The Shirvan National Park is a ninety-minute drive south of Baku along the coast of the Caspian sea, past oil-rig manufacturing sites, derelict soviet-era factories and rusty oil pipelines that run off across the grey, coastal plain in all directions. It is not a prepossessing sight and it did not bode well for a jolly day out…
The landscape was bleak and colourless and the autumn sky as grey as the Caspian itself as Murad our driver, sped along the new road south towards Astara and the Iranian border beyond. Above the plain, grey mountains of solidified mud produced oozing, “volcanoes” of cold liquid while small, flatulent outpourings ran down the hillside, solidifying after a few metres. High above, eagles sored, looking black against the lowering sky.
As we turned off the road and into the park, we were greeted by the park director. A young man in a dark suit, with the eager and anxious smile of someone who doesn’t get to see many people. Certainly, we were the only visitors that day to the 65,000 hectare reserve, set up in 2003 to protect Azerbaijan’s only population of gazelles and the semi-desert Kura-Araz lowland environment. The gazelles look remarkably like Springbok in size and colouring but run like dogs and don’t “proink”. They were very nearly driven to extinction during the Soviet era by wanton shooting and by the late 1960’s were down to only 140 individuals. Since that time however, their numbers have increased to 5,000 thank goodness.
After the dismal drive down, my expectations were so lowered that the warning of snakes abounding in the area raised my spirits, in that we could possibly have a little excitement that day. The director showed us the map and pointed to the three low mountains that mark the outer reaches of the park, the Caspian coastline and the place where an ancient city was inundated by a fluctuation in the level of the sea 1,000 years ago.
The landscape is treeless and flat as a pancake. The soil is pale as to be almost white and almost devoid of nutrients but it provides home to almost 150 kinds of wild plants.
Like so many areas of marginal land, it is home to a surprising number of animal species including wolves, jackals, the steppe wildcat and the rare marbled polecat. There are even a few striped hyenas loping in the shadows. This strange landscape reminded me of Etosha National Park in Namibia, it even has a lake with a resident population of flamingos, just like the Etosha pan…
In some ways, Shirvan is wilder than Etosha. Here, we had the whole environment to ourselves. There was no stream of visitors trundling up and down a well maintained road system, stopping for lunch at organised tourist facilities. Here the tracks across the landscape barely exist and there is nowhere to stop for a cup of tea, a beer or a club sandwich.
We drove to the shore of the Caspian, that defines one edge of the park and walked on the fine, shell-beach the sweeps North and South in a gentle curing arc. It was wild and beautiful or at least it would have been had the shoreline not been heavily polluted with tens and thousands of empty mineral water bottles, abandoned fishing nets, bits of fishing vessels, lumps of iron from oil drilling rigs and the occasional hard-hat.
We wanted to drive South to the submerged city but the track finished by the sea, so Murad drove along the firm sandy beach as the waves crashed next to us. After travelling for 1o kilometers, there was nowhere we could get off the beach. Murad tried to mount the steep bank but abandoned the idea after nearly getting stuck a couple of times. We were forced to turn around and make our way back to where we had started.
What followed was an increasingly desperate drive in Marad’s old Toyota Hilux across a trackless plain of grasses, reeds, swampy areas, crisscrossed with muddy flats that looked like they could swallow us up at any time…
There was no way we could get to the submerged city site and eventually we made it back to our starting point after Sandra spotted a familiar drill-rig landmark through her binoculars. An hour later, standing outside the park director’s office our heart-rates were back to something akin to normal and we decided that enough was enough and we headed back home.