Monday, 27 August 2018

Finished; failed; learned; excited for the next time.

This blog post has been two months coming - apologies for the delay. 
I'm getting settled into the new job and new circumstances now, so 
hopefully from now on the gaps will be much smaller!


We made it to the coast! But while that is where the story meets its logical conclusion, that doesn't really sum up the story very well. You see, our adventure didn't quite go to plan.

Rob, my younger brother and adventure companion on this trip enjoying one of the briefer than hoped for spells actually in the water, upper Ystwyth Valley. This picture (and several of the others below) was taken on an Olympus TG-5 waterproof camera kindly lent to me by Olympus UK for this trip, I'll be writing a brief review of the camera in due course. 
The goal was simple enough: travel from the source of the River Ystwyth in the hills of mid Wales, to it's mouth at Aberystwyth. The plan was to spend as much time in the water over the course of that journey as possible. As such we were travelling simultaneously light and heavy.

Light in the sense that our normal 'camping' kit list had been slimmed down pretty much to the minimum; bivvy bags rather than tents, that sort of thing. But then... camera gear to record it, swimming gear, towels, a spare pair of shoes each, buoyancy aids, 5 car tyre inner tubes (our water based transport solution!), a foot pump to inflate them, wet suit, and an assortment of dry bags to keep everything which was supposed to be dry, dry! You get the idea. 

Ironically it was those final items, the dry bags, which we hoped would be our salvation from certain discomfort and inconvenience, which proved to be almost the opposite, and ultimately were the main reason for the departure from our original plan. We packed everything we could into a couple of large dry bags fitted with 'rucksack style' straps and the rest into two smaller dry bags. This meant we were carrying two each from the start. The weight itself wasn't too much of an issue; it was reasonably heavy, but a lot of the stuff was fairly high volume, low density - we had both carried heavier loads before, but the weight bearing system was the weak point. 

'Rucksack style' straps, it turns out, do not come with guarantees of comfort, or even with an assurance that it won't cause you excruciating pain within the first few hours. 


This bridge at sunset was particularly photogenic, and the location for our swim before we headed for home at the end of the second day. Another Olymous TG-5 capture

Early starts are an integral part of any adventure. Even after a late night, and way too few hours kip, when that alarm goes off... it's go time! And when the first stage of 'going' involves driving right across Wales - which is stunningly beautiful for those of you haven't had the pleasure - why wouldn't you look forward to it? Departure day dawned pristine, much like the days preceding it, and the forecast was for the blue skies to remain and the temperatures to rise. That outlook made the prospect of getting in the water later that day even sweeter! 

As we drove we kept an eye out for the spot on the route where we would need to come back to later that day. The fading earth mounds marking the remains of a Roman fort was the 'X' that marked our spot on this occasion; when we saw that again we'd need to get off the bus. It looked steep! Beautiful, wooded and wild, but steep. 

We drove west until it wasn't an option anymore, well, not without a boat anyway - Aberystwyth. Gathering our gear, we made the most of civilised plumbing facilities before catching a nearly empty bus back to our start point. The real adventure was about to begin! 

It's rare to do all the uphill in one go on a big hike - but that was what we were looking at! The bus had done a fair chunk of it of course, which was not unappreciated! But we still had a few hundred meters of elevation to gain to reach the source of the river, and there was no path! We followed a forestry track for a while but before long it started contouring around the hill and we needed to go up it. We turned up the slope, pushing for the glimpses of blue sky between the trees.

The slopes were north facing, damp. A deep blanket of Sphagnum moss covered decades worth of spoil from forestry work. Every other footfall penetrated the blanket and caught on unseen twigs and branches, or slid off damp and smooth logs and stumps. It was a botanical mine field, on a 45 degree slope, with brambles standing in with admirable accuracy for the barbed wire! A little scratched for our efforts, and not particularly proud of our average speed, we eventually breached the final barrier of wind blown trees and the blue turned from a glimpse to a panorama. The trees surrendered to peat bog and moorland; the sponge from which the first trickles of our river was being wrung!   

We pushed on to the top of the ridge and stopped for a late lunch. Our source to sea trip was about to begin.

A kilometre across the grassy tussocks and mossy hummocks the channel was developing nicely. By the time it dived beneath the prickly canopy of another forestry plantation another kilometre or so down hill our trickle was already a confident and established stream. Keen to make better progress than our uphill battle to the source, and to get to deeper water, we flitted between the stream and paths or tracks which traced its route. Wind turbines turned lazily on the hillsides above us. A forestry harvester noisily stripped trees from a forestry block on the opposite bank. I know commercial conifer plantations aren't to everyone's taste, but I still think they look better with the trees on than a fresh and messy plot of recently clear felled forestry! Butterflies, dragonflies, hoverflies and every other type of -flies fluttered and darted along our route. Some after the flowers which were both plentiful and beautiful despite the recent dry spell, others after the flower seekers themselves.

We dropped out of the trees at the confluence of our stream and another - it was becoming a true river now. At this intersection all the paths headed up; so we got into the water and kept heading down. For the most part the down was undertaking at a steady, gentle gradient but as the valley got deeper and steeper, we came to places were it tumbled and leapt down instead - it was starting to get interesting. But...

... by this point a few things had become clear to us both: 1) the river was running pretty shallow; the weather may have been beautiful but it certainly wasn't conducive to peak flows! 2) we were a bit too heavy laden for following the river everywhere, we'd already had to take a few detours up and around the biggest drops, and 3) our bags were eating our shoulders alive.

