Ustyurt & Cape Cretaceous
This is a unique trip to the almost surreal moonscapes of the Ustyurt Plateau and the Capes and islands of the Caspian Sea’s eastern shore.
It is a difficult trip to categorize. It will be an adventure, exploring landscapes and wildlife in a remote region which is little known and doesn’t have so much in the way of creature comforts. It will be about mammals. It will be about birds. And perhaps above everything, it will be a splendid journey through spectacular arid landscapes.
A combination of geology and erosive forces have produced a sublime landscape of buttes and mesas on the Ustyurt Plateau and the Karyndzharyk Hollow. It is reminiscent of Bryce Canyon but without any people! Steep cliffs border the plateau. On the east side these cliffs formed the limit of the much more extensive Aral Sea of Triassic times. These cliffs are home to a largely intact mammal fauna. Black-tailed Gazelle still thrive here and we’ll see herds of Transcaspian Urials (Ovis vignei arkal), a handsome wild sheep with spectacular curved horns.
Now here’s what we don’t yet know but are very excited to find out. There’s a population of Saiga in the area and these strange antelope will be having their young at this time. We hope to see them in the steppe to the south and west of Ustyurt. There are many small to medium-sized predators in Ustyurt. Corsac Foxes should be common, and there are known to be good populations of both Marbled Polecat and Steppe Polecat here. These handsome little mustelids will certainly be a highlight if we can find them. There are Caracals and the ‘steppe’ version of Wild Cat. The latter are interesting-looking animals, quite leggy and therefore tall compared with the European Wild Cat. This was the last stronghold of the Cheetah in Kazakhstan and though it seems that they recently died out, a trap camera survey to see if any were still in the region found instead Leopard of the rare ciscaucasica race. We’ll spend some time out at night looking for these animals. We’ll soon find that there’s plenty for them to feed on – Severtsov’s Jerboas hop along the tracks in front of us and we’ll likely encounter the largest of the gerbils, the Great Gerbil, which reaches an impressive 20cm in length. There’s also Thick-tailed Three-toed Jerboas and the strange Northern Mole-Vole. Yellow Ground Squirrels whistle to let everyone know they’ve seen us. Birdlife includes Eagle Owl, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Desert Wheatears, a selection of larks, and with luck we’ll find a few MacQueen’s Bustards.
The extraordinary geomorphology continues with the landscape at Torysh covered in spheres often three or even four metres in diameter that have formed through a process of concretion. Not surprisingly, Torysh is known in English as ‘The Valley of the Balls’. Caspian Plover breeds in the nearby steppe. We’ll spend the last couple of days on the Tyub-Karagan Peninsula east of Fort Shevchenko. Here the semi-deserts are home to Horsfield’s Tortoise and the curious Sunwatcher. Typical birds include Red-headed Bunting, Rose-coloured Starling, Brown-necked Raven, Asian Desert Warbler, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and in any wetland areas, large flocks of the lovely Red-necked Phalarope. Our camp will be by a small fishery, which attracts foxes and the like at night and in the daytime will provide us with the boat that we’ll use to visit the remote Tyuleniy Archipelago. Here we’ll encounter one of the World’s most endangered phocids, the Caspian Seal. They’ll have pupped three months previously (they pup on the sea ice) but by the time of our visit they’ll be migrating past the archipelago and we should see them hauled out on these hardly visited unpopulated islands.
Dates and Prices
4th May - 16th May 2025 (13 days)
* doesn't apply if you're willing to share and a room-mate can be arranged
Please note; dates and prices are provisional and will be confirmed by August 2024
Mammals. Landscapes. Birds. Exploration of a wild and little-known region.
Both leaders will accompany the group. The minimum is 4 and the maximum is 7.
All flights. Transport in 4wds throughout, accommodation, and all meals in Kazakhstan. Services of the leaders. Please note: Visas, drinks, tips, and items of a personal nature including travel insurance, are not included.
Mammal and bird checklists are available.
We start with a night in the excellent Holiday Inn in Aktau. This will seem like luxury for sure when we return there for a night at the end of the trip. There’s only one more night in a hotel, in Zhanaozen, where we’ll stay at the appropriately-named Zhanaozen Hotel for a night in the middle of the tour. For the rest of the tour we’ll be camping. We’ll be using modern tents which are reasonably spacious (these are not stand up in tents though) and sleeping pads, pillows and sleeping bags will be provided. There’ll be a mess tent with meals served at a table with chairs. Solar showers will be available sometimes. One of the camping nights will be in the Yurt Camp at Kogez, where you’ll have rather more creature comforts available. En-suite facilities are available at the hotels but not whilst camping. Single accommodation is available throughout in the hotels and whilst camping.
Most days we’ll cover perhaps three or four miles only, but on a couple of days this could be as much as seven or eight miles. There are no large mountains to climb up, however the terrain is certainly rugged with loose gravelly surfaces common. We’ll also be doing a certain amount of night driving and walking looking for mammals on this trip. The walks will be for a maximum of a couple of hours, but the drives could be for three or four hours and last until after midnight.
UK return flights are from London Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham* or Manchester* to Aktau via Istanbul in both directions. Other indirect routes from regional UK Airports* may be available.
*These routes may incur a supplement.
Rainfall is rare at this season. Days are generally sunny and warm, even occasionally hot, with temperatures generally reaching 20°C to 25°C, occasionally 30°C. With the clear nights temperatures drop considerably. Some nights it’ll only drop to 12-14°C but frequently it can be 8-9°C at night, and rarely it will even drop to zero for a night with a blast of cooler air from the north.
Contact us to check if there is availability for the number of places you require. Click on the ‘Book this Tour’ button on this page to be taken to the online booking form or contact us and we will send one to you which you can complete and send back to us. You will receive confirmation of your place, and then a detailed information pack will be dispatched to you about twelve weeks before departure. This will contain up-to-date health information.