Travel and Culture editor Hal Keelin recalls a memorable experience volunteering on a Hiking Trail project in the wilds of Georgia in the Summer of 2018.

Words by Hal Keelin

It’s just gone 6 am when I’m rudely awakened with a start by Paul, the trail camp leader’s distant shouts of “wakey, wakey”. I smile and wonder how someone can be so upbeat, so early in the morning.

It’s the first day of work with the Trans-Caucasian Trail crew. An ambitious, long term project with the single aim to ensure that the wild yet beautiful regions of the Caucasus are made easily navigable by a single hiking trail. After almost a year out of university, saving money for an epic summer trip, I’ve finally made it to a country filled with people I could never forget. Some might say Georgia is a bizarre choice, and most are a bit confused when I mention afterwards that it’s next to Russia, not Alabama. To me, it has felt like the perfect opportunity since I first saw it advertised online. That March I had been desperate to find an experience about as far removed from a 9-5 job as possible. Georgia had kept me looking forward in the months of soul searching after I had decided to transfer universities. My life had changed quite drastically already, instead of desperately trying to cram my brain with Latin – I had been studying Ancient and Mediaeval history earlier that year – by January I was wiping snow off a seat with a motorbike glove and driving a small scooter to a farmyard for work every day. I began to learn a vital lesson, that the path mapped out in my head was not always a path at all; it was very often an illusion, a product of a series of built-in presumptions.

A slow mover in the mornings it takes all of ten minutes to peel off my sleeping bag and dress for the cold morning. The prospect of being last to the first meeting of the day is just enough motivation to step out into cool air. The outer layer of my tent is damp with condensation and I make a mental note to never leave anything I’ll need dry for the next day outside. It’s an overcast morning, the clouds are light grey and they mould themselves over the peaks across the valley, while a breakaway sect has sculpted themselves higher, blocking the tips of peaks to the west. The soft churn of the snowmelt river below is just heard under the buzz of the horseflies and it’s impossible to not wonder how England got on against Columbia the previous night. Afraid to use my phone for being charged a ridiculous data-usage fee I felt off-grid, and extremely thankful for it.

 A huge pot of water boils away on an even bigger stove and I set to making myself some oatmeal with honey, and wash it down with some vile Nescafe. There was no time to mix it properly, so clumps are left around the edges. Paul delineates the camp chores, instructing me to help him collect water from the nearby stream. The Delica van is still stuck with its hind precariously submerged in the water further down the valley and the first task of the day is to collect the remaining tools from the vehicle. At the site, we do well to clamber in through the back to retrieve our items. Another volunteer takes a photo, my legs are outstretched, horizontal sticks protruding from the back seat.

 Back at camp, the Polanski’s and rakes are dropped thankfully onto the tarp with the rest of the hand tools and Dan instructs me and Isobel to scout a spot for a toilet.

“BE CAREFUL OF THE HOG-WEED !” he shouts as we amble up the hillside, away from camp. The meadow is large and the ubiquity of snowmelt from the surrounding hillsides has meant there’s been time for plenty of spring growth. Wildflowers, thistles, nettles and grass are high, up to our shoulders, while the menacing din of horseflies remains. Unsure about slashing unnecessarily through the hogweed we return to our proposed site with Dan and Christen who had just finished setting up the kitchen: a piece of tarp tied to three trees, suspended in the air for a roof and another tarp as a groundsheet.

Dan dismisses our spot without a second thought, leads us further up the overgrown meadow, he meanders around hogweed as if it’s not there and, when reaching a cluster of trees, some 500 metres from the camp spot, decides this is the spot to start digging. Despite the walk, his experience in this exercise is obvious, the spot is well hidden, shaded and perhaps unintentionally, commands an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.

 Digging the trench took all of the morning, and it was twice as long as it was deep. With hindsight, it was only just about big enough and by the week’s end, we had constructed a second latrine, this time 400 metres or so down the hillside from camp.

 Our lunch break was cut short by the now unstoppable tirade of bugs. At noon the horseflies came out in full force and for however slow they were, we could do nothing about their numbers. Kill two and three more would be back to take their place.

 In the afternoon, Dan and Paul decided it would be a good idea for us volunteers to see what we would be attempting over the next week and a half. They hadn’t seen what we unilaterally termed ‘the ridge’ hereafter since late May when there was still snow well within the tree line.

The land rover trail took us parallel to the sound of gushing water and then directly into the path of a wide tributary coming straight off the hillside. We used some of the larger upturned rocks as temporary stepping stones and crossed carefully while Vakho, behind, made more permanent steps by dropping rocks from the side and into the path of the river. A sister tributary ahead caused Paul slight concern. Water hadn’t been here last time and, with the snow still fastened to the upper third of the peaks ahead in July, was a sure indication that the volume of the river would only increase as the summer months went on.

We veered right, through a dense thicket of high grass. The hogweed was enormous here, and Paul whenever he so much as saw a branch would carefully find its route and saw gently allowing the liquid to spill out, before standing (with equal care) and snapping its roots at their base.

 Late in the afternoon we set back for camp and enjoyed an alternative ‘golden hour’ nice light for photography but more thankfully it was the single hour which brought a brief rest-bite from the bugs. It had been cloudy for most of the day and when the light grey swirls turned angrier and denser, it was clear a storm was on its way. We cooked two ramen noodles each on the stove, chatted briefly, the trench digging sapping much ability for a long conversation and then dispersed swiftly when the rains eventually came. 

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