Back in the USSR (the Beatles feat Lili) – the first track on the Whitewater album:
It started at 4 am on a Saturday morning. Emma P, me, a Machno called Bob and Jasmine the purple Scirocco on the way to Luton airport to leave the West behind.
I’ve not flown with a kayak before and I was extremely nervous but it all went smoothly to Gdańsk where we transferred. We were looking for Jakob one of the guides in the airport. We said we would be the ones with the kayak. He said he would be the one without a kayak. But maybe there would be more than one bloke without a kayak at the airport?!
We found Jakob by sending him a selfie. He was wearing an Unleashed jumper (!) and mercifully dark jeans which I quickly covered in Diet Coke and vodka as we dealt with a 3 hour delay in the connection to Kutaisi. That delay grew to 22 hour (man I had a dreadful flight) and I was very glad to have Jakob’s help dancing a luggage trolly with a Machno and a ton of bags to the Hilton airport hotel. Eat your heart out, Fred Astaire.
It wasn’t hard to persuade me to bin the idea of a 9 mile run in the hotel gym for a whistle stop tour of Gdansk. I started a gymnastic competition by dead hanging on a bar on the train and then persuading Jakob to do a pull up. Then a Polish dude arrived out of nowhere and executed a move of which Olga Korbut would have been proud. We saw churches, amber for sale and I got a magnet saying “Gdansk jest Ok”. Oh and Emma and Jakob got (wrongly) fined for not having bought a train ticket.
There were many hours to kill and Emma had been musing that as kayakers we would be in a good position to survive the Zombie apocalypse. A dry suit is good protection against bites. Maybe we can escape the zombies on the river? But what river would you send if you were undead? Victoria Falls! Jakob had clearly lost his heart to Africa.
We arrived late in Kutasasi where we met Bartosz (the other guide), Kate and a Swedish paddler called Jimmy. I was delighted that the Bob had made it in one piece.
We started on the Supsa: beautiful but emotionally exhausting gorge. Horizon line followed horizon line as we wound down narrow sets of rapids: perhaps like the lower Tryweryn with gradient, lots of gradient and a horse statue rather than a chip shop at the get out. This was Russian class 2 described by the locals has being free of trees. Emma rejects the idea that the Supsa is anything like the lower Tryweryn unless the lower Tryweryn has had a personality transplant. More Upper Roy but with more blind corners and somehow more rocks.
Something I learned early on was that the adjective “russian” was in fact usually a synonym for “not” and there was a fair bit of wood in the river to boot. I took some rolls but everything was basically ok and I was awarded the position of backstop following hard on the heels of Jakob’s red Waka Tuna and its elegant lines (DO think about the lines the love child of Thanh and Princess Diana, DON’T think about the parentage of Prince Harry).
We were presented with Chacha: Georgian moonshine, a clear, harsh, potent alcohol for off the river by Merab our driver. Vegetarian food in Georgia is an eclectic mix of Khachapuri, like a stuffed crust took over a pizza, Khinkali (dumplings) and amazing vegetables: aubergines and walnut, salad, beans in a clay pot, spinach and also mushrooms with cheese: a particular favourite of Jackob’s and mine.
Our second river was the Kintrishi running some grade 3 down from the power plant. Bartosz went to play in hole and got caught in a a wire. His ability to surf out of this extremely serious situation with composure was frankly astounding. The river was beautiful; lined with daisies, buttercups and roderdendra. There were longer rapids and I started to get into my stride.
We had moved in Georgia to Kobuleti where we met Misha, a larger than life Georgian kayaker, rafter and general fixer with perfect English and a wide smile. Misha was assisting an Italian paddling group. We watched with interest as they tried to mend a blue Drago Rossi with a nose job sustained on the river. This surgery involved kettles of boiling water and a broom which Bartosz requisitioned to teach us how to forward paddle. Vertical blade, shoulder rotation, more shoulder rotation, even more shoulder rotation, use your lats.
