Proper Mountains 1: Yr Wyddfa

This week, in a break with tradition, I set off not for work but for Snowdonia. The last time I was here was in 2010, as part of my preparation for the second Everest Base Camp trek. I wanted to go back partly to climb the Glyders and partly to get some decent photographs of the area. I prayed for fine weather.

On the journey up, I stopped off at Bwlch Oerddrws, where from the car park and the mountains above you can get dramatic photographs of military planes as they fly up the valley and overhead at about 200ft. The noise and the speed are exhilarating. I always aim to get here in time to have a coffee and a break and I usually build in at least an hour  here to catch a few fly bys. I managed to photograph a C130 and a Tornado during my stop over.

The cottage I stayed in was at the top of a narrow and rough farm track winding up from a similarly narrow and rough side road just outside Capel Curig. It had everything I needed as a base for walking except internet access and a mobile phone signal!

The plan was to climb mountains – as many as I could fit in depending on the weather. I was unfit, not having climbed a proper mountain in the UK since last year. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get or whether I’d only manage one before collapsing in a heap. At least the cottage had a bath that I could soak in if necessary. I watched the local weather forecast and made a loose plan based on the prediction that Tuesday would be the best day. Snowdon it was, then!

I decided against doing Crib Goch this time; if I was unfit, that would be a tough route to find out about it. So I set off on the Pyg Track around 8am. The weather was gorgeous, so much better than I had expected. It was warm going up alongside the Llanberis Pass before reaching Bwlch y Moch. I stopped to drink in the magnificent views down into the cwm with it’s lakes and river and was passed by several walkers heading up to Crib Goch. We joked (last one to the cafe buys the drinks, etc) and left them to their airy stroll. I set off along the Pyg track. It was like a familiar fried; the last time I’d come this way was during the preparation for my first trek to Nepal in 2007. In fact, I’d climbed it twice that year, in mist and then in sunshine. Today was like the latter.

A number of improvements had been made to the path. All of them were in keeping with the surroundings, but where erosion had threatened to make the route impassable, it had been repaired. It hadn’t made the path any easier though and I was soon feeling the strain in my leg muscles. But it wasn’t too bad and I carried on. The last stretch before reaching the railway line was easier than I remembered and the pull up to the summit was straight forward. After a few minutes sharing the summit with four mountain bikers (and their bikes) I headed off to the cafe for a well earned cream scone and a drink. As I tucked in, the train disgorged a load of passengers and they hobbled and shuffled through the cafe towards the summit cairn. I felt smug and finished my scone.

Coming down was straight forward. I detoured to take the Miner’s track on the way back and the walk along Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw was peaceful and a nice way to end the route. Apart from the 10 minutes when a military helicopter was buzzing me during a training exercise as it flew in and around the cwm.

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Moel Feity

We had a lie in this morning. Rufus didn’t shove his nose in my face until 6.30. I let him out in the garden and he ran around like a possessed hound after some scent from the night before. I was half tempted to go back to bed, but it was such a gorgeous morning that it seemed a shame to waste it.

Breakfast over, we set out for the hills. Moel Feity has featured here many times before. Today, under a cloudless blue sky, we set off up the slope towards the summit. I was hoping to visit the WW2 crash site of the US PB4Y that I’ve been to a few times. I wanted to see that it had survived the winter storms.

There was a cold wind blowing but the effort of climbing the hill warmed me up. Rufus was slow to start with, working the cobwebs out from his limbs. We’ve been a bit sedentary recently and he hasn’t been well. But once he’d warmed up, he was off and there was no stopping him. Every pool, every puddle and even some that hadn’t seen water for a week were investigated and paddled in.

It didn’t take us long to get to the top, but once again I’d missed the crash site. It’s marked by a low white stone and a few scraps of wreckage and it’s hard to see in the undulating terrain. I wasn’t too worried; we’d run across it on the way back. Instead, I kept going north over the flatter top of the hill until I could see the green belt of farmland beyond the hills. Rufus managed to find a large pool and I managed to find the only stone for miles around that was suitable for Rufus to chase into the water. Seconds later, he was investigating the depth and found it was up to his tummy.

