Khada Valley and Fire Cross Tower
Greater Caucasus, Around Gudauri, Georgia
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
(Fire Cross Tower - Sept 2019)
We're off! After a day and a half of city and driving, boots are on, packs shouldered and we're marching up a dirt road up a very pretty valley east of the Georgian Military Highway, that exotically named route.
This valley is a green-skinned hedgehog bristling with slender little towers, each hillside bearing at least one of them, sitting incongruously alone in its meadow: you wonder at the point of them, and their cost-to-resources ratio. There must have been one per extended family, and you would have thought it would have been a lot more effective to have combined resources and headcount - but they were in part guarding against each other: it was a land of blood feuds. They are often extraordinarily old, dating from the C10 onwards, and it amazes, given how tall and thin they are, that so many are still standing.
The ridge to our left, between us and Gudauri to the north, is crowned by a slender C12 beacon tower which is our target for the day.
First, we have to cross the stream, which we make a bit of a meal of. Lucy and I dangle legs off the grassy bluff beyond as we regroup.
We now slog straight up a steep, grassy hill, a beautiful baptism of fire and an apt introduction to the steep-steep-sided valleys of the Greater Caucasus. It is flowery torture. I am soon behind, with the ever-consistent Reggie just behind me.
On the sharp, plunging ridge to our right, there are at least three ruined towers: how could these meadows ever have supported such a population? A shocking sign of permanent uncertainty?
Our various animal tracks coalesce into a gentler trail leading into a shallow valley. It swings across to head diagonally up the far hillside to a cluster of old buildings on the ridge-top beside a vivid yellow hornbeam: a ruined tower, a recently re-roofed chapel, a broken nest of old farm buildings, once fortified by the looks.
I'm the last in, my failure to take any preparatory exercise telling painfully.
A paroxysm of delight at the beauty and wonder all around - the endless steep meadow beyond the next valley has an elegant pencil of a tower sitting alone right in its middle; looking back around the deep valley we have just come from, I lose count at 10 towers.
Our path carries on up the green hillside, soon turning left to traverse diagonally up steep meadows hundreds of feet high towards the now-visible Fire Cross Tower; but our group has split, and my rear (of course) section, unwarned, fails to turn, so we needlessly head a km or so on up the wrong valley before shouts and whistles establish where we should have gone.
Our upward crossing of these huge grassy slopes, so steep that you really don't want to try failing, is walking bliss, although the path is narrow, so every step is carefully judged.
I finally catch the others up at the tower and we have 20 minutes of view and atmosphere consumption, sitting on the ruins of the building at the tower's foot. The high Caucasus are immanent behind the next ridges upward; west, across the deep gorge with the Georgian Military Highway, is another high ridge which is the border with breakaway South Ossetia. Behind is the lovely valley we have just climbed out of. Wonderful.
The joy continues: we head on northwards, across more perfect steep grassy slopes and around another falling ridge, to a final col, where a bathetic view awaits of the ski-scarred Gudauri bowl and the huge building site which conceals our hotel, which we reach in perhaps half an hour.