A walk in the woods

Around 150 years ago, John Dillwyn Llewelyn created a vast landscaped garden at his home in Penllegare, to the west of Swansea. Over the years since his death, the land went to ruin and was forgotten. Now a dedicated bunch of volunteers are working hard to restore the gardens to their former glory.

I walk there a lot and have done for a number of years, so I’ve seen the changes as they’ve been made. Last year, I caught a brief glimpse of Kingfishers on the river and since then I’ve been popping down every now and again to see if I can catch a photo of them.

This morning, before much of the world had woken up, I was walking alongside the upper lake. The work done to clear this part of the garden is immense but I fear the downside is that where the Kingfishers used to catch insects on the river has now been exposed to everyone and his dog, and combined with the activity to clear the area has scared them off. Nevertheless, the walk is lovely and with no one else around, the sounds of a myriad of different birds is great to experience.

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If you go down to the woods today…

…in theory, you would find a bunch of like minded souls on hands and knees pointing cameras at bluebells. That’s what I thought as I’d planned to meet up with some friends and colleagues from work to go hunting for photogenic bluebells. But, typical for me, I got the directions wrong and ended up in a completely different car park. With no phone signal to check where everyone was, I waited a few minutes after our rendezvous time and then headed off to where I thought the bluebells would be.

Merthyr Mawr car park is right next to Candleston Castle, a fortified manor house dating back to the 14th Century. It is in ruins now and is the home to ivy and other creepers. Not far from the castle, I came across a large area of bluebells and set about snapping away.

The danger with Bluebells is that they can end up looking pink or purple in a digital image because they reflect so much infra red light. So it pays to bracket exposure to try some slight under exposure. I added a polarising filter too, although this seemed to make little difference. As I was crouched down n the ground, I went to lean on a small branch only to notice a line of ants marching along it. A closer look revealed a veritable motorway system complete with streams of ant traffic moving in both directions. I went to fit a macro lens on the camera and saw that my camera bag was right in the middle of another ant highway. I looked around for a place to safely deposit the bag but everywhere was crawling with ants. I was reminded of every film where ants attack humans and I was waiting for the inevitable biting and tickling that would signal my being carried off to some underground nest.

But instead, I found a clear space for the bag and took some macro shots of ants carrying food back to the nest. I had to use the ring flash as the light levels were too low under the canopy of trees to allow a decent depth of field and shutter speed fast enough to freeze their movement. I was pleased with what I got.

I explored the woods for a while, sheltering from a couple of short but sharp showers under the trees. Then I slowly made my way back to the car, stopping once again to get some close ups of the bluebells, now looking their best in the sunshine.

Shortly after I left the car park, I got a couple of text messages telling me everyone else had arrived there.

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How things change

Penlle’r Castell sits 1200 feet above sea level on Mynydd y Betws, north of Swansea. It was a 13th Century fortress built to dominate the disputed border between the Lordship of Gower and the Is Cennen and from it’s location the whole of this disputed land can be seen. It is now little more than a few mounds of earth which define the earth ditches that protected a stone building, perhaps a tower, within. It was probably not permanently occupied and a small garrison was all that would have been needed to protect the area and give early warning of incursion by the raiding parties of Is Cennen. It has been linked with William de Braoes, who held land in and around Swansea.

Some 800 years later and I would be fascinated to hear what the garrison soldiers would make of the view northwards towards Carreg Cennen castle and the northern border of Gower today. A new wind farm has been built on the undulating moorland and many giant windmills rise from the mountain like huge white trees. While 13th Century people would probably be familiar with the concept of a windmill, the modern design and sheer scale of these new turbines would be shocking.

Rufus and I had been for a stroll in the nearby forest above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I’ve only been here a few times and I’ve been looking for forest locations as I want to get some photographs of the flora of woods, particularly mushrooms. So today was a bit of an exploratory journey.

Rather than waste the rest of the morning, we took a detour over Mynydd y Betws and parked up at the side of the road at the edge of this wind farm. There had been a lot of controversy over the plans to build here and a local campaign to stop the wind farm lasted a couple of years. I have mixed feelings about this form of energy generation but I generally accept that this is one of the ways forward. In the particular case of Mynydd y Betws I’m not sure that an awful lot of harm has been done. Obviously, I can’t speak for the disturbed wildlife during construction, but wildlife is resilient. While the turbines stand out against the natural environment, they are no worse than some of the awful housing that can be found in rural areas these days.

