Friday, June 14, 2019

Kyrgyzstan, Here We Come!

Tbilisi, June 15, 2019

It's a sunny, Saturday morning, the day after the last day of classes.  Our house here in northern Tbilisi is adorned with piles of luggage and full of cherries plucked from the branches of our trees last night in a last-minute megaharvest; we're trying to freeze as many as our freezer will hold.

It's been five months since I last posted, which is never a good sign.  I found this year's teaching to be hard work that left me tired and uninspired for blog writing.  I woke up many mornings feeling not substantially more rested than when I'd gone to bed the night before.  Partly this was due to the ski season in the Tbilisi area being dismally disappointing, with almost no new snowfall in January, February or early March.  Given that skiing was a big factor in choosing Tbilisi as a place to live, this did nothing for my state of mind.  My sister and her partner were supposed to come to Georgia this March for some ski touring, but we ended up bailing out on this plan and I flew to France instead to join them for some mountain adventures in the southern Alps.  There too it had been a warm, almost snowless winter, but my sister, through diligent research, was able to find remote north-facing slopes that made for amazing powder descents when we were was 20 degrees in the sunshine at the bottom.  I will write up a blog post about it when I get back to work in August, rested and refreshed after two months of trekking (I hope!!).

So the piles of luggage and the end of school mean that it's time to hit the road again.  This time it's not to a new country (at least not for me), but to a country that I've visited a couple of times and which I think still has a lot of new places to explore.  I first visited Kyrgyzstan by bicycle in 2004 during the second leg of my Silk Road Ride, and went back again in 2012 for some trekking and attempted mountaineering with my friend Eric.  On both occasions, I left thinking that there were still so many places to explore, and the Inylchek Glacier in particular has been on my to-explore list for years.  This time around, Terri (for whom the ex-Soviet Central Asian states are new territory) and I will spend the next six and a half weeks hiking to various remote valleys, high-altitude lakes and to the upper end of the Inylchek Glacier where mighty Peak Pobedy and Khan Tengri, both 7000-metre-high mountains, tower over the rest of the central Tien Shan range.

It will be good for my soul after a somewhat trying year of teaching to get out into the great outdoors and spend days walking, taking photos, looking at birds and flowers and butterflies, and sleeping at night under a canopy of stars surrounded by amphitheatres of mountains.  I can't wait!  

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Roadtrip through Western Georgia

Tbilisi, January 7

Tomorrow it's back to work after three weeks of Christmas vacation, so now is a good time to draw a curtain on our adventures in western Georgia, also known as Colchis, the Land of the Golden Fleece from Greek mythology.  The wind here in Dighomi is howling, so it's a good afternoon to sit indoors and type up this account of our road trip in Douglas the Delica.

A First Attempt at Goderdzi

On Friday, December 21st we rolled out of Tbilisi after a couple of lazy days recovering from our ski trip to Gudauri.  We rolled west all day, through increasing rain, along a modern double-lane expressway, then on a single-lane road clogged with slow trucks over the low pass (the Rikoti, now with a tunnel under it) that separates eastern Georgia (Kartli, or Iveria) from western Georgia (Kolkheti, or Colchis).  We kept going towards the coast, thus entering new territory for both of us, as on our previous trip we had diverted north towards Zugdidi and Svaneti.  This time our destination was the Black Sea coast and the resort town of Batumi, where half of Georgia seems to migrate in August.  In December it's dead, making for cheap deals on hotel rooms.  We stayed the night in a fancy apartment in the Orbi Residence, a towering concrete structure close to the shore.
View over the Lesser Caucasus from Sataplia

The following day we drove inland from Batumi into the small, mountainous region of Ajara, the only area of Georgia with a Muslim majority (thanks to the long Ottoman occupation of this part of the country.)  The road was new and paved for the first 30 km, then winding and potholed, and then turned to dirt and mud, making the entire 100 kilometre drive take more than three hours.  Our destination was the newish, small ski resort of Goderdzi, located near the Goderdzi pass which connects Ajara with the town of Akhaltskikhe to the east.  That road is closed in the winter, making our route from Tbilisi much more circuitous than it would have been in the summer.

We hadn't been able to get in touch with anyone from Goderdzi to find out if it had opened yet for the season.  We knew that this winter had been unusually snow-free, and Bakuriani hadn't opened yet, but Goderdzi is touted as the "Japan of Georgia" for its abundant fluffy powder, so we took a chance and drove up on a reconnaissance trip.  As we got up to 1700 metres, the elevation of the bottom of the lifts, we realized that there was far too little snow, and it was far too warm, for the ski resort to be open yet.  We talked briefly with some of the workers, who assured us that come December 28th, the lifts would start running.  We had lunch and contemplated our options.  There might have been enough snow to skin up and ski down, but it looked thin and rocky, and we were both on fairly new skis, so we decided that patience was the better part of valour and turned back downhill, vowing to return before the end of my holidays.