We set off back down the hill and very quickly came across the memorial stone. I tidied up a couple of the rocks on the cairn and set the cross I’d left back up again. The first time I came up this hill, I came across a second cairn, made from more bits of wreckage. I came across it again today, about 50 yards down the hill. There is a lot of small pieces of aluminium, including quite a bit that seems to have melted. I picked up a bit that had been moved uphill, and this appeared to have signs of charring on it. I tidied this pile up as well and then we carried on down the hillside towards the river.

Rufus, with his gift of sensing water from great distances, was already way ahead of me and waiting at the river bank. When I stopped to take some photos of the waterfalls, I was reminded of my obligation to throw stones by the traditional bark and whine. Many stones later, we climbed into the car and it turned out to be my turn to drive again. Rufus flopped out ont he back seat and didn’t wake until we pulled up outside the house.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 6: The bits between the bits

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a serious business. There are months of preparation to be made. Training for physical fitness take as along as you like; the more you do the better the experience when you’re trekking. Mental preparation is harder to plan and do but is equally important to get you through the tough days when it’s raining, or when the slope is never ending.

For some, the gathering of kit is enjoyable. Testing each item and making the final decision about what to take and what to leave behind. I admit to secretly enjoying choosing which cameras to take as it’s where my interests lie.

But however serious and hard it is, ultimately I trek because I enjoy it. So amidst all the serious stuff, there have to be moments of humour, laughter and hysterics, otherwise what is the point? For every “…the ascent was long and hard and the rains lashed down…” there has to be a “…how we laughed…”. The problem with trying to write them down is that often they depend on the moment and knowing the people and places. So while I will try and convey the humour, I apologise if these stories occasionally come over as a bit insular and cliquey. And, of course, if none of them work, I won’t publish this.

Travelling is always stressful. My journey from Home to Heathrow by train and coach was marked by annoying people. On the train, it was the nasally-voiced gentleman two seats over from me. For three hours he talked to his travelling companion and at no time did I understand a word he spoke, but neither was I able to miss a single syllable of his piercing tones.  On the coach, it was the serial complainer who annoyed. But I left both of them behind.

At Nairobi airport, we had two litre bottles of water bought in the transfer lounge, but we weren’t allowed to take them on the plane unless they were sealed in a plastic bag. So we went back to the shop from which they’d been bought and asked them to seal them up. we were then allowed through the check in. Security at it’s tightest.

Our encounter with an Australian trekker on day one was the beginning of a running joke, She turned up while we were having lunch and decided we were her group. She’d missed a flight and arrived late. It eventually dawned on her that we weren’t her group  and she walked on. Her loud voice faded slowly as she went. We met her several more times and each time she was louder, more shrill and a little more annoying. At the next camp one of our guides convinced her he was from Brisbane, although he spoke very little English. Every time we  bumped into her over the next few day, we reminded her that our guide was from Brisbane. We even told him some place names that one of our trekkers knew from the Brisbane area.

Our campsites were pretty good on the whole. On a few occasions, we found that there was a distinct slope; after all we were climbing a mountain. Often there was a ‘low end’ to the mess tent table. After walking through the cold and miserable rain one afternoon, we retired to the mess tent and as I sat down, I all but disappeared. I found the whole thing funny and started to laugh, but it was laughter that you can’t help, that comes from a mix of tiredness and despair and it quickly turned hysterical! In no time, everyone in the tent was laughing. It was a welcome release from the misery of the day.

Early in the trek, we shared a campsite with another group of trekkers with a different company. Every night, their guides and porters would sing. We watched and listened, fascinated, and were even asked to join in. But after about an hour, it was getting a little jaded and during the second hour it began to grate on the nerves. Especially as the songs were chart hits, not traditional tunes. Our guide promised not to put our tents anywhere near them again, and he was true to his word.

