can be made as low-maintenance as possible, so much the better.
It is impressive how much work can be done by a team of dedicated workers, for by lunchtime on Day 1, the whole trail between our camp and the clearing in which I’ve parked Georgina has been cleared – and walking back and forth, it is genuinely difficult to tell that we did so only this morning. Pleased with our work, we break for lunch. One of Austin’s giant houmous pots is cracked open; cheese, salami, smoked fish and bread are brought out, and we sit in the shade below the firs to munch.
Jonathan has chosen a section of ‘gullied-out’ trail to work on this afternoon. Years of erosion by foot traffic and water have carved deep trenches and washed away the topsoil. Our job, he explains, is two-fold: build steps to strengthen the tread and prevent further erosion, and divert water further up the trail so it can’t continue the erosion process.
Constructions like this should be in keeping with the character of the trail, says Jonathan. He’s a veteran with a decade of professional trailbuilding experience behind him, having left a good job with the Park Service at Zion National Park in the USA to work on this adventurous new project in the Caucasus. He’s already selected and cut a series of fir tree logs, each one four or five feet long, and demonstrates the step-building process. The logs, he says, will be rolled into shallow trenches we’ll dig with pick mattocks and spades, secured with rocks jammed into the gaps at each end, and backfilled on the uphill side with more crushed rock and soil.
A series of these buried logs laid out and built with care, continues Jonathan, will create a flight of erosion-resistant steps, where previously there was just an uncomfortably narrow gully between two steep-sided banks.
Demonstration over, he disappears up the trail with a couple of the volunteers. The rest of us look at each other, pick up our tools, and dutifully begin to dig.
And, in that moment, the Transcaucasian Trail moves out of the realm of abstractions and ideas and into that of solid, earthy reality.
Only another 3,000km to go…
Jonathan has a special job for the Transcaucasian Expedition team today. It involves a fallen tree he wants to cut up for more steps, a narrow track through the forest, and Georgina and her winch.
Winches are one of those things that seem to be fitted to overland vehicles just to look the part. To paraphrase Chris Scott writing in the Overlanders’ Handbook, you install it in the hope you’ll never have to use it, and if you do ever need it, there’s a 50% chance you’ll be facing in the wrong direction anyway.
We’d had the winch demonstrated at Eastnor back in April, and the hazards of improper use had been made very clear. Based on that, and given the ratings and capabilities of this particular model, we judge that the weight and drag of the tree will fall well within the winch’s limits, and will be far more controlled a procedure than attempting to tow it directly off its perch.
Georgina makes short work of descending the track, and under Jonathan’s guidance – who’s as safety-conscious as we are, if not more so – we rig up the log, discuss the plan, and clear the area. Then, tentatively, with Jonathan giving instructions by radio and Ben filming, we inch the tree into a position from which it can be safely dragged up the track and out of the forest, as the trusty Landy proves her usefulness once again.
Above the check-steps, Leah is leading a team of three to dig drainage channels that will divert the water that is currently flowing onto the trail. Further up still, plans are being made to install two water bars to push water off one of the muddiest sections of trail, as well as outsloping the treadway and digging an inside ditch – a combination of techniques designed to dry and harden the saturated ground, halt further trail degradation, and leave behind a path that will be safe and pleasant to follow – the very point of trailbuilding and rehabilitation, and increasingly important as the number of hikers grows.
I take the end of the measure and Leah spools out 12 feet of tape. We flag the end points of the tape, and then, using a length of string and a spirit level, we calculate the rise of the new section of steps – 36 inches in total. That divides nicely into four new steps at three-foot spacings, each with a 9-inch rise – representing, eventually, about 5 seconds of walking time between the tall firs that reach skywards on either side of the trail. Building these four steps will take me all morning.
I read off the tape measure and flag the position of the new steps. Leah disappears to set more work for the team. Donning safety goggles and work gloves, I heave a log down the trail, take an axe, and set about stripping its bark. The section of deadfall has been lying on saturated ground and the bark has begun to rot, so it tears off easily in sheets, red fibres twisting as I pull, exposing shiny yellow wood, insect larvae squirming, the smell of fir sap and damp leaves in the air, beams of sunlight beginning to poke through the canopy to scorch the ground.
I roll the log into position, perpendicular to the trail, ends balanced on either side of the steep bank, straddling the gully below. Then I take the end of a pick and score furrows in the earth, creating an outline for where the log should slot into the ground. Finally, I roll the log back, stand upright, spin the tool’s handle in my hands so that the mattock end is facing downwards, and swing.
The mattock cleaves deep in the earth; a clean cut, exposing layers of hummus, clay, and compacted subsoil shot through with brittle leaves of shale. The ground breaks before the tool, inert chunks of earth and rock suddenly restless and ready to fulfil the creative urges of homo sapiens. I have become a force of nature, acting now in order to avoid scars being rendered upon the earth by future footfalls. Absorbed in my work, it is barely any time before a deep channel has been carved in the banks of the gully and across its base. I wipe the sweat off my brow. The log rolls in with a hollow but pleasing thud. Position, level, and height are spot on.
I select some tablets of shale I’ve pulled out of the earth while excavating, wedging them into the narrow gaps between the cut ends of the log and the walls of the trench I’ve dug. Taking a heavy, short-handled hammer, I begin smashing the rock into the crevices. It crumbles and separates as I work, shards of rock flying in all directions. There’s little finesse to it; this is about securing and stabilising a step that will bear the impact of tens of thousands of footfalls for years to come. Hammering rock like this brings with it a weird satisfaction, and I’m not sure whether it comes from some primordial drive within me, cartoons of cavemen smashing boulders with stone hammers, or a mixture of the two.
