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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Falling water

I’m a sucker for waterfalls, as you may know if you’ve read other posts in this blog. I love the challenge of doing something new with the many waterfalls I’ve photographed (and I’ve snapped away at most of the local ones over the years). But sometimes, I just want to lose myself in the taking of the pictures and create something that I really like.

Today, I was in the right kind of mood to just spend time enjoying the picture making process. It was a cold, crisp morning and there was no one around at the two sites I chose to visit. I’ve been to both before but not for a while. Henrhyd falls are situated at the bottom of a narrow but deep valley at the southern end of Fforest Fawr, right on the edge of ‘waterfall country’. The hard sandstone has been undercut by the river to form a 27m waterfall. It;s the highest in south Wales.  The Romans were nearby, with the remains of a fort and camp around a mile away. It’s tempting to think that Romans visited the area; waterfalls were mysterious and magical places in prehistory and inevitably stories would have grown up around the area. In more recent history, Henrhyd was the location for the entrance to the Batcave in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

From the car park there is a short but steep path down to the Nant Llech river, which feeds into the Tawe a few miles further along. Across the river, a set of slippery wooden steps lead back up the other side of the valley until the path stops at the waterfall. It was muddy underfoot but the waterfall wasn’t in full spate. I prefer it in this state as the final images can be quite delicate. I used my tripod as a walking pole to negotiate the slimy rocks and managed to find some interesting viewpoints. I started using a10 stop ND filter but the exposure times I was getting were in the order of four to five minutes and the waterfall was largely in shade. So I switched to a 3 stop filter and started making the images.

I also decided to use a high dynamic range technique as the difference between the shadows in the rocks and the highlights on the water was too much for the sensor. This meant I was standing around enjoying the waterfall for minutes at a time and it was cold out of the sun. But I liked the results I was getting so it was worth every moment.

The climb back to the car was much steeper than the descent and I was out of breath by the time I got to the car. Birds were watching me as I walked, jumping from branch to branch just in front of me. Two even landed on a tree trunk within a few feet of me, as if they knew I didn’t have the energy to chase them.

Next on my list for the morning was Melincourt. This waterfall is further down the Neath valley and is where the river Neath has cut away at softer underlying rocks to form a drop of 24m from a lip of harder sandstone. Turner painted the falls in 1794 and it has been drawing visitors every since. Today, it was my turn. Once again, I had to negotiate slippery rocks and this time I set up at the edge of the water so I also had to be careful where I stepped. Cold, wet feet are not the ideal way of waiting for long exposures to be made.

Walking back tot he car along the narrow path reminded me of the easier parts of the base camp treks I’d done; cold, clear mornings and a busy river only a foot slip away down the slope. Fortunately, there were no yaks to push me over.

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In High Places 2

I arrived in Kathmandu in the evening of the 11th November 2007. The journey had been long and uncomfortable and I was glad to be out of the plane. As we checked through the customs desk, a jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant played over and over again. And as it took a long time to get our visas issued, the jingle became a torture.  But eventually we were through.

I emerged, with my kitbag, into the chaos of the arrivals hall where hundreds of locals tried to take my baggage from me. Their aim was to get me to use one of their taxis, for which they’d get a commission. Our hotel had sent a bus with several of our trekking group that had arrived before us and they swiftly grabbed our luggage and stowed it safely aboard. Nevertheless, I was accosted by several of the teenage baggage boys trying to get me to give them dollars. Not a good start. Just before I climbed onto the bus, I looked up at the sun setting behind some hills and wondered what I’d let myself in for.

The journey to the hotel was mostly in the dark. I was tired and a bit dazed after around 17 hours of traveling and the comfort of the bus seat was most welcome. Shortly after we left the airport, we entered the built up area of Kathmandu and it was lit up with what looked like thousands of candles. Diwali – the festival of light – was being celebrated and our local guide told us that this was the third day of the festival. It was beautiful, and a magical welcome to the this new world I was entering. Every window had at least one tiny light shining and in the near total darkness it felt like we were being driven through a forest of candles. Only the occasional silhouette of a building or the odd wall lit up by vehicle lights spoiled the effect. Being in that jet lagged state made everything a little surreal.

