Catching the Sunrise

Yesterday, I decided that I’d climb Pen y Fan to take some photos as the sun was rising, The weather forecast was good, I was in the right mood.

The Plan:

Get up at 5am, make a snack breakfast, walk Rufus (as he would be house sitting), set off at around 5.45 top get to the car park for 6.45. This would give me a good hour to get to the ridge where I would be able to set up and wait for the first golden rays of sunlight to hit the southern faces of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Then, a quick stroll to the summit of Pen y Fan itself before heading back to the car and the journey home. I expected to be back starting 2nd breakfast by 10.30am.

The Reality:

I woke up at 4am and dozed fitfully until 4.45 when I finally gave up and got up. There was much huffing and puffing from Rufus, who had clearly found the most comfortable, warm and cosy spot ever just before I disturbed him. Breakfast was thrown together (scones, of course) and Rufus had some gourmet concoction which included chicken. Then we went out for a short walk around the block, sharing the pavement with two foxes who didn’t seem too worried by our presence. I often take Rufus out before work and I love the bits of our walk where there are no streetlights, as the stars seem to shine much more brightly. Orion was just sinking in the west as we walked. Rufus decided to check every blade of grass for evidence of other dogs so by the time we got back to the house, it was 5.50am. I could already see the plan starting to go wrong.

I managed to set of just after 6am and the streets were clear of traffic as I drove through Swansea and off to the north. Of course, once I left the dual carriageway I hit traffic in the form of a slow lorry. The temperature was below freezing and the road narrow so I couldn’t overtake. I managed to get to the car park at about 7am.

It wasn’t quite dark, so I didn’t need a torch. I set off up the path and with my goal of beating the sunrise, I set a good pace for the first 10 minutes. I hadn’t done any preparation for this walk and the last time I climbed Pen y Fan was in August and I quickly realised the pace I set wasn’t the right pace. A short stop, a rethink and a couple of photos later, I was on my way at a much more realistic speed. As the light levels increased, the view to Fan Fawr and the west was beautiful, with a gorgeous pre-dawn light bathing the hills. But ahead, I could just make out mist covering Corn Du. As I got further up the hill, the mist came further down to meet me. With 10 minutes to go before the sunrise, I entered the clouds. By the time I got the the ridge where I had planned to see the first golden rays of sunlight, all I could see was 10m of the path either side of me. But I had made it there with 5 minutes to spare.

I decided that to have any chance of seeing any golden rays, I’d need to be on Pen y Fan itself so without waiting, I set off. As I walked along the side of Corn Du I noticed the path ahead of me light up as if someone had switched on a street light. The ground here is red sandstone so even though I couldn’t see the actual sunrise, the red dawn light was making the path shine. I looked over to my right and there was a large patch of orange red mist. No sun, though.

On Pen y Fan, I had the summit to myself. There was a thick white frost on everything, making the stone path very slippery. After a couple of  photos, I went to take a drink. As I took my back pack off, the wind picked up until within a minute it was blowing hard enough that I had to brace myself to stop being blown over. The wind was sharp and icy and I decided not to hang around on the top of the clouds to clear. I caught a glimpse of blue sky as the clouds sped over  the summit but I was already heading back down again.

I quickly dropped down below the clouds and the wind dropped again so that it became pleasant walking. By now, the light on the hills opposite was exactly as I’d hoped I would see on the summit and I stopped frequently to take photos. I stopped to chat with a guy climbing up to work on the paths and he asked me about the conditions on the summit. He said he wasn’t going there himself but he wanted to advise people who were going up as more often than not they were unprepared for the reality of a mountain in winter. I chatted to another guy who was planning on picking up rubbish on the way down. Then I reached the relative warmth car park and a few minutes later, I was heading home.

I managed to get the cooked breakfast going by 10.15 and I was sat down eating it by 10.45.

