Patience, charm and a good sense of humour are all desirable qualities in a park ranger. Luckily, Salome Idoidze, 23—Georgia’s only female ranger serving in Tusheti National Park high in the Caucasus mountains—has all these qualities in abundance.
When we meet, Salome leafs through a pile of photographs of her riding a horse against a backdrop of dramatic mountain scenery. “Last time I was in Tbilisi I saw an old leather horse whip I wanted to buy at Dry Bridge flea-market” she says grinning. “The guy wouldn’t sell it to me though, saying he didn’t believe I had a horse and that I was probably a sado-masochist! I brought these photos to show him so he’d sell me the whip” she adds, gurgling with laughter.
Trendily-attired and looking even younger than her 23 years, some might struggle to picture Salome as a park ranger in the remote mountainous region of Tusheti, famous in Georgian folklore for its bridenappings and patriarchal social structure. “In the beginning, many people were amazed to see a female ranger” she says. “They often ask how a girl can go out to patrol the park with men. Sometimes we meet shepherds in the summer who are absolutely amazed to see me, since woman are not usually involved in this kind of work.”
I ask how she became interested in becoming a ranger. “There is a project called Friends of the Reserve and I took part in it from the beginning. When I was at university I did a work placement at the reserve, working in the office during the winter. Later, a vacancy opened up for a ranger. I applied and got the job.”
As native of Dartlo—one of the highest villages in Europe—Salome has an intimate knowledge of this beautiful region. “My father taught me how to ride a horse when I was still very young” she says. “We grew up with horses … In the summer our horses live in the mountains and when I need to ride, I just catch one of them … You have to be good at riding because it’s very dangerous if you fall off.”
Salome’s work as a ranger takes her on long patrols through the Pirikita Gorge section of the National Park and the teams of rangers sometimes stay on the trail for days at a time. “When we’re on the road, we pack plenty of bread, cheese and preserved meats, or pate and stuff like that … in the village we have plenty of vegetables and dairy products so food is never a problem for us.” Tusheti region is famous for producing Guda—a crumbly, extremely salty cheese full of little holes.
Being out on patrol gives Salome the chance to indulge another of her passions. “I love the mountains, horses and photography” she says, shuffling her photos—taken with a Nikon camera she never leaves home without—back into a neat pile. “Being out on patrol gives me the freedom and time to express myself [through photography]. So far I haven’t had an exhibition of my pictures. This year, in the summer I want to take pictures of people’s faces. People in Tusheti have a special character. Then maybe I’ll show these photos at an exhibition.”
Like the other rangers at Tusheti National Park, Salome benefits from CNF’s rangers’ salary top up scheme, providing an extra incentive to work in these remote but unique natural environments. “For rangers with families, it’s a real help.” Salome says. CNF has also supported the refurbishment of the park’s visitors’ centre, as well as purchasing patrol vehicles and equipment.
As we say goodbye, Salome extends a warm welcome to Tusheti, promising to show me the ancient slate towers and houses with their wooden balconies that characterize these breathtakingly beautiful mountain villages. Placing the pile of her photographs back into her bag, Salome looks up and grins: “I hope I’ll be able to buy that whip now” she laughs.