The Little Pajero That Almost Didn’t

September 20-27, 2014: Here’s a little behind the scenes look at our “On the Road in Georgia” series. I haven’t written much yet about the blue, two-door Pajero 4×4 that we rented, aside from my first impression of the rental company’s operations in Tbilisi, which made me think of a mafia chop shop.

We didn’t have any problems with our cute little rental…at least not on the first two days of our eight day driving extravaganza. After that, hardly a day went by that we didn’t have a problem. (And probably why “cute” and “4×4” don’t go well together.)

Georgia’s road conditions are really varied. We covered around 2250 kilometres in just eight days. That’s a lot of driving, especially considering only a small portion of that was on good paved roads. The rest was rough paved, partially paved, potholed, graded gravel, ungraded, rough track, muddy, eroded, covered in rocks or shale or mud slides. We forded rivers and detoured around road construction. We climbed high up and over mountain passes. We inched along narrow roads with precarious drop offs.

Chris did all of the driving and I was in charge of navigating. We got lost…plenty of times. I did most of our route planning using Google Maps on an iPhone cross referencing against maps we got from the rental company and the Georgian tourism information centre in Tbilisi.

Because of the problems we had with the Pajero, we spent a lot of time trying to find service and waiting for service. We visited three tire shops. There were basic ones in small towns that replaced tires with others that were equally worn or patched leaks the old fashioned way. One was as modern as any you’d see in North America. We discovered, much to our dismay, that there was no service centre in Mestia, forcing us to limp all the way back to Tbilisi.

Day 1 Tbilisi –> David Gareji –> Sighnaghi

163 km

Day 2 Sighnaghi –> Shatili

223 km

Day 3 Musto Side Trip

22 km

Shatili –> Stepantsminda

199 km

Driving around looking for a tire shop

~20 km

  • 1st flat tire in Ananuri parking lot
  • Jack didn’t work properly
  • Discovered the spare tire was smaller
Day 4 Gergeti Trinity Church Side Trip

12 km

Stepantsminda –> Gori –> Bakuriani

285 km

Day 5 Bakuriani –> Vardzia –> Kutaisi

349 km

  • Discovered heater and A/C not working
  • Got stuck in the mud
  • 2nd flat tire in Vardzia parking lot
  • Got tire repaired in next major town
Side Trip: Abastumani Dead End

60 km

Day 6 Kutaisi –> Mestia
(best route would have been 234 km; our shortcut should have shaved off 30 km but ended up adding even more when we had to turn around)

310 km

  • One tire is leaking when we are ready to leave Kutaisi; another tire shop stop
  • One of the four cylinders stops firing on the drive up into the mountains
  • Power steering fluid pukes out in Mestia; local car guys try to fix it but no luck
Day 7 Mestia –> Ushguli –> Mestia

146 km

  • Didn’t trust that the Pajero would get us to Ushguli and back, so we hired a local driver with a Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 to take us on the return trip
Mestia to Kutaisi

234 km

  • Pajero runs rough and no power steering for the return drive to Kutaisi
Day 8 Kutaisi to Tbilisi

226 km

  • We limp back to Tbilisi doing no more than 80 km/h on the highway; big trucks pass us
TOTAL DISTANCE

~ 2250 km

  • Averaged 281 km per day

At the time, all of these car problems were not very pleasant to deal with. But looking back on it now, two months later, it really made for a memorable part of our great Georgian adventure. The tire guys were always helpful and didn’t try to take advantage of our situation. Even the car guy in Mestia, who tried to fix our power steering leak, tried his best. Unfortunately it didn’t solve the problem and we still had to pay him for his time. But at least we were still somewhat functioning.

Tips for Driving in Georgia

  1. If you’re not an experienced driver, leave the rough roads to others and hire a taxi or driver to take you, or hop on a marshrutka bus.
  2. If you are going to hire a car, check the tires carefully before you drive away. Check the jack and the spare tire too. Our jack was not working properly and our spare tire was smaller. Be sure you know how to change a tire.
  3. If you are planning to go off the main highways, to wonderful places like Shatili, self-drive to Gergeti Trinity Church and Ushguli, make sure you hire a 4×4 with high clearance and chunky tires.
  4. Do not trust the maps of Georgia. Especially do not trust Google Maps. Google Maps doesn’t distinguish primary roads from secondary roads and rough tracks. Ask for advice from people who know the areas.
  5. Do not place any faith in the driving times that Google Maps gives you. Double it. At least.
  6. Some of the roads are devoid of other vehicles for long stretches of time. If you do happen to break down, you might be stuck for a while. Mechanics and tire shops are widely available in the larger centres but harder to find in small towns and remote regions.
  7. Save the phone number for the rental company on your phone and make sure they have someone on staff who speaks good English. More than once we had to call our guy to have him act as our translator. But remember, mobile service in the more remote regions of Georgia can be erratic.
  8. Bring a 12-volt adapter for USB chargers. Rental cars tend to be older and don’t have USB plugs.
  9. Plan to be off the roads by dark, especially the remote mountain roads and the busy highways through the mountain passes.

I hope we haven’t scared you off. Georgia is a spectacular country and well worth the effort to get out and see it. Just be prepared and don’t try to pack in more than is manageable. Even through we crossed Batumi and the Black Sea off our “must see” list, we still averaged more than 280 kilometres of driving per day on sometimes shocking roads. Drive safe!

Georgia Driving Itinerary

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