While pondering where to go this summer Laura and I decided to both make a list and see where there is an overlap. Between all the different travel destinations, one country stood out. Georgia. There are salamanders there, it has some high altitude places which are good for summer herping and there is one special amphibian which only reproduces in summer. Moreover there were quite some species there which Laura and I missed on another trip to the region, back in 2015 when we visited NE Turkey. So we set out a route which would allow us to see the many specialties the country has to offer. Going in summer proved indeed the right time to go for the Caucasian Parsley Frog. Also at the higher altitudes we generally had suitable conditions for herping. But overall, the weather was hot and the landscape dry, making it very hard to find some species. Lizard activity was very low and even some of the Darevskia species took some time to find. Most amphibians were done breeding and of the newts we didn't find a trace. All in all we can't complain but going a month earlier could have made all the difference.
After making a plan, we asked some friends to join in on the fray. Quick to join was Dominik Hauser (DE). Later also Gert Jan Verspui (NL) and Anniek Tump (NL) prolonged their membership to the super adventure club.
26-28th of July 2018
In the late afternoon Dominik, Laura and I flew from Munich to Tbilisi with a stopover in Warsaw. As we flew with LOT airlines we had a lot of delay. But after a sleepless night we arrived early in the morning at Tbilisi where GJ and Anniek were already waiting. We collected the Toyota Prado and drove in the direction of the Caucasus Mountains. Our first stop was the Gergeti Trinity Church at 2170m absl. Completely sleep-deprived we stumbled up the steep slopes around the church where Anniek found the first herp of the trip, a small Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca). Not for long our main target for this area was also found, and we saw a total of five Dinnik's Vipers (Vipera dinniki).
In the afternoon we did some sightseeing in the town of Sno and searched in a nearby valley. Here the Apollos (Parnassius apollo) were flying around while the wet meadows were full of Caucasian Brown Frogs (Rana macrocnemis) and Green Toads (Bufotes viridis). Dominik saw an additional Dinnik's Viper here as well. In Stepantsminda we quickly found a room in Pension Soncho and some quality food at a nearby restaurant. Directly after dinner we crawled in our beds for a good night's rest.
Sleeping for some hours worked wonders for our energy levels and a good breakfast at the guesthouse even more so. In the morning we hiked up to 3000m absl for a stunning view on the Kazbek, which is one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus with 5047m absl. The hike was a steep climb up for several hours but the view on the steep snow capped peaks, barren slopes and glaciers was well worth it. On the way down we found some more Dinnik's Vipers which seem to be rather common here.
28th of July 2018
In the afternoon we hopped in the car and drove the horrible road from Stepantsminda towards Tbilisi back and drove in the direction of Borjomi. Along the way we had a short stop in Stalin's birthtown Gori. After we arrived in Borjomi, we first drove to the rangerpost to tell the rangers we want to search at night within the national park. Much to our delight they said this wouldn't be a problem. We found a semi-decent place to stay at Hotel Olymp and had a quick but tasty dinner along the road. Back at the rangerpost there weren't any rangers to open the gate for us so we had to do it ourselves. The road was a bit muddy and bumpy, but we made it to the swampy meadow in the middle of the forest. Here we were looking for one of the few amphibians which only reproduces in summer, whereas most amphibians breed in spring. At first we only saw several Caucasian Toads (Bufo verrucosissimus), Caucasian Brown Frogs, Levant Water Frogs (Pelophylax bedriagae) and a Transcaucasian Water Shrew (Neomys teres) but in the end we managed to find two Caucasian Parsley Frogs (Pelodytes caucasicus). This species eluded Laura and me back in 2015 in Turkey but now we finally could observe this species in the wild. Excited but exhausted we fell asleep at well past 02:00am.
29th of July 2018
Going in summer means dealing with hot and dry conditions. To avoid the biggest heat we decided to get up at 06:00am to stand a chance of finding any vipers. At an interesting slope with many loose rocks and isolated big bushes we started our search. Already early in the morning the temperatures were high and some lizards such as Red-bellied Lizards (Darevskia parvula) and Levant Green Lizard (Lacerta media) were active. When motivation sank and we were about to give up I decided to do a last round at the best looking place and was in luck. A big and beautiful female Transcaucasian Long-nosed Viper (Vipera transcaucasiana) crawled between the scree. Another species which Laura and I couldn't photograph in Turkey three years back and for which we found redemption. While waiting for GJ and Anniek to finish their photography, we coincidentally met Zauri Khachidze whom we knew via social media. He kindly offered us to show us the best place to look for Caucasus Vipers the next morning. Plans were made and we agreed to meet the next day.
