Addicted to waterfalls

I could hear the sighs from the back seat as we drove up the Swansea Valley and along the narrow lane that follows the Tawe almost to it’s source beneath the Black Mountain. Rufus loves a walk on the hills. He’s not so keen when he sees me with tripod and camera as it means long periods of waiting around while I take ‘another’ photo of some waterfall.

He’s only a dog, you may think. Yes, but he’s a dog who knows me so well now that he will do all in his power to prevent me from taking photos using a tripod. Including placing himself in front of the camera in exactly the right place to spoil a careful composition. You think I’m joking. I’ve included two photos here of Rufus making his displeasure known by standing in shot or staring at me. And bear in mind that the waterfall photo, in which he has invaded the bottom right corner, was a 20 second exposure. He remained there, in one spot , for 20 seconds.

The waterfalls we visited today are on the side of the Cerrig Duon valley, above the little stone circle that dominates the lower valley. They are easy enough to get to, once you cross the river over slime covered rocks. It’s a short but steep pull by the side of the gully that the water has worn into the limestone. The hardest part is navigating the steep side down to get to the waterfall itself.

Once there, the waterfalls are usually spectacular and today was no different. Not too much water so that there was definition in the way the water fell over the rocks. The main difficulty in getting a decent image is mastering the high contrast between the sunlit part and the shaded part. At this time of year, with the sun low in the sky, it’s harder still. Today, I made several exposures of each composition, varying the shutter speed each time to give me some files I could blend together to create a tone mapped final image back home.

And all the while, a hairy black Spaniel bounced and splashed and yapped and weaved between the legs of the tripod. I threw sticks for him, I suggested he went off sniffing for dead things in the sunlight grass. But no, he just wanted to hurry me along. And eventually, inevitably, he won. We left the shaded gully and emerged into the bright winter sunshine. The ground was still frozen and rock hard and there was white frost in places. Where water had formed puddles on the surface of boggy patches, it was ice this morning.

Rufus is good at following paths and he made his way down to the river while I was still faffing about, watching red kits wheeling about above the ridge behind us. By the time I had reached the river bank, he was on the opposite side of the water, watching me to see if I would slip and fall into the water. I disappointed him on that point, and we slowly made our way back along the river to the car.

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Above the clouds

The plan today was to head out to the hills. Fan Brecheiniog was my goal and I decided that as Rufus had been looking and feeling fit recently, I’d take him along too. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning as we set off and for most of the journey. But, typically, as we reached the little car park at the start of the path, cloud had descended and it looked like a grim and grey walk lay ahead. Visibility was down to a few tens of yards as we set off and I was fully prepared to turn back if it didn’t show any signs of clearing.

It was wet underfoot and we squelched our way along. There was no wind and it wasn’t cold under the insulating layer of cloud. We made good progress and soon reached the river, and crossed it to reach the start of the main slope up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. I’ve walked this route many times before and several times in thick mist, like it was today. I’m confident in being able to find the lake but I usually end up taking a roundabout route if the visibility is poor. Today was no exception; I felt we’d veered off to the south as we climbed the slope. In the past, I’ve missed the lake complete by going too far south and almost bumped into the steep side of Fan Hir. So today, I veered back to the north a little.

In the silence, I could hear the faint sound of a helicopter which quickly got louder until it was clear that it was hovering over Fan Brecheiniog. It made several passes before finally heading off again. I didn’t see it but the idea that it could fly close to the mountain made me hope that as we climbed the mist would clear.

Eventually, I reached the edge of a steep slope where I wasn’t expecting one. Mist blocked the view down the slope but I had an idea we had gone too far south again, so we turned north and followed a clear path. Then I saw Rufus heading down the slope! Before I could stop him, he stopped at the lake edge, which I only noticed by the ripples he made in the water. I had been walking along the lakeside because the mist had made it look like a void. We were no more than 10 feet above the water. Now I knew where we were, I headed back to the path that led to the top of Fan Brecheiniog. In all this mist, I had only been about 20 yards out.