The hotel in Kobuleti was close to the Black Sea and I had one of the best evenings I can remember on the pebbled shore watching the sunset with both Venus and Mars emerging. Kate and Jakob explored an abandoned block of flats on the waterfront taking our keys with them which naturally resulted in us purchasing home brew Cognac which tasted sweet and playing the stick video.
The next day we headed to the Machakhela in the blazing sunshine. We were so close to the Turkish border I picked up some European data on my phone (“Oh, show me round the snow-peaked mountains way down south”). However I managed absolutely to ruin my head game by sliding in without my deck and then later getting stuck on a rock, flipping on a wall and taking a T-rescue from Jakob.
Emma tackled an intimidating class 4 rapid in the gorge with a pushy entry a corner with most of the river piling loudly down a drop. Named Gnarly Cow in honour of both the Rouge Cow movement and the fact there was a horned cow at the inspection get out which wandered into the Georgian jungle as we approached. She (Emma not the cow) capsised in the second half of the rapid and was then saved by Bartosz’s hand of god. Can you even hand of god a cow? No cows went swimming.
Jimmy and I walked out to avoid the class 4 boulder gardens below. This involved a “Russian path” (ie sliding rocks on mud) on close to a vertical slope and I was glad to have Jimmy as I think I would have had to set up some mechanical assistance to get the Machno out alone. Lucky, I have that pulley and the prussik chord in my BA, if only I could remember how to use them.
We returned via Batumi: Georgian Margate, with peacocks, table tennis, candy floss, fair ground rides and a shooting game to win a teddy bear which Kate gamely took on with coaching from Bartosz. En route we were stuck in a traffic jam which Jakob won by buying a massive watermelon, cutting a face into it and letting Emma name it “Harold”. Bartosz showed some impressive strength in using a metal umbrella on the pier for a human flag: crush your core with Mary Poppins!
In the morning we had a river reading tutorial on a swing in the sunshine. We put this into practice on the Kintrishi with both river and bank scouting. Reading the river was tough and I was worried my brain might dissolve and flow right out of my ears. Due to my mistaking Bartozs’ description of a line as “monkey” (in fact “manky”), Emma designed a new method of describing the difficulty of a move “that hole had 3 monkeys in it” or, just for conjecture, “all 10 monkeys are going to get eaten by that siphon and none is getting out alive”.
My confidence grew so I designed a line over a long rapid invoking “flaring the hell out of a rock and the doing a Torvill and Dean in the flow (ie a tight turn).” I made the line well with speed, I unsurprisingly didn’t have the courage quite to make the flair and took the turn too early and too far (I did not mean to do a double Lutz) so I went down backwards and then for a swim.
We had a two river and hot spring plan for the final day. We went to the Bzhuzha which started with a stout rapid to warm up for which Emma and I planned a daunting line. This was Russian class 4 (in this case very definitely class 4). Jakob and Bartosz boat scouted the full run while we sat on the bank, Kate looking like Puck with a turban made of jumper to protect her from the sun.
The guides decided it was far too high so we went to the next valley for the Achistikhali which was basically bone dry. The micro climates in Georgia are quite variable. We then set off for, to my mind an extremely desirable, road trip to find big water on the Tskhenistskhali, listening to Hollywood Undead, of course. We played the “what’s your favourite river?” game and the answers were so inspiring that Emma set up a standing order there and then for a Zam fund and Kate mooted the possibly of working from Uganda “WFU”. If you want to go to Zambia in Autumn 2024 text Emma. Birtles was in before we got off the river.
At the Lower Tskhenistskhali finally I really found my mojo. Jakob asked me if I had ever paddled water like it? Yes: the Inn. Yes, he said, like the Inn, but with less holes. It was big, bouncy, happy, splashy and I loved every minute of it. Evidently, I did learn something in Austria last summer. Worthy of mention in despatches was Jakob’s impressive kick flip of the Tuna.
The trip to Georgia was kayaking that made you feel alive and happy to be alive. So it is with some irony that I propose a Georgian toast: here’s to spending and sending the Zombie apocalypse with you, my Georgian friends. See you at Victoria Falls.