Photogenically, (one of the reasons I was there today), they are a different challenge. I’m always up for a challenge, so off Rufus and I set from the car to walk the 300 yards or so to the nearest turbine. As we approached, the sound of the whining turbine grew louder and I was surprised to hear the pitch rise and fall as the wind picked up and died down. Closer still and the swishing sound the blades cutting through the air became louder, drowning out the sound of the wind.

Then we were directly underneath the blades. I wondered what Rufus would make of it all, both what he could see and what he could hear (as he is more attuned to high pitched sounds) but he was completely uninterested in any of it, more concerned with the various scents of the animals that survived the construction work. It was a strange sensation for me, with the tips of the blades seemingly inches above my head and combined sound of wind, blade and turbine.

Standing at the turbine site, I looked back up to the skyline and the low mounds of the ruined earthworks of Penlle’r Castell and once again wondered what the occupants would have made of all this modern technology.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 1: From Swansea to Swahili

The process of getting from my house to Heathrow was more traumatic than getting from Heathrow to Nairobi. A heavy kitbag (a gnat’s whisker under 15kg) plus a bulky back pack (the lead lined whiskers from a tribe of gnats over 5kg) was just hassle, particularly getting through the ticket barriers at Reading. On-line check-in only partially worked as the internal flight to Kilimanjaro International airport didn’t have a working website.

But these minor issues aside, I caught my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro as the internal flight flew between it and Mt Meru. The pilot announced that we were flying some 4000ft below the summit of Kilimanjaro as there were favourable winds at that altitude.

I managed to get through the airport Yellow Fever check (a big worry for me) and suddenly I was with the others in our group on the main highway running between Moshi and Arusha. About an hour later, we were checked in to the Ilboru Safari Lodge and I could relax.

After a briefing about equipment, altitude sickness and the formalities of insurance and passports, we were free to relax in the little round huts that were our rooms. That evening, we had a mix of traditional local foods including beef and fried chicken with vegetables and fresh fruit. After a good night’s sleep beneath a mosquito net (the realities of being in Africa started here), we were up early for a feast of a breakfast and then of in the minibus for the transfer to Kilimanjaro National Park and the registration process. Then, a quick and extremely bumpy bus ride (known locally as the African massage) took us to Lemosho gate and the start of the trekking. Here, we met our guides. Head guide was Passian with his two assistants ‘King’ James and Khalid. We learnt our first Swahili words here too; ‘Pole pole’ (slowly, slowly – the mantra for altitude acclimatisation), ‘twendai’ (let’s go), ‘mwzuri sana’ (I’m very well) and the well worn ‘jambo’ (the equivalent of ‘hi’ and ‘how are you’ tr

We walked through green forest along a rough 4×4 track (my Freelander wouldn’t have coped) before rising up and away from the track on a narrower path. After a lunch stop on the open, we entered the forest again for around 3 hours of gentle uphill walking until we spotted tents through the trees ahead. Big Tree Camp was our first camp site and the one that would introduce us to the routine of camp life.

Porters are only allowed by law to carry a maximum of 25kg and so at every camp site, a check is made on the loads to make sure none are being exploited. The guy in charge of the scales offered to weigh my pack and he laughed when it turned out to be 6.5kg. I was surprised, as I’d expected to carry no more than 5kg most days. I was more surprised when I realised that the weight didn’t include the water I’d been carrying, or my camera, which was still around my neck. I estimated I’d started off with an 9kg pack.

During the night, a troop of Colobus monkeys swept through the camp site, looking for food. In the morning, one large monkey remained on the outskirts of the clearing, watching and waiting for us intruders to leave. White necked ravens sat on rocks also waiting for their chance to scavenge. The reality is that despite the relatively few trekkers that visit every year, we have changed the way the local wildlife act.

Day two was about climbing out of the rain forest. The paths were narrow and deep in the forest to start with. We passed a tree full of Colobus monkeys, jumping from branch to branch just as we aligned cameras. The climbing was steeper today, and the humidity a bit more noticeable out of the breeze. We were led at a reasonable pace by our guide but this was the first proper day of trekking and we all felt it to a certain extent. By lunch time we were leaving the thick forest, with dense undergrowth and tall trees, behind and below. I noticed that the vegetation was getting shorter – now only head height and with far fewer trees to shelter us from the sun. We stopped for lunch at a small level piece of rocky ground half way up the side of Shira Ridge.

After lunch, we set off on the steep looking pathway we’d been eyeing up while eating. As usual, it wasn’t as bad as expected but in the heat and with our backpacks, it was no push over. Eventually, we got to the top and were rewarded with a much flatter path on the Shira Plateau. The Plateau is the remains of the Shira volcano, the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro. We were walking in the crater, very much weathered and worn away by millennia of floods, glaciers and wind blown dust.