At the end of the lake, I stopped to talk to a guy who had been camping and was just getting ready to go. We chatted for quite a while and he told me he’d seen several people climbing Fan Brecheiniog during the night. Some shift workers had gone up and come down in time to start their morning shift. He’d heard the helicopter too, and had caught a glimpse of it when the mist cleared a little. He thought it was the Coastguard looking for a day walker that hadn’t returned. All the time Rufus wandered about enjoying the opportunity to explore but we were getting cold while we weren’t walking so we said goodbye and headed off to the start of the staircase up to the top.

Rufus seemed fine and keen to go so I decided we would make the effort. We could always turn back at any time. As we climbed slowly up the path, I felt as if the mist was thinning a little but the visibility was still poor. Then, as we started on the final pull to the top, I spotted blue sky above and within seconds, we had burst out of the mist layer and we were looking down on the tops of the clouds.

If you’ve ever flown you’ll know that feeling of being above the clouds in perpetual sunlight. It was a wonderful feeling; all the better for us having made our own way here rather than by plane! The sun was strong but so was the wind on the top of the hill and it got much colder very quickly. But the 360 degree views were stunning. To the north and east, there was nothing but cloud below us. To the south, a hazy mist made the hills leading to the coast fade into the distance. To the west, the views were clear across the Black Mountain and beyond. I stopped to talk to one walker there and we tried to identify all the hilltops we could see.

To the east, Pen y Fan and Corn Du poked their heads just above the clouds and it felt as if you could swim in the cloud between them. We walked on to the cairn at Foel Fawr as we neared the cairn at the end of the ridge, cloud was being blown up the side of the hill and over the path. Small patches of snow remained on the top and they had frozen overnight. We crunched our way through and finally got to the cairn. It was such a different day to the one we had set out in. From a black and white world to one full of colour within an hour, and it did so much to lift my spirits after a long, damp slog through the mud and marsh below.

After a rest and some photos, we reluctantly turned around to make our way back to the car. As I type, there is much snoring coming from a tired hound.

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In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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Mynydd Garn Fach

Sheep everywhere. Sleeping sheep, eating sheep, staring sheep (they’re the worst because they stare as if they know something we don’t). Some run away, some stand where they are and pee. Others (usually the same ones that stare) will approach us.

We left the car at the entrance to the Brynllefrith plantation (now more like the Brynllefrith tree since they chopped most of the forest down) and started off across Mynydd y Gwair. Despite recent rain, the mainly hot and dry weather had turned the normally marshy and unpleasant moorland into a more enjoyable terrain. It was easy to avoid they persistently lingering patches of mud.

The moor looked like a sheep plantation. Everywhere there were little blobs of white with hints of red, blue and green where paint had been applied to signify ownership. Some of them bleated but most of them had their heads down and were chomping away on the grass, oblivious to our passing. Rufus has long since lost interest in sheep and I wasn’t worried that he’d go off chasing them. My only concern was that we’d walk into a distracted sheep, which would panic, so as we got close to the preoccupied ones, I clapped my hands to announce our presence.

Rufus took this to be a sign that he was due a biscuit and would stare longingly at me. Of course Rufus takes everything to be a sign that he is due a biscuit. A cough, me taking a photo, a leaf falling in the woods several miles away. All of these definitively indicate that a snack is imminent.

The last few times we’ve been here I’ve been heading for the river to get some waterfall photos but today I wanted to see how far we could go beyond the river, up onto Mynydd Garn Fach. The last time we were here it was just after my mate had died and I found a spoon on the walk. I ought to explain why that was significant.

When I was in school with Simon, we created ‘spoonhenge’, a circle of dessert spoons. It took a few weeks of sneaking spoons out of the school canteen and was carefully hidden in the long grass that we knew wasn’t likely to be cut.

Fast forward to earlier this year, just after Simon’s funeral. I was out on Mynydd y Gwair with Rufus and we were off any normal paths. Imagine my surprise to find a dessert spoon exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find one. I took it as a sign. I’m not superstitious as a rule, but this was too much of a co-incidence. I picked it up and used it as foreground interest for some of my photos. In the end, we got to the Bronze Age cairn on the top of Mynydd Garn Fach and I thought it would be fitting to place the spoon in the cairn. Which I did.

Today, I decided that if Rufus was feeling up to it, we’d head up to the cairn. I needn’t have worried about my canine companion, as he was jogging all over the place and was showing no signs of tiredness. So we set off around the coal workings and up to the summit of the hill. The cairn was surrounded by sheep, of course. Some sleeping, some eating and some staring. But they cleared off for us and we spent a few minutes at the cairn, where I found the spoon I’d placed under the stones was still there.

