Spanning a rarely-explored stretch of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus mountain ranges boast some of the most pristine and spectacular peaks this side of the Himalayas.
Yet despite their grandeur, there’s precious little infrastructure in place to encourage the enjoyment of this overlooked wilderness. Few paths, few waymarks, no long-distance trails.
Now British adventurer Tom Allen aims to put a change to that, and thanks to the Go Beyond Bursary – an annual collaboration between Land Rover and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) – he and fellow expedition member Alessandro Mambelli are on the brink of turning their dreams into reality.
‘We take it for granted in the UK that we can go out into the countryside on well-defined routes,’ says Tom. ‘We’ve got maps, established paths – there’s nothing like that out there. The area is still developing, and there’s an appetite for improved access to the mountains, for leisure and for conservation work.’
So, the plan? Together with other like-minded members of the Transcaucasian Trail organization, establish long-distance hiking trails through the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges, working with regional experts in Georgia and Armenia to help research the routes and ensure their longevity.
That’s a big ask, so for 2016 Tom and Alessandro will focus on creating a 1500km trail along the length of the Lesser Caucasus, linking Batumi in the west of Georgia to Megri in eastern Armenia. And they’ll be using a brand new Defender 110 to kick the project into motion.
Built for a purpose
The duo’s Land Rover has been transformed by JLR’s SVO department into a ‘mobile surveying and communications unit’, complete with gull-wing side lockers in place of rear windows, a landing platform for a drone on its roof rack, a compressor, sand ladders, recovery winch, and a package of other suitably hardcore kit.
So yes, they’re pretty serious about venturing off the beaten track. That’s kind of the point, after all…
‘It’s high altitude, dirt roads – quite a harsh environment because it tends to be dry and arid,’ Tom tells us. ‘There’ll be existing tracks that people do take their 4x4 along, but the tracks are in serious disrepair; you see plenty of stuck vehicles, and vehicles that look like they’re about to fall over… but somehow magically don’t.
‘It’s likely that we’ll be driving completely cross-country at some point as well, especially above the tree line where it can be quite open. We might get some lingering snow up in the mountains, and from September onwards there’s a risk of new snow at higher altitudes.
SVO – ‘Just the most insane place you’ve ever been!’
Tom admits to being a relative newbie when it comes to Land Rovers. The task of speccing the Defender fell to Sally Povolotsky, Special Projects Creator for Jaguar Land Rover’s SVO department.
‘I went along to the SVO department and had a chat with her, explained the kind of work we’d be doing, the number of people we wanted to carry, and the kind of driving that would be involved. She basically prototyped the vehicle on a giant whiteboard in front of me as I was talking, and within about 15 minutes she’d designed the Land Rover!
‘We came back a couple of weeks ago to see how they were getting on and had a look around SVO, which is just the most insane place you’ve ever been! We had to put our phones in special bags so we couldn’t take photos.’
Off-road training at Eastnor followed (standard procedure for winners of the Go Beyond Bursary) and today the team finally hits the road. They’ll spend the next six months driving to and researching the Lesser Caucasus, and aim to have completed this phase of their project by mid-November.
An idea whose time has come
‘It’s been a serendipitous few months,’ says Tom, reflecting both on the Go Beyond Bursary and on the group of like-minded people and who have gathered around the Transcaucasian Trail project since its inception last year. ‘It’s a good sign that you’ve stumbled across an idea whose time has come. Winning this grant is going to be such a great kick-start for the project.’
Follow the expedition’s progress on their new blog.
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