The Ancient Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts tells of a band of heroes sailing eastwards from Greece to Colchis – a mountainous land filled with dragons, magical fire and fierce monsters, in a quest for a Golden Fleece – a sheep’s fleece coated in gold. The beautiful Republic of Georgia, on the eastern Black Sea coast, is the source of the legend – modern-day Colchis; the fleece covered in gold is a folk memory of the local habit of panning for gold with sheep skins suspended in a river, which catch particles of gold washed from upstream. These are then left to dry, glitteringly gold-caked, in the sun – but Georgia is still a mountainous land full of adventure and beauty – and fantastic, friendly people. I recently travelled through Georgia with the members of the Georgia Land Rover Club, and we took our trucks up volcanoes, through the steppe and the forests and across foaming rivers in the footsteps of the Argonauts.
The capital of Georgia is Tbilisi, built around 1500 years ago in a sheltered river valley. It’s there I meet Alex Zertsaloff, keen Range Rover owner and leading light of the Georgia Land Rover Club. Alex owns two Range Rovers – an L322 called ‘Thor’ and a Classic known as ‘Grandfather’. It’s straight into Thor when I arrive, and then off to the final day of the Rainforest Challenge Georgia – a tough off-road event taking place at various locations around the country. For over half the event the race had been led by Shalva and Zaza, hard-charging friends in their trayback Discovery 2 and dominating a field made up of a wide range of other vehicles – Ladas, Toyotas and Mitsubishis mainly. However, in a night stage after 12 hours straight driving, through the huge forests in the interior of the country, a miscalculation caused a tree root to rip out a brake line – and the Disco was out. The next Land Rover owner in the race was the hugely enthusiastic Beqa Zhenty – until Beka’s D2 ripped its final space tyre on a sharp rock hidden in deep mud. Out of 24 vehicles that started the race, only four finish, the laurels going to a custom buggy which had been held at bay by the two almost-standard Td5 Discoverys until bad luck pushed them into the pits.
Nothing daunted, Beka is back up and running the next day, for a trip in convoy to Batati Lake, a remote and beautiful forest lake in the Kareli region of southern Georgia. Alex leads the way in Grandfather, a rolling rebuild project whose 3.9 V8 sounds wonderful but has a huge thirst. Alex intends to replace it with a big diesel – maybe a Tdi. Beka arrives just as we leave, grinning from ear to ear in his muddy, lifted Discovery 2, one tyre gleaming and new, and in strange contrast to the rest of the tyres which are caked in grot. With us also is Vlad in an equally impressive Disco 2 and club stalwart Tazo, having just traded his Disco 2 in for a totally-standard Disco 3. The route takes us on tarmac initially to the town of Kareli, and then we swing south onto tracks that quickly deteriorate as we climb higher into the mountains. Mud and water cascade off the four rumbling Land Rovers as we thread our way into the ancient forests, travelling along a 2000 year-old trail that leads to a series of Russian Orthodox monasteries hidden away from the world in the beautiful Caucasus mountains.
After a long, rough trail we pull the trucks in at a monk’s small hut in the forest, and are greeted by his dogs, among which are two Caucasus sheepdogs – huge friendly creatures, with the fur and colouring of Alsatians and the build of enormous mastiffs. He’s a little speechless to be confronted by four growling Land Rovers but very welcoming, especially to the lone Brit in the group. I almost leave with a sheepdog puppy which the old man is keen to give me as a gift – but such a huge mountain dog with long fur back in my desert home would find life terribly uncomfortable, so I sadly have to decline.
The track continues as the day goes on, becoming more and more vertical, and tighter and tighter. We are flagged down at one stage by two local lads in their ex-Soviet Army UAZ-469 4×4 – they’d tried a river crossing, but got stuck in the thick black mud of the riverbed. Winching forwards had only succeeded in bogging their truck still further. Can we help? Of course we can. Beka’s businesslike Discovery hauls the UAZ out without breaking step. Then it’s up to set up camp at the lakeside – but on the way we have the only mishap of the trip – one of the road tyres on Tazo’s Disco 3 rips a sidewall on a rock. With the temperature fast approaching zero we coax the Disco to a flat area that’s fairly mud-free and change her boot.
Camp is a convivial affair, with fantastic food – and friendly visitations from more feral sheepdogs who discover we have a lot of smoked sausages to cook. Sleep comes fast after a busy day, and then with the morning it’s back through the wilds to Tbilisi and a change of cars. The rest of the guys have to go back to work, so Alex and I drop into Thor for a long drive north to the Russian border and the Kazbegi mountain range. The older, lighter 1990 Classic Range Rover, riding Goodrich MTs. is more capable off-road, but Thor, a 2002 L322 and powered by the solid 2.9 litre Td6, is still very much up for the rough stuff, besides being faster and smoother on tarmac.