The bus stopped and we all trooped out. It turned out that we had another 10 minute walk to get to the hotel, which was situated down a narrow street in which the bus wouldn’t fit. The bags went ahead, transported by hotel porters, and we made our way along behind them. Even in the evening, the traffic on these narrow streets was busy and for the whole walk we were assaulted by horns and revving engines as we braved the non-existent pavements. I’m glad it was dark so I couldn’t see exactly how close we were to the traffic.

At the Kathmandu Guest House, we were assigned rooms, and in a blur of activity we unpacked and all met in the restaurant for an evening meal of Dhal Bhat. I don’t remember much of that evening as the jet lag was no longer lagging. But at some point in the early hours I was woken by a number of pigeons all of who wanted to get into my room.

The following day was best described as a pleasant assault on the senses. We had a whole day to explore the city and in the morning we went on a tour of the main religious sites. The place that stands out in my memory was the Pashupatinath temple, a Hindu religious complex of great importance. The Great Hindu god Shiva takes many forms and as Lord Pashupati, he is worshipped here. As non-Hindus we were not allowed in the main temple but as we crossed the sacred Bagmati river we saw a number of cremations taking place on the opposite bank.

The river is sacred because it flows into the Ganges, and the ashes of the dead are scattered in the river so that they may also joint the Ganges. I watched, fascinated, as boys waded and swam in the filthy water to pick through the remains for any valuables. The smell was of sweet incense, as it was in so many parts of the city despite the piles of refuse, mud and water in drain free streets.

Thamel is the busy tourist hotel area of Kathmandu and it’s narrow streets and colourful shop displays were exciting and frantic and brash. I walked back from Durbar square to the hotel, all the while fearing the seemingly inevitable collision with a motorbike or rickshaw. But they are much better than I gave them credit for and they know how to deal with an inexperienced westerner like me. A range of horns and bells warned me if i strayed into the flow of traffic and I soon learnt to walk confidently and make no unpredictable moves into the street.

I managed to avoid the street salesman with a tiny violin and bow for sale with a sharp ‘no thanks’ and avoidance of eye contact, which made him try his luck with the next person. I chatted with a local who just wanted to practice his English. To my shame I assumed he was distracting me so his mates could pick my pockets. Of course that wasn’t the case – too long living in London taught me the wrong assumptions. All through the trip I found the sincerity and friendliness of the locals was so evident that it was almost too good to be true. Cynical western ways were suspended for a couple of weeks.

Power lines and telephone cables were strung haphazardly from telegraph poles and the sides of buildings as if someone had draped them in advance of their being tidied up. The fire risk was unimaginable as most business had cloth or wood signs advertising their wares. And the buildings were so close together that a fire in one would be disastrous for all. The signs themselves were amusing, with almost all of them in English but with bizarre spelling or grammar.

My first day immersed in a new culture was an amazing experience but I think it took a couple of days to realise how different everything was, by which time I was experiencing even more differences on the trail to Everest Base Camp.

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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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Kitchenwatch 2 – what kitchen? I see no kitchen.

Rufus knew something was up on Wednesday. First of all, after his early, early morning garden visit, I went back to bed rather than got up and made him breakfast. Being the every caring hound, he checked to make sure everything was alright – at 6am, 6.15am, 6.30am and 6.45am. After our long hill walk on Tuesday, I wanted a lie-in and we weren’t going anywhere until the builders had started, which was supposed to be 8.30. But no. We were up at just after 7am. Yaay!

The builders were here early and started straight away. Once I’d talked through with them what was going to happen, I took Rufus with me to the recycling dump where I got rid of another car load of junk, then we set off for a walk in the warm morning sun. Initially, I thought I’d just take him for 30 minutes or so before heading back to make sure all was ok. But we ended up strolling around Fairwood Common for about an hour, mainly because the normal thick mud and boggy marsh had dried out.

