Archive for January, 2014

January 28, 2014

The world’s end – winter backpacking around the Elan Valley

by backpackingbongos

By the fourth day the only people who I had seen were a couple on a quad bike.  The mind starts playing games under these circumstances and I began to wonder if the apocalypse had finally arrived.

If your idea of a tough backpack involves the manicured paths of the Lake District with its attendant hoards, I advise that you leave this part of Mid-Wales well alone.  However if you regularly backpack with a snorkel and flippers and have the resolve to be truly alone, pop on down to these lonely moors.  To ensure that they are at their wettest come in winter when the days are also at their shortest.  You can be as miserable as you want and no one will know.

Day 1 – 10 kilometres with 330 metres ascent

The car park below the Claerwen dam size wise would not look out of place outside Sheffield’s Meadowhall. ¬†There was only one other car there when I arrived. ¬†Even on the hottest bank holiday weekend I can’t imagine it ever getting busy enough to fill up.

With myself and Reuben sporting packs with enough food and clothing for four days we set off up the bridleway alongside the Afon Arban.

There is nothing more irritating than within minutes of setting off you find yourself arse down on soggy ground.  A wet boulder and my boots provided zero friction.  Therefore my feet shot off from under me like a cartoon character slipping on a banana.  Reuben paid no attention to my sorry state as he was too busy eating sheep poo.

The bridleway up the Afon Arban soon becomes little more than the fantasy of the map makers.  However by contouring along the hillside a series of sheep trods led easily up the valley, avoiding the worst of the bog and tussocks.  Towards the headwaters a well-defined quad bike track led the way across a reasonably well-drained ridge.  We arrived at the edge of the forest with minimum fuss.  I was feeling rather pleased with myself with how we had so far managed to avoid being swallowed whole by a man eating bog.

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At the point where the bridleway meets the forest on the map there is simply a fence topped by barbed wire.  Thankfully I had done a bit of research before setting off on Geograph and discovered that there was a gate a few hundred metres to the north.  This led to a boggy ride through the forest, no sign of a bridleway at all on the ground.  I was glad when we finally reached the security of a forest track which we followed south for a couple of kilometres.

The marked bridleway to the bothy also did not exist on the ground.  I had been here before and found the hidden path that descends to the river though the trees.  It was eerie in their confines with mist drifting though the branches, the air becoming colder as we descended.

I had the usual sense of trepidation as we approached the bothy.  Who would be there and what would they be like?  However as we got closer to the building it became evident that no one was in residence.

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This is probably the remotest and certainly the most difficult of all the Welsh bothies to reach on foot.  A quick read through the bothy book confirmed that although well used it is not visited by the bothy vandals or party goers.  There had been no entries in the book so far this year, almost three weeks.

I sorted my gear, fetched water and then spent a couple of hours sawing rather wet wood.  Thankfully I had brought in some kindling and fire lighters with me.  Therefore with darkness falling a fire was soon blazing within the stove.  With boots already saturated I was very glad I had brought along a pair of down slippers.  Bothy luxury.  At one point the fire was so hot that the temperature in the room raised from 5C to 7C, so tropical that I could barely see my breath anymore!

I had a moment of alarm at around 9.00pm when whilst popping out for the loo I spotted headlights coming up the valley. ¬†There is a knackered Byeway open to all traffic that runs quite close to the bothy. ¬†Along it I could see three 4X4’s slowly moving. ¬†I therefore feared that I was just about to be invaded by a large group. ¬†Thankfully they soon disappeared and I spent a long but uneventful night with just the dog for company.

Day 2 – 13 kilometres with 400 metres ascent

Rain had come by the early hours as promised and it looked totally miserable outside.  I knew the weather was going to be less than favourable so had planned the first full day of the backpack to be short.  Therefore I lounged in my sleeping bag until about 9.00am, none to eager to get up in the cold damp bothy.

A couple of hours was spent drinking loads of coffee and sawing some wood for the next visitors.  At around 11.00am I decided that if I put off the inevitable any longer I could end up finishing the day in the dark.

It was a steep climb behind the bothy to the forestry track above.  This I followed before picking up the Byeway open to all traffic. This is a bit of a waterlogged mud fest.  The main problem was the several fords that have to be crossed.  Although only knee-deep it meant that my boots were soon full of cold water, there was no way I was going to take them off every five minutes.  Reuben had to be carried across the larger ones.