Before long, Shira camp site came into view in the distance. We spotted the green roof of the Ranger hut first, but then the green tents popped in to view as well and finally, the tall blue toilet tent. It would be a beacon in the days to come. Once again, I was able to weigh my pack and found that it was 7.5kg. With the water I’d drunk, it would be closer to 9kg again.

Shira camp was busy with a number of groups having made it there. We watched as one large circle of porters began singing. It was fun and jolly and raised the spirits. When it was still going on an hour later, it was less fun and more annoying. After two hours, it finally stopped. Our guide promised to make sure our tents were as far away from that group as possible in future.

After dinner, we stood out in the darkness watching lightning light up the back of Kilimanjaro, throwing it in to silhouette. Over to the west, gigantic bolts lit up clouds over the plains down below. All this took place in surreal silence. After the day’s climb, retiring to the sleeping bag was most welcome.

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Weekend Training

As you may have noticed by the theme of the last few posts, I’ve stepped up my training for the trek. I have to increase the time I’m out and I have to walk with weights to prepare for carrying the back pack. Based on experience, I think my trekking back pack will weigh 5-6kg so I’m trying to regularly train with at least twice that weight, often more if I can. I feel that the heavier the load I can manage regularly, the better it will be on the day. In the hot weather we have at the moment, it’s easy to make that weight up with water.

Yesterday, Rufus and I went out to Whiteford for a stroll. As we were walking through Cwm Ivy, I spotted a signpost for a footpath we had never tried before. I thought it would be something different, and it offered us the opportunity to walk through woods for a large part of the distance which would mean cooler conditions. Even at 8.30 am the temperature was climbing and neither of us like the heat of midday.

The path through Cwm Ivy wood was undulating but shaded by trees to give a gentle, green light. It twisted and turned until it was hard to judge which direction we were heading, but every now and then I caught glimpses of the dunes and pine woods of Whiteford burrows. Eventually, we left the canopy of trees and emerged at the edge of the salt marshes where we turned left to walk along the sea wall towards the dunes. I decided to stick with the trees as much as possible, so we left the main path and headed inot the woods. There was a nice breeze between the trees and we ambled along enjoying the morning.

We popped out onto the beach at Whiteford Point. I was hoping the tide would be in for Rufus to have a paddle but it was a distant line. However, there was a large pool of seawater close in and almost as soon as I had registered it, Rufus was in it up to his knees. There followed a 30 minute splash and chase session which Rufus enjoyed so much that he even ignored a passing dog in favour of the next stone. I turned to leave; an act that was met with a frantic series of barks which reminded me that Rufus actually runs our walks and I just participate. His barks echoed off the trees but in doing so, they lost some of their bass frequencies so although a large Cocker Spaniel barked, a tiny Terrier answered back.

Eventually, I persuaded Rufus that we had to leave and he reluctantly agreed. We headed back into the woods and weaved our way between paths, tracks and dunes. We went back through Cwm Ivy wood but even here the heat was growing and the tress that sheltered us from the sun also blocked any cooling breeze. In the car, the air conditioning was on full and we both enjoyed the fridge-like temperatures on the way home.

Today, I was up a little later after a late finishing gig last night. Rufus was home and so I decided to take a stroll down to the beach and as far as I felt like going. I was still sleepy when I left the house the the mile down to the sea front was enough to wake me up. I walked along the beach as the tide went out. There was a cooling breeze coming in from the sea which made the walking more pleasant. I managed to reach Oystermouth before deciding to turn back. By the time I got closer to Swansea again, the beach was full of people.

Swansea beach is a lovely stretch of sand that is hindered only by the unpredictable weather and a line of mud just below the high tide mark. I have great memories from my childhood of going to ‘the sands’ as I called them. Whenever I visited my grandparents (which was every 2-3 years as we stayed with them while my dad was posted from RAF station to station and was arranging accommodation), we would always go to ‘the sands’. I remember going there one day and seeing JCBs filling trucks full of the sand. I was distraught as being only 6 I thought the beach would disappear. Later I found out the sand was transported to Blackpool, of all places.

A good weekend of training, but I have to up the walking time over the next few weeks.

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Rufus and Dave’s lads week day 7 – The Bovine Dimension (By Rufus)

I popped in to see Dave early this morning. Awww, he was sleeping and looked so relaxed. So I didn’t shove my nose in his face to wake him up. I went back to bed and waited until 5.30. Too long in bed isn’t good for him. To be fair, he got up and we went out to make sure the garden was still there (I understand there is a fox around and I wouldn’t want her to steal Dave’s garden).