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A walk in the wild wood

I let Rufus off the lead and stopped to listen. At first, other than his gentle snuffling as he explored the scents I could hear nothing. But as my senses adjusted to my surroundings I started to hear the subtle sounds of the woods. Off to my left there was a rustling as blackbirds foraged through the leaves. Above them, in the skeleton branches their smaller cousins called warnings as we made our way further into the trees. In the distance, a dog barked on a farm.

To my right a stream trickled and whispered over stones and fallen branches. In folklore, streams and waterfalls are supposed to be magical places where the fairies gather, and if you listen hard enough you can hear them calling softly. Listen the next time you’re near a small waterfall, and as long as there is no one else around, you’ll hear them too.

Although there was no wind, there was a lot of movement. Blackbirds taking off stirred the leaves around them into little splashes of yellow, while other leaves dropped to carpet the path in a bright orange or brown layer. Every now and then Rufus would pop out from behind a tree or bush before disappearing again as he found some new smell to investigate. We turned off the main path to walk alongside the stream. Above, the canopy of leaves got thicker as if autumn hadn’t quite made it here yet. Rustling in the branches led to showers of leaves either side of us as we moved; the squirrels were keeping pace with us but remaining out of sight.

Every now and then as we walked, a bright patch of yellow leaves still attached to their trees seemed to glow against the sky, defying the brown decay around them. Green moss coated the tree trunks and ivy climbed up and around where the moss allowed it. The sound of an aeroplane flying high above on its way to Heathrow battered its way into our little world which, until now, had been free of man-made intrusions other than us.

Beneath our feet, the mud thickened and spread out to block out path. So reluctantly, we turned about and made our way back through the trees and out onto a misty Fairwood Common.

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The Story of the Shower

Rufus had a shower this morning after we got home from our walk. He will tell you it was unnecessary, a cruel and unusual punishment, a compromise to his natural oils keeping his fur clean and an assault on his canine rights. This is the true story of the walk that led to his shower. You decide.

We set off for Mynydd y Gwair to the north of Morriston after a leisurely breakfast. My plan was to walk across the common and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. Along the way there would be marsh, a river to splash and paddle in and a climb up to wonderful views down to the Loughor Estuary. But as we walked along the road and off onto the common, Rufus was reluctant to go too far from the tarmac, stopping and turning around to face the car. I thought his leg might be playing up a bit and so after a few minutes, I let him have his way and we headed back to the car. Or more accurately, towards the car. We passed the car with no sign that Rufus wanted to stop and instead, he took the turning that led down the forestry track to the remains of Bryn Llefrith plantation.

I’ve noticed recently that Rufus is more discerning with his choice of routes and rather than accept my guidance every time, he occasionally lets me know which way he wants to go. It usually manifests itself as a sudden, complete halt followed by a sullen, teenager-like plod while he looks in the direction he wants to go and stops dramatically to sniff at a non-existent scent. This was one of those occasions.

He trotted off down the track at his usual pace, with no sign of any leg issues and no non-existent scents to smell. We haven’t been in to Bryn Llefrith for ages and although they haven’t cut any more tress down, it has become overgrown with reeds and bushes. Many of the newly planted trees are starting to sprout but it will take ages for the forest to grow again.

We turned to follow the northern boundary fence of the forest, which is where the footpath goes. There was some mud and a lot of marshy ground but there always is at this point. Unfortunately it didn’t dry up and steadily got worse. Ahead, Rufus was splashing through the water and I could tell by the sound of his paws that it was deep. Then the sound turned to squelching and for the next 10 minutes, we squished and slurped through ever thickening mud. And then it got really muddy!

The plantation slopes down from Mynydd y Gwair and the water ultimately runs into the Upper Lliw reservoir. When the plantation was complete, the trees would manage the water and control the saturation of the ground. Now there are only a few trees left, there is no control. We were walking around the perimeter at the lowest point and eventually, there was little point in trying to avoid the mud as it was everywhere. I think at this point, as we were alongside the shore of the reservoir, Rufus knew that there was a shower ahead. He did his best to dodge the deepest pools but to no avail. The further we went, the muddier we got.