Birdwatching in Poti

Terri in the ruins of Gonio
The drive back down was just as slow and miserably muddy as the drive up, but our Delica's 4x4 handled everything well.  When we got down to Batumi, it was mid-afternoon, giving us time to visit a place that has been on my mental radar for years, the Roman/Byzantine/Ottoman fort at Gonio, just south of Batumi on the way to the nearby Turkish border.  It's a big place, with high walls (mostly dating from the Ottoman period) enclosing a 200 by 200 metre square.  There's not much left to see inside, but it was pleasant to walk up on the walls, gazing out at the surrounding citrus orchards, and to poke around the small site museum.  Gonio (or Apsaros, to give it its Greek name) is located at the mouth of the Chorokhi River, which flows down from the highlands of modern Turkey and which would have been a main trade route into the interior.  The legend of Jason and the Argonauts plays a role in the mythology of Gonio, as does the legend that the Apostle Matthew was buried somewhere inside the fortress walls.  

There was still plenty of light left in the sky when we finished up at Gonio and we decided to put some kilometres behind us and continue north along the coast to the town of Poti.  We booked a holiday apartment on and headed north into the darkness.  It took a while to find the apartment in the dark, and the grim crumbling Soviet exterior and stairwell were supremely unpromising, but the apartment proved to be lovely, with a view out over the water and a well-equipped kitchen in which Terri whipped up a delicious repast.

Me on the beach at Poti
We had chosen Poti as a place to spend the night because we knew that it was surrounded by a protected wetland area rich in birdlife; the parents of one of my students in Tbilisi are ornithologists, heavily involved in bird conservation, and had talked up the area to me.  Terri and I are not true "twitchers", but we have derived a great deal of pleasure from birding in places like Ladakh, Iceland, Antarctica and (especially) southern Africa, and we were curious what we would see in Poti.  

It was a fun morning; we walked out to the Black Sea coast, past an inland lagoon, and then along the beach.  We then drove over to Lake Paliostomi, the large lagoon just inland, and had a poke around there.  Both places were rewarding, even if it was the off-season and even though we didn't hire a boat to head out towards the uninhabited eastern shore of the lake.  We spotted well over a dozen species, from smews (a largely white duck that summers in Siberia, and a new species for us) through crakes, coots, herons and crested grebes, culminating in beautiful kingfishers and stately Dalmatian pelicans.  It was good to spend time scanning the shore or the air with our binoculars, trying to pick out new species.  It was also a good day to see the snow-capped ridges of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus floating ethereally above the waters of the lake.
The mountains of Svaneti loom over Lake Paliostomi

A Return to Svaneti

Winter wonderland in Mestia
All good things must come to an end, and we drove off mid-afternoon bound for Svaneti, where we had been two months earlier.  It was an easy drive, through the coastal lowlands, through the city of Zugdidi and then up the Enguri River.  We were anticipating a white winter wonderland in Mestia, but there was very little snow in the town when we arrived, dampening our excitement about skiing.  We took a room at Nino Ratiani's guesthouse, where I had stayed on my bike trip in the summer of 2011, and settled in for some skiing.

On the lift at Tetnuldi
We drove up to Tetnuldi, the big new ski resort located about 20 kilometres from Mestia, on December 24th and 25th.  It was an exhilarating drive, over snowy roads and up steep inclines, our 4x4 and new snow tires proving their worth by effortlessly handling conditions that stymied other vehicles.  Tetnuldi is high-altitude (from about 2200 to 3100 metres above sea level) and offers access to plenty of off-piste powder.  The gain in altitude from Mestia meant that there was much more snow on the ground, although most of it had been skied out.  We had two fun days exploring the runs and finding a few lines of untracked powder, and my new telemark skis proved their worth, effortless floating through the powder.  On the 25th it began to snow and visibility dropped dramatically, particularly as most of the resort is well above the tree line, providing no visual help in a whiteout.  Back at Nino's we built a tiny snowman in honour of Christmas (Western Christmas, that is; the Orthodox world runs on the Julian calendar and celebrates on January 7th instead).  
Terri's first-ever snowman

On the 26th it began to snow heavily and we took the day off, convinced that we wouldn't see anything, and reports from a Ukrainian group staying at Nino's confirmed that there was no visibility at all at Tetnuldi.  On the 27th it was still dumping snow, we drove over to Hatsvali, a tiny ski resort directly above Mestia and skied there, enjoying plenty of new powder and the visibility provided by abundant trees lining the runs.  Our enjoyment was marred, however, by Terri being knocked over getting off a chair by our seatmate and her glasses being broken, leaving her largely blind for much of the day.
At Hatsvali with our rather mud-spattered Delica