The following night we camped on a tiny site where there was barely enough room for our four tents. As a result, they were cramped together and in my tent, a large part of Kilimanjaro formed a pillow under my head when I lay down. With a combination of careful positioning of my kit bag and a slight bend of the knee, I was able to lie reasonably comfortably. But at this site, the tents were placed on a sloping bit of ground and right outside the entrances was a small but significant vertical drop. At night, this would test us if we needed to go to the toilet tent, which was several metres away up the slope. We joked that we’d have to rope up to climb to use the toilet!

On summit night, our tent was invaded by a little four striped mouse. It was looking for morsels to eat, which we had loaded up the back packs with prior to the climb. When we went to the mess tent for dinner, it had scurried out from the rocks and gone all the way in to the tent. When I opened the flap, it rushed deeper in to the tent and only came out again when it realised there was no escape. I have a blurry photo of a seed eater bird perched on my back pack at Moir Hut camp.

At the park gate where we started, the gigantic sign warned of all the hazards that lay ahead, and the precautions to take. Most of the advice was sound and wise, but one point made us worry. “Do not push yourself to go if you have extreme.” We kept a close eye out for signs of extreme in all of us and although we all came close and some point, none of us suffered complete extreme.

Our card games, mainly ‘UNO’ were played in the evenings after food and invariably when we were tired. What shoudl have been a fast, snappy game was played at a sedate pace with slow reactions, missed opportunities and a lot of laughing. In the end, though, everyone won at least one game! The less said about the games of Pontoon, using miniscule portions of popcorn as betting chips, the better.

There were few laughs on the climb to Uhuru Peak, but at one point I offered to roll rocks down the slope to try and silence a bunch of very loud trekkers who seemed to think making a noise – any noise – was cool. At the Uhuru Peak signpost, we were constantly thwarted while trying to get the photo by a bunch of Americans. In the end, we dashed in between their high fiving and managed to get three individual photos without anyone else encroaching.

On the descent, there was little time for humour as I desperately tried to keep my balance. But on the second day, there was a slightly more leisurely pace and there was time to look around and enjoy again. We kept passing and being passed by a group of Canadians, with a friendly ‘hello again, fancy meeting you here’. They were friendly and it became a running joke to break up some of the longer and more demanding sections. Stopping at Mweki camp for a toilet break, I peed down a chute only to find some kind of flying insect down there. it wouldn’t leave and as I tried not to hit it, it flew around to avoid the stream. had I sat down, I expect I would have got a lovely bite.

As we passed through the lower slopes by the park gate, we found what could only be described as ‘The Kilimanjaro Experience’. It seemed like a theme park/visitor centre compete with elephant and buffalo noises (but no elephants or buffaloes), empty farm huts and large palms. It was an odd end to the trek.

It’s impossible to do a trek like this without a sense of humour.  I hope I’ve managed to convey a some of it in this blog entry.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 4: Of mice and men

We survived the sloping camp site and we had a late start today – 8.30am. The route was characterised by more dry flood channels and a distinctly different landscape to the Western and Southern slopes we’d been walking on. Now flora was sparse and composed of only the hardiest of species. We were sown the Scottish Thistle, a surprising discovery but, once we’d seen one, a relatively common sight. Low grasses also popped their heads above the volcanic gravel.

After a beautiful sunrise, we walked in the sunshine for a bit before the inevitable mist descended once more. It was colder now and there was a thick frost on the ground. This froze the scree and made it much easier to walk on. The path was rough and once again undulating. It was impossible to tell whether we were climbing because we were crossing little ridges and dropping down again, and passing through more flood channels.

The passage of time was also hard to determine and everything came together to make an unreal few hours of walking. I’d trained in the mists of the Brecon Beacons but I had never felt anything like this. We came across another flood channel and this was was wide and deep. It wasn’t clear how we’d get to the bed to cross it and in the end, we just scrambled and slithered down the side. At the bottom, we heard voices and suddenly, the big blue toilet tent appeared through the mist. We were at Third Cave Camp. We struggled up the loose scree of the other bank and were in camp! It had taken us 3.5 hours instead of the 5-7 hours in the plan. We were getting fitter and more acclimatised.

