GOR­GEOUS GE­OR­GIA

Asian Diver (English) - - Man & Sea - Text by Bog­dana Vashchenko Im­ages by Vik­tor Lya­gushkin

About as far off the beaten path as you can get, dis­cov­er­ing Ge­or­gia’s lit­tle-known rivers and canyons is not for the faint of heart!

WHEN VIK­TOR AND I I trav­elled to Ge­or­gia for a hol­i­day, we thought it would be ex­cit­ing to find some­where to dive. The Black Sea, which washes Ge­or­gia’s western shore, did not at­tract us; it is dull and life­less, the same as the wa­ters of the Rus­sian coast. We couldn’t find any­thing else on the In­ter­net, and so we de­cided we’d need to do some more dig­ging….

Via Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Ge­or­gia, we fi­nally track down Irakli Ju­lakidze, a pro­fes­sor at Ku­taisi Univer­sity; he is an avid trav­eller, and head of the youth trav­ellers’ club “Tet­nuldi”. We ask him about places to dive, and, at first, he just shrugs. But then he shows us a short video that has been taken by some mem­bers of his squad – young guys hav­ing fun splash­ing about in a moun­tain river in a beau­ti­ful canyon. The wa­ter looks calm… and quite deep!

The rocky canyon is carved into whim­si­cal pat­terns. Clear water­falls, fall­ing from steep cliffs cov­ered with ferns, hang­ing branches of ivy re­sem­bling fes­tive lights; ev­ery­thing is in­sanely beau­ti­ful.

Wa­ter is the world’s great­est sculp­tor, and here it is dis­play­ing the very best of its artistry. The rocky canyon is carved into whim­si­cal pat­terns, like some­thing from the pages of Tolkien, a place elves might dwell. Clear water­falls, fall­ing from steep cliffs cov­ered with ferns, hang­ing branches of ivy re­sem­bling fes­tive lights; ev­ery­thing is in­sanely beau­ti­ful. Vik­tor is im­me­di­ately in­spired to go and ex­plore, to dive and pho­to­graph this “undis­cov­ered” place…

“Be­ware! The wa­ter is so cold!” Irakli tells us, fright­en­ing us into our 5mm wet­suits. And we are off.

JUN­GLE WANDERINGS

For two hours, we walk along a riverbed of an­kle-deep wa­ter, as the sun rises ever higher. The heat is un­bear­able. Even the stones along the river can’t with­stand the on­slaught of the scorch­ing sun on one side and the cold moun­tain wa­ter on the other; pun­ished by these ex­tremes of tem­per­a­ture, they crum­ble into dust.

I am no longer able to play the lady and start sit­ting down in ev­ery pud­dle, us­ing my hel­met to pour wa­ter over my head to cool me down. Fi­nally, the canyon be­gins, the tem­per­a­ture drops, and we all perk up a lit­tle. But af­ter just one hour, Irakli in­forms us that the “dif­fi­cult part” is yet to come.

Telling us that the path ahead would be risky for our pho­to­graphic equip­ment, he in­vites us to by­pass that part of the route, and take a de­tour guided by an­other club mem­ber. We are to meet him on the other side.

So, we crawl into the jun­gle in the 45-de­gree heat, and wan­der there for six hours. The thorny creep­ers make it im­pos­si­ble to strip off our sti­fling wet­suits. From time to time our guide ap­proaches the edge of the canyon and piti­fully shouts down, “Irakli!” There is no an­swer.

This time, Vik­tor’s pho­to­graphic vi­sion is left un­re­alised.

DIVE SITE DIS­COV­ERED!

Af­ter a cou­ple of days, we get our­selves ready for an­other trip. This time I was to be the driver, pick­ing up the “ex­plor­ers” five kilo­me­tres down­stream from where the ex­pe­di­tion started. They are gone for a lot longer than I had ex­pected, and, when they fi­nally ap­pear, I am very wor­ried, “What took you so long?” Vic­tor shrugs, “It just hap­pened! My love, it seems we have found a site where we can dive!”

This time, there is no need for hours of wan­der­ing around in the heat, loaded with equip­ment – the en­try into the wa­ter is only 50 me­tres from the road. There are, how­ever, five-me­tre cliffs to tra­verse at the mouth of the canyon so we have to re­mem­ber our climb­ing skills.

At the bot­tom, we un­hook our cara­bin­ers and the flow of the moun­tain river gen­tly car­ries us for­ward, into the un­known. What would we find around the next cor­ner? The stone walls of the canyon maze bend to the left and right, widen­ing and deep­en­ing, open­ing out into a cir­cu­lar “room”, then nar­row­ing into a tight pas­sage­way.

We reach a small wa­ter­fall, and hug­ging the edge, we jump down into the pool be­low. A flock of sil­ver trout fry are at first frightened by our sud­den ap­pear­ance, but then at­tach them­selves to our sides and swim with us.

Sud­denly, the canyon wall parts, the river be­comes smaller and the flow faster, and be­hind the large stones the wa­ter is sprin­kled with large, sil­very fish. The river spews us out onto a bank, be­fore bend­ing around to gush to­wards the rocky rapids down­stream.

We lie on the peb­bles and laugh with hap­pi­ness, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing that amaz­ing feel­ing that a child feels when he first goes out bravely to ex­plore what lies be­yond the thresh­old of his house. Liv­ing in the 21st cen­tury, it is hard to cap­ture the thrill of dis­cov­ery, with so few undis­cov­ered places left in the world. But, un­der­wa­ter, there are many places still to ex­plore, and count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­cap­ture this heady feel­ing of dis­cov­ery and achieve­ment.

That evening, Irakli calls us, telling us that he has found a new canyon. Are we go­ing? “Of course, Irakli!” we an­swer, “With great plea­sure!” The Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia stretches be­tween the Black Sea and the Cau­ca­sus moun­tains. Once part of tsarist Russia, then one of the re­publics of the Soviet Union, it is now an in­de­pen­dent coun­try. The strange-sound­ing Georgian lan­guage does not be­long to the fam­ily of In­doEuro­pean lan­guages, which in­clude al­most all Euro­pean tongues.

This an­cient land has been im­mor­talised in myth – this is the place to which leg­endary Greek hero, Ja­son, fa­mously sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. The world’s ear­li­est arte­facts re­lat­ing to wine pro­duc­tion are also found in Ge­or­gia, where ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered pot­tery bear­ing traces of wine, grape seeds, and pieces of vine, dat­ing back eight thou­sand years. This his­toric tra­di­tion of wine-mak­ing is still alive and is recog­nised by UNESCO.

The Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia of­fers so much – a won­der­ful cli­mate, de­li­cious cui­sine and friendly peo­ple. It re­ally is a lit­tle par­adise on Earth.

LEFT Scal­ing water­falls to find a good dive spot ABOVE Ge­or­gia is a mag­i­cal land of forests, moun­tains, and hid­den canyons

LEFT

The wa­ter is cold and gin clear ABOVE

Hid­den pools har­bour sil­very fish

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