Snowy forest at Hatsvali
Bluebird pow day at Tetnuldi
Finally on the 28th we got the day we had been waiting for:  perfectly clear blue skies, dazzling sunshine and Tetnuldi full of freshly fallen powder.  We drove over early and were first in line for the chairlift.  We skied off the chair at the top full of purpose, and found an entire mountain blanketed in deep, fluffy, perfect powder.  That first run, flying through the snow, contrails of billowing white smoke streaming from our skis, was unforgettable.  We skied hard for hours, slowly working our way outwards from those first runs, whooping with delight at the sheer joy of graceful movement and the illusion of floating.  It was perfect, and by the time we took a late lunch, our legs were just about finished from the effort of skiing so much deep snow.

Beautiful mountains seen from Tetnuldi
At lunch we chatted with a couple of Swedish skiers whom we had met over the previous couple of days on the slopes, as well as the mother of one of my students from Tbilisi.  As we stood up to go to the car and drive home, I somehow managed to lose the ignition key for the car.  We didn't have a spare key, and so we couldn't get into the car, and couldn't drive it.  To make matters worse, I had left the lights on in my hurry to get out and ski the lovely snow in the morning.  We searched everywhere, but eventually gave up and hitched a lift back to town. 

To make matters more annoying, we had packed up all our possessions that morning to move out of Nino's guesthouse, as she had prior reservations that completely booked out her rooms.  We walked over to our new lodgings with only our skis and our skiing daypacks, only to find the power out.  It was a cold, somewhat miserable evening, but at least our host made some phone calls and arranged a rescue mission for our car.

Replacing our ignition system
The next morning a vehicle drove up to our new guesthouse, with a skilled car ignition specialist and a driver inside.  We drove to a non-descript Soviet-era apartment complex and bought a second-hand car ignition system from a wrecked Delica, then drove up to Tetnuldi.  The driver had brought a long, thin metal rod with him and, having pried the driver's side door slightly ajar at the corner, slid the rod in and popped open the lock.  Then Andrei, the ignition man, set to work.  Within an hour and a half, he had replaced the entire ignition system, and after jump-starting the car with our booster cables from our driver's vehicle, we were good to go.  Our car was completely frozen, we couldn't lock it and we didn't dare turn off the engine until the battery had recharged, but at least we could drive.  The best part was that everything (the car and driver, the work by Andrei and the purchase of the ignition system) cost us less than US$ 130.  We drove back down the mountain and over to the Becho Valley, where we had hiked in October and where we wanted to do a ski tour the next day, then drove back to Mestia and our guesthouse (where the power had mercifully returned).  We spent an enjoyable evening chatting with another group of Ukrainian snowboarders, twenty-somethings from Yalta who had left Crimea after the Russian takeover in 2014.
Ski touring up the Becho Valley

Our last day in Svaneti was wonderful.  We packed up our gear and drove back to the Becho Valley, where we drove to the foot of the Guli Valley, put on our skis and skins, and climbed up to the Guli Church, where we had hiked in October.  The scenery was magnificent, as the morning ice mist dissipated and left us with wonderful views of iconic Mt. Ushba and the glistening of millions of snow crystals in the crisp winter sunshine.  We headed uphill a bit further from the church and I climbed up a bit above Terri to try to get some decent turns in.  The snow wasn't bottomless and the underlying terrain was rough, but I managed a reasonable descent.  The rest of the way back down the valley to the car was pretty much just following the up track, but the scenery was ample compensation for the lack of quality downhill action.  We got back to the car with broad grins on our faces, glad to be alive and outdoors on such a beautiful day.

A Goderdzi New Year

From our ski tour we drove back down into the lowlands, reaching Zugdidi in the dark in time to be caught in enormous traffic jams in this small city.  We eventually reached the Green House guesthouse, by far the most genteel accommodation of our trip, and settled in for some well-earned rest.

New Year's Eve in Goderdzi
The following day was a long day of driving.  We poked around Zugdidi for a bit, buying food and wine and trying to visit a museum that was closed for the New Year's holidays.  We finally headed out of town at noon, retracing our path of a week before, through Poti and along the coast to Batumi, then uphill to Goderdzi again.  This time the drive was muddy at the bottom and snowy and frozen at the top.  The last twenty kilometres were a bit hair-raising, with icy roads making the potholes more treacherous, especially with steep dropoffs on the side.  It was dark when we finally reached Danisparauli, the tiny hamlet just downhill from the ski lifts.  We knew from our reconnaissance the week before that there were twenty or so tiny guesthouses there, but we weren't prepared for the fact that they all seemed to be full.  Luckily a guesthouse owner took it upon himself to phone around the entire village looking for a place for us, and eventually we found ourselves welcomed into the Iveria Guesthouse.  It was New Year's Eve, and we found ourselves welcomed into the bosom of the extended family that was celebrating downstairs in the kitchen.  It was yet another example of Georgian hospitality, and was a wonderful experience, although we were in bed long before midnight, worn out by skiing and driving.

