Normal service resumed here at Surfnslide after the family holiday to France – normal service meaning me trying to catch up on trips from a couple of months back – will I ever catch up? Why am I asking you?
Where was I? Ah, trip reports from July. TJF was with the Grandparents in Wales and TBF was performing one of her plays so me and TJS took off for some backpacking. After much pondering of maps and a somewhat uncertain forecast, the Black Mountain and the Limestone area on its southern edge caught my eye. I’ve walked the main ridge a number of times including a great day out with TJS last year but I’d never ventured to the South so this was a great opportunity to see what it was like. The map makes it look interesting
By 10am we were parked up at Dan yr Ogof caves and ready to set off. The cloudy start had been replaced with some fine sunshine and things looked good. Our route would take in the length of the Black Mountain escarpment before heading off over the limestone hills to west to wild camp. We’d then return over the limestone crags above Dan yr Ogof
We headed off to follow the Haffes valley into the hills. I was using a Cicerone guide “Backpackers Britain – Wales” by Graham Uney that i’d seen on Amazon and looked promising for some route and wild camp site ideas. I’m normally a fan of Cicerone guides but let me just say that this one is a massive disappointment. For a start the majority of routes involve overnights at campsites, pubs and guest houses, not exactly backpacking in the proper sense. Only a few have wild camp sites as their overnight. There are a few that use bothies but they are not well researched. A few routes use the Grwyne Fawr bothy in the Black Mountains which is fine but it’s tiny, near the road end and very well-known. on weekends it is very likely to be full and there is very little alternative if you happen not to have a tent. None of this is mentioned in the book which I think is a little remiss.
Reason for mentioning the guide at this point is that is the route is a 2 day route over a total of 37km described as a “short backpacking route” – now I’m reasonably fit but I wouldn’t describe 37km over 2 days with a backpack as “short”. As it turned out even at a relatively brisk pace we had no way to reach the suggested wild camp spot at a reasonable hour and had to cut several miles off the suggested route. The first time we needed to get the guide out was to find our way onto the open hillside. The description “follow the stream for a short way up into Cwm Haffes” neglects to mention that there is no path or even a trace of one. In fact the whole valley floor is completely overgrown and we spent an unhappy half hour scrambling through the undergrowth, clinging to trees and wandering about looking for a way through before we eventually broke through to a point where we could escape upwards. None of this is mentioned either. The book went back in the pack and hasn’t been seen since. Lesson learned stick to my own instincts and the vast array of knowledge and reports on the web. Rant over 🙂
The Haffes valley is actually rather pleasant once you emerge from its jungle-like confines and after a short and very steep climb up its banks we took a pause to take in the view
We filled up with fresh water at a small side stream (last chance until later in the day) and then headed off across the vast expanse of soggy tussocks to the slopes of Fan Hir
TJS has done most of his walking on well-known hills with broad paths. This was the first time I’d taken him “off-piste” and he didn’t seem to appreciate the subtle charms of tussocks and bog without a path (neither do I but that’s not the point). He was mightily relieved when we finally reached the path.
It had turned into a very fine day with clear skies and expansive views. Withe renewed enthusiasm we romped along the extremely grand Fan Hir escarpment. I’ve walked the Black Mountain many times but never along this section and its top-notch. It stretches for a good couple of miles with sheer drops to east and wild moors to the west
We managed to find a sheltered spot on the summit for lunch. Time to experiment with a new backpacking lunch. Sandwiches that have been squashed into a pack never look very appealing (especially after a few days) so I was going for some Heinz “Squeeze and Stir” soup and some bread. The Herb and Mushroom flavour when squeezed looked suspiciously like – well I’ll leave that to your imagination. And the taste? Well here was lesson 2 for the day – read the instructions. Don’t assume that one sachet will be fine for a very large mug. It looked like dirty dish water and didn’t taste much better. Still, it was hot and filling (and the tomato flavour with the proper amount of water to soup ratio is actually pretty nice) so it was voted a success 🙂
We pressed on to take in the next set of tops along the escarpment, Fan Brycheiniog and Fan Fawr. This is one of my favourite walks with the deep blue Lyn y Fan Fawr below.
I was struggling a bit on the steep sections as I was carrying the majority of the weight but TJS was romping along and enjoying every minute. After the early struggles the terrain is very easy-going and perfect for backpacking.
