A Discovery in the Caucasus.
Driving a V8 Discovery to within a mile of the Russian Border.
With the ever increasing restrictions on off-road driving in the U.K. and large chunks of North Africa strictly out of bounds as various factions settle their differences, perhaps it is time to look elsewhere to satisfy our desire to use Land Rovers for what they were designed to do. Eastern Block countries have opened their doors to tourists following the demise of the Soviet Union and many of these offer exceptional value combined with a refreshing acceptance of driving away from the tarmac. With this in mind I accepted an invitation to join a small organised tour of the former U.S.S.R. country of Georgia, just to the east of the Black Sea. With the promise of lots of trails through the Caucasus Mountains and a 4 litre V8 Discovery to drive, how could anyone refuse?
Getting to Georgia is not easy, involving two flights and writing off the best part a day each way, but once there the welcome is warm and generous. The capital, Tbilisi, offers all the facilities of most European Cities, from exciting bars to good hotels and even a McDonalds, though the local specialities are far tastier! Prices in the city are a little cheaper than the U.K., but once away from the city all items except fuel are much cheaper. Since Russia pulled out in 1990, the Georgian economy has made slow, but steady progress and once in the countryside most evidence of progress into the 21st Century evaporates.
Following introductions to our hosts from Medraft and fellow guests representing Holland, the USA, Israel, Romania and the U.K. we had a briefing from Ofir Shurkin, who was to lead the convoy and Anuka Jorbenadze, our Georgian guide. Four 4x4s were available; three Toyota 80 Series Land Cruisers riding high on good springs and fairly aggressive tyres and a Series 2 Discovery V8 Auto, drafted in by Medraft to satisfy Richard Streeton, representing our friends at Land Rover Monthly, and myself. The drive out of Tbilisi made us aware of two things. Firstly the 4 litre V8 is probably the sweetest engine Land Rover have ever produced, and secondly, the pot holed roads had taken their toll on the coil springs which were a good two inches lower than when they left Solihull and had very little ‘spring’ left in them. However, everything else worked well including the heated seats which were very welcome on our chilly start.
The adventure started in the Lower Caucasus to the southeast of the Capital as our small convoy left the main road and headed up through villages where evidence of derelict Soviet factories, now a blot on the landscape, mixed with farms and open fields. Ofir knew the route well - Medraft have been running these tours for four years and soon we turned off a minor road and onto a rutted track, normally used by tractors, or the local Lada Niva’s. The track made its way across a vast open plain of grass with dramatic views of the Low Caucasus spread out before us. There were very few other cars or people up there, as we approached our lunch stop in a hill top village.
Medraft organise their tours to introduce travellers to local culture and to this end have a standing arrangement with various households to bring guests for lunch. This is not to be confused with those coach trips on package holidays, offering all you can eat and drink in a mountain village for €20! This is the real thing, as we realised stepping over a sleeping dog to gain access to the kitchen on our first home visit. Before us were the props of a simple country life. A bed, a wood burning stove and a work surface. All home made from whatever was available. In the adjoining room a table, laden with food and eight chairs. Our host and her daughters produced fresh bread from the wood burning oven, salad and home made cheese, to be washed down with a home made white wine served straight from a plastic bottle. It was delicious and it would have been very easy to slip into the hammock that hung temptingly in the garden and pass the afternoon dozing in the sunshine.
No rest for us though, as our afternoon was to be spent climbing higher and tackling some more challenging tracks. Up through woods just coming into colour with Spring growth, mud beneath our tyres and ruts to bounce us around. The going was easy enough until we encountered a fallen tree right across the road. It was too big to drive across, so we all had to muck in and manhandle it out of the way. As the strongest of the team supported it, each car picked a route around the obstacle. Once clear it was dropped down again. We had hoped to get right across to the Azerbaijan border, but as we gained height, so the snow depth increased and a hand written sign confirmed the pass over the mountain was closed due to snow drifts and a danger of avalanches and land slides.
Back down in the valley we checked in at our hotel for the night and dined well on kebabs and chips. Their kebabs differ from ours in that the grilled lamb is wrapped up in a thin flat bread, not unlike a Mexican Tortilla wrap. Washed down with a fine Georgian red wine this made an excellent end to a days off road driving. An early start the next day saw us heading North towards the Russian border across the High Caucasus Mountains. The track was running with Spring melt water as the glaciers above us thawed in the sunshine. Streams made their own route across the track following the line of least resistance, offering many a water splash and some severe mud! Ofir in the lead Toyota announced on the radio that only the Toyotas should do the next section as it was too difficult for the Discovery on its road biased tyres.
Richard and I looked at each other in disbelief. The last thing you ever say to a Land Rover enthusiast is that they will not manage to negotiate an obstacle - especially when in direct competition with a Toyota! National honour was at stake and Richard kindly let me be the one to uphold it. All three Toyotas were at the top and, yes, it was very muddy, quite steep and with ruts where the aggressive tyres on the Cruisers were a great help. We had far less ground clearance, thanks to the worn out springs and road tyres, but we had two weapons they didn’t have. A V8 engine and traction control! Approaching too fast would have thrown the Disco about too much, so I chose to get some momentum, then use the torque of the engine at about 1000 - 1500 rpm. With a lot of clicking from the traction control and some nifty work on the throttle pedal we made it to the top and not another word was said by the Toyota boys!
Having conquered mud, ruts, snow, landslides and fallen trees we wondered what more Medraft had in store for us on our return south to Tbilisi. The weather had improved and we had warm sunshine and a clear blue sky for the last full day of the trip. Mountains became grassy plains and the track became a road. Villages had various stalls selling food and local produce from fresh meat to woolly sheepskin hats. It was all looking a bit too easy when we took a turn off the road and onto another track that led first across some grassy hills, then onto a steep track cut into some rocks. This was to be our rock crawling experience and required assessment on foot, before tackling it in any of the vehicles. Our Discovery was an Auto and therefore heavily reliant on brakes for descents like this. Even locked in first, low, it wanted to run away, but with the ABS working overtime it was possible to inch the big car down incredibly steep angles and listen, nervously, to bits of plastic bending and scraping the rocks under the car.
Back down in the valley we looked back up at where we had driven and all agreed it had been a great experience. We had enjoyed great hospitality from farmers high up in the hills, eaten with them and shared a few drinks. Our local guide, Anuka, had been able to translate our questions and we had learnt a lot about how people live in the mountains with none of the creature comforts we take for granted. The driving had been great fun and certainly challenging enough for even a pair of hardcore Landy Boys, such as us. Above all we had proved that a leggy old Discover V8 was more than a match for anything from the Far East!
Toby Savage travelled with Medraft who have been running 4x4 Self Drive tours of exciting places for 11 years in 13 destinations, as varied as Iceland in the North to Guatemala in the South. Their key interest is to promote nature, adventure and culture in each country and they know there is no better way to do this than from a 4x4. All tours are self drive in a variety of 4x4s. Most tours are from 8 to 10 days duration and will be run by a local guide. The cost of a 9 day self drive tour of Georgia, the Wild Caucasus and Svaneti heights works out at approximately £1175 per person, (2010 prices!) plus flights. For full details see the Medraft web site at: www.medraft.com, or call them on 02081500 687.