On the wall of our Goderdzi homestay
The guesthouse was bitterly cold when we awoke in the morning and Terri never got warm as we dressed, ate and headed up to go skiing.  She was desperately chilly, and the howling winds buffeting the mountain did nothing to make her feel warmer.  We did one run, and then I left Terri indoors at the bottom of the hill while I went for a few runs.  There was definitely a lot more snow than there had been on our last visit, but it was hardly Japan-style bottomless powder.  Raking winds had pummeled the snow, making for a bleak landscape of cardboard crust.  I jumped off for a few powder turns here and there, but it was hardly a touring paradise as I had hoped.  Eventually Terri returned to the mountain, warmed by her indoor sojourn, and we did a number of runs before calling it a day and having a late lunch at the foot of the hill.  Georgian tourists, late-arising after the New Year's festivities, many of them having driven up from Batumi, were swarming the lower slopes of the mountain as we left, and driving back down to our guesthouse was alarming as we had to stay out of the way of two-wheel-drive cars with bald summer tires and no snow chains fishtailing madly up the rutted road.

Goderdzi looking cold and forboding
After another frigid night in our guesthouse, Terri decided that she couldn't spend a third night in the cold, so we packed up, paid up and headed back up for our second and last day of skiing.  The wind had strengthened overnight and the mountain looked bleak.  Terri bailed out on the idea of ski touring, leaving me to do a few runs on the piste before heading off to do a short ski tour.  The wind slabs on the snow made me cautious, especially as I was on my own, so I headed up through a summer village for herders and up the middle of a gentle valley.  I could see interesting-looking descent lines on either side, but as I had set off a tiny slab avalanche on my way into the village, I kept to the gentle incline and wide-open slopes of the valley.  I reached the top in an hour and peered over to see a wonderland of rounded peaks stretching off into the distance in the west.  Luckily there was a shepherd's hut at the top, providing welcome shelter from the searching wind as I took off my skins and got ready to descend.  The snow was surprisingly good and provided plenty of good telemark turns on the descent.  I skinned up and across to rejoin the pistes, and found Terri ensconsed at the bottom of the mountain, glad to be out of the wind.  We packed up and were on our way by 3:00.
An exploratory ski tour in Goderdzi

Overall Goderdzi was a bit of a disappointment.  Since it's so close to the Black Sea, it gets more snow than anywhere else in the country, but the constant winds scour the ridges and turn the snow into unpleasant slabby cardboard.  The accommodation, while adequate, is cold.  Until a hotel or apartment complex opens at the base of the lifts (both are under construction), it will be a bit of a hardship spot in terms of midwinter lodging.

Exploring the Colchis Lowlands

Medical waste on the beach at Paliostomi Lake
The drive back downhill was long, tedious and unpleasant.  There were more ill-prepared cars than ever trying to make their way up the road, which had been churned into sheets of ice by fruitlessly spinning summer tires.  It took forever to get through Danisparauli because of the narrow roads, lack of passing spots and the number of cars coming uphill.  It was a relief when we finally got onto pavement again 30 kilometres (and an hour and a half) downhill from Goderdzi.  From there we followed a familiar route back to Batumi and Poti, where we stayed for two nights in the same apartment as before.  The birdwatching was good, and we had a delightfully lazy morning watching the sun rise over the Black Sea, 12 hours after a full moon had risen in the same spot.  The only blight on our happiness was the sheer quantity of rubbish that was everywhere along the shore of Lake Paliostomi, including a huge quantity of medical waste from the local hospital, including syringes and intravenous tubing, that had been dumped beside the lake.  Georgia has a serious issue with trash disposal, and this was an unpleasant reminder of that fact.
Sunset over Poti

Prometheus Cave
Our last stop on our way back to Tbilisi was Kutaisi.  I had visited Georgia's second-largest city in 2011 on my bike trip, but hadn't really taken the time to explore much.  This time we stopped in at two caves, the Prometheus Cave and Sataplia, and found them to be wonderful.  Prometheus is a long cave system, and we were underground for a good hour, oohing and aahing at the stalactites and columns, lit up in different colours.  Sataplia's cave was smaller but still pretty, but the real attractions were the dinosaur footprints nearby and the primeval oak-hornbeam forest surrounding everything.  Kutaisi is the centre of ancient Colchis, where Jason and his Argonauts came searching for the Golden Fleece, and the forest felt as though it was unchanged from Jason's time three millenia ago.  In keeping with this theme, our guesthouse was called the Argonaut, and our delightful hostess told us stories of ancient myths, including the connections between Georgia and Sumeria and the story that the Holy Grail ended up in Georgia, where the drops of Jesus' blood that it captured fertilized the finest grapes in the country.

