We met a motorbike tourer, Laura in Osh who told us about a scenic and challenging trek from Lentikhi to Mestia in the northern part of Georgia, through the Caucasus mountains. She mentioned they waited two months until the weather cleared so they could make it through and that it wasn’t to be missed.
After spending 6 days in a horrible Georgian hospital we were keen to get back on the road again. At first we were thinking it may be too risky going into such a remote area with my questionable health. However I was feeling pretty ok, all symptoms and signs of the infection were gone so we decided to press on.
Tbilisi looked like an interesting city but we felt like we had spent too long there and just wanted to get moving again. We headed to Gori the birthplace of Stalin and followed what we thought was the best route to Lentikhi. About 30km in we met with an army controlled checkpoint. They wouldn’t let us pass and spoke no English so we couldn’t understand why. We decided to backtrack and take a more major road towards Lentikhi, about 10km along that road we hit a heavily fortified and camouflaged road block so well camouflaged we almost drove right through it. Within 1 minute we were surrounded by about 15 heavily armed soldiers. Once again no English but insisted that we turned around. Well back to Gori it is. After consulting our pocket earth maps rather than the garmin we found that we were trying to enter South Ossetia a territory with disputed ownership between Russia and Georgia. Oops. By that stage it was time to setup camp, we pulled over just outside of Gori and found a campsite in a nice grove of Apple trees with a view of the sun setting over the Caucasus mountains.
It was time to push on and actually get to Lentikhi so we could begin our mountain passes. We pressed on to Kutasi where there was a choice between two roads that both went north to Lentikhi. They both looked windy as so we just chose what looked like the shorter one. Shortly after Kutasi the road deteriorated badly into basically just loose rocks with the occasional covering of asphalt. It was still about 100km and we noticed the roof cage was becoming increasingly noisy. After pulling over we realised that it had been slowly creeping forward on its mounts. Upon closer inspection some of the legs had hairline cracks through them. To say that this was disappointing was an understatement. After destroying an inferior Chinese one we forked out for what we thought would be the best ARB, Australian made. Well after only about 10 000km this was another one shot to pieces. We now had no idea what to do and how to continue. Particularly since Tim and Nic decided to slow down and wait for us at Lentikhi for the next pass.
We decided to find a campsite and go through our options. Luckily we were in a very picturesque valley with a river racing through so found ourselves a nice campsite in no time.
We decided to press on and try to take some weight off the roof cage by removing a few things and supporting it from below by inflating one of our inner tubes between the roof cage and the roof.
So we continued on the next day to meet Tim and Nic in Lentikhi. Every bump and pothole was making us more and more paranoid, we took it very slowly but it was a long slow journey over some pretty poor condition tracks. By the time we finally got to Lentikhi it was even more noisy. When we saw the guys we apologised for taking so long and explained why. Nic popped his head around the car and said ‘geez that’s bad’ we then realised that one of the 6 legs had completely cracked through and the only thing supporting the roof cage in that corner was the inner tube. The others weren’t far behind either.
Now being at the base of the Caucasus mountains on a Sunday in a small isolated town we left only to the means that we had at our disposal. We pretty much stripped the whole roof cage down taking virtually off everything that wasn’t bolted down. The guys took our spare tire for which we were very grateful. We then chucked what was left onto of our bed. Got the second inner tube and put that at the back then inflated it so we had two supporting it from underneath. Then ratchet strapped the cage down so that it was supported from the bottom and top. It was far from perfect but actually felt rock solid when rocked the car from side to side. We were felling really dirty at ARB for selling us what we believe is inferior. We were well within the load carrying capacity, Tim and Nic had much more weight on theirs and not the slightest problem.
So now for the test, a couple hundred km over what was to be some of the most rugged tracks we had experienced.
We pressed on and started our ascent into the Caucasus mountains. The track became really rough with very uneven, rutted out, muddy and boulder filled roads. It was as if the forest surrounding the track was constantly fighting to reclaim it. We were occasionally coming to a break in the foliage where we could catch a glimpse of sunlight and the snowy mountain passes ahead. After some trekking were only doing an average of less than 10kph. Thankfully the roof cage seemed secure and was actually much quieter.
