Issue 2, 2013. April-May



It may not be as famous as the T-Rex or the Brachiosaurs, but Georgia's Sataphliasaurus is a treat for travelers looking to escape the capital for the day.

Helena Bedwell

Lasha, a guide at Sataplia National Park, works every day to amaze locals and tourists with the 125 million year old dinosaur footprints, magnificent cave, and Kolkhi forest spread over the 300-acre subtropical climate reserve in the Black Sea country of Georgia.

"What makes our Sataplia remarkable is the fact that there are footprints of both kinds of dinosaurs- carnivores and herbivores, together," he said. "More than 150 footprints [are here] and there will be more underneath."

Several dinosaurs make noises in the woods. Kids scream and run for shelter, even though they know full well that they are plastic replicas. Lasha tells children to be quiet and not to touch the replicas. "They are very valuable," he says.

135 million years ago, Sataplia was just the lagoon beach of a warm ocean, where these two to five meter tall dinosaurs simply walked about. Their footprints then dried on the seabed and stones, simple as that, according to Vaso Gabunia, a Tbilisi scientist.

Until 1925, however, no one knew about Georgia's dinosaur past. Naturalist Petre Chabukiani discovered a cave in the area in 1925 but it wasn't until later, in the 1930s, that he found the first dinosaur footprints. The Sataplia Nature Reserve was created to protect the geological, speleological and botanical monuments.Gabunia is confident that there were three kinds of Sataphliasaurus, a name which was adopted in the 1950s. The Soviet government, however, did not do enough to preserve the footprints, noted Gabunia: although one million rubles were allotted for the park, the bulk of the funds were spent on administrative buildings, not covering the footprints. Gabunia noted that some irreparable damage was done to the location, although now the government is working to conserve the footprints that remain.

And even if the Sataphliasaurus footprints have been eroded by time and the ignorance of Soviet management, they are still clearly visible and enjoyable.

"I guarantee there will be more findings," said Gabunia. "More excavations are necessary by all means to unveil more secrets of this place."

"Georgia has spent over 7 million lari since 2007 on Sataplia Nature Reserve to make it more attractive and interactive for the tourists," Giorgi Shonvadze, chairman of the Agency of Protected Areas, said in an interview in Tbilisi. "Now it's fully operational for everyone to enjoy."

The newly renovated preserve, funded by Georgia's government and companies such as BP, consists of a cave with upright stalagmites and down-growing stalactites, located 360 meters above sea level, a trail through a Colhic type of subtropical forest, and 150 dinosaur footprints.

The cave enjoys a perfect micro-climate of +14C, and visitors literally gasp looking at the stalactites, stalagmites and "curtains", and the arched ceiling within the largest domed hall in the cave which features a huge stalagmite in the center.

This is a no place for the faint-hearted, the tour guide often jokes, because of regular sightings of live organisms such as mollusks, blind crayfish, spiders and worms. Shonvadze agrees that for the Soviet system, it was much more convenient to keep the place slightly under wraps - it was largely left to Russian health tourists visiting spas in nearby Tskaltubo, and practically unknown to the rest of the world. Relocation of Georgia's Parliament to the country's second largest city, Kutaisi, and the turning of it into the second capital of Georgia, will definitely boost the significance of this place, Shonvadze said.

The numbers of both visitors and revenue have increased since 2010: as many as 87,000 visitors were seen in the area in 2011, according to data provided by the Ministry of Environment.

Helena Bedwell covers Georgia for Bloomberg.