Dinosaur footprints at Sataplia

Gelati churches
Our final day on the road saw us visit two very different monasteries and an ancient archaeological site.  We started off with Gelati Monastery, built up by David the Builder, Georgia's most accomplished medieval king, as a centre of royal prestige, religious power and secular learning.  His tomb lies beneath one of the monastery gates so that everyone entering could step on him and remember him (a strange mix of humility and egotism).  I loved the churches as well as his Academy, and spent a long time trying to capture details of roofs and stonework on my tiny ski camera.  The beautiful frescoes and stunning mosaic of the Virgin Mary are some of the best medieval art to be found anywhere in Georgia.
At Gelati

Magnificent mosaic at Gelati
Motsameta Monastery
We drove from there to Motsameta, a much smaller and more isolated monastery perched high above a forbidding gorge.  The monastery marks the spot where two brothers were martyred by Arab invaders in the eighth century and tossed into the gorge.  The surrounding forest and limestone cliffs are in some ways more impressive than the recently rebuilt structures, and it was wonderful to stand looking out into the void contemplating the long history of this area.

On the final stretch into Tbilisi that afternoon we stopped briefly at a small archaeological dig near Gori called Graklianis Gora.  It's not yet fully ready for tourists, but we were happy to poke around the muddy hillside, looking at shattered potsherds and the remnants of Zoroastrian temples from Georgia's pre-Christian, pre-Roman past.  
Shattered wine qvevris at Graklianis Hill
And then it was all over, with a final 45-minute drive through frenetic traffic back to our house in northern Tbilisi, happy with the exploration we had done in western Georgia in our 2300-kilometre, 15-day odyssey (or should that be argossey?).  There is so much to see in this country, but we are finally starting to make inroads into it.

PS  Although I started this post nearly two weeks ago, I only ended up finishing it now, in Bakuriani, the fifth and last Georgian ski resort that we have visited.  I will have to have another blog post soon on our weekend ski trips out of Tbilisi!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A 2018 Retrospective

Tbilisi, December 20

The Earth has almost completed another lap of the sun, Christmas vacation is here and it's time once again to cast an eye back on the year that has just passed.  I like taking the opportunity to catch my breath and remember everything that happened in an eventful year.

Raja Ampat and Maluku

Manta flyby
Village children on Arborek at one of our Science Saturdays
A shadow puppet play about manta ray conservation
2018 began on Arborek Island, a small island in Raja Ampat, an archipelago of small islands off the western tip of New Guinea in far eastern Indonesia.  Terri was working as the project manager for a small group of volunteers, while I put my newly-earned PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor rating to use as an instructor.  Raja Ampat is a beautiful area with some of the best-preserved coral reefs and highest biodiversity anywhere in the tropical Indo-Pacific, and we were lucky to be located next to some of the local hotspots for manta rays.  The diving was fabulous, if a bit challenging thanks to raging currents, and we saw a career's worth of manta rays (both reef mantas, Mobula alfredi, and the much larger oceanic mantas, Mobula birostris).  The work, though, was frustrating, particularly for Terri, and within a week we had decided that we would leave after a month.  The Christmas period was particularly challenging, as many of our local Papuan staff disappeared without warning, leaving us short-staffed.  We also didn't get to do many of the community outreach programs that are a key part of the program, as local schools were closed for the holidays.  It was fun at times, but we were relieved when we finally put ourselves aboard a speedboat back to Waigeo in early January.  

At stunning Pianeymo
Ho-hum, another manta :-)
The crew bids us farewell on our departure
We spent a couple of days birdwatching once we were off Arborek, spotting both the Wilson's and the red birds of paradise in one action-packed morning of hiking with a local guide.  I had seen them before, in the summer of 2014, when I travelled through the region, but it was a first for Terri.  

Red bird of paradise

Wilson's bird of paradise
We then stopped off for three days of fabulous muck diving in Ambon, the capital of the province of Maluku.  The weather was awful, as the rainy season was at its height, but we still managed to spot lots of new species of tiny critters, although not the very rare psychadelic frogfish which we had hoped for.  Ambon is a treasure trove of rare species, and I would love to go back the next time I find myself in Indonesia, as well as venturing out to the Banda Islands (the sea was too rough and the weather too poor to contemplate doing that on this trip.)  On January 17th we flew back to Bali, glad to be back in our familiar, comfortable surroundings.