In the hot afternoon we had a dip in a nice stream and a siesta in our air-conditioned room. For dinner we went to another roadside restaurant. In this one they didn't get our order straight and we got three kilos of chips as a dessert. Back in the forest we had again no problems getting past the friendly rangers and we searched along the small streams for another regional specialty. It took some time but finally Laura found a small Caucasian Salamander (Mertensiella caucasica) sitting close to a tiny stream. Some other amphibians were also active such as Caucasian Toads and Caucasian Brown Frogs. On the path we found some fresh Brown Bear prints, but sadly did not get a glimpse of the animal that left these tracks.
30th of July 2018
When we entered Zauri's hometown at 7am we were already greeted by him and his son Dimitri at his house. We hiked up the steep and dry slopes which are the best places to look for Caucasus Viper. This is the furthest east of the distribution for this species and sadly it is far from common. Also during the hot summer months Zauri rarely sees this species. In a small stream we found some big larvae of Caucasian Salamander but the Caucasus Viper eluded us. It was very nice to meet Zauri and Dimitri and we have to come back in spring one day. In the afternoon we explored some places close to Bakuriani for amphibians. Along the road we saw several Spiny-tailed Lizards (Darevskia rudis) but in the ponds there was little to no activity. A nearby waterfall provided us with shade and refreshment to relax a bit during the hottest hours. At restaurant Sazandari we had a fabulous meal and as soon as it got dark we searched at some places we marked in daylight. Caucasian Brown Frogs were omnipresent but of Caucasian Newt and Banded Newts we were clearly to late in the season as we didn't even find larvae. Luckily GJ and I found an additional three Caucasian Parsley Frogs in and around the ponds to save the evening.
31st of July 2018
In the morning we went into a nice valley west of Borjomi. It took some time for the sun to reach the bottom of the steep valley, but soon after that, Dominik first found a not so nice female Transcaucasian Long-nosed Viper. But he kept the best for last: after a short stroll together with Laura they returned with another Transcaucasian Long-nosed Viper, this time the most stunning male. During photography it got quite warm, but the nearby stream made sure we had a great place to cool down.
31st of July 2018
In the afternoon we drove into the Lesser Caucasus where we looked around some streams for some more Caucasian Salamanders. In the first two streams we could only find larvae and fresh metamorphs with a lot of effort, but in the third stream we struck gold and found some nice looking adults. Also several Spiny-tailed Lizards were seen. In the Old Bar in Akhaltsikhe we had an amazing dinner (Ojakhuri!) before we finally arrived in the remote town of Ninotsminda on the Armenian border. In hotel Parvana we found a place to stay for the next few nights. The mattresses were thin and the ladies of horizontal refreshment waiting in the hall looked as worn down as the rest of the place, but it was cheap and served its purpose.
1st of August 2018
We had breakfast in the hotel which was a one time thing... At the Turkish border we searched the steep terrain for Armenian Steppe Viper (Vipera eriwanensis) but temperatures rose quickly and all we found was a skin of this species and many Sand Lizards (Lacerta agilis brevicaudata). When it got too hot we were waiting for Gert Jan to come down the slope as well. It took ages while we were sitting in the baking sun, but two young boys invited us in for a coffee. We thought there would be a small cafe or something but instead we were invited by a very friendly Armenian family who made sure we had plenty of coffee, cake, watermelon and homemade cheese (banisj). Later on Gert Jan stumbled in the farmhouse as well and we found out the reason why it took him so long - he sprained his ankle. Luckily he is indestructible and was soon on his feet again. After we thanked the family for their kind invitation and delicious food we drove towards a big lake to relax a bit during the hottest part of the day. At the lake we saw many Dalmatian Pelicans (Pelecanus crispus), Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) and Armenian Gulls (Larus armenicus). Also several Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix scutata) were seen but none could be caught for a picture. In the afternoon we drove towards another slope to have another try for Armenian Steppe Viper but this time there were thunderclouds rolling in and our short attempt had to be seized. Back in Ninotsminda we had dinner at Ojakh Fastfood. At several places around the city we searched for amphibians and grass snakes in the drizzling rain but only found Caucasian Brown Frogs, Levant Water Frogs and Green Toads.