As we reached the high point of Bannau Sir Gaer, eating up the miles, the weather suddenly turned gloomy and the sunshine disappeared spectacularly quickly. We didn’t linger on the summit and pressed on to leave behind the dark sandstone of the Black Mountain following a succession of very handy sheep tracks across the grassland and bog to the limestone summit of Carreg yr Ogof
It’s a fine summit, littered with small limestone pavements and outcrops. We took time out for a second lunch but didn’t linger too long as it was pretty gloomy and quite chilly. We pressed on to the summit of Garreg Las with its two massive stone cairns. I assume that these are some sort of ancient burial cairn or shelter such is their size
TJS suddenly hit “the wall” and his pace dropped markedly. He’s not to used to carrying a heavy sack and he was struggling. This unfortunately coincided with the cloud starting to close in and the summit is not a place to practice navigation amongst its chaotic collection of pavements and rocks. The “guide-book” route urged us to take in Foel Fraith, Garreg Lwyd and Cefn Carn Fadog but it was already 5pm and we were both tired and the mist was upon us. I took a line straight down towards the Afon Twrch through a tangle of boulders and small crags. It would have been an entertaining route had the mist not been following us down. I was keen to try to least see the river to pick out a camp spot so had to encourage TJS to keep going. As we emerged from the mist we could see the river with several green patches on it’s banks that looked promising. We just had to cross the last patch of tussocks to reach the bank. In time honoured Welsh mountain tradition this proved to be a cruel deception. It was in fact a small lake with tussocks floating in it. My trail-shoed feet, dry up to this point were wet within a few strides as were TJS in his boots.
The site was a fine one albeit not the flattest. It was my first test of my new Voyager Superlite tent and I have to say I’m well impressed. It’s rather compact (rucksacks outside) and lacking the cavernous space of my Quasar or Lightwave GT3 but then it weighs less than half of them and it’s quick and easy to put up. I may put a review up at some point if I can be bothered
It drizzled while I pitched it, and that combined with a minor midge invasion forced me to cook tea in the tent. By the time we’d eaten the skies cleared a little and we got some shafts of late evening sunshine.
It’s a lovely wild and lonely spot and I only wish we could have seen more of it while we were camped there. Finding your own little private corner of the mountains is the joy of backpacking and I’d looked forward to a late evening exploratory stroll to really get to know the local suburbs
As quickly as the sun had appeared, it vanished again and the gloom descended. Tired yet satisfied after a long day we turned in.
When we woke the next day, I was hopeful that the skies would have cleared and we’d be treated to breakfast in the sunshine. What we got was breakfast in a steam room. It was mild muggy and we were in the cloud. Every single surface, plant and blade of grass had a pint of water clinging to it. Still breakfast in steam room in the wilds is better than breakfast in…… lets not follow that line of thought. We did enjoy our bacon sandwiches though and by the time we’d eaten and packed up the cloud had lifted a little. Our route back to the car was to take us along the Afon Twrch and then over the limestone hills to Dan yr Ogof and Glyn Tawe
The going was rough with no path and the grass absolutely soaking. My trail shoes were squelching again within a few hundred yards. Still we had the valley to ourselves and it retained an air of austere wilderness which is surprising when you consider it’s not actually very remote
It’s hard to judge an area when your first visit is under a blanket of leaden grey cloud but I saw enough to make we certain I need to come back and see it again.
We met the path at the ford which looked like a good place to camp with a few rocks to sit on and slightly flatter. The path east was actually well-defined and easy to follow and takes you across the wild moors to Pwll y Cig. It’s a fascinating area of sink holes, some filled with water and blind valleys. It looked like a great place to camp and explore and I made a note to come back here next year. Despite the gloomy weather I was really enjoying this section of the walk with the terrain providing a lot more interest than anything the map would have you believe
We had planned to traverse Disgwylfa and Carreg Goch but as they were dipping in and out of the cloud there seemed little point. We were enjoying the ease of following the well made path past the succession of intriguing features. The hills could wait for a better day
It was a very easy, uneventful and enjoyable stroll back to the car with some decent views across the Tawe valley and over to the interesting little hill of Cribarth as we emerged from the confines of the wild limestone land
We were back at the car in mid afternoon after an excellent couple of days. More progress in TJS backpacking career with a much longer and tougher outing than his first trip to the Moelwyns last year. He’s still spent all of his wild camping time looking at grey clouds and rain and he asked me if it was always like that. I regaled him with stories of days spent lazing by the tent in warm sunshine and how life doesn’t get much better. Perhaps his next trip would provide some of that 🙂