A beautifully tinted weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa)
Coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) in Ambon
Striped bumblebee shrimp (Gnathophyllum americanum)


I spent three separate stints in Bali in 2018.  The first was a month in January and February, as the rainy season poured down on the island.  I spent a lot of time indoors, writing, but also ventured out diving now and then.  An American man whom we had met in Ambon, Austin, came to stay for two months in Terri's rental unit and he and I did some great muck diving in Tulamben while Terri was off to New Zealand in advance of me.  We spotted tons of new species of nudibranchs, thanks to the eagle eyes of Komang, our fabulous dive guide, who also gave us excellent photography tips.  I managed to finish the first draft of my book about cycling the Silk Road as well, which was a major accomplishment for me for the year.

The second stint in Bali happened in April and May, after New Zealand and before Namibia.  Again diving was the order of the day, although I started my stay with a four-day bicycle mini-tour all around Bali.  When Terri got back (a few days after me), we did lots of diving, and I started reworking the first draft of my manuscript.  We had some great days of diving in Tulamben, as well as just across the street in Lipah, where we found tiny Costasiella sp. sapsucking slugs that we had never spotted before; once we knew they were there, we saw them everywhere.

I spent a final two frantic days in Bali in early July, packing up my life after our Namibia trip before heading to Ottawa and on to a new life in Tbilisi; it had been 11 months since I moved to Bali, and they were amazing, life-affirming months that were good for the soul and for my writing.

Lake Buyan


Taringa halgerda

Eubranchus sp.

Thecacera sp.

Ornate ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)

Hypselodoris infucata

Paddleflap scorpionfish (Rhinopias eschmeyeri)

Emperor shrimp (Periclimenes imperator) riding atop a Tyrannodoris luteolineata

Maree in Lipah Bay, our local dive spot

Halgerda willeyi

Doto greenamyeri laying eggs

Costasiella sp. sapsucking slug

Carminodoris estrelyado

Discodoris boholiensis

Wunderpus photogenicus, the wunderpus

Chelinodura hirundina

Dasycaris zanzibarica, the Zanzibar whip coral shrimp

Costasiella sp. sapsucking slug

A big gathering of Stylocheilus striatus sea hares

Costasiella kuroshimae, the "Shawn the Sheep" sapsucking slug

New Zealand

Terri is from New Zealand, and as long as we had been together (eight years and counting!) we had been tossing around the idea of visiting New Zealand.  Finally, in February and March of this year, we made it happen.  We restricted ourselves to the North Island, but even so we had difficulty fitting in all the places we wanted to see, and all of Terri's friends and family whom we wanted to meet.  It was eye-wateringly expensive, but well worth it.  We hiked, biked, paddled and drove all over the North Island, seeking out rare native birds, wild beaches and campsites.  We circled the island, up to the Northland, then down south along the east coast and back north along the west coast.  It was great fun, but the best way to follow what we did is to read these blog posts:

For more photos from our NZ travels, click here

While we were hiking along Ninety Mile Beach, I received a job offer from an international school in Tbilisi, Georgia.  Terri and I spent two days talking it over as we hiked, and I decided to accept the job, putting an end to three years of footloose freedom but helping restock depleted financial reserves.

Terri and 4 of her 5 grandkids on the farm near Wellsford

Hiking the Mangawhai Heads trail

Hiking Bream Heads

A lost little blue penguin

Ninety Mile Beach

Kayaking with Gavin and Michelle

Terri's sister's family in Upper Hutt

A takahe, one of the world's most endangered birds


A prehistoric looking tuatara

Paddling the Whanganui River
Hiking the Tongariro Crossing

Looking down on the crater lakes of Tongariro
Terri cycling the Timber Trail

Mount Taranaki

Terri and Jess, her friend from Leysin days

Terri and her good friend Ross and Debbie in Hamilton


In early May, Terri flew to Zambia to visit her school there, the Olive Tree Learning Centre, and to help out a party of volunteers from Canada and Australia who were spending time there.  We rendezvoused in Johannesburg airport and flew together to Windhoek, Namibia, to pick up our beloved Stanley, who had spent the year in storage there.  We had to move Stanley to South Africa for complicated reasons related to customs duties, and we had been regretting not being able to spend more time in everyone's favourite country in southern Africa back in 2017.  