It was on this track that I saw the only people before close to the end of the fourth day.  Two quad bikers working their way across one of the fords.  The track got a bit too much hard work for me in the end, a parallel forestry track a more attractive option.

I had planned to take a bridleway through the forest and across the moors.  However at that spot on the map I was greeted with a dense barrier of newly planted spruce.  I backtracked a few hundred metres to a gate I had spotted, before an easy climb to the summit cairn of Pen-y-bwlch.  It was a grey and wild panorama that greeted us along with a face full of wind.

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We arrived at the abandoned farm and shearing sheds of Garreglwyd just as a violent squall swept down from the moors.  Shelter was taken in a barn whilst rain battered the rusty tin roof.

The traverse of Dibyn Du was less than pleasant in the rain and I was glad to finally reach the security of the track along Llyn Egnant. The bothy was reached during the last of the grey light.  Once again it was dark and deserted inside, surprising in such an accessible bothy on a Saturday.  There are no trees in the vicinity and the woodshed was empty, a great disappointment as I dripped into the main room.  My rucksack when taken off soon sat within a widening pool of water.  Paramo is often given a bad press with regards to its waterproofness but I am glad to say I was totally dry under my Cascada.  On the other hand my eVent clad legs were soaked.

The downstairs was cold and uninviting without a fire, so we quickly retired to one of the wood panelled bedrooms upstairs. ¬†With candles burning and dinner on it felt reasonable cosy (although it was only 4C up there). ¬†However I do wish that I had not read someones ghostly experiences in the bothy book. ¬†Thankfully the ‘Beware of the ghost’ graffiti on the stairs had been removed since my last visit!

I can report that nothing went bump in the night.

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Day 3 – 16 kilometres with 320 metres ascent

The world was transformed the following morning, sunny skies and a slight touch of frost.  It is much easier to get up, packed and going when the weather is fine.  I enjoyed a couple of cups of coffee in the sun outside the bothy before setting off.  It really is a lovely little building in a fine setting.

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I’m glad that the weather had turned for the best as the plan for the day was a long high level tramp across the moors. ¬†The minor road gradually transforms itself into a track that deteriorates the further you go. ¬†I wanted to walk the full length of the Monk’s Trod which on my map starts in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the River Claerwen. ¬†A marked track on the map cuts a corner between the Claerddu and the Claerwen rivers before unceremoniously dumping you right in the middle of a bog. ¬†A word of warning about the Elan bogs. ¬†They are among the few that I actually consider to be dangerous. ¬†Take your time, carry walking poles and check the ground in front of you if it looks dodgy. ¬†Either that or take a dog and let him go first.

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Bog safely crossed and the next major obstacle was the Afon Claerwen itself.  This is a pretty big river and it has been raining for what feels like months.  Due to the crossing of the bog my boots were already full of water so there was no point in removing them to keep my feet dry.  I just picked a spot and waded, using poles for balance.  The water was cold, especially as it splashed over my knees, soaking my trousers from just below the line of my undies.  I was pleased that I got to the other side without mishap.

Reuben decided that he did not want to follow.  Instead he made unhappy dog noises and ran up and down the river bank.  In the end I had to cross back and then make a third crossing with 23kg of unhappy Staffy in my arms.  A very wet backpacker then found a rock to sit on for half an hour to steam in the sun.

I crossed this very spot one April, sitting down to put my boots back on.  I looked up to see three red kites circling overhead.  As I looked down a large otter popped out of the water a couple of feet away and ran into the nearby rushes. Possibly the best wildlife encounter of my life (with the exception of seeing a rhino whilst going out for a bike ride in Nepal).

Crossing the Monk’s Trod was much more pleasant than it was all those years ago. ¬†Vehicles have since been banned and it appears that people have been respecting that ban. ¬†I remember a horrid boggy struggle for a few miles. ¬†There were still a few unpleasant stretches but in the whole the going was easy, giving the opportunity to enjoy the views along the way.

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As the track dropped from the moors and crossed pastures the low winter sun lit up the surrounding hills.  A fantastic moment and well worth the unpleasant rainy slog the day before.

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I could make out my bothy accommodation on the other side of the reservoir, close in distance but still a long distance on foot.