Although losing Simon was sad I have plenty of found memories, most of which bring a smile to my face. I remember when we were starting the first band off, spending evenings in our local pub making plans for world domination. But the smile comes from recalling one evening when we’d had a disagreement in the pub. It wasn’t enough for one of us to storm out but we couldn’t let the argument go. It continued as we walked back to his house from the pub and sort of came to a conclusion outside in the street. Loudly. I don’t remember what we were arguing about but I think both of us would have agreed that if we felt strongly enough about something, it was right to argue.

After I’d replaced the spoon, Rufus and I turned around to make our way through the indifferent sheep back down the hill to the river, where stones were thrown and paddling was had and there was some very strange barking (I reminded Rufus that he was a spaniel not a terrier as some of the barking was distinctly ‘yappy’). Then we set off for the remains of the forest and the car.

On the way I started to collect some rubbish as part of the #2minutelitterpick and #2minutebeachclean I’ve been taking part in. Basically, you spend 2 minutes picking litter up when you’re out. It’s simple, straight forward and makes a difference. Today I managed to collect a lot of tin cans and plastic drinks bottles. They’re all recyclable and it’s such a shame that people can’t be bothered to take their rubbish home with them.

The irony was that we passed the remains of a car that had been dumped in the marshy ground near the forest. It’s been there for more than a year now and it is slowly disintegrating, with bits all over the place. It makes for an interesting photographic subject, but I’d rather it not be there.

Back at the car, Rufus wasn’t ready to go home. I was pleased to see he was still keen on walking around as because of his habit of slowing down when we near the house or car it can be difficult to tell when he’s genuinely tired and when it’s just an act because he doesn’t want to go home.

It turned out we’d walked 3.6 miles in just over two hours.

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Kitchenwatch 4 – When things come together

It’s called a living room, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in there all of the time. Both Rufus and I have struggled a little bit remaining in one room during kitchenwatch. We’ve had walks together and I had considered leaving him out in the garden while I went shopping. The threat of thunder storms and the need for me to be around some of the time as the builders discover more little legacies from the guys who built the kitchen extension meant I didn’t want to do that. So we’ve lived in the living room for most of the last 10 days.

Today, the builders were due back to finish off the fitting the bits and pieces, check the water and replace the fridge and washing machine. As we wouldn’t really be needed I decided we’d head off for a morning on the hills. The weather forecast was for a cooler morning which meant better conditions for both of us. So after making sure the builders had everything they needed, we set off.

The plan was to revisit the waterfalls on the hill above the River Tawe near Cerrig Duon stone circle. We set out from the car and there was a chilly breeze but we soon warmed up as we walked. It didn’t take long to climb the side of the hill on an old sheep trail. They’re always the best way to ascend a hill as sheep take the easiest route and we often follow their tracks for this reason. Today, in the cooler weather, Rufus was ranging far and wide, enjoying the freedom to investigate interesting aromas without me calling him back.

At the crest of the hill, we surprised some green sheep, their wool dyed to identify them. A few years ago I saw pink sheep, the red dye having run and faded over time and once I saw a flock of multi coloured sheep. There were reds, greens and blues and with the fading creating subtle differences in shade, the effect was surreal.

The sun had warmed the morning up as well and it was pleasant as we walked over the flat of the hill. We found the stream and followed it against the flow. I stopped to take photos of the waterfalls and Rufus waded and paddled and lapped at the fresh water. Suddenly, I realised we were fairly close to Llyn y Fan Fawr. This circuitous route had brought us close to the southern end of the lake and although we still couldn’t see the water, I knew from previous times (when I’d been lost in mist and had passed the lake without realising) exactly where I was. I took the executive decision to head for the lake. Rufus was already ahead and I knew that once he saw the lake there’d be no stopping him anyway. So off we went, a little further than I had planned. We’d done the climb and the going was flat with a few little ridges. On one of those ridges, I saw the water and Rufus charging towards it.