Our trip through Namibia this time was absolutely fantastic, the culmination of Stanley's Travels.  We had finally worked out the optimum way to camp wild, completely off the grid, and so we did as much of that as we could.  We drove out to Swakopmund, then turned inland to Damaraland, an area we had briefly touched on in 2017.  This time we stopped and camped wild in a fantastic, unpopulated landscape, sparsely inhabited by springbok, gemsbok and giraffe.  Every night we had a campfire under the stars, cooked over the coals and stared up at the stars.  I tried my hand at some astrophotography, and loved learning an entirely new type of photography.  I had found an old macro lens while cleaning out my father's house, and spent a lot of time taking photos of tiny, colourful wildflowers.  The coastal desert of Namibia, too dry to support permanent human habitation, is one of the great outdoor wildlife adventure spots of Africa, free of the pressure of exploding human populations everywhere else on the continent.  Terri and I felt unbelievably free and close to the spirit of the San hunter-gatherers from whom all humans are ultimately descended, between our campsites in the middle of nowhere and our visits to San painting galleries in the middle of nowhere.  Our drive up to the Marienflusse, right on the Angolan border, was the highlight of the trip for me.  One day, in a couple of years' time, we will be back, this time to cross the border and drive north, all the way to Europe, before returning south to South Africa along the east side of Africa.  When we do, we will be ready, after our experiences camping and driving in the middle of absolutely nowhere Namibia.

After the Marienfluss, we returned south, via the wonderful Hoanib River and its legendary desert elephants and a return visit to amazing Etosha National Park, eventually passing south through Windhoek and heading regretfully south, via the epic Fish River Canyon and the lovely Richtersveld, into South Africa.  We left Stanley at a storage place outside Cape Town, ready for his next adventures whenever we leave Georgia.  Africa is definitely in our blood now, and we will be back again and again, between Stanley and the Olive Tree Learning Centre.

We flew out of cold, rainy Cape Town on the last day of June, bound for Bali and new adventures afterwards.  

Somehow I seem to have neglected to write a blog post about Namibia; I shall have to remedy this grave omission soon!  Namibia really is one of the great travel destinations on earth, and we loved our time in this astounding country.

Sunset colours on the Brandberg
Half moon

Hartmann's mountain zebras near the Brandberg

Ruppell's korhaans

Another delicious roadside picnic lunch

This is what the road ahead should look like!

Golden grasslands of Damaraland
Wildflower colours

Outback pancakes
The best way to spend an evening:  campfire and starlight

In the shallow waters of the Hoanib River

Giraffes wandering past our campsite

More golden grasslands


Passing motorists trying to fix Stanley, who wouldn't start

Outback campfire fare in our beloved potjie

Namaqua chameleon

The track along the Marienfluss

Looking across the Cunene River into Angola

Braaing boerwors over a campfire

The Hoanib River flowing through the Khowarib Gorge

Dancing from pure joy in the Khowarib Gorge

One-hour exposure of the night sky near the South Pole

Stanley and the Milky Way
Desert elephant in the Hoanib River

An attempt to capture the Milky Way

Secretarybirds in Etosha


Play-fighting elephants

Finally got the Milky Way!

Black rhino and gembsbok

Me and Stanley on the Etosha Pan

The best astrophoto of the trip!

A Damara dik-dik, an elusive creature spotted at last by Terri
Sunset heron near Etosha
Terri's birthday on the Orange River
Wildflowers in the Richtersveld


I spent most of July in Ottawa, visiting my mother and catching my breath after a whirlwind few months of travel.  I didn't do much other than read, sort through gear in preparation for my move to Tbilisi, rewrite my manuscript (an almost complete third draft), play cribbage with my mother and go out to various cultural events like the Ottawa Bluesfest (where we saw Blue Rodeo, Colin James and a number of lesser-known but equally talented acts), Shakespeare in the Park, Chamberfest and Music and Beyond).  It was great to catch up with my mother, a wonderful person who did so much to make me who I am today.  At the end of July I flew off to Tbilisi to start a new chapter in my life.


I arrived in Tbilisi, dumped my gear in my new house and then flew to Leysin for a flying visit.  I picked up winter gear that had been sitting in my sister Audie's basement for three years, visited a few friends, then headed back to Tbilisi.  Terri arrived a day later and I dragged her, sick and jet-lagged, off for a four-day hike in Tusheti, a magical mountain region in northeastern Georgia.  It was a tough but rewarding hike over the high Atsunta Pass into the Khevsureti region, past ancient stone villages studded with high defensive towers, past meadows of wildflowers and beautiful mountain vistas.

After that I was at work.  It was certainly a shock to the system, returning to the classroom after three sabbatical years.  I am teaching physical science, geometry and physics.  The workload is certainly lighter than I had in Leysin (for one thing it's not a boarding school, so there are no residential duties), but it's still mentally tiring to return to the discipline of work after so long.  