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An hour later and it was nearly dark when I arrived at the door.  For the third night in a row I entered an empty bothy.  This one had been recently re-built which meant that there was plenty of off-cuts of wood to fire up the large stove.  A really enjoyable evening was spent with Reuben on a newly built bench, the fire warming our bodies.  Reuben was much happier than he appears in this photo, honest!

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Day 4 – 14 kilometres with 450 metres ascent

There was a weird moment in the middle of the night when I woke with a start thinking that someone was banging loudly on the door. No one was and I think (or hope) that it was the remnants of a dream.

Reuben was very happy that morning as I discovered the ball I had carried for him in the bottom of my pack, perfect for a game of bothy fetch.

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There was not a breath of wind that morning, the reservoir without a single ripple to disturb its surface.  Rare calm after a tempestuous few weeks.  A superb location for a bothy.

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Our route along the reservoir was trackless, thankfully on a steep slope of cropped grass rather than through bog and tussocks.   I stopped many times to watch the reflections of the sky on the surface of the water.

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All of the dams in the valley were overflowing, huge man-made waterfalls with a powerful roar.  A magnificent sight.

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I had planned to cross the moors on a direct route back to the car.  However I was feeling a bit lazy that morning.  Instead I went for a slightly longer but much easier day.  The disused railway bed provided swift and pleasant walking down the valley.

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Whilst stopping for a snack break the clouds that had been increasing all morning finally deposited a steady rain.  Reuben hid under the bench and gave me a look that suggested that it was all my fault.

A final climb up through the forest and past a collection of telecoms related paraphernalia brought me back to the car.  The sun even came back to pay a visit before I drove home.

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The Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) is a fine organisation.  I have purposely not mentioned the names of where I stayed, or where they are located.  My usual route maps are also missing.  Planning a bothy adventure?  Consider joining the MBA and check out their website here.

January 24, 2014

A wet and windy winter week on Mull pt2

by backpackingbongos

Before setting off I had read of a special little campsite hidden away on the Ross of Mull.  With its twisty single track roads Mull feels surprisingly large.  It took a while to navigate the Bongo to the west.  This was in part due to the stunning scenery around every bend, along with the fact that a low winter sun had made an appearance.  You may have heard about the quality of the light in the Hebrides, it really is something that you have to experience yourself.

Uisken Beach

Our destination was the small and perfectly formed Uisken beach and possibly one of the finest located campsites you could hope for. Basically it is a stretch of close-cropped grass right next to the beach.  With high tide the beach disappears and the sea is lapping literally a few metres from your pitch.  A sign simply requests that you seek permission from the croft before pitching (I think that they ask for £2 per unit).  This I duly attempted to do but no one was home.

Being the day before Hogmanay I was of course the only one there.  With no facilities at all (i.e. toilets or running water) the Bongo with an emergency portaloo was the perfect accommodation.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring with Reuben before getting some use out of the camping chair for the only time during the week.  I sat wrapped in down and watched the sun set, keeping warm with slugs of single malt until the stars came out. It was soon far too cold, magical surroundings or not and the van beckoned.

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Of course dawn brought totally different conditions.  When I woke the van was once more being lashed by rain and rocked by winds. The area was transformed into somewhere bleak and inhospitable after the benign evening before.

At midday a weather switch was pressed somewhere and the grey clouds lifted and the sun came out.  The speed of the change was swift and dramatic.  Time to open the door for the first time that day and explore more of our surroundings.

We walked no further than perhaps a couple of miles but I was in no hurry.  I just wanted to poke around a few corners and see what was over the headland.  Another beach was found, this time uninhabited.  Somewhere to sit and eat lunch whilst Reuben tried to destroy strands of seaweed.  A lovely area deserving of further exploration, perhaps when the daylight hours can be measured on the fingers of more than one hand.

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Back at the van I sat for a while and contemplated what to do next.  It was very tempting to stay for another night, however I was keen to see in the first day of the New Year with a hill.  I packed up and set off, stopping once again at the croft to pay up.  The owner was in this time and refused payment simply on the grounds that I was honest!

An area on a map marked as ‘The Wilderness’ is like a red rag to a bull where I am concerned. ¬†I therefore headed towards the National Trust for Scotland’s Burg estate. ¬†This was via a shop to pick up some locally brewed ale.