When I got home, I found my old kitchen, complete with kitchen sink, in a gigantic rubbish bag in the drive. Even the old cooker was lying there, looking totally out of place. Inside, the kitchen was and empty, echoing shell where the builders were busy cutting into the walls to rewire and shift sockets. I was surprised at how big the empty space was but I still couldn’t picture the new layout.

Rufus was due a haircut and thanks to a cancellation, he had an appointment that afternoon. So while he was pampered and preened, I sat and enjoyed a coffee sitting outside in the sun. With his new slick look making him far more comfortable in the heat, we set off for a picnic by the River Tawe. By the time I got home again, the builders had gone and Rufus and I had a good look through the kitchen before we flopped down on the sofa.

Today, after the 5.30am garden patrol, I was generously allowed an hour of extra sleep time before Rufus checked on me. This time, possibly because he was more comfy in his fur free state, we stayed in bed until 7.30. The decadence! As soon as the builders arrived, we set off while the weather was still cool back tot he river for a longer stroll there. It was a glorious morning and walking on the side of the hill high above the river, we were cooled by a breeze which took the edge off the heat of the sun. We ended up at a series of waterfalls hidden from the road and casual glances and all the more attractive for it. They were little more than serious trickles but I prefer waterfalls like that. They’re more delicate and from a photographic point of view, you get more interesting patterns and shapes.

It was nice just to be able to sit by the waterfall and enjoy they day and even Rufus took the opportunity to calm down a little – in other words, he trotted or walked rather than ran between pools. He enjoyed the opportunity to cool his paws and to get in the way of my camera every time I stopped to take a snap. There was plenty of barking and chasing and catching stones.

On the way back to the car the breeze had died down and it got quite hot but fortunately, there were plenty more pools and streams to cool Rufus down. By the time we’d set off home again, he’d fallen asleep in the back.

Back home, it was time for toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. One of the great things about not having a kitchen is that I don’t have to make excuses for eating junk. Both of us were tired and we settled back on the sofa to watch daytime TV. Next door, they were ripping the floor up in preparation for the under floor heating and both Rufus and I fell asleep to the grinding drill. The floor now looks like something out of Time Team. In the old kitchen, there is a portion that is concrete (it was laid after we had dry rot in the floor joists. This turns into small red clay tiles that look Victorian (I suspect they were original from when the house was built in the 1920s). Then, where the extension joins the house, we get really rubbish concrete (real cowboys built the extension; they tied their horses up in the back garden every morning).

I’m trying to persuade Rufus that we can have a proper lie-in tomorrow, as they won’t be here to start until later in the morning. I’m not sure I’ve got through to him. Time will tell.

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More Rufus

When I wrote my last blog 10 days ago, I did it with tears in my eyes and with a dread that my next blog entry would be a sad obituary for Rufus. Without being too dramatic, I was depressed and still awaiting the results from the various tests he’d been subjected to. I couldn’t let myself think there was any hope. They’d had to keep him in under supervision and although he came home later that day, he was back in the next day with further complications. But the last sentence I wrote about the thought of losing him (“I’m not ready for that yet and deep down, despite all that’s wrong with him, I don’t think Rufus is ready either”) proved to be prophetic. Despite all he’s been through, Rufus is snoring happily on the sofa as I write this, having just returned from a nice stroll by the side of the River Tawe near Moel Feity.

It’s still not clear what was wrong and although initial tests have come back negative, there is still a possibility that liver cancer has caused the whole thing. But the vet thinks it more likely that it’s an isolated and unexplained case of Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (IMTP – a condition in which the body attacks its own blood platelets, causing uncontrolled bleeding) which can occur in some breeds, Cocker Spaniel being one. This is what he is being treated for while more tests are done.

