With under two weeks to go, a promising (if cold) forecast, and a couple of bank holidays it seemed fitting to get up into the hills reacquaint myself with some old friends. Dusting off the hiking boots, airing out the sleeping bag and packing a bunch of extra layers for the chilly evening ahead I set off into Wales in search of waterfalls, sunsets and leg cramp.
Waterfalls were first on the list. Hiking the 3 mile, well-trodden path to one of the most famous waterfalls in the UK was a breeze in the afternoon sunshine and it truly felt like Spring. Birds were singing, families laughing and joking enjoying the extra day off from normal life and, with some suitably chilled and summery songs bumbling through my headphones I reached my goal within the hour. Being a national holiday, there were more hikers and visitors to the main fall than there were viewing points and it all felt a little contrived. I knew this would be the case though, and with a wry smile I pushed further upstream, scrambling up a diminishing path and around the valley corner into the quiet, unpopulated upper reaches of the water course.
I’d never visited before and didn’t know what I’d find, but I was graced with an idyllic country setting of steep, green, rich mossy valley sides eroding into a white water, rapid laden stream of the clearest water. Standing ankle deep on a ledge overlooking one of the many tumultuous falls, water crisp and refreshing, there was no longer the sound of tourists, voices, excited children, but instead a clarity that comes with the simple sound of running water and the breeze in the tree tops above.
It was a great find, a little haven on one of the most popular walks in Wales. Smiling again as I filtered through the crowds back down the valley, my next spot was somewhere entirely more remote. I needed to grow my confidence in camping alone, in a remote and wild spot and I opted to head fully into the hills to find just this.
Parking at the base of the highest peak in the Brecon’s, the road runs in the valley between two high points. Rising to the east is Pen Y Fan. Popular with day hikers and some overnight ramblers it is a prominent and exposed peak that offers incredible views all around. It was also heaving; dark ants moving up and down the constructed brown path to the summit.
I’d walked that same walk before, but today was about facing the other way; literally. Turning through 180 degrees I set my sights west. Rising above a number of false summits was Fan Fawr. A little smaller than Pen Y Fan, it is more desolate and far less popular with hikers and as I rounded the neighbouring lips and ridges that lead up the unpaved hillside I saw just a single other hiker before reaching the summit.
It is neither as steep as Pen Y Fan, nor as dramatic, but Fan Fawr instead extends onto a flatter elevated plateau that twists its way West towards the distant peak of Sugarloaf. It is a good spot for sunset however, with very little to obstruct the suns path to the horizon and as it began to change colour into the light yellows of early evening I decided to find a place to camp before dark.
To the East clouds had formed over Pen Y Fan, and I felt sure it must have been raining up there. The scene was a dramatic one, with deep greys turbulently bending and caressing the peak in and out of visibility, but at least for the now the valley was holding off the poor weather from extending too far West to my pitch. The ground was soft and rich from the Spring rains and it took a while to find a spot that was both dry enough to pitch and also in the lee of a strengthening breeze. My home for the evening had views extending for miles to the south, and I felt sure in the distance I could make out my local hills protruding on the horizon.
As the sun set it was periodically masked by the increasing cloud cover, but it was exactly this that made the final light of the day so spectacular. The sun pierced beneath the proximal weather and shone an intense and dramatic light on the underside of the clouds. It was a scene from a film; it was surely too fierce, too harsh and beautiful to exist in reality. It was also short lived. As soon as the sun had broke through did it succumb to the inclement conditions and I quickly scrambled back to my pitch in time to stay dry.
But a few minutes after entering my tent, the rain fell as an increasing patter on the hillside.
On and off the rain fell through the night, but in between showers I peered into the night to capture fleeting glimpses of the night sky above. With very little light pollution, hidden spots in the Brecon’s offer some of the clearest sky’s in the UK, and as Ursa Major dipped in and out of consciousness I too gave in to my eyelids and retired for the evening.
Morning was cold. I had set my alarm for sunrise under the forecasted promise of clear sky’s, but as can always happen in the mountains Mother Nature had decided not to stick to the script. As I opened the tent side I could make out little but a nearby wild horse. Nonchalantly lifting it’s head in my direction, only briefly pausing from breakfast, it seemed far less bothered by the dense, freezing fog that covered the hillside. There was a wind too, and it was decidedly cold for an April morning.
Tucking my head back in, disappointed at the lack of sunrise, I caught an extra 5 minutes before motivating myself to layer up and descend back to the car. The fog had its plus sides though. I proceeded to get lost on the ridge, a feel I always enjoy as I have to focus and find new ways to navigate and reach my destination. In this case that was via a very steep descent. My fingers were painful in the cold, clutching onto anything to help scramble down the steeper side of the ridge. The grass was covered in the finest droplets of moisture from the fog that gave everything the flickering, wintery appearance of frost.
The fog turned out simply to be low lying cloud, and as I dropped out of its grasp the sun began to struggle its way through some intermittent gaps. The warmth was welcome and I could now see the road in the distance. Turning back to see Fan Fawr still encapsulated by the morning cloud, I continued down the last few crests and drops to finish of my overnight adventure. It showed to me that sometimes it is more important to look further, to seek what others overlook in order to find your own personal achievement or moment of peace. Wherever there is the unexpected, there is opportunity. Whether it is unusual weather conditions, a valley’s hidden secrets or merely the unflustered glimpse of wildlife, getting out there throws up challenges that we can all seek to overcome.