We sat on the bank of the lake for a few minutes and I threw stones for Rufus to chase or catch. He seemed to be doing well with plenty of energy and I was feeling good and over to my left was the path that led up to Fan Brecheiniog. It was very tempting to set off but I wasn’t sure as I hadn’t planned it and it was only a few weeks ago that Rufus was seriously ill. But all the time we’ve been walking this past two weeks he’s been strong and although his right knee is stiff when we get home, it’s never stopped him from charging out into the garden at the least excuse.

So we set off slowly up the path. It’s steep and rocky and I kept a careful eye on Rufus; as he was ahead of me it wasn’t hard. He was pulling away and at first I called him back to try and ease his pace. But he was happy, and eventually I let him go. It’s a short but sharp ascent and although I’ve done it many times, it’s not often I do it without at least one pause for breath… ahem… to take photographs. This time I managed to do it in one go. I think it was because I kept my pace slow and steady. At the top of the path, we stopped to chat to a trio of walkers also making their way up. Rufus was keen to get going so I left them behind and we set off for the final pull to the ridge.

I love the top of Fan Brecheiniog. It’s my favourite mountain in the Brecon Beacons national park. The views are stunning and on a day like today, they were all visible. The lake was a deep turquoise blue and clear enough that I could see the bottom of the lake around the banks. A breeze kept the sun’s heat at bay. We walked along the top with a sense of space and freedom that is one of the reasons I love it here. There were more people on the mountain today than I have ever seen in one go before. We passed a group of about 20 young walkers all chatting away; I overheard one say he loved this mountain because of the solitude and I chuckled at the irony. We passed two small spaniels and their owners and there was much wagging of tails as Rufus said hello.

At the far end, Foel Fawr, we sat and enjoyed the view from the cairn back along the way we’d come. Rufus was looking bright and still had energy to wander about but I didn’t want to push things, so we turned around and headed back down. I’m constantly on guard looking for little signs that his blood disorder is coming back to the point of paranoia but there was nothing. At the lakeside, we chased stones again and then set off on the direct route back to the car. Despite days of fine weather, it was still boggy underfoot and I struggled to find a fairly dry path through it all. Above us, two Red Kites wheeled and soared in the warm air. By the time we reached the river again, we were both starting to tire a little but as we neared the car, Rufus was still walking faster than me. He was glad to get onto the back seat and have a lie down, though.

The journey home was uneventful and every time I checked on Rufus, his eyes were shut or drooping. We got home just in time to speak to the builders. They had just finished and were clearing up. Everything that was planned to be done had been finished, apart from the wiring in of the oven, underfloor heating and sockets, which is due to be completed on Monday.

I have a kitchen!

Although I was tired from the walk, I managed to clear the living room of it’s temporary kitchen (kettle, toaster, sandwich toaster and water) and started to fill the cabinets. As there are so many more of them than I had before, I still haven’t filled them all and I’m still trying to decide where everything should go to make the most of the new layout. It’s all strange at the moment and I’m sure I’ll change my mind before the week is out. Rufus has indicated his approval by having his food and drink there.

There is still work to do to finish it all off. I will be having the gas fire and boiler replaced later this year and all the existing pipework runs through the kitchen, so that has been left for the time being. I haven’t decided what to do with the space by the window where the units used to be, but they left me offcuts of worktops which I can use to make a breakfast bar of sorts. And I have to decide on the tiles I want so that I can get the builders to come back and do those.

But I have a kitchen. Now all I need to do is learn to cook!

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Mountain and lake – outdoor photography

By Rufus.

As you may be aware if you have read my previous blogs, I am developing as a photographer. (Developing, photography – ha ha! See what I did there?) Dave, my human, has decided that I am well enough to wear my camera harness again and this weekend I was able to get out and work on some ideas for landscape photographs I’ve been thinking about.

Yesterday, I got him to drive me to Garreg Lwyd, the site of an old quarry and one of the places we frequent often. I wanted to test my fitness, but I also knew that of the weather was nice there would be some opportunities for sweeping landscapes and possibly some cloud photos too. It was great to get out for a proper walk after the last few weeks, and I know Dave is in desperate need of the exercise to get him back to his mediocre level of fitness so he can take me for decent walks again. Garreg Lwyd is a mountain with a proper climb but it’s not too strenuous.