We got away for a couple of great weekend trips in September, first hiking from Juta to Roshka (linking the Kazbegi region to Khevsureti and thus joining up with August's hike), then going back to Juta on my birthday weekend for more hiking around the spectacular Chaukhi massif.  

My 50th birthday came as a bit of a shock, but Terri did her best to soften the blow with amazing food, a lovely weekend in Juta and (best of all) a present of a unicycle.  I can now ride it reasonably well, but it was a long, tough learning curve.  I can't believe I'm a half century old now; I don't feel like it (at least not most of the time!).

In October we headed off to enchanting Svaneti for a week of hiking; you can read about it in more detail here.  

When we returned from this trip, we at long last were able to buy a Mitsubishi Delica van after more than two months of searching, allowing us to explore more of rural Georgia on weekends.  We have visited Uplistsikhe, Tbilisi National Park, Tianeti and other areas close to Tbilisi.  As well, on our long weekend in November we drove down to Armenia to poke around the Debed Canyon, an area full of very old, very impressive stone churches.  All this has whetted our appetite for further exploration of this ancient, historic, culturally fascinating country.

Last Friday school let out, and we have been out skiing, first in Gudauri (the best-known Georgian ski area, just north of Tbilisi), and (starting tomorrow) in Goderdzi (near Batumi and the Black Sea) and also in Tetnuldi (up in Svaneti).  We can't wait!!

What 2018 brought, and what 2019 promises

We are here for at least another 18 months, with summer 2019 having Kyrgyzstan pencilled in for some serious hiking, along with more hiking here in Georgia.  I can't wait to see what else 2019 brings (including, I hope, a publishing contract for my Silk Road book!).  Terri and I would love to welcome some of you to Georgia to explore this intriguing mountain nation.

2018 was a wonderful year, and a year of two contrasting halves:  frenetic movement in the first half, then a more steady, measured pace through the second half.  Freedom in the first seven months, then wage servitude for the last five months.  Tropical heat for much of the first half of the year, then a return to the seasonal rhythm of the temperate latitudes.

I enjoyed crossing paths with so many friends and relatives over the course of the year.  In no particular order, we met up with our new diving friend Austin; my friend Eileen; Terri's daughter Selena and her husband and grandkids; Terri's dear friends Gavin and Michelle; her cousins Steven and Toni, Mark and Gary; her delightful Aunt Lois and Uncle Phil; her brother Trevor; her childhood neighbour and friend; Terri's sister and most of her nieces and nephews; her Leysin colleague Jess; Terri's dear friends Ross and Debbie; our Leysin friend Thomas; my former student Ardak; Terri's friends (and epic travellers) Lilian and John; my Yangon friends Reid and Beth; and our new friend Brian.  There are many more who have slipped my mind, but as I get older, meeting up with friends and family becomes steadily more important.  

May 2019 bring all of you, my dear readers, peace and tailwinds and as much adventure as you want.  

Tusheti wildflower

Tusheti defensive towers

Tusheti wildflower

Butterfly and thistle

Tusheti mountain scenery

Thistle and beetle

Tusheti wildflower

Tired but elated atop the Atsunta Pass

On the descent into Khevsureti

Wildflower near Juta

Crossing the Sedzele Pass to Roshka

Camped beneath the Chaukhi Massif

Roshka wildflower

The green, green hills of the Caucasus

Chaukhi Massif

More wildflower and beetle action near Roshka

Barbecued mtsvadi, the best food in Georgia!

Yours truly at 50

Part of the wonderful half-century celebrations

My new unicycle!

Gergeti Trinity Church

Birthday weekend above Juta

Chaukhi Massif yet again

Terri hiking up to the Chaukhi Pass

Autumn colours in Svaneti

Looking down on Mestia

Me in Svaneti

The iconic peak of Ushba

Svan tower and fall foliage

Typical Svan defensive tower

Lamaria Church in Ushguli, Svaneti

Enchanting Ushguli

Hiking near Zhabeshi, Svaneti

Fall colours near Zhabeshi

Terri and I below Mt. Ushba

Becho waterfalls, Svaneti

Cycling through an ancient oak forest in Tbilisi National Park

Armazi Fortress

Ancient Uplistsikhe, near Gori

Me in Uplistsikhe

Georgia-Samoa rugby match
Drying persimmons, Debed Canyon

Me with beautiful khachkars, Debed Canyon

Odzun church, Debed Canyon, Armenia

Odzun church, Armenia

Haghpat church, Armenia


Me with a MiG-21, Mikoyan Brothers Museum, Sanahin

Interior of Akhtala Church, Armenia

Terri and I in Gudauri

Terri ripping up the pow in Gudauri

Ski tour in Gudauri

The turns that we earned by skinning