Khobiskskali river is not unknown among Georgian hikers. Trekkers heading to Tobavarchkhili lakes follow its bottom third before leaving it for higher mountains. And then, two days later, descend close to its source and follow it for several miles.
But the river has also a middle section, so inaccessible than humans never settled here. This is where headed Slovak ecologist Ondrej, tempted to explore its primeval forests and untouched nature. Alone. Ondrej attends Forest Ecology at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague as a postgrad student. This expedition was a part of a study of ancient European forests on which he currently participates.
Just to make it clear - this blogpost is not for inspiration. There are no trails and the terrain is extremely difficult. Still, I really liked Ondrej's photos and notes so I decided to translate it cos this is the first time I see this remote region on photos.
Khobistskali valley is approximately 50 kilometers long. Along with its bottom third runs a road - that´s where I got in 2014 with my friends. It wasn´t possible to go any further cos the road ended and the river entered the huge, impassable canyon. Back then, it irked me that we gave up and didn´t try harder. This year, I chose a different tactic - cross mountains from an adjacent valley and descend to the forest from the top. I spent the first night as a guest of Dyumber, Leri, and Neni. A beautiful evening full of good food, drinking and lively talk in Russian, which I don´t even speak :) Good warmup before coming days in the wilderness.
Dyumber's hut - pure beauty. Only a handful of tourists makes it to Kesleti valley each year.
Shepherd Dyumber with his universal machine. After returning from the mountains I spent a night at his home in Khaishi. Thank you for everything.
Beautiful autumn views during the walk in the Kesleti valley. Many times I wanted to just stop, stay there for at least two days and soak in nature. But I had no idea what was coming...
Landscapes above 2700m remind the surface of the moon. It´s partially caused by the altitude and partially by the volcanic origin of rocks. They crumble a lot - an ideal terrain for wandering without trail or a real map, with a backpack weighing 25 kilos :)
While walking up the Kesleti valley, I checked mountains on my right and looked for someplace to cross. The first attempt failed - I made it to the top of the ridge but it was not possible to descend to the other side. With these views, I was tempted to break a camp, but according to the weather forecast I checked in the morning, the weather was supposed to worsen. So I descended a bit lower into the valley.
So - the evening was nice, but I still decided to build tarp shelter (this high, there was a lack of wood so I had to use my photographic gear). It was a good decision because just as I finished it came strong wind, fell first raindrops and it started...
My tarp in the morning, I cleaned some snow so you can see it :) It rained heavily till 3 am but since I camped around 2800m, it eventually turned into a snowstorm with lightning and strong wind. It lasted the whole next day and the better part of the night, 36 hours nonstop. Saying that I felt uneasy wouldn´t adequately describe my feelings. Khobi doesn´t want to let me into its remote forests...
Shortly before dawn, snowstorm FINALLY stopped. I overcame myself to put on my wet clothes (I made a small scouting trip during the last day). Of course, in a few moments, they were "rock hard". This photo came into existence with almost frozen fingers and a strong compulsion to crawl back into my warmed up sleeping bag, the only pleasant place in a 15 km radius.
Second climb, this time into the correct saddle. The landscape around changed beyond recognition. At least I have my birch stick which I cut lower in the valley
With these views, I think all that misery was worth it.
Winter wonderland - in September. With circa half a meter of fresh snow.
Huge snow-covered mountains everywhere around, I haven´t seen anything like that before.
When I saw this, I decided to stay here till the next morning and reduced my food rations, so I have enough. I used butter instead of sunscreen, which I left home for capacity reasons. However, I haven´t found an alternative for sunglasses :)
Last rays of the sun. The night is coming and I feel, in spite of all that beauty, very lonely. All people are somewhere down and I am here, completely alone.
Descent into Khobistskali valley. If someone told me that it´s possible to get down here with a 25 kg backpack, I would laugh. But I managed.
From winter to the autumn, from 3100 to 2100 meters. Terrific colors!
Descending into the forest wasn't easy at all. Hillsides above the creek were passable only after a mild suppression of self-preservation instinct. I spent a night on the rocky ledge above the roaring "water slide". I placed a few rocks beneath my sleeping mat since I really didn't want to slide down in the middle of the night. The feeling of isolation is even stronger. Now I am completely alone. The last time I had signal was in the village beneath the mountains, even at the mountaintop, there wasn't any.
Morning scouting trip (which involved bathing in the freezing water up to the waist) proved my feeling that I won't be able to follow this creek lower into the valley.
The alternative - to climb a very steep slope, the way I descended the previous day and then traversing till I found a better way. I am getting worried. It doesn't happen to me often that I can't move around in the forest. Here, I have to consider each step, sometimes need almost a minute to gather courage.