We had a short break for dinner in the camp before another acclimatisation walk. Again, we took the route we’d be following tomorrow. This time it was a constant ascent up into the hills, heading directly for Kilimanjaro. We were walking in mist but we soon left it behind as we got higher. Eventually, after about an hour of walking we reached a point 300m above the camp site. It had been hard going because we’d pushed the pace a little but I found I recovered quickly. The trip back down took around 25 minutes. Back at camp, I sat out in the sunshine for half an hour, writing my journal, drinking tea and eating hot peanuts. It was probably the best early evening of the whole trek.

During the night, the diamox I was taking to combat altitude sickness resulted in a need to go for a pee. Despite the absolute certainty of needing to go, it took me 20 minutes from waking up to finally deciding to get out of the sleeping bag. By now, ready for this eventuality, I was already wearing trousers and a fleece to bed so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The morning came quickly and coldly. To the north east, the sun was rising over the cloud layer again, making a beautiful sight well worth getting up for. To the south of the camp, Kilimanjaro towered above us. But it was definitely closer, and to me it seemed do-able. Once the sun had risen, it warmed the air quickly and by the time we were ready to leave it was quite pleasant.

We retraced our steps up above the camp and the path that had taken us an hour to complete without packs last night took 90 minutes this morning. Still, that was faster than I was expecting and made me feel comfortable about what was to come. Passian, our lead guide, set a good pace which pushed us a little without  tiring us too much. Occasionally we were passed by our porters who raced ahead to get the camp set up for this afternoon.

Today was a straight ascent from Third Cave, at 3900m to School Hut camp at 4770m. School Hut was our base camp for the final day’s push to the summit of Kilimanjaro and that was at the back of all our minds during the walk. Personally, I was waiting for the headache and nausea of altitude sickness to strike, as 4500m was about the time I’d experienced it in Nepal. I hardly dared think about how symptom free I’d been so far. And I was pleased to find I felt physically very fit and mentally ready to take on the long climb later tonight.

We lost track of time again and as the mist descended, of distance too. After a long stretch of walking steeply while weaving between large boulders, I caught a glimpse of several porters resting ahead. Passian saw them too, and they saw him and jumped up to continue onwards. Shortly afterwards, I thought I caught a glimpse of our blue toilet tent in the mist and a quick question to Passian confirmed that we had arrived at School Hut camp.

Years ago, the School Hut was used for trainee guides to stay in while learning how to guide on the mountain but it had long since fallen into disuse. It was now the shelter for the park ranger but still contained communal bunks. We found out later that for the price of a few beers, we could have stayed in there in relative warmth. But for now, although we could see the camp, it was remaining elusive and distant. It seemed that no matter how long we walked, it was no nearer. I adopted my ‘head down’ approach and found that after about 10 minutes, I could see it was noticeably closer. A final, cruel twist was that the last few metres was up and extremely steep and slippery slope. But we were there and after a swift signing in on the register, we were able to find our tents and rest.

We watched Four Stripe mice (large mice with four lighter coloured stripes on their necks) scurrying from rock to rock. The scavenged on scraps from trekkers and later, after we’d had dinner and returned to the tent, we found one inside looking for snacks. It jumped out and ran away but we were careful to check after that.

Passian held our summit briefing after lunch, and it had a more serious feel to it. Tonight would be the final climb to the top. It would be cold, hard going and long. We were warned to wear at least four layers of clothing on top, to drink plenty before setting out and to get as much rest as possible. We were not to wait for anyone if they dropped behind; the guides would do that and to avoid the group getting split up and perhaps walking on their own, we should all make our own progress and pace. This was a sensible if hard rule, which meant that the teamwork that had helped everyone at one time or another through the trek so far would be absent. On the other hand, it meant that everyone had the best chance of getting to the top.

After the briefing, we all retired to the tents to try and get the best 4 or 5 hours sleep we could.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 3: The northern route

Today would be the start of our northern route diversion. Most groups would be heading up towards the Lava Towers and on to Barranco hut. We were turning off to begin the two day traverse of the northern circuit. This was one of the features of the trek that had attracted me; We would get an extra two days at altitude to aid acclimatisation, but also to enjoy being on an unspoilt and largely deserted stretch of the mountain.

