The Kara-Dag Reserve

The Kara-dag reserve on the coast of Crimea, between the village of Kurortnoye and the resort of Koktebel, is one of those places where, whatever your religion, you can feel the hand of the Creator at work. Indescribably beautiful, this unique Jurassic landscape is the result of an extinct volcano, which thousands of years ago spewed lava and debris into the sea. The elements have weathered the volcanic rocks into fantastic shapes and produced flora and wildlife unique to this part of Crimea.
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In May, the mountains of Kara-dag are carpeted with wild flowers, and the valleys are a lush green and dotted with flowering trees and shrubs. Wild Crimean peones make splashes of pink among the trees and on a warm spring day the quiet is tangible. By July the heat has turned some of the grasses yellow and the contrasts with the wild junipers and summer flowers are all the more striking. And everywhere there are new perspectives on the Black Sea where the mountains plunge into the blue-green bays along the coast.

Amethyst, onyx, cornelian, agate, jasper and many other crystals and minerals can be found here, and gem-stones from the area are prized throughout the world. There is abundant wildlife, and the coastal location means that you can see seabirds such as cormorants as well as eagles, storks, jays, and a host of others. The mountains are home to a number of snakes (not poisonous), and also to a range of spiders. Of these, only the black widow is venomous. There are rare and in some cases endangered plant species in the zapovyednik such as Junge's Desert Candle and Poyarkova's Hawthorn, many of which are included in the Red Book of Ukraine. Within its 25 sq km it contains fir and pistachio-tree woods, broadleaved woods with downy oak, oriental hornbeam, and close to sea-level, meadows and steppe-lands rich in herbs. At higher altitudes you'll find oak, ash and rowan trees, cornel, privet, In the Kizil-Tash mountain forest there are Greek Junipers.

Juniper wood, with its gorgeous spicy scent has become identified with Crimea, and anyone who has been here is likely to have taken home a souvenir comb, teapot stand or something similar so that the scent can remind them of their holiday. There are all sorts of myths associated with it - some people believe it protects the owner against theft, others that it attracts love and aids spiritual development. It's popular in aromatherapy and candle-making, and there is evidence that it has natural antiseptic qualities. Unfortunately it's become so popular that the sale of juniper products is now restricted for conservation reasons.

Visiting the reserve

Kara-Dag was declared a zapovyednik - national reserve - in 1979, and since then careful steps have been taken to protect it. There is a visitor centre with a small wildlife museum, and here you can buy a ticket (around 15 UAH) for a guided walk. Independent walking is not allowed because of fears of fires and erosion, and also because the iron content in some of the volcanic mountains is so high that it generates a magnetic field which can interfere with compasses, so a good knowledge of the mountain paths is essential. But the four-hour guided hike will take you right up into the most interesting parts of the reserve with a ranger who is extremely knowledgeable (but take an interpreter - they don't usually speak English). It's a unique, unforgettable experience - you won't regret it.

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