The worst is finally over - beech/fir/spruce forest
Colors of autumn.
On steep hillsides grow mostly spruces, on less steep ones is the mixed forest. Just like at Poľana, only a bit larger...
Rocky ridges reminded me of the Kôprová valley.
Looking down on the forest.
To traverse hills in the background, one would probably need climbing gear.
One of the thickest firs I have ever seen. Even the bolt of lightning noticed that it sticks out more than its healthy.
After lots of troubles, I managed to descend by another creek to lower elevations. Khobi valley has altitude spread from 300 to 3100 meters. The lower I got, the more interesting it became. I often remembered Michal Wiedzik and his favorite term "riverwood". This kind of environment barely exists anymore in Slovakia.
Floodplain is ecologically the most productive part of the mountain ecosystem. In Slovakia, it´s almost destroyed and protected are only steep rocky hillsides that aren't economically interesting.
Heaps of deadwood everywhere. Also, numerous side streams which serve as natural flood prevention and water filter.
After chilly nights on the ridge, I truly enjoy these moments. It´s hard to describe what one feels in the middle of untouched nature. It´s getting back to roots, experiencing where we once were before we started evolving ... till today´s extreme. From a point of a view of a Christian, I feel it as a meeting with God, feeling his creation in its relative virginity and perfection (bisons, aurochs, beavers and leopards were sadly hunted to extinction even here). I feel that these moments carry some healing power for both mind and body, both exhausted by hectic and artificial civilization. But it is a demanding form of therapy, requiring lots of effort and personal investment.
Alders here grow really big, they were often half a meter thick. This was one of the larger ones.
Alder´s roots fortifying the river bank.
Wilderness river - a rare sight for a Central-European!
In the heart of the wilderness. I gave up on dry feet long ago and cross rivers in hiking boots. Who can change shoes every ten minutes? I am close to the confluence of two large rivers at the altitude of about 1300m. The river then turns into a narrow canyon and I have neither time nor food to explore further. While here, I haven´t seen any trail nor any sign of human presence. I will be happy if I somehow get out of here...
At lower elevations, the forest was "diversified" by rhododendrons. It was driving me desperate since, at those places, I couldn´t move faster than 5 meters in a minute.
At higher altitudes, rhododendrons finally weren´t as dense and weren´t four meters tall, but only one and a half :)
Primeval forest above the 2000m.
Raining again. I want to cross the ridge back to civilization but the weather doesn´t cooperate. If I drain the battery in my navigation (with a poor map, but better than nothing), I am done.
I am running out of food, I am on very low rations for the last few days. The Caucasus variety of blueberries slows my progress, but at the same time saves me from death by starvation :)
To get here in fog and rain, over endless traverses with stuck sphincters was an unforgettable experience. Wet and mentally exhausted, I saw a tourist marker after more than a week. The trail wasn´t well-trodden but compared to what I experienced until now, it felt like a highway. From 2700m to 1700 in two and a half hours.
When I saw a familiar hut in the middle of Khaishura valley, I knew I made it. Walking down from the saddle, I finished my last ten walnuts, hoping they won´t let me starve to death at the hut. They didn´t :) Also were happy to see some photos from 2014 - that´s when I met locals for the first time.
On the next day, I walked 18 more kilometers to Kvemo Vedi. This is a village with a sawmill by every other house and there is a woodcutter in each family - KAMAZ or ZYL stands in each yard. Fences in the village also reflect the direction of the local economy...
When one walks around the village, he can´t see where is the wood coming from.. I also couldn´t see it on satellite images. I showed to local loggers and people who make a living from woodcutting photos of catastrophic fellings in our protected areas. They just shook their heads. There isn´t anything like that. Just as well they don´t know the "hygiene of the undergrowth" - dried or fallen tree is also part of the forest and no one feels the urge to remove it. Large-scale calamities here are unknown. And such forests are not only in Egrisi mountains but also in the majority of Georgia, even most of the Caucasus. And not only in remote valleys, but also in places where people lived since antiquity. Yes, numerous forests were destroyed also here. But those which remained are Forests, not "forests".
The regeneration of damaged forests is natural. The understanding of the forest is simply much closer to what prefer ecologists and conservationists in Slovakia. Interesting, I had no problems with these loggers - some parts of the forest are sustainably utilized, others are not exploited, but mains attributes of forests are preserved everywhere. Forest is not transformed into a field. It is not affected by global warming and binds huge amounts of carbon. What´s that hard to understand about that?
The last gorge, with the civilization waiting beyond.
Thank you for everything, for help in hard situations and moments spent together. May we meet again!