I’m exhausted. Drained. Overwhelmed. If I knew in April what I know today, this expedition would have looked very different!
This is, of course, exactly what I signed up for. I believe my supporters at the RGS and Land Rover knew it better than I did when they sent me off in one of the last Defenders ever made for a seven-month exploration of the Caucasus Mountains. Trust me when I say that the tagline of this Bursary – ‘above & beyond’ – is no platitude: winning the grant has absolutely fulfilled its stated purpose of pushing me and my team a long way beyond what we could honestly say we were expecting.
It wasn’t about driving off-road: I absorbed that new skillset readily.
Nor was it about scouting trails in remote places. Living wild, navigating by intuition, putting myself in the shoes of other adventure travellers – these are skills I’ve been honing for years.
It wasn’t even about communicating our discoveries. After ten years of doing so, this comes naturally too.
No. The greatest challenge has been attending to and guiding a process that runs quietly in the background of everything we do: the gradual opening up of the project for the participation of any and all who will hold a stake in its future.
As we’ve covered the region with our tracks, meeting and talking to and working with local villagers, and at the same time meeting with individuals and organisations at every strata of society, right up to government ministers, what started as a handful of new contacts has swelled to a crowd, each member having their own perspectives, motivations, concerns, and understandings of the TCT vision and of where they fit into it.
What we have done, consciously or otherwise, is to initiate an entirely new cultural movement.
I am not a natural leader. By this, I mean that leading feels unnatural. I dislike being the centre of attention. I don’t plaster my social media channels with selfies. I like to be quiet but inclusive, working towards a common cause with a small team of good people who know their stuff and get the job done well. Either that, or working alone. Anything that requires charisma or diplomacy to convince people of something is a situation I’d rather avoid. But there is an increasing demand for such a figure to lead the TCT movement, at least in the territory of Armenia. We need to find someone to take that role, and fast. Because doing it myself, simply because it needs doing, is taking way more than I can give.
On the other hand, a movement needs a vision to move towards. That, I can provide. And while I dislike the idea of being considered a ‘visionary’, I recognise the need for a vision to exist, and it seems that it is my head it has popped into. While the task of working towards it has at times seemed monumental and bewildering, causing me to question whether I truly want to continue, I am going to stick around and see it through in a ‘behind the scenes’ role (hopefully involving more exploring and fewer high-level meetings).
Because our work is only just beginning.
We have, this year, identified approximately 75% of a viable trekking route from Batumi, Georgia, to the southern border of Iran, and I’ve personally scouted most of it. We’ve also identified dozens of 4×4-accessible dirt tracks from main roads to the trail corridor, which will be critical when it comes to working on trail infrastructure, as well as for search and rescue services in the future. Side trails linking the main route with sites of cultural, historical or natural significance are also mapped out. And multi-day alternative routes, for when the seasons or weather make high-altitude treks unviable, are braided in and out of the route.
All of this has been mapped in detail, along with the locations of water sources, temporary settlements and other infrastructure, and most importantly the contacts we have gathered on the way. And the relevant data has been added to OpenStreetMap’s database for everyone to use. This is, by all measures, a pretty good outcome for a summer of work.
Large parts of the route have also been assessed in detail for the work needed to bring the treadway – the physical surface upon which one treads – up to the standard needed to support a growing number of hikers, allowing them to pass safely and in relative ease while protecting the often fragile mountain environment from degradation. And it is this component of the project that has grown from a minor concern into the biggest job of all, at least in terms of the number of pairs of hands needed to get the job done. Because much of the treadway is in an utterly horrendous condition.
I have to admit that I was, until recently, naive to the reality of what actual ‘trailbuilding’ involves. I hadn’t considered that it was an expert profession; that an entire culture and industry of trailbuilding existed in the West to serve the needs of recreational hikers who value enjoyable experiences over simply getting from one place to another. It’s obvious why: the amount of work that goes into a well-built treadway is largely invisible, as we discovered last summer.
For these reasons, none of us had considered that the Caucasus would have no such culture or industry or expertise whatsoever. If we’re serious about building and rehabilitating trails here – and if, ultimately, we want to create the kind of experience recreational hikers from the world over can identify with – we’ll have to bring that expertise in from abroad, initiating not just a new movement but a new industry to support it too.
In short, the job of creating the Transcaucasian Trail just got quite a lot bigger.
It also got a lot more fun.
This, my friends, is the point at which I would like to invite you to participate. For while the expedition may be finished for 2016, and I may be about to go into hiding for a few weeks’ R&R, a small team of people are working tirelessly to create 2017’s volunteer trailbuilding camp programme. Next year, as well as continuing with the Georgia-based trailbuilding camps, we plan to pilot the first major trailbuilding project in Armenia – and we want you to be involved.
It’ll be rustic, hands-on work; communal living; surrounded by nature. Starting small and promising only what we can realistically deliver, we will focus on a section of the route that has great potential to work as a self-contained trekking route network all of its own. There will be a basecamp in a nearby town, but on a day-to-day basis we’ll be out into the forests and mountains with our tools and packs, sleeping under the stars as we build something completely new.
By the end of next summer, if all goes to plan, we will – together – have built the infrastructure needed to launch the first self-guided multi-day trekking route in one of the most beautiful parts of Armenia.
If you’d like to be involved in making this happen, all you need to do right now is subscribe to the TCT volunteer mailing list. It’ll take 20 seconds (I’ve timed it), so do it now before you forget. When we’re ready to receive volunteer applications, we’ll drop you a line directly. This will be happening pretty soon, so please get on the list now if you’re even remotely considering a trip to the Caucasus next year.
And if you happen to be in London this Friday, do consider dropping by for the RGS Explore Friday Night Lecture – for which I have been given the daunting role of opening speaker – in which I’ll be talking all about the Transcaucasian Trail.
After that, I think I need a holiday!