The Road to Shatili
Photography collaboration of Dave Katz and Ben Roif
Writing and Editing by Dave Katz
Shortly after a midnight arrival to the Republic of Georgia, I wheeled my duffle bags and backpacks out into the crisp midnight air and found a taxi driver. To my surprise, he understood my broken Georgian and English combination, and we loaded my gear into the back of his Jeep and headed into the heart of Tblisi to a small family-style guesthouse. At the door of the guesthouse, I was greeted by the friendly owner, Sandro, and he showed me to my room. My flight had arrived multiple hours late, due to a coup-related delay in Istanbul, and by the time I was horizontal, it was nearly day break.
Stung awake by the morning’s sun rays, I met Sandro’s sister Mareh over breakfast and we quickly found a mutual interest in maps and cartography. Before I had a chance to tell her that I planned to scour the country in search of big trees, we excitedly embarked on a digital road trip around Georgia with my small smart phone and an offline map. At each interesting landmark, I saved a pin and some basic notes regarding the point of interest she recommended I visit.
There were quite a few spots that I bookmarked simply as “sketchy road, good views.” A few hours of map-geeking-out-later, my phone was full of these recommended adventure destinations when the time came for me to catch my bus ride out of town. I wished my hosts farewell and pushed out for the hills.
My primary objective of questing around the foothills of the Caucasus took about a month to complete. As a small team of three we spent most of our days hiking through the forest and climbing trees with some assistance I had from grant I received the from the Petzl Foundation. We climbed some trees we deemed “champion specimens” for their position, structure and overall beauty. We drove thousands of kilometers, hiked over a hundred kilometers and climbed about one kilometer of rope/tree. In addition, our film efforts led to the creation of nearly 20,000 photos and over 30 hours of video footage from five cameras.
After our primary objective was complete, Weston (lead climber) returned to the states with all of the climbing gear and left Ben, my film collaborator, and myself with a few days worth of time and a bunch of camera gear. Our main goal at this point became to try to visit some of those remaining pins and bookmarks on my beat up smart phone’s offline maps!
One of these pins indicated a small village called Shatili, my entry indicated “crumbling houses, big river.” At this point in my trip around Georgia, I think that would have described about half of the villages we passed through. I was a bit skeptical to say the least, so before committing to this this multi-day adventure on a road to no where, I did some basic googling. Within a few minutes of research it became apparent that my new friend Mareh was onto something. Shatili looked epic: an isolated mountain village within only a few kilometers of the Chechnya frontier and up and over a variety of switch-back laden passes. Ben and I got stoked, and we headed off.
We had no idea how bad the road would be. Some of the roads we had driven in the previous month involved axle-deep stream crossings and equally deep pot holes, mud, and first gear climbs on a single car width road. Occasionally we had to reverse down the single lane roads to accommodate a car pass.
The first section of road was amazing, smooth, and flat following a beautiful river which we stopped multiple times to swim in. Then we began the climb up the mountain and over the pass and eventually down into the village of Shatili. We camped on high ridges, enjoy the darkest skies we had seen in the whole month, and took hundreds and hundreds of photos.
Three days later, we emerged: desperately in need of a shower, the rental car a bit worse for wear, dust on everything and hard drives full of images and video. What started as a tip during conversation, ended up being an extended weekend’s worth of exploration. Thanks to Mareh for the insider’s beta!