2nd of August 2018
When we looked out of the window in the morning the weather was still not the best, heavily overcast with a few drops of rain. We took it easy and scored some proper breakfast and coffee in the town. We decided to search for another viper species this day and drove to the Armenian border. A bumpy road lead us to a perfect looking slope and as soon as we got out of the car the sun came out. Perfect timing and it also didn't take us long to find five individuals of Darevsky's Viper (Vipera darevskii). Later on also lizards emerged and several Armenian Lizards (Darevskia armeniaca) were seen. We decided with these good conditions we would try Armenian Steppe Viper again as well and drove to the Turkish border. At the good looking slope close to a town full of baby animals we searched, sadly the sun was out in force again and all we found were Sand Lizards. We did see many bird of prey such as Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Steppe Buzzard (Buteo vulpinus) and Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga). In the evening we had dinner at Restaurant Gruzia and after a few beers we decided to make it an early night.
3rd of August 2018
Our last attempt for Armenian Steppe Viper was again not succcessful despite the great looking habitat and rather fine conditions. We did see again many Sand Liards and this time also a rather unhealthy looking Grass Snake and Dominik found a small Spotted Whip Snake (Hemorrhois ravergieri). Heavily disillusioned we decided to move on to new herping grounds.
3rd of August 2018
The drive in the direction of Tbilisi was long but went rather smooth. We had lunch somewhere along the way and in the late afternoon we had a short herping sessions. We found an incredible amount of snake skins of whip snakes and dwarf snakes and not for long Laura flipped a small Dwarf Snake (Eirenis modestus). Also our first Spur-thighed Tortoises (Testudo graeca) and some Levant Green Lizards were seen here. Thunder clouds came rolling in but we still decided to brave the crowded city of Tbilisi and drive towwards the turtle lake. Once we arrived there the clouds burst and all we could do was wait, drink and make use of the wifi in a small lakeside cafe. When it got dry we searched around an old church where we easily found several Green Toads and Caspian Bent-toed Geckoes (Tenuidactylus caspius). In the Rose Hotel we found a conveniently located place to sleep. The restaurant next door gave us an interesting glimpse in the every day life of Russian tourists in Tbilisi, apart from a simple warm meal before going to bed.
4th of August 2018
We had a bit of a slow start in the morning and not many animals were out and about. When we arrived at the Kumisi Lake that changed and many terrapins were spotted, both European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis) and Caspian Terrapin (Mauremys caspica). The place looked amazing for amphibians so we already made plans to come back in the evening. On the way back to the mainroad we searched along several stoneheaps where we found several Spur-thighed Tortoises and two Collared Dwarf Snakes (Eirenis collaris). The highlight however was finding three Schmidt's Whip Snakes (Dolichophis schmidti) close to an abandoned farmhouse. Such strikingly coloured and fierce animals! This was another species Laura and I were specifically keen on photographing as we couldn't catch this species in NE Turkey three years back. In the afternoon we herped in a small valley with some water close to Tbilisi but there was very little activity and only a handful unidentified Darevskia were seen along with a single Caucasian Agama (Paralaudakia caucasia). South of Tbilisi we had a fantastic dinner in restaurant Imeruli Oda after which we went back to the Kumisi Lake. It didn't take us long to find a species we already expected to find here, and we found four Eastern Spadefoot Toads (Pelobates syriacus) along with several Green Toads and Levant Water Frogs. Then the time had come for us to say goodbye to Gert Jan. He had another trip planned to Greece but didn't want to miss out on (a part of) our Georgia adventure.
5th of August 2018
Another short night so we felt like we deserved some proper breakfast. At the Turtle Lake we bought ourselves some nice bread and scrambled eggs. We did a small round trip in the hills above the lake, but apart from a single Levant Green Lizard we didn't see much. Apparently Turtle Lake is divided in several zones but luckily there were people to point the swim-zone out to us. We were about to swim in the stand-in-the-water-until-your-knees zone.
5th of August 2018
The drive to the east was long and warm but along the way we found a nice place for a picknick in the shade next to a stream. Caspian Terrapin and Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata) were found without too much effort. In Dedoplistskaro we dumped our luggage in the Savannah Guest House and drove further east on a bumpy and overgrown road. The habitat for Steppe Viper and Steppe Snake was hot, dry and full of thistles so in the end we only found another Schmidt's Whip Snake crossing the road. A quick jump from the car ensured a catch and closer look. Also many Black Francolins (Francolinus francolinus) were seen. Back in the town we had dinner in the Mandarin restaurant. We noticed how tired we still were from all the short nights so we decided to not make it so late. We had a quick look for Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) outside town but only saw one from quite a distance.
