More than once in recent weeks I’ve found myself lying awake at night, my mind refusing to take a break from thinking, planning, worrying.
How on Earth do you create a brand new long distance hiking trail?
Because I’ve committed to doing this thing.
I really have. I’ve cleared my entire schedule for 2016 to create a long-distance hiking route across Armenia and Georgia – or, at least, to get the ball rolling on it. I’ve turned down talks and events, postponed all my other projects, and put making a living on hold to do something more worthwhile (again).
How to begin?
That part is obvious. I will make the journey myself. This is the grassroots way of thinking and it’s how I tend to work. I will start by going out and finding the route.
The top-down approach would be different. It would involve creating an organisational framework, mapping out a long-term strategy, recruiting a team of specialists, raising a ton of cash – and only then thinking about the actual dirt beneath my feet.
There’s definitely a place for that. Indeed, there are other people doing that right now. But it’s not me.
Getting to know the geography of the South Caucasus intimately, as I suspect I will do this year, is a big investment of time and energy. Exploring is what I love, and so making it my full-time job for a while is hardly a burden. Done thoughtfully, it will pay dividends many time over in the coming years, in terms of familiarity with the terrain, local connections, and – perhaps most urgently of all – mapping data.
Because we do take access to the outdoors for granted in the UK. Even from a job in central London, we can escape to nature with a quick train journey or bike ride in any direction and be sleeping on a hilltop that night; back at work at 9am; nobody any the wiser for our microadventure. For longer jaunts we have a vast network of public footpaths and regional & national parks, and every inch of land has been charted many times over, both digitally and on paper.
Moreover, we no longer question that any of this is possible. The Kinder mass trespass of 1932 ignited the movement towards open access to the British countryside. Who still out walking remembers that?
In Armenia, the precise opposite is true. The best topographical maps – crucial in a place so mountainous – remain the Cold War-era maps made by the Soviet military. The most useful of these sets, at a scale of 1:50,000, remains unavailable to the public. While OpenStreetMap looks respectably detailed in places, much of the data for the remote regions seems to have been traced from old satellite imagery and never verified on the ground. Publicly-available aerial photography, as seen on Google Earth, is dated and in many places too low in resolution to be useful.
It’s not just a dearth of data, though. It’s also that there is no culture of outdoor pursuits – at least as we know it – let alone nature protection and conservancy. Social anthropologists will point out that this is because since the Soviet collapse, Armenia and its neighbours have been concerned only with survival. This is true. But it is also true that the days of the survival economy are coming to an end. The middle class is growing, minds are broadening, and space is opening up for new concerns.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ‘classic’ hikes in Armenia; short day-hikes which will take you to one of a handful of remote monasteries and of which tour agencies have been selling guided versions for years. But it is a closed loop, unchanging, a source of regular revenue to a small and protective industry which has no interest in open access or a growth in independent outdoor pursuits.
Seek out the outdoor enthusiasts who do live here and you will get a glimpse of what’s possible. The South Caucasus is, after all, dominated by two mountain ranges – the Greater and Lesser Caucasus – whose area is comparable to the Alps and the Pyrenees combined, and whose elevation, biodiversity and richness of cultural heritage exceeds them both. The climate is favourable; long summers, flowing rivers. The welcome is warm, the food fantastic, and the flights ever more affordable. What better place for outdoor adventures?
Yet the Caucasus remains hidden and largely untouched; the fragile-looking geopolitical situation putting off foreigners who would otherwise visit, and the lack of basic access to the outdoors frustrating those, like me, who are already here (although not so hidden that Lonely Planet don’t have a guidebook for the region).
So 2016’s big expedition – to make a deep exploration of the trails of the Lesser Caucasus – will be partly about revealing the potential of this part of the world as a place to explore, and partly about laying long-term foundations for access to the outdoors. This has already begun in Georgia, whose reformed government, together with a strong grassroots movement, has already put the country on the map for hiking, mountain-biking and ski touring among early adopters. In Armenia, though, it will be something entirely unprecedented.
There’s now a core ‘team’ of three of us here in Yerevan, with a growing circle of collaborators. In the few days since I arrived in Armenia we’ve set up a HQ at the Impact Hub – a newly founded co-working community focused on social enterprise and innovation, and a rare place in Armenia where I genuinely find myself among like-minded people.
The shape of the project has been developing rapidly over the winter months, too. Our early work was about identifying existing off-road trails to scout. Before long, we were looking at a web of lines on a map consisting of roughly 5,000 kilometres of potential trail; clearly an impossible task to explore on foot in a single summer. The project was already outgrowing itself.
We realised that an off-road vehicle of some description would be needed, which would cost money to buy and to run. We had plenty of willing volunteers, but they would also cost money to feed and transport. And we’d need equipment to gather data and turn it into accurate maps – as well as learning all the skills to pull all of this off. It quickly became obvious that we’d need to find funding to work on the project effectively.
It turns out there’s a lot more generosity and willingness on the part of donors when a social cause is genuinely at the heart of a project, as opposed to a personal adventure, and I’m happy to say we’ve found a very appropriate backer for this year’s explorations – on which more soon.
In the meantime, however, questions continue to keep me awake at night.
How on Earth do you create a brand new long distance hiking trail?
The social media landscape has changed. The old formulas don’t work. Will people still be interested?
There’s a fascinating documentary in here somewhere, but I can’t see what it will look like. What should I be filming right now?
I know – I know – that the hiking potential of the Caucasus is awesome. But what if it’s too hard, too remote?
What if the obstacles are too great?
What if, on the first day of this expedition, we drive to some remote place we’ve found on a map and discover that everything is impossible and the entire project is dead in the water?
What if nobody ever walks the trail?
What if the way I’m approaching this is all wrong?
Am I really the right person do this?
These, I believe, are natural questions and concerns, for there are unknowns inherent in any good adventure. And ultimately it’s because I care – it’s because I really want to do this – that I find myself laying awake at night thinking about it all.
At some point, though…
I would really like to get some sleep.
No doubt you’ll find me answering the above questions on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook this summer, as well as on this blog. The trail project will soon be getting its own website, too. Watch this space.