‘There are a great number of local people in Armenia, especially in Yerevan, who do like the idea of going out hiking and exploring more of their own country,’ explains Tom Allen, serial adventurer. Unfortunately − and as a resident of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, Allen can attest to this − it’s quite a difficult activity to actually do. ‘It is just stunning geographically; the mountains, the forested regions, the national parks, the wildlife. But there isn’t a culture of outdoors in the region.’
Together with fellow resident Alessandro Mambelli, Allen will spend the next six months first driving across Europe to Armenia, then travelling around the region in search of the best hiking trails, beginning the long-term process of creating the very first trail across the region, the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT). ‘We just have to be back in time for the [RGS-IBG’s] Explore weekend,’ jokes Allen. They will be scouting for trails which could form the north-south portion of the TCT, stretching from Batumi on the Black Sea, to Meghri on the southern border of Armenia.
‘Most of the work, the real exploring, is going to be helped by people who already live there,’ explains Mambelli. ‘They can already tell us the best trails. A lot of the work is already there, we just need to connect it all.’ The plan is to split the 1,500km trail into sections, and tackle these distances section-by-section, meeting and discussing the trail with local communities, engaging and educating them about its purpose, and gathering knowledge about the best route to take through the Caucasus mountains, many of which exceed 15,000ft.
‘Once we started talking about the idea, in Yerevan, in Tbilisi, we quickly realised that there are a whole bunch of other people thinking along the same kind of lines, but not really sure what to do or how to do it,’ recalls Allen. ‘So now it feels like we’re joining the dots. Every region we go to, there’ll be people we’re already in touch with, who know the area, can help us find the routes, and can help us talk to the local people about what the impact might be, and how to benefit from it.’
Their campaign to create the first Transcaucasian Trail was helped considerably by the recent awarding of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Land Rover Bursary, which gives them access to a specially-modified Land Rover and a grant to help fund the project. ‘The car has been set up to be a mobile base camp,’ explains Allen, pointing to where the car is parked in the RGS-IBG courtyard, ready to begin its big adventure. ‘We’ve got a side-awning, tents, storage for all our GIS and camera gear. We’ve got a drone as well for surveying, and they’ve set it up for off-roading, so we can get as far into the mountains as possible before we park up and start walking. That will mean we can explore more miles of trail in the time we’ve got.’ Allen admits that while he has always aspired to walk the length of the country, surveying as he went, the project might be slightly faster with the car. ‘If you can take more people, do some proper surveying, and spend a bit more time exploring in depth, that might be a better way to do it,’ he smiles.
Once Allen and Mambelli find suitable trails they will collect detailed GIS data as they explore, enabling the creation of the first accurate maps of each section since those drawn up decades ago by military cartographers on behalf of the former Soviet Union. Once all the data has been uploaded to open-source mapping website OpenStreepMap, they will encourage local hiking groups and other early adopters to test out the routes and confirm their suitability. ‘By the end of the year, the end of the expedition,’ continues Allen, ‘we should have a theoretical prototype route mapped out. No construction or markings yet, we want feedback before we do anything like that.’
The pair will be blogging and providing updates on social media for the duration of their trip, and their progress can be followed via the GPS tracker installed in the Land Rover, which keeps tabs on their position via the below interactive map:
Ultimately, this initial stage of the creation of the Transcaucasian Trail aims to draw attention to this part of the world by enabling the formalisation of many existing and planned trails across Georgia and Armenia. ‘There are a lot of organisations or even individuals that are trying to do something,’ says Mambelli. ‘Each of these organisations have a different angle, and they can all work together. There is the guy who is building the heritage trail, to connect historical sites, for example. There are other organisations doing village-to-village hikes, where you always have a night stay. What we were more interested in was more of a wild trek, that you can go camp for two or three days without the need of being in a village. So they complement each other.’
‘It's not just about hiking,’ adds Allen. ‘It's also about putting this region on the map more generally.’