6th of August 2018
We were up early to try and find Steppe Viper and Steppe Snake again at the thistle spot but to no avail. We soon gave up and try our luck at a monastery close to town. Here Laura decided she didn't have enough of the thistles yet and dove into them, catching a Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus) in the process. Also several Spur-thighed Tortoises were seen. Back in town we had a lot of organisatory things to do but after collecting our permits to visit the border with Azerbaijan, buying groceries for the next few days, getting gas and getting money we were on our way to a very special place: the Vashlovani National Park. This unique nature reserve is home to a whole lot of animal species including gazelles, porcupines, jungle cats, brown bear, wolves and even the occasional leopard which crosses the border from Azerbaijan. Of course also many reptiles find their home here and it didn't take us long to find the first Central Asian Racerunners (Eremias velox) and Caucasian Agamas. The drive to our accommodation at Mijniskure was long and strenuous, following winding roads through narrow crevices and ravines. At a certain point the mud got quite deep and here we also encountered a car which got stuck. We offered them help but they said help was already on its way. So we could drive past them and be on our way. This was easier said than done but luckily Laura did a sterling job to navigate the car past the other car. At the camp we were merrily greeted by a tiny kitten we named Eli and two massive dogs who were called Davidovich and Davidovina. They would be our new best friends at this place and follow us around everywhere. Moreover, we found that the climate here is something different. Despite being rather late it was still very hot so we decided for our first dip in the murky waters of the Alazani River. After that we boiled some water for a simple but tasty meal of noodles, corn and canned beef. In the end, the latter was eaten by our new furry friends, as it tasted like it was meant for them. Our first evening stroll delivered very well, it didn't take us five minutes to find the first Blunt-nosed Viper (Macrovipera lebetina) crossing the path. Two more were found including a massive female. Also several Green Toad were seen hopping on the path. While having a beer at the river, a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) was staring at us at the other side of the stream.
7th of August
In the morning we drove around and herped a bit here and there at suitable looking places but it was already (or rather still) hot so we didn't see much. We did see a European Hare (Lepus europaeus) and several interesting birds of which Chukar (Alectoris chukar) were by far the most common. In the afternoon Dominik and I discovered that you could also float down the river back to the camp. Laura and Anniek dropped us off and drove back to the camp while Dominik and I floated down stream. This was simply amazing, to float downstream through this dreamlike landscape with otherworldly rock formations and the lush green vegetation lining the stream. It truly felt like in a rainforest with brightly coloured birds such as Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), Rollers (Coracias garrulus) and Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus) fluttering through the canopy of the big trees, cicadas singing in the scorching hot sun and the murky waters of the Alazani River dragging you down stream. Dom and I also paid a visit to Azerbaijan and discovered the quality of the mud there is simply amazing. Right temperature, the finest possible grain of sediment giving it a soft texture, just perfect! Sadly we couldn't enjoy it that long because the rangers called us back. The floating however we did several times today and everytime it was pure bliss. In some parts the current was strong and the waterlevel low but a few bruises were well worth it!
After a relaxing day I went out in the last few hours of sunlight and saw a lot of prints and tracks of the bigger wildlife such as porcupines, wolves and wild cats. Also a family of Little Owls (Athene noctua) and some more Central Asian Racerunners were seen. For dinner we had the same noodles again complemented by cuddles from cute kitten Eli and calls from a Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax). At night we got a little stuck in a muddy wadi but found an additional Green Toad and Blunt-nosed Viper.
8th of August 2018
After breakfast we set out to take the southern road out of the park. This would lead us through (for us) unchartered territory, avoid the horrible muddy road and give us a chance to see Goitered Gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa). Along the way we herped at some nice looking places but only found Levant Water Frog and Central Asian Racerunner. While Eurasian Rollers, several Shrike species and big birds of prey brightened up the sky, we drove through a parched landscape while keeping an eye out for the gazelles. In this time of year they have young and retreat more to taller grass and bushes, which meant for us we would leave this beautiful place without having seen gazelles. Back in the civilized world we had lunch and some cold drinks before we drove on towards Lagodekhi. Also there it was incredibly hot and humid but we still searched for Steppe Snake at another known spot. The habitat looked fantastic so we decided to come back when the temperatures sank a little. In a more shaded place inside the national park, our legless-lizard-girl Laura found a female Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica) and we saw several Caspian Green Lizards (Lacerta strigata). It was amazing to see how this old growth forest supports a wealth of beetles and everywhere Caucasian Lesser Stag Beetles (Dorcus peyronis), Eastern Stag Beetles (Lucanus ibericus) and Rhinoceros Beetles (Oryctes nasicornis) were crawling around. Then in the late afternoon another unsuccessful snake hunt at the Steppe Snake spot. For dinner we went to a squalid roadside kebabi place where we marvelled at the local inhabitants of this town. There must be something in the water. Or everybody is related to each other... After dark we set out to find Tree Frogs but despite a single calling male Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) we couldn't get any sightings of one. So we drank some beer instead.
