As a kid, like many of us, I often had my imagination fired by the Greek myths – in particular the adventures of Jason and his ship the Argo. One myth in particular stuck in my head – the tale of the Golden Fleece. Jason and his Argonauts sailed to Colchis, a land of dragons, to the northeast of Greece, to seek the mysterious Fleece made from gold.
The myth has a basis in fact. Colchis is modern-day Georgia, the former Soviet republic now making its own way in the world, very successfully independent. The Golden Fleece stems from the ancient Colchis habit of panning for gold in the upland rivers of the Caucasus using sheeps’ fleeces, through which the river water flows, but the gold particles are trapped in the animal skin. When the fleece is hung up to dry, gleaming gold as it does so, the gold falls off and can be collected.
So when I had the chance to visit Georgia it was as one expecting a landscape and people worthy of Greek myth. I wasn’t disappointed.
I flew into Tbilisi airport and was met by the ebullient and enthusiastic Alex Zertsaloff, owner of two Range Rovers and stalwart of the Georgia Land Rover Club. Alex was kind enough to show me the length and breadth of his beautiful country, often in concert with the other guys from the club.
Kick off was a visit to the hills outside Tbilisi where I just caught the final day of the Georgia Rainforest Challenge. One of the leaders of the race was Beqa Zhgenti, here seen in his Discovery 2.
From the race we headed southwest from Tbilisi the next day, and up through the southern forests to Batati Lake
The trail led us into wild country and past several small hermitages where Orthodox monks live a life of peaceful contemplation. They greeted us with great friendliness, as did their huge dogs – Alex is on the left here;
Batati Lake is beautiful. We spent a while there
and ate well – local cheese, sausage and excellent Georgian wine, all of which were really good;
Alex has two Range Rovers – “Thor” and “the Grandfather”. – Nothing old and pensionable about the latter though –
After the days spent in the southern forests we changed tack and headed into the Caucasus – huge mountains to the north of Georgia that form the border with Russia. We changed cars too, and into Thor. This fine beast took us in leather-padded and walnut-veneered splendour up to Kazbegi Peak, third highest mountain in Georgia and the site of Gergeti monastery;
It’s a wild and stark landscape, and both Alex and I found ourselves, unprompted, humming the theme to the TV show “Game of Thrones” as the Range Rover growled through the mountainous landscape.
The final leg of the trip took in the steppe of Central Asia. Southeast Georgia is home to this otherworldy landscape – imagine the moors of Britain covered in waving cereal crops and you have a mental picture of the steppe. The soil is black and fertile and the small villages scattered in the area often farm some of the steppe as common land, but most of it is just wild, wide-open landscape, punctuated by military towns built by the Soviets and now semi-deserted.
We went as far as the border with Azerbaijan and were checked out by rifle-toting border guards, surprised to see us this far out and away from the beaten track
Georgia is a truly beautiful country – hugely varied in landscape and culture. I was able to scrape by with my rusty Russian, as English is not widely spoken outside the cities, but I found the locals uniformly friendly. I can’t wait to go back.
Thanks Alex and the lads from the club! Such an awesome country.