Our route today followed the walk we’d completed yesterday afternoon and we soon reached the 4000m marker stone. Shortly after this our path split off to the left and we said good by to the standard trails. Now we were climbing steadily towards our goal for the day, Moir Hut camp. And as we crested the ridge we could make out the pyramid shaped hut, it’s wood bleached white in the strong sunshine. It was a surprise as we expected to be walking for several more hours but in a little over 2.5 hours, we strolled into camp.

We were in a deep and steep sided valley, bordered on three sides by tall cliffs of solidified lava. Where weathering had worn away the scree, flat sheets of lava could be seen edge on. Above the ruined pyramid hut, the three dramatic humps of the Lent Hills could be seen. This afternoon, we’d be climbing the closest, Little Lent Hill, as part of our acclimatisation programme. For now, we were content to be in camp and to have some time to rest.

After lunch and a sustained assault on the crumbs we’d dropped by bold little Seed Eater birds, we set off to scale the nearby Little Lent Hill. We started off with a scramble over a steep section of smooth lava, followed by a long tramp up the side of the valley, Underfoot, the scree was slippery and in parts it was like climbing up a sand dune, with feet slipping backwards.  But before too long we were on the ridge top and then it was a short but difficult walk over loose stones that clinked like china when they knocked together to the foot of the hill.

The route up to the top of the hill was over steep, sharp and grippy rocks and as we started up, we were passed by another group of trekkers. One woman was using supplementary oxygen, At this relatively low level (4300m) it suggested that she was struggling already. the danger would be if her supply ran out on the final climb, She’d be in trouble and would leave her group with a dilemma on whether to help or go on.

We scrambled to the top and were rewarded by magnificent views over the camp, and up to Kilimanjaro. The top of the hill was covered in delicately balanced stone piles; we’d been seeing them all along the trails so far and would continue to see them right to the top.  Coming back down again was much easier than going up apart from the constant slipping of feet on scree.

The following day, we retraced our steps up to the ridge before bearing left to avoid Little Lent Hill. We were now well on the seldom used northern circuit route and we welcomed the break and the solitude. We walked in near silence in single file. The pacing was good and the grounds, while undulating, was manageable. By late morning the mist and cloud descended and brought the temperature down., This made the walking a little easier but made the rocky, barren landscape an eerie place to be. It felt as if it would be so easy to get lost here and, according to a guidebook, someone had done just that and they were still looking for him!

We crossed several dried river channels which would carry meltwater off the mountain during the rainy seasons. They were bone dry and full of rounded boulders. The vegetation had retreated to a few hardy plants sheltering beside rocks, and lichen. We reached a high point of 4370m before dropping back down again until we arrived at Buffalo Camp site around 5.5 hours after we’d started walking.

This camp site was small and cramped. Fortunately we were the only ones there. Three tents were lined up together on a slop – next to the entrances was a drop of nearly 12 inches. This doesn’t sound like much but in the cold and dark of a midnight toilet break, this could potentially cause chaos. Our toilet tent was several vertical metres above the tents and we joked that we would need climbing rope and a belay to safely use the toilet. Inside my tent, I found that there was a large boulder for a pillow – luckily I’m short enough that I was able to avoid it. The slope, which made bothy of us slide down the tent during the night, helped as well. Nevertheless, we survived the night and were rewarded in the morning with a beautiful site of the sunrise over a layer of clouds onto which we were looking.

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Feeling on top of the world

After 9 days of trekking (and what feels like a further 9 days of travelling, for once you get into the airport system, time behaves differently), I am back in the UK. And the best bit is, I got to the top of Kilimanjaro! After 6 hours of endless, relentless trudging uphill in pitch darkness, lit only by a head torch, feet slipping in the scree and brain demanding another rest stop, I reached Gillman’s point at 5.40am. Around 30 minutes later we got to Stella Point. At 7.15am local time (4.15am GMT) I reached Uhuru Peak, at 5895m above sea level.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of getting there. It was the culmination of months of preparation, training, support and encouragement from friends and colleagues. It was the culmination of 7 days of trekking through the Kilimanjaro National Park. It was the culmination of 7 days of teamwork from my fellow trekkers (Eirlys, Katherine, Michael, Raymond and Ian) and of our fantastic African Walking Company crew (our guides Passian, King James and Khalid, Mexan, our ‘stomach engineer’ and all our porters).