It was a gorgeous morning and there were plenty of tell tale scents of rabbits and foxes. We used a slightly different and steeper path but it didn’t take us long to get to the top. I managed to get some nice shots of the few clouds we saw. We walked for quite a while and I felt great and every time I checked on Dave, he seemed to be enjoying himself too.

Today, we went for another walk on the hills. I’d heard Dave mutter something about The Lake and although it’s quite a trek, I felt up to it. I only hoped he would be fit enough, too, and that he wouldn’t over do things. Sure enough, we set off towards Fan Brecheiniog and for a few minutes I wondered if we would end up climbing it. But I think that would have been a little too ambitious for both of us.

The sky was cloudless and the sun warmer than yesterday. I still have my late winter coat on so I welcomed the breeze which blew in now and again, and it was nice to dip my paws in the streams as we crossed them.

At one point I smelt a familiar aroma and went to investigate the dead thing it came from. I’m thinking of a creating a set of photos illustrating the fickle nature of fate and the fleeting moments we have on this planet. A dead cow would be ideal. Imagine my amusement to see Dave huffing and puffing his way up the hill towards me. I think he was jealous I’d had the idea before him. I managed to get one shot before he dragged me away. He has no concept of art.

The water of the lake was most welcome to my hot paws, and we walked around to the northern end where we sat and basked in the sun for a while. I found more bones and tried to set them up for photos, but Dave kept taking them off me. He just doesn’t get it!

On the way back, Dave carried my camera for me (he has his uses) and I roamed across the moorland. It was great to be able to run about. I think I put Dave to shame because I kept having to stop and wait for him to catch up. He tries his best but he is getting on a bit.

I’ve included some of his photos here too, other wise he’d get upset.

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Rum Week

It’s been a rum old week, with good stuff and bad stuff going on which I’m not really ready to write about yet. As often is the case, when I need to get away from it all, I seek out the hills. We set off with a hint of sun and blue sky and drove towards the Brecon Beacons hoping it would clear up into a nice day. It did, and before too long we were parked at the foot of Fan Nedd.

There is an early stile to negotiate and in the past, Rufus takes it in his stride – literally on many occasions. But since his knee op, he hasn’t done a stile so I was keen to get to it before he did. The race was on and, of course, Rufus was winning. I shouted to him to stop but before I could do anything… he sneaked through the gap in the fence that someone had thoughtfully made since the last time we’d been here.

It’s out first proper hill this year so I took it slowly, hoping that Rufus would do the same. Despite 3 miles yesterday, he was off and bounding around like a small black lamb. I was trying to keep my pace even and slow, well that’s my excuse anyway. Ahead, cloud obscured the cairn at the top and as we climbed, the snow got thicker and covered more ground until just below the summit I was walking on frozen snow that gave now and again, sending me ankle deep into it. Rufus, with less weight and four paws, sailed across the top.

As usual, he was waiting for me at the top, trying not to show his boredom at having to put up with my poor fitness. The fact I am wearing the back pack that carries supplies for both of us is not, apparently, a factor. I am slow and that’s an end to it. At the top, the wind was blowing and the snow was everywhere. The cairn was covered in marks where the snow had been blown by the wind and had frozen. After a brief stop – it was too cold just to stand around – we continued south towards the trig point.

Rufus ranged far and wide and with his coat on he didn’t seem too bothered by the wind. I was nice and warm too. It was great to be on a mountain again and although the view appeared and disappeared at the whim of the clouds, the sun was out quite often and it was pleasant walking. Once again, I was late to the trig point and Rufus decided to reinforce the point by trotting back towards me after he’d reached it. Beyond the trig point, the ground starts to slope away slightly but there is a good path until the southernmost cairn, at which point the slope increases and the ground gets very difficult, with deep tufts of thick grass. Under the covering of snow, these would have been treacherous to ankles. So with little more than a couple of breaths rest, and a small treat for Rufus, we headed back to the summit cairn.

Coming down Fan Nedd is always an adventure. I’ve slipped and fallen before now, and worse, slipped and strained leg muscles. So I was careful in the slippery snow. But eventually we made it back to the car and the welcome shelter from the wind, which had battered its way through our layered defences and was chilling us.

Back home, amidst the snoring of a content hound lying across my lap, I noticed that on Feb 14th last year we had climbed Pen y Fan in thick snow and poor visibility.

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