We went back to bed for a lie-in. Yesterday’s adventures took their toll on Dave so I let him rest. We got up around 8am and I let him make breakfast as he likes to feel useful when I’m around. We watched tv for a bit and then we had a chat about what we were going to do today. Dave suggested Pembrey and I thought that would be a good place to go – plenty of places toe xplore and things for Dave to photograph. It’s also flat, which means he wouldn’t be pushing himself too much after yesterday.

Dave drove. He likes that kind of thing. I prefer to contemplate the world from the back seat. I know my rightful place. We left the car and made our way along the estuary to the north of Pembrey airfield. Today, as we walked along, there were swans, lots of geese flying low overhead (they nearly bumped into Dave) and several herds of cows. The cows were all in the distance though, so there was no need to dodge them like we did last time. We walked past the pillboxes (for some reason, Dave likes these) and through the outer perimeter of Pembrey airfield. Apparently, according to Mr Interesting, it used to be a WW2 airfield and most of the derelict buildings date from then.

We entered the forest on a track that ultimately leads to the bombing and gunnery range. Last time I was here with Dave they had just finished landing Hercules aircraft on Cefn Sidan and when we got there, we had to dodge out of the way as several large fire engines made their way from the beach. There was nothing going on today so we had the run of the track. There were plenty of puddle for me to paddle in (my paws get hot with all the walking) and Dave seemed happy enough with his camera. Before long, we got to the beach. I haven’t been to the beach for a while so it was great to be able to run off in the soft sand.

Dave threw sticks and I made sure I gathered them up; you can’t be too careful leaving sticks just anywhere on the beach. The tide was going out but I managed to get some more paddling in. We had some snacks and I made sure Dave had a drink; he gets thirsty but sometimes he won’t drink. Then it was time to head back to the car. We took the same route back. By the time we reached the airfield again, one of the herds of cows had moved and some of them were very close to the path. We both decided to take it easy walking past them. I ignored them and carried on past. When I turned around to look, two cows were running straight towards Dave.

I had to stifle a laugh. He does some daft things but turning to face them, waving his arms in the air and talking to them like he talks to me was rather funny. They stopped and he turned to go and they started towards him again. I think they were after me, as they were staring at me. Dave turned to face them again and started shouting at them. I think they got the message because they stopped. They only came after us again after we’d gone through the gate and reached the path by the estuary. I enjoy a little bit of adventure on our walks.

Just before we reached the car, we saw a grey heron that had been in the pool with the swans.

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Waterfalls again

You’ve been here before, with us. I had a few ideas for photographs in my head and Rufus had stayed with me so we could set off early. I wanted to go to Ystradfellte again but this time for the woods and autumnal leaves rather that the waterfalls. We set off in the grey mist and low cloud in the hope that the weather forecast would be right and it would clear. It certainly showed no signs of doing so. The further we went up the Neath Valley, the more the mist turned to rain. But by the time we’d climbed up on to the Ystradfellte hill and parked the car, the mist had lifted. Perfect woodland photography weather.

We made our way down to the first waterfall and I found plenty of colourful leaves to offset the grey of the stones and the bright white of the water crashing over rocks. While Rufus investigated the water, I took some long exposure shots of the waterfall with golden leafed trees in the background. Then we made our way along the river, across the bridges and up on to the hill behind it.

I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find the conditions I wanted but it was an enjoyable walk. The clouds were lifting completely and there was enough blue sky to raise the spirits – ‘enough to make a sailor’s shirt’ as my grandmother used to say. Rufus spotted a squirrel and was off, sprinting up a hill I could barely walk up. By the time I crested the top, he was bouncing around the base of a tree trunk, staring up into the branches. A squirrel was calmly making its way along the upper branches and Rufus was trying to figure out how to climb up. It was never going to happen.

On the way back, we had some quality time in the river and then it was off back to the car. Unfortunately, on the way Rufus was attacked by another dog. One minute they were sniffing each other quite nicely and the next it nipped him on the nose. Poor Rufus wasn’t sure what was going on and I quickly managed to grab him while four dogs ran around, barking and yapping. Rufus has such a soft nature that on the rare occasions that other dogs are aggressive, he is always taken by surprise. I had a few words with the owner, who was clearly not in control of the four dogs she had, but she was only interested in whether Rufus was alright. Somehow, I got the impression it was not for his welfare but to find out if I was going to make a big deal of it. I’d hate to think what would have happened if it had been a child that the dog had nipped.

Anyway, the most important thing was that Rufus was fine and there was no blood drawn. He recovered quite quickly and was back to his old self by the time we got back to the car. He got a nice treat when we got home, too!

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