“So, you want to go and look at dead seals?” said my friend Greg, when I mentioned that I was thinking of visiting the Absheron National Park, the beak of land that juts out into the Caspian at the far end of the peninsular on which Baku is situated. “Actually, no. I thought it might make a nice day trip”. I checked out Mark Elliot’s guide book to Azerbaijan and found the park damned with faint praise.
“The site is a narrow strip of coastal sand dunes that might appeal to ornithologists but whose visual impact is very limited and not much different to similar dunes you’ll see en route to the entrance gate” (p146). The reference to the nearby village of Zira that once was home to a snake farm, until they all escaped into the surrounding area did not increase its appeal either. Anyway, my partner Sandra and I were not to be put off by such niceties and headed off one sunny Saturday afternoon with hope in our hearts and as we are optimists as far as snakes are concerned, sandals on our feet.
The predecessor to the Absheron National Park was called the Absheron State Nature Preserve and was founded in 1969 during to Soviet era, in order to protect the herds of gazelle that grazed the salty pasture, the increasingly rare Caspian seals and a plethora of wildlife including, waders and birds of prey.
Reopening under new management as it were on 8th February 2005, it covers on a area of 783 hectares (7.83 km2) in the administrative territory of the Azizbeyov district of Baku.
There are no signs or direction posts until you get within a few kilometers of the park, so you have to follow your nose to some extent. When we eventually did arrive at the entrance, the gatekeeper was very surprised to see us, and our driver Murad reported to us that there was a “big problem”. If we were “diplomatic”, we would be refused entry for some strange reason. Odd, very odd we thought. “No, no” we explained. “Tourist, tourist!” All was well and having parted with 4AZN each (plus 2AZN for the driver and another 4AZN for the vehicle), we were allowed access along a crumbling road that soon turned into a gravel track and ended at a building site. When I later asked Murad who had been chatting with a group of builders what this single story construction building was going to be, it transpired that it will become an interpretation center for the park. A good thing in my opinion as currently if you want a guide, you have have to book in advance through the ministry of ecology and the only interpretive material available is a board at the entrance with a list of species you might run across.
Actually, the board is really impressive, if it is to be believed. Here it suggests, you might come across jackals, foxes, native tortoises and hares however of the Caspian antelope, there is no mention… If it is those you seek, I suggest you visit the Shirvan National Park some two-hours South of Baku. We abandoned the car at the interpretation center and set off on foot.
Stretched out in front of us was a vista of low dunes covered in attractive reeds and grasses that swayed gently in the cooling breeze. You will be amazed how clean the water is and how pristine the environment, this is once you get beyond the the building site and the remains of a Soviet era electricity sub-station where rusting steel foundations remain anchored to concrete blocks, surrounded by piles of rotting batteries. Don’t be dismayed however, the site is beautiful and alive with wildlife!
Hawks and eagles hover overhead looking for mice and shrews that burrow into the sand, snowy egrets fly by in small groups and numerous herons lazily take to the skies as you approach. Large groups of waders watch you warily from sandbanks just offshore and take off in a flurry of wings as you approach.
At the beginning of our walk we looked into the still waters just beside the interpretation centre and were rewarded with the sight of a massive water snake writhing in a mass of coils close to the shore. It looked like it had caught a fish and was busily subduing it. Take a look at the accompanying image if you don’t believe me!
Walking up the pristine beach on this sunny Saturday afternoon, we were completely alone. There were no seals to be seen at that time of year – mid September. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspian_Seal , in winter and cooler parts of the spring and autumn season, the seals are to be found in the Northern Caspian. As the ice melts in the warmer season, they move southwards to the mouths of the Volga and Urasl Rivers, and down to Azerbaijan and the Absheron National Park where cooler waters can be found due to greater depth.
As we walked along the sand, we noticed some dog-like tracks. They could of course been dog prints, but there were no human footprints beside them and my feeling was that these were jackal tracks. Certainly the claws were long and sharp, something you don’t tend to find with domestic dogs whose claws get blunted by exercise on the hard surfaces you find in towns.
The fact that there was not a single plastic bottle on the beach was due I am certain to the effects of longshore-drift, a natural process whereby sand and other materials are washed in a single direction down a coastline. As we were at the very top of the the Absheron peninsula well above Baku, all the plastic bottles that are so familiar tocoastal environments further South were nowhere to be found.
After a long walk beside the sea, we turned and saw the rippling silhouette of Baku, on the horizon some 30 kilometers distant.
If you are looking for some relief from the urban environment of Baku, for a walk on a pristine beach, surrounded by the lapping of crystal clear water to the sound of seabirds calling and wheeling above you, I recommend a day trip to the Absheron National Park.
To find the park, drive beyond the international airport, turn right and go to Qala. Head onward through the town and several kilometers beyond, turn right again and proceed through through the village of Zira. When you hit the coast road, bear left for a few more kilometers and you will find the park entrance.
Here is a link to the Ministry of Ecology webpage on the site: http://www.eco.gov.az/en/milliparklar-absheron.php