My plan was to climb back up to the higher track and hopefully dodge the mudfest but the track was as muddy as the path. The only difference was that we could see further ahead at all the pools and puddles that lay between us and the dry part of the track far ahead. Rufus vaulted a couple of tree trunks that had fallen across our route, kicking up drops of mud that went everywhere. I plodded along, my boots taking on the colour of the ground as they soaked up the gloop. Eventually, we reached drier, high ground.

Back in the house Rufus headed straight for the back garden. He knew what was coming and tried to dodge the inevitable. But reluctantly, he accepted his fate and made his way slowly up the stairs tot he bathroom. With much grunting and sighing, he had his shower. The blanket that Rufus sleeps on in the car went straight into the washing machine along with my trousers and my boots spent an hour or so in the sun where the worst of the mud dried and I was able to scrape it off.

Had I left the mud on Rufus, he would be caked in a layer that would prevent him from moving properly. The photos of the shower while I’m washing him are proof enough. I rest my case.

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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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The Deer Hunter

Cue Cavatina. Have it playing in the background as you read. You can think of me as Robert De Niro as well, if it’s not too great a challenge.

Yesterday. Rufus and I went off to one of our regular locations, the hills above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I always check to see that it is cow and shgeep free and sure enough, all the cows were on a different hill. So I parked up and off we set. We had just got to the man-made ridges where the US army trained during World War 2 when I heard and saw in the distance a pack of dogs, a rider and a quad bike. I managed to get Rufus on the lead and we headed for the high ground, the four foot mound, just before we were engulfed by the dogs. They were hunting dogs, out having exercise I assume, and I was worried about how they would react to Rufus.

Rufus was right next to me and clearly overwhelmed by all the hounds. They were all around us, stinking of dead things and shoving their noses into everything. Rufus was growling and I would have been too, if I hadn’t been trying to calm him down. The hunt master (I assume that was his title) was blowing on his hunting horn but didn’t seem that interested in controlling the pack. Fortunately, the dogs were in a good mood and Rufus was his usual restrained self, so there was no trouble and the pack moved on. All the way back to the car I could hear the hunting horn being blown, a brash, childish sound.

Today, after we’d been for a nice walk around the estate, I left Rufus guarding the house and went off to hunt deer. Margam Park has a herd of wild deer consisting of Fallow, Red and Pere David breeds. They’ve been on the site since Medieval times and there are references to deer there in Roman times, too. October is the rutting season and I’d long planned to try and get some photos of the bucks in action as they battled for top spot in the harem.

Fortunately, I met a jogger who told me where the deer could usually be found. I decided to climb the hill behind the park to get an idea of the layout and sure enough, I spotted a herd of about 15 deer in the fields below, right where the jogger said they’d be. I dropped down the the fields but the deer had disappeared. I’m a novice deer stalker but I understand the principles – stay down wind of them, move slowly and quietly and slowly. It only took a few minutes to spot them in a mud hole and although they had seen me as soon as I had seen them, they didn’t seem spooked, possibly as I was half concealed behind bushes. I was about 200 yards away but I couldn’t get any closer without being in full view so I backed off and headed around a low rise in the ground towards another bush, staying below the brow of the hill and trying to remember where they were in relation to my position.

Eventually, I reached the bush, which turned out to be an overgrown stone monument of some sort. I was now within 100 yards of the herd. They were still aware of me but as I was not moving, they didn’t seem concerned. The big male was more interested in something on the opposite side of them, which was closer to the main part of the park. I used this distraction to make my way a little closer, using another clump of bushes to approach without being seen. Eventually, I was within 70 yards of the group and I got some nice photos.