Ardmeanach Peninsular – Beinn na Sreine 521 metres

The small NTS car park is a few hundred metres down a bumpy track after the road ends.  Their attitude differs from the organisation south of the border, the car park being free rather than an extortionate £7.  The only downside is that it is situated on a hillside so I parked for the night at a rather jaunty angle.  I celebrated New Years Eve with a couple of bottles of beer, a slug of whisky and an early night.  When the New Year crept in I was fast asleep.

The forecast for the first day of 2014 was for a calm and dry morning before wind and rain swept in once more for the afternoon.  I was up and packed before dawn, walking west along the track as the first of the light was cast across Loch Scridain.

I nervously passed through a group of cattle that were hogging the track and scattered through the surrounding woodland. Thankfully they barely batted their long lashed eyelids at either the dog or myself.  The climb to the summit of Beinn na Sreine was relatively straightforward.  A case of picking a way through various tiers of rock before walking across a wide and stony plateau. Typically the mist came down before we reached the summit, lifting once we were half way down the hill.  A shame about the murky conditions as I am sure that the summit view would be superb.

I picked a more direct route back down to the van, the only difficulty being the man eating tussocks on the lower ground.

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Typically once back at the van, the clouds lifted off all of the surrounding mountains and it brightened up.  The promised rain did not come that afternoon, instead passing through later in the evening.  Due to the short daylight hours I did not set off up another hill, instead deciding on doing a bit of sightseeing from the comfort of the Bongo.  My destination was to be Calgary bay for the night.

My first stop was to have a peek of the scenery around Gribun, on the northern side of the Peninsular. ¬†It was as spectacular as I thought it would be, a place to return to backpack around the wild and uninhabited coast past the farm and Mackinnon’s cave.

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It was a long drive to Calgary as I was constantly stopping along Loch Na Keal, which is a wild van camping paradise as I found out one summer a few years ago.

I have to say that I was as disappointed with Calgary bay as on my first visit.  Yes it is a perfect crescent of white sand worthy of the tropics.  But even on a dull winters day it was crowded, a shock after a few days of almost total solitude on the island.  Winter storms have obviously battered the wild camping area, leaving it drowned under rotting seaweed.  I returned the way I had come.

The high point of the road provided the perfect place to stop for the night, an exposed spot when the promised storm eventually rattled through after dark.

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The storm raged until noon the following day meaning an enforced lie-in (never a bad thing in truth).  Reuben was very keen to have a leg stretcher once the sun came out again.

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A mobile signal showed that a major storm was coming the following day, bang on when my ferry to the mainland was scheduled. The CalMac app on my phone showed various cancellations would be likely.  I therefore decided that I would drive to the terminal that afternoon and try to change my ticket.  Once again I found myself stopping often to take in the views and the ever changing light.

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CalMac are much more accommodating than the joke that we have for train operating companies.  The guy in charge at the ferry terminal simply asked me to wait in a separate queue until everyone had checked in.  After space on the boat was confirmed he swapped my ticket valid for the following day for a boarding pass.  Simple.  Can you imagine a train company doing that if you turned up for a different train from which you had booked?

As is traditional, CalMac fish and chips were enjoyed on the crossing back to the mainland.

January 21, 2014

Five

by backpackingbongos

Backpackingbongos is five today. ¬†I’m amazed that I have kept it going for so long, it’s a ripe old age in blogland.

Thanks to everyone who reads my words, you are all brilliant.

To celebrate here is a photo of Reuben enjoying the view from a mountain.

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January 10, 2014

A wet and windy winter week on Mull pt1

by backpackingbongos

My New Year plan turned out to be far too ambitious.  I was going to spend a few nights at my favourite spot on the West Coast of Jura.  However the weather once again was not playing ball.  After a ten hour drive I would have to catch two ferries, drive another hour and then walk for seven hours.  With storm after storm rolling in my enthusiasm quickly diminished.

I was still very keen to spend a few days amongst rugged coastal scenery, somewhere to escape the madness of the New Year period.  Batteries needed to be recharged after a busy December at work.  To make things easier I decided that the Bongo would be both transport and home for a few days.  There was suddenly a calm day forecast so I bought a CalMac ferry ticket to the Isle of Mull.  I would worry later in the week about the weather on the return journey.

There is a 9.45pm sailing on Fridays so I was able to drive up to Oban in a day.  In the end it only took nine hours from the Midlands which meant arriving four hours early.  The Bongo became a convenient place to snooze that time away.  It was far too wet outside to stroll around the town.