It became especially dodgy when vehicles approached from the opposite direction as this made passing almost impossible in places. We met an old Russian truck we had to pass. The truck was barely visible underneath the stack of hay that it was carrying which almost doubled it’s width. The blokes got out and proceeded to guide us past, we couldn’t really see anything between the hay draped over the side of the truck and the overgrown trail, adding to that the trail it’s self was very soft on the sides. We only just made it through with the blokes guiding us on either side and giving their hail bail a serious hair cut. Apparently Tim and Nic and had even more difficulty passing with one wheel left dangling in the air.
It was starting to become darker much earlier and in terrain so rugged we dreaded the prospect of trying to find and setup camp in the dark. We decided to start looking for camp around 4:00. With the steepness of the valleys that surrounded us we were going to be hard pressed finding anything with level ground, Ushguli was the closest town which Tim had the aim of reaching. We weren’t going to make it there by sunset and driving in the dark on these trails was out of the question.
At this stage to golden, red and green autumn forests had ended and we were surrounded by alpine tundra and snow capped peaks looming above. We continued along the valley which was also the Russian border hoping to find something flat. After a while it was starting to seem futile as the track become steeper and slippery. A few parts needed several attempts to scale with some hair raising reversing in between.
As we came into the mouth of a new valley we spotted what looked to be like some sort of radio post on top of a mountain, it seemed like there was some flat ground in that area so we did our best to sus out the route to get up there. We found a track up to the tower which looked like it continued climbing the mountain. It was in soft grassy soil which proved challenging on the steep sections. After making it up to the tower we spotted one more hill climb up to a plateau overlooking the spectacular valley with 360 degree views of the towering Caucasus mountains. It was also surrounded by snow, which I got really excited by. Being an Aussie I’ve never driven in the snow before and only visited the snowfields a few times. It was very steep with deep muddy ruts and snow on both sides of the track, we decided to go for it. Jess stepped on the peddle and the troopy was off clawing for traction, we could feel the big lugs of our mud terrain tires doing their thing, tearing their way into the earth and propelling our 4 tonne abode up the mountain in a snake like, crab walking fashion. We were rewarded with what we thought was one of the best campsites on the trip snow, epic mountains and endless views. Tim was not so impressed though. They took a different line up the last climb and got stuck halfway. This being a very sketchy prospect with the inclination of the slope combined with how slippery it was, their lack of any hand brake and all terrain rather than mud terrain tires. With some careful manoeuvring and skilful driving they were with us once again. Tim’s nerves were a bit fried, understandably so, not the best way to end a long days difficult and tricky drive particularly with out the aid of power steering or an automatic transmission. We cooked up one of our favourite meals with the bacon bones we bought in Tblisi as the sun set over the mountains. I spotted one of the fortress towers of Ushguli miles down the valley just as the light of the day faded. It Was a night not to be forgotten.
As the day broke we woke to an icy cold morning. We also noticed lying in bed that the roof had two massive depressions in it from inner tubes. Not too worried that the troopy wouldn’t bounce back we decided to let a little pressure out just in case. The roof cage was still rock solid and had been much quieter since Lenthiki.
Feeling game and keen to do something I’ve always wanted to do we decided to press on climbing the mountain trail and into the thick snow only meters from our camp. We made our cautious charge into the snow and got a fair way up what we could make out of the track underneath. After stopping for a few photos and to muck around in the snow we decided to turn around and head on to Ushguli. It was literally all down hill from here as we happened to camp at the top of the highest pass, roughly 3200m above sea level.
We ended up camping only about 30 minutes from the ancient town of Ushguli. Located at 2400m in a strategic head of the Enguri gorge the settlement is surrounded by 12th century Svanetian fortresses. It’s an extremely isolated part of the world and just seems so strange that they still need to defend themselves to such a degree.
From Ushguli we continued on to Mestia which was still a few hours off. The trail improved as we approached Mestia. A few km before Mestia the rough track turned into a freshly laid asphalt road. Mestia has been recently developed into a ski resort, the Georgians are paving their way onto Ushguli to make it your typical tour bus destination. It will be changed forever from a timeless, hidden part of the world into just another part of the tourist trail. Although Mestia has been built up in the last few years it still was not with out its sense of charm, tucked away in the Caucasus mountains, littered with fortresses and Georgian orthodox churches.
We pressed on with Turkey in our sights. After descending from the mountains we spend one last night camping in Georgia before charging through Batumi, a modern city on the shores of the Black Sea, a complete contrast from Tblisi. The Georgian/Turkey border was to be our easiest yet. A quick flash of our printed eVisa and we were through.