The summit climb was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I thought I knew what to expect after climbing Kala Patthar but I didn’t. We found out afterwards that someone had died of altitude sickness at Gillman’s Point the day before we got to the top. I’m glad we didn’t know that in advance.

I’m now suffering from some sort of culture shock. On Friday I was on top of Kilimanjaro. On Monday afternoon I was in my living room, sorting out the washing. That’s a huge change to deal with and I’m struggling. So for the time being, there is no detailed account of the trek but I have posted some photos below.

Thanks you to everyone who supported me in whatever way. It made a difference.

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The last misty mountain

Including today, I have five days left before I fly out to Tanzania and try to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. Today was the last realistic opportunity to get some hill training in. At least that’s what Rufus was telepathically transferring into my head. I know it was him because I also had an overwhelming urge to fill my back pack full of doggy treats.

So after breakfast and a swift patrol of the garden, we were off and very quickly at the start of the path over Moel Feity and to Llyn y Fan Fawr. Last time we were heading in this direction, we ended up scurrying back to the car in the middle of thunder and lightning and a tremendous hail storm. Today, the weather couldn’t have been more different. It was cold and clear and a golden glow from the just risen sun brought out the yellows and oranges in the grass and it was as if we were walking on a brick red carpet. Albeit a soggy one.

We made our way up onto Moel Feity, stopping to tidy up the memorial to the American bomber crash. Wind had scattered some of the poppies and I placed them back on the small cairn, weighted down with stones. Then it was off down the other side and up the hill to the lake. By now, Fan Brecheiniog was covered in a fluffy cloud hat and for a moment I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t another thunder cloud. That day still haunts me. But it wasn’t and we reached the lake relatively dry.

After a stop to refuel, during which I had the urge to sacrifice my Snickers to Rufus (which I only just managed to overcome), we started the steep trudge up on to Fan Brecheiniog itself. As we climbed, the cloud lifted so that by the time we were on the top, there was a light haze covering the ridge. Ahead, a huge aerial stucjk up from the stone shelter and as we passed I heard the distinct nasal clip of someone speaker over a radio circuit. I’m not sure what was happening but the two guys with the radio were comfortable in the shelter. Rufus and I walked on to the end of the ridge and took a few selfies before we turned around and headed back down to the lake.

At the water’s edge, I sat and threw stones for Rufus to catch. This will be the last time we walk together for a while and I wanted to make sure that he had a bit of a play as well as a good long walk. There was much wagging of tail and barking, which suggested to me that he was having fun.

The two kilometres walk back to the car isn’t the best part of this route and we splashed, squelched and slipped our way back in about an hour. Rufus was reluctant, as usual, to jump up on to the back seat but he didn’t know what I knew – we were only going a mile down the road to the river. Or maybe he did know. Maybe it was his idea? Once he realised we were stopping again, he was stood up and ready to jump out. I parked by the side of the river so that he could have a proper paddle, and rinse some of the mud out of his paws.

We walked up and down the river bank until I found some stones and there followed a stone fest. I threw, he chased. He jumped, paddled, slipped, bathed and barked. His tail wagged so much that if it had been submerged it would have propelled him up against the flow of the water. A few times he made athletic leaps across to a stone in the middle of the river, only to leap back on to the bank again with equal grace. A lot of fun was being had. All too quickly it was time to leave and Rufus dried off in the back while I drove behind horses, tractors, cyclist and slow learner drivers back home.

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Out Out

I only popped out for milk, but somehow I found myself on the seafront near Swansea Marina watching the waves as the tide reached it’s highest point this morning. There wasn’t much of a wind and I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular but right on the promenade I could see and hear the waves pounding the sea wall. Sure enough, there were plumes of spray bursting high into the air.