Judging by his recovery, the treatment is working. He came home from the vets on Tuesday and since then he has regained his mischievous character, the spark in his eyes and the incessant appetite. I’ve gradually taken him for longer walks, watching him all the time and stopping when he seems to be getting tired. It’s not as straightforward as that as Rufus feigns exhaustion when he realises we’re heading back to the car or to the house. He’s done it for years and the closer we get to ‘home’ the slower he gets. But I can read the signs and I’m happy that he’s regaining his strength.

This morning, I was woken several times by an enquiring nose and at 5.30 I let him out for his usual morning toilet patrol. At 7.30, a wet nose and wagging tail informed me that it was time to get up and go out for a longer walk. So after breakfast, we set off for the river in the Cerrig Duon valley. It’s one of Rufus’ favourite locations, particularly in the summer when he can cool of by paddling and swimming in the sparkling water. I thought it would be a nice treat for him during his recovery and I wasn’t wrong. We were out of the car for more than an hour and at no time did Rufus’ tail stop wagging. I watched him carefully for signs of fatigue and cold and there were none. He took the lead and set the pace. The river walk isn’t the most strenuous we’ve done but there is enough climbing, jumping and balancing on rocks to provide a bit of a work out for him (and me).

I took the opportunity to try and take some photos and here was another sign that Rufus was feeling better. Every time set up a photograph, a black Cocker Spaniel appeared in the viewfinder (see the photos below). It’s his normal way of reminding me of the main reason we are out – to provide exercise for him. Suitably reminded of my role in this morning’s outing, I simply strolled on, enjoying the sun and the companionship of my walking buddy.

We’re not out of the woods yet. The treatment for IMTP will last for around 3 months as the drug doses are gradually reduced. There will be more tests and I will worry while I wait to hear about each one. But for the time being, I have my boy back with me and he’s making good progress.

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First snow

Up at the crack of dawn this morning – which wasn’t hard as at the moment the sun rises around 8.20. But we were up before that and after a swift breakfast and a glance out of the window to see that all was well with the weather, we were off. With bad weather, I prefer to stay local so we don’t waste time travelling when we should be taking advantage of the dry conditions. Today, though, we headed north as the [prevailing weather was coming from the south. With the suggestion of heavy showers and possibility of thunder, we made our way towards Foel Fawr and Garreg Lwyd. No mountain today, but the hills surrounding the quarry would be ideal for some black and white photography I had in mind.

By the time we’d passed puffing cyclists on the long and winding hill climb of a road, I could see a light dusting of snow at our destination and the temperature gauge in the car was dropping towards the zero centigrade mark. Slush covered the road and for a few minutes I missed my Freelander. By the time we got to the car park, the sleet had started and we spent 10 minutes sitting out the snow shower, watching the black clouds roll over and blot out the last of the blue sky. But there were no rumbles of thunder and as the shower passed, we set off towards the quarry workings.

The ground was white underfoot and the snow thick enough to start to collect in Rufus’ paws. It balls on his pads if I’m not careful but I kept an eye on him and he was having no trouble as he sped off. I was taking my time and taking some photos and he was already bored. I wished I’d brought my walking gear rather than just the camera bag as the morning was turning into a lovely one despite the clouds around. But instead, I decided to use this as a reconnaissance trip for more photography, as there were several waterfalls and outcrops of rock that would make for good subjects in early morning light.

At one point, Rufus got so fed up with waiting for me that he sat between me and the waterfall I was taking pictures of and refused to move until he’d had a treat. So I packed the camera away and we walked on for a bit until the snow started again. It was light at first but got heavier and when I looked up, the tops of the hills had disappeared beneath a low cloud go snow. Not prepared for really bad weather, it was time to turn back. We squelched and squished our way back over bog and little streams until we reached the little car park and the shelter of the car.

I’ve always liked this location but I find it hard to make anything of it photographically. It really does benefit from unusual weather conditions; we’ve been here a number of times when there has been thick snow on the ground, and the lighting conditions make a huge difference. I’m looking forward to getting back there again.

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