At another confluence, just below the lonely road up into the Elan Valley we stopped for another break and assessed our options. It was a great place for option assessment, and one we vowed to return to! Having briefly scoped the river ahead (without our bags - blessed relief!) we could tell that we weren't going to be able to get the inner tubes out (and thereby lighten our packs) anytime soon. The river was a series of deep, dark pools (which looked amazing for a leisurely swim) and shallow, rocky slopes with regular drops and falls. It would have been great fun, but we needed to make more distance that day and it would have been too slow, and realistically required a few more safety measures than we had brought with us - but we will be back!

Reluctantly and tenderly we started down the road, determined to push on to a point where we could get into the water as soon as possible. Our shoulders, by now sporting either a fleece or a hoodie each as a futile attempt at better padding and reduced discomfort, were not best pleased with this plan, and protested strongly. A minor victory came in the shape of an old track way which we followed for a while. Not marked on the map, it followed the river more closely than the road, allowing us to keep closer to our original route - a small conciliation.

The valley was beautiful, breathtakingly so, and not just because of the physical exertion. As we progressed down the river the parallel ridges towered higher and higher above relics of previous industry; mines of some sort. The sinuous river in the valley bottom was by now catching the warm light of a low summer evening sun. A quiet single track road wound along the valley sides and floor leading us through scattered hamlets and a small village before we left it to cross the river above a series of water falls.

By now we were on the look out for a suitable camping spot, but high vegetation and steep slopes meant they were in short supply. For a mile or two we trudged along the valley, getting more and more eager to identify a spot to stop and sleep. It was gone 9 pm by now: we had left home before 6 am, and had been walking for over 9 hours. Our shoulders attested to it.

The options were limited enough that after casting about unsuccessfully for a flat spot in the undergrowth on the flood plain - the valley floor had started to flatten and widen out at this point - we simply bedded down on the footpath. It was flat, the grass was short, and the biting insects were far less voracious than we had feared they might be. We slept well that night.

Well enough that the sun was a fair way up when we woke, slanting down the curve of the valley and lighting the opposite hillside on fire (thankfully not literally) in contrast to yet another day of beautiful blue skies. The aches and pains of the day before had been dulled by a good night rest, but were present enough to prompt an evaluation of what was realistic that day. The bags were the weak point in our kit list, the bruises on our shoulders were more than just the result of a heavy-ish load, the 'rucksack style straps' were not up to this load over this distance. Adding to that we discussed the prospect that if the water levels we had seen so far were anything to go by, we might walk the entire way without any stretch of the river being consistently deep and rock free enough to float our kit, or ourselves, downriver.

The unanimous decision called for a change in the original plan. We set off having repacked the bags accordingly. Before long we reached a point on the route which enabled us to put the revised plan into action - we stashed the big bags and the bulk of our kit in the woods at a point where we could easily return with the car to pick them up. Then we carried on  with just the essential kit for the day in the smaller kit bags, aiming to get all the way back to Aberystwyth, the source of the river and the car before the end of the day. At about 20 miles this was eminently do-able, but a little less relaxed than the original itinerary.

And that is what we did. Many miles of beautiful scenery and clear water came and went in the process. Not to mention rope bridges, ancient woodland, re-purposed railway lines, quaint secluded farms and cottages, small villages steeped in Welsh culture, derelict remains of a more industrial past and more sheep than either of us could count (not that we tried) all came and went during a hot day which passed at a reasonably rapid pace! The discomfort levels were way more manageable but the damage had been done the day before and even with the lighter loads and a few rest stops to bathe hot feet in the cool river, we were ready to take a load off by the time we reached the car in the late afternoon.

I could describe that in greater detail, but that part of our route was never the plan, so it feels a bit like drawing out the description of our failure - it was a pleasant walk, but not what we intended. Having made the mouth of the river, we had completed our journey, but our adventure was left unfinished. But we shall return. Consider this as a hard earned reconnaissance mission, with plenty of useful information garnered along the way. Next time we will return with slightly different kit and a modified itinerary - and have more fun, and less bruised shoulders as a result!

And there will definitely be a next time. I've wanted to make that journey for years, based largely on a few hundred meter stretch which we visited most years as I grew up. On our journey we discovered that while that is a very pleasant section, that that river and valley hold way more yet to be explored and enjoyed. So until the next time I will leave any one wishing to do anything similar with two pieces of advice - 1) beware dry bags with 'ruck sack style' straps - they may try to kill you and 2) mid Wales + Summer = midges! Don't forget your repellent!


PS - I should probably mention that I did get a swim in the river before we finished for good. After we got back to Aberystwyth we drove back up to collect our kit before taking a scenic route home. But before we left the valley we stopped at a spot where we had taken a rest on the way down. We had clocked some deep, still looking pools as we passed and logged it as one of the many parts of the valley which we needed to return to. As we approached we could see fish rising in the centre of the pool, enjoying the insects which, being late evening by this time, were starting to come out in abundance. The swim was short but lovely; the water warm after the initial rush of cold on first jumping in. It was a snapshot into what we missed out on in a way. But we knew that we had made the right call - anything else would have ended in needing to resort to public transport at some point and that would have been an even greater failure!

After one of the fastest changes of clothing the world has ever seen to get away from the now swarming midges, we completed our adventure by watching the sun go down. First behind the hills over shadowing an earlier section of our route, the upper reaches of the Ystwyth valley, and then again (new, higher vantage point = double sunset!) behind the Elan Valley as we drove out on what has to be one of the most beautiful stretches of road in Wales. Highly recommended for those who prefer to adventure on four wheels (or two) rather than on foot.

Sunset over the Elan Valley on our drive out. What a stunning part of the country!