I stood and watched for a while before getting the camera out. Not only did I want to make sure I experienced this properly but I also wanted to see what the waves were doing, so I wouldn’t be surprised by a big one and get soaked. Although there wasn’t a pattern I could find, I did notice that waves coming in at a certain angle created the massive spray plumes. I kept an eye out for those waves and waited.

There were others on the promenade walking dogs, jogging, riding bikes and just watching and snapping away, like me. One of the photos I had in mind was of some of those people getting soaked. However, I didn’t want to be a similar subject of someone else’s picture. Between photos, I kept a careful eye on the waves and what they were doing. High tide was around 9am and I didn’t notice any change one the tide was technically going out. In fact, the waves seemed to get stronger as I walked along the promenade towards the docks. I didn’t go far, finding a great vantage point that offered me some protection and a nice view back towards the Guildhall. Looking at the times on the photos, I see I was only there half an hour but it felt like a lot longer.

I headed off to get my milk but once again something went wrong and I found myself in Mumbles. Although the shelter of Bracelet Bay didn’t give rise to many waves, further along seemed to offer more opportunities and I took a stroll along the coastal path to Langland. Along the way I could hear and feel rather than see the waves hitting the cliffs. There was a deep boom at every impact, followed by a much higher pitched hiss as the water receded. At Langland Bay, large pebbles – fist sized of more – had been thrown on to the path and the forecourts of the cafe. As I watched, I saw similar sized pebbles being pushed up the slipway, grating and rattling as they went and occasionally hitting the metal handrail, causing it to ring.

The rain forecast for later this morning started a little early so I turned around and made for the car. It was amazing to hear and feel the thump of waves against rock as I hurried back to avoid the inevitable downpour.

I did manage to pick up milk, too.

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Just a little bit further

Yesterday was the last decent day, weather-wise, that would fit in with my training plan. I intend to wind down in the last week, concentrating on gym/cardio/aerobic exercise in a controlled environment to minimise the risk of injury. So Rufus and I headed out to Fan Llia. I had an idea that we’d walk Fan Llia and Fan Dringarth and then drop down to the east side of the Ystradefllte reservoir to make our way back to the car.

At the stile, Rufus struggled a little to get over so I gave him a helping hand. I may have helped a little too much, or he may have slipped but the next thing I knew, he was going head over heels to land in the mud on the other side. I jumped over but by the time I’d got to him, he was up, shaking himself down and wagging his tail. I kept an eye on him but there were no limps or winces, and we climbed steadily through mist and wind to the cairn on Fan Llia. There was a little drizzle but also a little sunshine as the clouds blew rapidly across the mountain. By the time we’d reached Fan Dringarth, the cloud was lifting again and there were large patches of blue sky.

Much to Rufus’ surprise (as he knows our normal route north well) I turned west to head down to the Nant y Gasseg and Nant y Gwair streams which join to form the Afon  Dringarth which feeds the reservoir. He was confused for a moment, and then he spotted the river, and there was no stopping him. I had to watch where I was stepping because of half buried rocks but every time I looked up, there was a small black shape bounding towards the water. By the time I reached the river, Rufus was wading and waiting for me. I threw stones stones and a stick for him to chase and he was a happy dog.

This little valley, Cwm Dringarth, has signs of habitation going back hundreds of years if not further. I saw the remains of sheep folds and other rough drystone structures. There were obvious and not so obvious flattened platforms that once formed the base of dwellings for those farming in the valley. It must have been a bleak and hard life in the valley, although it;s likely that the climate was a little better and, of course, the reservoir wasn’t there and so access would have been much easier.

The going along the side of the valley was tough for me as I had to avoid the river itself and negotiate many little streams that had cut deep into the hillside. I seemed to be climbing up and down all the time, while Rufus used the riverbank and riverbed to make smooth progress. Walking on a slope was hard too; my feet were always at an angle and my left leg was slightly lower than my right. Between us, we managed to make our way along the valley, through mud and bog, until we reached the reservoir.

