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.
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