9th of August 2018
Of course tried to find our main target Steppe Snake again in the morning but were agin unsuccessful. It is bizarre that there is no snake activity at all at this seemingly perfect place. Must be the season... Afterwards we did a rather strenuous hike up to the Black Grouse Waterfall. The bridge was washed away but a few big logs and conveniently placed pegs made sure we could cross the stream. The waterfall itself was a rather nice place but the water itself cold as ice. Dom and I went in nevertheless. On the way down we saw the first reptiles to become active, a few Derjugin's Lizards (Darevskia derjugini) and I found two Smooth Snakes crawling around. Back down at the village we had lunch at the Wald Hotel, refreshed at our guesthouse and drove towards Tbilisi. We arrived in the evening, had dinner at a nice square and were a bit overwhelmed by the loud and smelly city. Especially the contrast with Vashlovani was huge. Luckily there was a nice quiet place nearby with comfortable sofas and friendly ladies who seem to work out a lot.
The journey home was less fun and while Anniek's flight had a 4 hour delay, making her miss her connecting flight, Dominik, Laura and I only had a minor delay. Still enough to make us miss our connecting flight back to Munich. The whole morning we spent at Warsaw airport, but we did discover that the meditating rooms on airports are perfect for catching some sleep.
Georgia was a fantastic country to travel in. The myriad of landscapes, running from snow-capped peaks and glaciers to murky rivers and barren deserts made sure there is always a natural marvel to behold. And the best thing is, the Georgians seem to take care of their natural environment. Laura and I kept comparing this country to bordering Turkey but it was the complete opposite. Where Turkey is covered in trash, in Georgia you can see people collecting litter along the streets. It is a much cleaner country. Furthermore, well over 70 species of amphibians and reptiles that live in this country make it a herpers heaven. The people I encountered on our trip were among the most friendly and hospitable I ever met. Frequently you are invited for a drink or a small meal. The Georgian men also love to walk around without a shirt (or in other ways displaying their belly) which I can definitely respect. The roads are mostly in a fine shape and the people don't drive like complete idiots like in so many other countries. Quite the opposite in fact, and driving here comes down to constantly overtaking as people tend to drive slow. The fabled food also didn't disappoint and every day we could count on some simple but excellent meal. Moreover, small shops are everywhere and it is a rather cheap country. There are many reasons for me to visit again!
Caucasian Salamander (Mertensiella caucasica)
Caucasian Toad (Bufo verrucosissimus)
Green Toad (Bufotes viridis)
Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) only calling
Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus)
Caucasian Parsley Frog (Pelodytes caucasicus)
Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriagae)
Caucasian Brown Frog (Rana macrocnemis)
European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis ssp. iberica)
Caspian Terrapin (Mauremys caspica)
Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca)
Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica)
Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus)
Caspian Bent-toed Gecko (Tenuidactylus caspius)
Caucasian Agama (Paralaudakia caucasia)
Armenian Lizard (Darevskia armeniaca)
Caucasian Lizard (Darevskia caucasica)
Derjugin's Lizard (Darevskia derjugini)
Red-bellied Lizard (Darevskia parvula)
Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis ssp. obscura)
Central Asian Racerunner (Eremias velox ssp. caucasia)
Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis ssp. brevicaudata)
Levant Green Lizard (Lacerta media)
Caspian Green Lizard (Lacerta strigata)
Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)
Schmidt's Whip Snake (Dolichophis schmidti)
Collared Dwarf Snake (Eirenis collaris)
Dwarf Snake (Eirenis modestus)
Spotted Whip Snake (Hemorrhois ravergieri)
Grass Snake (Natrix natrix ssp. scutata)
Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)
Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus)
Blunt-nosed Viper (Macrovipera lebetina ssp. obtusa)
Darevsky's Viper (Vipera darevskii)
Dinnik's Viper (Vipera dinniki)
Armenian Steppe Viper (Vipera eriwanensis) skin
Transcaucasian Long-nosed Viper (Vipera transcaucasiana)
Many thanks to Thomas Bader, Wolfgang Bischoff, Geert Carette, Jesse Erens, Giorgi Ianqoshvili, Guram Iremashvili, Zauri Khachidze, Ronald Laan, David Tarkhnishvili, Sebastian Voitel and Tim Warfel.