As I repack the excavated earth around the ends of the log, refilling the carved-out section of bank and flattening out the trail section above the step, I realise that there’s something weirdly satisfying about this whole process. Building something with your bare hands, using only primitive tools and materials available in your immediate vicinity – there’s something in that which we can all identify with. It makes you feel, finally, that you are a useful force in the world, creating something tangible from the basic resources with which nature has blessed you.
But it goes beyond that. Because as I look up and down the trail at the flight of twelve steps that now exists where previously there was just a gully, and at the clear treadway beyond, previously overgrown by rhododendron and beech and fir, I realise that I have walked trails like this countless times in the past and not once paid heed to the work that has gone into building and maintaining them.
And it seems to follow that – if we do our job well – the hikers who end up using this trail will similarly fail to notice our work. This flight of check-steps, which have taken a crew of volunteers nearly a week to construct, will be passed in mere seconds. Nobody will notice that the trail is not flooded and saturated, because the drainage we’ve built is hidden. Our blood, sweat and tears will be invisible.
We came to this pristine forest from a world in which success depends on the judgement of others and technological advancement is the standard-bearer for the march of civilisation. These primitive, altruistic ambitions fly in the face of all of that. Why is it so rewarding? Has the mainstream got it wrong? Is selfless giving really the anathema to the emptiness we feel while following society’s accepted norms? Or is reality more complicated?
I take a minute to rest, sitting in the shade with my water bottle, munching on a handful of dried fruit. Sounds of excavation drift from up the trail; voices, hammer blows, footfalls. Leah, Jonathan, Alessandro and Vahagn are bringing their drainage project to a conclusion. Ben trudges past with his camera, nodding towards me in silent acknowledgement. Strung out along the gully below me, Sophie, Megan and Paul work in silence, engrossed in installing their check-steps. I breathe deeply, convinced – at this point in space and time, at least – that all is well in the world.
Ben and I decide to move Georgina from Kichkhuldashi to Gheshderi. A stretch of trail that takes half-an-hour to walk takes almost two hours to circumvent by vehicle, necessitating a methodical return to the main road and a grind back up the next side valley. Georgina has never been happier, responding to the derelict track with trademark confidence. I find myself genuinely wondering what we’ll do when she’s gone, realising how familiar I’ve become with what she can do, each day seemingly bringing new opportunities to make the best use of her capabilities, whether it’s as a charging station, a hauling tool, transport for people and gear across treacherous terrain, or simply as a water station for those working at the top end of the trail.
There’s even been talk of rigging a high-line and using her winch to lift entire trees across the river, which still needs bridging, though Jonathan has chosen to spend the first week on more docile tasks while he mulls over the best way to construct a durable crossing for the river.
Car parked, Ben and I walk down to the raging torrent, cross carefully over the rickety log span, and head up to the camp, where the rest of the crew have already packed up and are preparing to leave. We grab our packs, tools and camera gear, and head back down to the river, leaving a cache of tools and camping gear hidden inside one of the derelict buildings for when the rest of the crew return next week to continue their work.
Ben and Jonathan rig a rope across the river and use it to ferry the packs and crates across. I take one last opportunity to plunge my body into the icy snowmelt: after a week of hard labour, the shock of cold water acts as an ultimate reset button. The crew gingerly shuffle across the logs and march to the village where the vehicles are waiting, an atmosphere of jovial satisfaction at the work we’ve accomplished tinged with regret at having decamped from the ruined village that we all, for a short while, were able to call home. It’s the end of the first week of work, and a weekend off in Mestia is the reward.
I wake early to a houseful of slumbering bodies. I should be exhausted from the week’s labours, but in fact the opposite is true: this work has invigorated and revitalised my body and spirit. I wander out into the big, grassy garden of the bunkhouse with my laptop, take a seat on the bench under the apple tree, and begin to note down some thoughts and experiences from the week before they blur and fade.
Jeff is next to appear, followed by Ben. We talk about the film project and the various ways in which we could use the material we’ve been filming. Ben is keen to interview the key players in the project before parting ways this afternoon – his flight back to the UK leaves early tomorrow morning, and he’ll be spending the night in Kutaisi in order to catch it. Sensing that it would be best to get that job done before everyone else stirs, we jump in the Land Rover and make for a trail up the mountainside where we can film undisturbed.
And while Ben is digging deeper into why I’m committing years of my life to seeing the Transcaucasian Trail come to life, I unearth a thought that, though simple, I have not seen before. I am prone enough to introspection that this very fact takes me by surprise – but then it often does take time and patience to reveal the fundamental forces at work behind what people do; a skill every good documentary filmmaker has to learn.
What exactly is the point of it all?
I ramble on about wanting to promote the Caucasus as a destination for adventure tourism, improve access to the outdoors in the region, and combine my outdoor and storytelling skills on a project that will test me – plus all the other reasons that are quickly becoming part of an automatic script. Ben brushes off the platitudes, needling, probing.
“It’s just… something good, isn’t it? It’s something good, in and amongst all the bad news we get bombarded with the whole time.
“There’s got to be something worth working towards in this world. And I think this is a good example of it.”
Perhaps that’s why fifteen strangers from seven countries came to live and work together in a remote corner of the Caucasus this week…
Does this sound like your kind of summer?
If so, you may be interested to know that there will be more volunteer trailbuilding camps happening next year in both Georgia and Armenia – and we’re keen to hear from you now if you’re interested in helping out!
The best way to get notified about these opportunities and learn how to apply for a volunteering placement is to sign up for the free TCT newsletter. Click here to subscribe – you’ll then get updated by email about opportunities to get involved in the evolution of the Transcaucasian Trail.