Our route winds up along the Russian Military Road to the village of Stepantsmunda as afternoon wears on. The goal is the remote monastery of Gergeti high on the slopes of Mount Kazbegi, a dormant volcano and Georgia’s third highest mountain, looming above Stepantsmunda. The trouble is, the track up to Kazbegi is shut – being repaired after snow damage. Nothing daunted, Alex fires up the Range Rover and heads off to a goat track through the forest which also leads to the monastery. On road tyres (Toyo Proxes – which Alex swears by) and 20-inch alloys the Range Rover shows just how capable it is on wet, sloping grass, slick rocks and thick mud, and before long we pull onto the remains of the ‘official’ track that leads to the holy site. That’s a seriously impressive piece of machinery. If I’d had a gin and tonic in my hand it would be unspilled.
The monastery, built in the fifth century AD, is imposing and solid-looking amidst the craggy mountains – it looks like a scene from Game of Thrones. There can’t be many pilgrims who have travelled here in the leather-clad luxury of a Range Rover and Thor sits at the gate, looking smug, as Alex and I wander inside to pay our respects.
Time is ticking however and after the icons and splendour in this remote sanctuary we need to crack on – back to Tbilisi for the night and then south tomorrow. Alex starts humming the ‘Game of Thrones’ theme as we leave Gergeti and I burst out laughing – the scenery has clearly reminded us both! The Military Highway unwinds before Thor’s hungry tyres and we thunder back to the capital city, calling in at the house of Andrew, another of the Land Rover Club, a Discovery 4 owner who is sadly too busy with work to come with us. He does have a moonshine still in his cellar however – perfectly legal here in Georgia, and we feel it only polite to sample some of his excellent chacha – ferociously strong Georgia grape spirit.
Next morning dawns a little foggy, as I contemplate the final leg of the trip – a long drive through the Central Asian steppe to the fortified monastery of Davit-Gareji. This may seem like a tour of monasteries, but Georgia is rightly proud of these ancient buildings and the beautiful, remote locations which house them. We head east out of Tbilisi on the highway and then turn south and the landscape changes – into steppe. Alex’s Ukrainian girlfriend isn’t sure what the Russian word ‘steppe’ translates to in English – and we laugh when I say that we use the same word. The closest comparison I can think of is to imagine the undulating landscape of the moorland of Britain, but instead of bracken, peat bog and heather, cover it with thick, black fertile soil and endless seas of waving long grass. Indeed, many villagers do plough, sow and harvest patches of it – the landscape is vast – stretching from horizon to horizon with mile after mile of golden ripples as the stalks catch the wind. Georgians call it their ‘desert’ – for though it is extremely fertile and does receive rain, it is treeless, hugely open and wind-carved.
Davit-Gareji is hard against the border with Azerbaijan. All this was once Soviet Russia, and this area was controlled by the military, so the few actual roads that exist are heavily rutted, and damaged by tanks and heavy armour. However most of our route is on rough tracks through the grassland. In time we reach the small village of Udabno – Georgian for ‘The Desert’ – which was once a military town, closed to outsiders. There is a ruined ex-Soviet guard post at the tarmacked entrance, which Thor growls imperiously past. Once we leave Udabno it’s off the scrappy tarmac again and back offroad across the steppe. As we near the frontier a border guard armed with a Kalashnikov appears out of nowhere on a quad bike, and chases us down, flagging for us to stop. Who are we? Where are we going? I play the old-school Englishman abroad and walk up to him, shaking his hand and trying out my rusty Russian phrases. All is well – he’s just checking us out. Things aren’t made any less nerve-jangling when we misread the terrain and actually drive into a Georgian border post a few miles further on. Impressively-armed military in body armour sprout magically from the ground all around the Range Rover and we grin glassily, if rather weakly, wave a lot and back out slowly…
Davit-Gareji is a heavily fortified monastery, built back in the days when Turkish armies invaded Georgia with regular brutality. As my visit here draws to a close and we take in the huge vistas across the steppes of Central Asia from the monastery battlements before driving back to Tbilisi, I reflect on the last week or so in this beautiful, welcoming country. Jason and the Argonauts knew what they were doing when they sought adventure here – but more than that, I’ve made friends for life in this rugged, beautiful land – can’t wait to return