It was fenced off, which was very disappointing for Rufus who looked longingly at the water through the railings. But eventually, he realised a dip was not to be and carried on, only occasionally glancing across to see if there was a convenient gap in the fence. Streams coming down from the hills were in full spate after the rain and they had cut deep channels in the soft earth. Each had places where sheep had created crossings, but slipping and sliding down and back up again was hard going.

Eventually, we reached the dam at the head of the valley, and this was where in the past I’d crossed over to start the long climb back up to the cairn on Fan Llia. This time, the plan was to head on south, climbing more gradually as we went. By now, the blue skies we’d had for a while were beginning to cloud over again and with the prospect of more storms in the afternoon, we were at the right part of the route; nearly at the car.

False summits can be demoralising if you aren’t expecting them. I had an idea that the summit of the ridge ahead wasn’t the final one and I was right, so it wasn’t too disappointing. But as we got to it, the rain started. Light at first, it became heavier as we reached the real summit and started the last stretch down to the car park. Here the going was treacherous, with saturated ground beneath my feet running with water. I know from experience that this is slippery so I was very careful as I made my way down. Looking up, I saw Rufus disappearing into the reeds in the distance. I wasn’t worried but I wondered if he’s get lost and I’d have to call him to the stile. I decided to cross the fence early, at a point where some inconsiderate farmer has chained a gate shut. As I stepped onto the wooden platform leading to the gate, my feet went from under me on the slimy wood. I fell sideways to my left and managed to tear a fingernail off, bend another one back as I landed on my left hand. I lay on the wood and in slow motion, Rufus’ lead (an extending one, with a big plastic reel) flew around and hit my forehead. I may have sworn.

Giving up on the gate, I made my way down to the stile, where Rufus met me and proceeded to show me how crossing a stile should be done. Back home, we were both tired and when I checked the route, I found we’d walked 10km and climbed 400m, which was more than I had estimated. It was a good final workout for me, and judging by the near constant tail wagging during the walk, an enjoyable day for Rufus.

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Winding down

With 17 days to go until I fly out to Tanzania, there are a lot of things to do. I still have to train but having down the long walks, these will be shorter but more frequent tramps through the countryside. And Rufus has agreed to accompany me, which will be a great incentive and pleasant company.

This morning, I got the last of my dollars and had a nice chat with the young lady at the travel agent. She was fascinated by the up coming trek (she wasn’t trying to sell me anything I didn’t want, and the questions and her reactions seemed genuine). And somewhere between then and when I found myself on Cefn Cul with Rufus, it all became a step more real.

The walk today was partly to check out my knee after yesterday’s testing route. And it was fine. As we walked in the wind and occasional sunshine, I was trying to think about everything I need to do before I set off on the 15th. I got the point where there were so many things (charge batteries, replace head torch batteries, redirect mail, online check-in etc) that I realised I need to make a list. I did this for my first trek, too, and stuck it on the fridge door. It even included ‘switch off lights’ as a last act before leaving the house.

The ground was soaking wet. It wasn’t so much mud as saturated ground. The water was running off in new rivulets  and where the going was flat, it sat in clear pools. Most of the time I had no choice but to walk in the water. The end of the ridge came suddenly – with a fence. Although the whole ridge is access land, I didn’t climb it as the sun was going down and I wanted to get back before we got a drenching from the clouds that were forming ahead of us. So we turned around and splashed our way back.

I left the path we followed to drop down to the road a little earlier and that was a big mistake. Off the path, the ground was uneven and full of holes and little channels where water had dug away at the earth. It made the walking much harder and I was staring at the ground the whole time. And I still managed to twist my left ankle and then turn my right one. I was fortunate not to injure either ankle but it’s a risk of continuing to train. I have no choice but I must be more careful.

Rufus doesn’t seem to have any problem with ruts and dips. He trots, dashes, walks and jumps along without a care. As we were crossing through a patch of high grass, he was bounding with leaps as sure footed as any mountain goat. He despatched the inevitable stile with ease, too.

I’m waiting to see what the weather forecast is for tomorrow before deciding on our day’s activity. The one thing I know is that there will be no lie-in. Rufus will see to that!

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