Monday, 6 April 2020

Czech cavers help assess the potential of Georgia's unique karst underground

By Filip Šebek | Czech Development Agency |
6 January 2020

In November, several months of work by a team of experts from the Cave Administration of the Czech Republic, which went to Georgia as part of a Czech Development Agency project to assess the potential of cave use in the west of the country, all came to an end. Imereti, Samegrelo and Racha are significant for the occurrence of surface and underground karst phenomena. However, lack of funding and of the relevant expertise prevent Georgians from exploring these natural gems. A project carried out under the Sending Experts programme should help make these areas accessible in the form of ecotourism, with the involvement of local people in the provision of tourist services, which would make a significant contribution to increasing the income in this region, which is poor, but of great natural value.

A concept of cave development in the Imereti, Samegrelo and Racha regions was compiled back in 2015, as part of which Czech experts identified the individual steps through which it would be possible to gather information about the karsts and their use in the protection of Georgia’s natural wealth. The Racha area is located in the north-eastern tip of western Georgia and covers an area of 2,854 km2. Surface and underground karst phenomena, such as sinkholes, grikes, swallow holes, karst springs, caves and abysses are abundant in all parts of the Rachan karst massif, and even whole cave systems on occasion.

“Most important from the point of view of protecting the area is the Nakeral Ridge. The karst plateau, with an average height of 1,500 m above sea level and a number of karst phenomena, extends to the west of the Shaori dam over an area of 60 km2. There are plenty of sinkholes on the plateau, the exact number of which has not yet been established, and more than 10 caves are registered in the area. The longest one of these is the Racha 2001 Cave, discovered and explored by local speleologists. The total length of all areas of the cave system is 4073 m. There is unique stalactite and stalagmite decoration in some places in the cave in the form of eccentric growths,” explains speleologist Petr Zajíček, a specialist at the Cave Administration of the Czech Republic, who examined the area together with Karel Drbal and Vratislav Ouhrabka from the Department of Care for Caves.

The second longest cave is the Muradi Cave, which lies about 1.5 km from the Racha 2001 Cave. Its specific stalactite and stalagmite decoration makes it a unique site in Georgia. Local speleologists were able to discover other parts at the end of 2014, with extremely rare forms of stalactite and stalagmite filling in the form of oddly-structured, spherical formations of a diameter of up to 50 cm suspended on the stalactites. This unique decoration was created underwater in the past and its origin is a topic of debate among experts. In addition to these forms of decoration, the Muradi Cave also features rich stalactite, stalagmite, curtain and sinter cascade decoration and deserves special care and protection against the damage that can occur in the event of frequent unorganised visits. Even in this cave, new discoveries were made in the end sections during cooperation between Czech and Georgian speleologists.

Hydrological surveys are required to ensure visitor safety

Another beautiful cave with potential tourist use is Arsen Okrojanashvili Cave in the Samegrelo area, which reaches a total length of 1,600 metres, the height of its corridors ranging from 8 to 30 metres. Moreover, the watercourse here creates a number of underground lakes. “At present, the cave is difficult to get through and a rubber boat has to be used. The waters leave the cave through the entrance and form a cascading waterfall of a height of 234 metres. The water level in the cave increases sharply during torrential rain or when snow melts on the plateau. Absolute visitor safety is essential for the cave to be used. Hydrological surveys, including the maximum and minimum water flow levels, must therefore be carried out to ensure safe conditions inside the cave. This year, therefore, 3 sets of level gauges were purchased in the Czech Republic and subsequently installed at predetermined locations in the cave. Workers from the Georgian Agency of Protected Areas were then acquainted with operation, reading data and evaluating them,” says Petr Zajíček.

The Racha area, an area of considerable ecological value, has indisputable tourist potential. The Georgians would like to declare this area a protected site in order to protect the area from adverse effects. However, in order to know the territory, it is necessary to carry out review exploration, for which the Georgians do not have sufficient resources. According to Czech experts, carrying out such a survey, especially with regard to biodiversity, is a task for a large scientific team over several years. Czech experts are able to carry out a review inventory of the karst landscape with basic karst phenomena within the project and to determine the boundaries of the future protected area, so as to include the most important habitats for future biodiversity research.

For tourists to be able to use the area, it would then be necessary to build the appropriate infrastructure, access roads, walkways or rest areas in order to avoid uncontrolled movement of visitors and damage to nature. Some parts of the area, such as waterfalls and caves, can only be made accessible to tourists on foot. Tourists would only be allowed to enter the caves if accompanied by responsible guides and depending on the weather; otherwise there would be an immediate threat to their health and lives. In all cases, making the beautiful caves of Georgia accessible should lead to the development of the region and in turn an improvement in the standard of living of the local people in the future.