When Francois Rossouw watched theTV programme, The most dangerous roads in the world, on Discovery channel, a seed was planted. Two of those mountain passes are in Georgia, the former Soviet republic. After a year of hard work and planning, Francois and his tour group flew to Tibilisi to put these roads to the test.
We travelled 2300km through Georgia on our self-drive 4×4 expedition and had the most interesting experiences with the highlight being the mountain pass to Omalo, between Russia and Georgia.
Our group consisted of 25 South Africans, with a guide who knew the country and could speak Georgian.
Schalk Kruger, an old friend, went with us. He had bought a farm in Georgia where he has achieved massive success in growing mealies, along with the 600ha of lucern that he exports to Aberbajan. That is a story on its own. In this column, I want to talk about the road to Omalo.
The night before tackling the pass we stayed at a guest house in the little town of Signagi. We set off after breakfast for Omalo, another small town high in the mountains, which is cut off from the world when snow envelopes the region in winter.
It was springtime and the challenging mountain pass (that counts among the world’s most dangerous roads) was open for traffic. We were in seven 4×4 vehicles, with some of the most experienced drivers from SA behind the wheels, but we did not realise what awaited us.
The countryside was beautiful – green hills ahead of the snow-covered mountains in the direction we were heading.
At first we followed a narrow gravel road next to a river.Then it became a mountain pass cut into the side of a vertical mountainside. There was a snow covered mountaintop on the left – about one kilometre directly above us – and that is where we were heading.
The crunching gravel road was cut out of the vertical slope “by hand”, we were told, and in some places it was so narrow that we had to fold in the left-hand mirror to prevent it from scraping the rock face. On the right side, the wheels were only 20cm from the edge of a vertical drop into the canyon, about 800m below.
The surface was wet from the melting snow above, with loose ground from recent rockfalls and landslides. It was a very scary experience, but exactly what we had come for.
The drivers were confident, careful and very fearful. Every 2km or so there was a small, wider place where you could pass oncoming traffic. Fortunately, on the whole trip we encountered only six vehicles on their way down. They were eager to make conversation and said things we fortunately could not understand, but from their body language it sounded like a warning. But we were committed and continued – until we met a 4×4 whose driver showed us photographs he had taken higher up the pass.
The melting snow had softened the soil and caused a massive landslide, closing off the road entirely. There was no way a vehicle could get past it.
By now we were quite close to the top and everybody had just about had enough. If we were going to turn around, we had to do it right then, or we would not be able to get back to the guest house before dark.
At the next bend, there was a turn-around spot at a waterfall and we decided to call it a day. Just turning around was quite an event, and some drivers sweated so much they decided to cool down in the waterfall. It was freezing, with bits of melting snow coming down the stream, but they jumped in and cooled down nonetheless. They knew what lay ahead on the way down!
This was an experience we will never forget and the highlight of our 16-day tour through Georgia.
Next year, in May, we will revisit Georgia. There is simply so much more to experience.