All this time I was eyeing up the path that would take me back to the park. I’d read that one thing to be wary of was the rutting males, full of testosterone, might decide I was a threat. I was aware of my escape routes, should I need them. But the path would take me closer still to the herd and in full view. I decided that they would probably run away rather than charge me, so I made my way along the gravel track, slowly getting closer in a round about way. I ended up around 50 yards from the herd, and apart from watching with some curiosity, they showed no real concern that I was there.

It was only while putting my camera away again later that I realised I had dropped a lens cap and a body cap somewhere along the way. They’re probably in the trophy cabinet of the male Fallow deer.

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#2minutebeachclean

Check out #2minutebeachclean and #2MINUTELITTERPICK on Twitter. The premise is quite simple. Whenever you are out, take two minutes to pick up some litter. The aim is not to scour the area clean (although that would be good) but to pick up a few bits of litter to make a small difference. And let people know about it so that they can consider doing it too.

I first heard of the concept on the BBC Springwatch programme and it seemed quite straight forward. I started taking a small bin liner with me on my walks in Gower with Rufus. I’d wait until we were on our way back and pick up litter. I concentrate on recyclables as these tend to be the things that will last the longest in the landscape. I also make a point of picking up anything that might cause injury, such as broken glass, sharp edged metal and anything that wildlife could get tangled in.

Be sensible. I tend to leave anything that could be contaminated, such as tissues or any container with liquid in it. If I was doing a proper litter pick with all the right kit it would be different, but this is just helping out. Only pick up what you’re comfortable doing. Every little bit you remove makes a difference. We only have one planet, lets help keep it tidy.

Today, Rufus and I went down to Whiteford for a paddle. I made a point of taking a larger bin bag with me as I wanted to pick up a load of litter on the way back. A 30minutebeachclean. On the walk to the beach we were watched carefully by a small robin who was happy for both of us to walk close by and even posed for the camera. On the beach, I let Rufus off the lead and he went off in search of aromatic things to roll in while I snapped away at the Oystercatchers on the water’s edge.

As we walked along, the tide was coming in and the Oystercatchers were getting closer. Rufus is inquisitive and I knew he’s be off to see what they were up to. I pointed the camera at the birds and waited. Sure enough, as soon as he got close, they rose as one and I got some fine photos of Oystercatchers on the wing. We left them alone and headed inland to a point where the tide was closest to the dunes. Here I threw stones and sticks for Rufus to chase into the sea, not that he needed an excuse to paddle. I love watching him bounce around and splash in the water and although he’s not as quick as he used to be, he makes up for it by enthusiastically barking to encourage me to throw more sticks.

It was time to turn around and now was when I got my bin bag out and started to pick up other people’s litter. Very quickly, it was clear that I couldn’t manage to collect everything so I decided to prioritise plastic and my personal objects of hatred – plastic fishing line and net. Soon I had a bag full, including two beer bottles and a broken plastic spade. Unfortunately, the sharp edged plastic tore the bag and before I knew it, the bin bag had shredded. I had a dilemma. I was about 30 minutes from the car and there was no way I could carry all the rubbish back with me.

I don’t claim to be practically clever but I today had a moment of insight. Most of the rubbish was plastic fishing line and with a little re-arranging and with the aid of two of Rufus’ poo bags, I managed to truss up most of the rubbish into a package I could carry. Unfortunately, I had to leave the two beer bottles but they weren’t broken so it wasn’t a disaster. For the next half hour, I carefully carried the bundle of rubbish through the dunes and along the tree lined pathway to the car park, where there was a convenient bin to deposit it all in.

Neither of us were ready to go home so we took a little detour to Broadpool on the way back. I think the heron has taken a dislike to my blue car. When I used to park the red one next to the pool, it would hang about but as soon as it sees the blue one it’s off. We don’t chase the heron as it’s nervous enough. Instead, I watched swallows diving for insects, the Canada Geese taking a nap and the turtles still basking in the sun. I tried to get photos of the dragonflies but they were too quick for the camera to focus on.

Back home, a shower was on the cards for the one of us that was covered in salt and sand.

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