I found it disorienting arriving on the Island at 10.30pm.  The unfamiliar single track road towards Fionnphort was challenging for the Bongo in the dark.  Being one of the first off the ferry I frequently had to pull over to let traffic pass me.  It is easy to tell when a ferry has arrived on the island as a line of traffic snakes its way along usually deserted roads.  Rush hour is dictated by CalMac.

I stopped for the night at a small car park near the summit of the road through Glen More.  A few stars were making an appearance as I made up my bed.

Ben Buie –¬†717 metres

It was pitch black outside when the alarm woke me at 8.00am.  This was a bit disorienting as it felt like it was still the middle of the night.  In fact during the whole trip I was surprised at just how short the days were on Mull at this time of year.

The sight that greeted me when I finally stepped out the van took my breath away.  Arriving at night I had no idea at the view that was hidden in the dark.  I visited the Island a few years ago in summer but I had forgotten just how stunning the place is.

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A few hefty showers passed by whilst I was having breakfast and packing my sack.  After they stopped the surrounding hills were covered in a light dusting of snow.  The boiling clouds and rising sun provided a spectacular light show over the lochs to the south.

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The weather forecast was for a bright morning with little wind before another weather front rattled though in the afternoon.  Keen to climb at least one mountain during the week I settled for a there and back walk up Ben Buie.  It is a mountain that I admired on my last trip to the island, sadly not having enough time to visit its summit.

The ascent up its north ridge was  straight forward until around the 550 metre contour.  Then out of nowhere the clouds descended, which meant that careful navigation was needed on the wide undulating ridge.  Snow was encountered at around 650 metres, just as the rocky slopes of the north peak steepened.  This was rapidly melting which meant that there was no point in putting on my microspikes.  What would usually be very easy scrambling was a little tricky in the slushy conditions.

The highest point sits to the south of the summit ridge, the ascents and descents from the north peak appearing much more than on the map.  Probably because a combination of mist and snow exaggerates your surroundings.

Typically when we were half way back down the cloud lifted and remained above the mountain tops for the rest of the day.  Rather frustrating considered we had set off early to get the best of the weather.

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We arrived back at the van early afternoon, however with darkness falling so early there was not enough time to head off for another walk.  The Bongo was pointed back down Glen More as I was keen to explore some coastal scenery the following day.

Lochbuie

The road to Lochbuie is stunning.  Narrow and twisting is ascends steeply through woodland before taking in the northern shore of Loch Spelve.  Here the force of the recent weather became apparent with seaweed covering sections of the road.  An old yew tree in a cemetery had some of its limbs torn away, scars on its ancient trunk gleaming under a grey threatening sky.

The light was fading as I arrived at the small parking area in front of the old post office.  A quick stroll with Reuben before it got dark was an opportunity to stretch our legs as a very long night was in front of us.  It was dark by 4.00pm.

During the evening the wind picked up, rocking the van.  I could hear the waves over the drumming of rain on the roof, a comforting sound as I lay in bed reading.  A twelve hour sleep was very enjoyable.

The wind had died down by dawn, the rain becoming intermittent.  I had no real plans for the day apart from exploring the coast south of Laggan Sands.

Several expensive looking 4×4’s passed us on the track to Lochbuie House. ¬†As we walked in front of the grand looking building it was evident that people were gathering for a shoot. ¬†A collection of Barbour, tweed and gun dogs. ¬†Soon after going past Moy Castle the peace was shattered by a cacophony of shotgun blasts.

We only ended up walking a couple of miles beyond Laggan Sands, I took my time as the coastline was absolutely stunning.  I cursed leaving the binoculars in the car as I spotted two White Tailed Eagles circling overhead.  One even doing me the favour of perching on a small island a few metres offshore whilst I was having an early lunch.

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Back at the van it was tempting to stay for another night. ¬†However being surrounded by houses I was not fully getting my ‘wild’ fix. ¬†Before leaving I visited the local shop which is located in what was the old post office, a small wooden shed like structure. ¬†This is not staffed and relies totally on the honesty of visitors to leave the correct amount of money. ¬†Having places like this exist left me with a warm feeling as we drove off in the Bongo to find another stunning spot.

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January 6, 2014

The best gear of 2013

by backpackingbongos

Only kidding.

Instead here is a photo of a Trailstar pitched on Pumlumon at dawn.

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