The Black Mountain is located to the far west of the Brecon Beacons, not to be confused with the Black Mountains that are situated to the east. I personally feel that the long north facing escarpment is the most impressive feature in the National Park. However that is not the main reason why I travelled to Wales on a hot and sunny weekend. I was set on exploring the less frequented limestone country to the south, beyond the Black Mountain.
Without prior knowledge you would never even suspect that there is a surfaced car park to give access to Llyn y Fan Fach. Very narrow lanes with few passing places lead to the hamlet of Llanddeusant. Another narrow lane then turns into a track after a mile or so following the route of the Beacons Way. It is easy enough to drive but on but at each corner I hoped that I would not meet a vehicle coming the other way. It would be a stand-off to see who would be the one to reverse a few hundred metres.
Although a Friday, the car park was pretty busy, families heading up to Llyn y Fan Fach with picnics on what was turning out to be a very warm day. It was sweaty work climbing the wide track up to the reservoir, the northern escarpment looming above. It looked like a bit of effort was going to be required to get to the top.
There is a small bothy / refuge just below the dam, possibly the least enticing that I have ever seen. Dark, dirty and windowless it obviously sees a lot of human traffic. A place only for a real emergency as far as I’m concerned. Don’t go rushing out to spend the weekend there. The Health and Safety executive have also paid a visit with a huge sign pointing out all the horrible things that may happen to you if you even think about going for a dip in the lake. No mention of the lady in the lake though.
I followed the Beacons way along a stone lined channel taking water to the reservoir. A steep climb then led onto the escarpment between Picwys Du and Fan Brycheiniog. This excellently engineered path threaded its way though and above the bands of cliffs. Narrow and occasionally precipitous it was an entertaining way to quickly gain height.
Walking along the top of the cliffs to the cairn at Fan-Foel was outstanding, a great sense of height with what felt like most of Wales spread beneath my feet. I sat at the cairn for a while drinking in the views, enjoying the solitude. My reverie was quickly ruined by two guys who approached and plonked themselves down whilst loudly talking about an annoying guy at work. They then each consumed a packet of crisps in a manner that can only be described as revolting. I quickly had to remove myself as the temptation to push them over the edge was becoming far too strong.
A grand roller coaster of a walk then followed over Fan Brycheiniog and Fan Hir. Views to the east were dominated by Pen-y-Fan, its summit easily identifiable. I kept the pace up to stay in front of a huge group of young backpackers who were spread out over several miles. I was determined not to get tangled up in a clot of them. So much for coming to the quieter part of the National park for a bit of solitude!
A sharp turn to the right down pathless slopes and I was on my own. The Afon Haffes was easy to cross after a battle with bog and tussock. The plan was to camp on the summit of Twynwalter, an obscure hill that I wanted to bag. The grassy limestone turned out to be a festival of thistles so I continued for another twenty minutes, rucksack heavy with a few litres of water. I finally settled on a pitch just below the summit of Carreg Goch. The infringement of the peace that evening was a mob of panicked fell ponies shortly followed by a couple of idiots on trail bikes. The noise of the engines and smell of petrol hung heavy on the warm evening air.
I ended up going to bed with a smile on my face shortly after witnessing a fine double rainbow. The moorland birds stayed up chatting all night.
Nothing beats suddenly waking up in a tent with the realisation that you are being slowly cooked by the morning sun. The moment of panic when you struggle with the zip of your sleeping bag before making a hasty exit in just a pair of sexy leggings. I timed this to perfection and gave a wave to the only people I would see all morning.
Breakfast was taken al-fresco and fully clothed and I was glad to have taken a lightweight groundsheet to laze around on the damp ground. The night had been spent in my Hilleberg Akto a tent that I had not used for several years. I had dug it out to see if I would be happy sleeping in it for ten nights when I backpack above the Arctic Circle later on this summer. It was a real pleasure to sleep in.
The morning was spent crossing a series of minor limestone hills, their rock strewn summits contrasting with the bright green grass. The intervening ground was a chaos of sink holes, some reaching an impressive depth. Perhaps not a place to go wandering after a large fall of drifting snow.
The Afon Twrch has created a large north south gash in the hills, the river flowing through an impressive rocky valley. A pleasant riverside patch of grass had me getting out the groundsheet and enjoying a bootless lunch and a bit of a doze in the warm sun. My plan to get in big miles that day were quickly diminishing.
Looking back after climbing the hills on the other side of the river the landscape struck me as being very similar to Dartmoor. I got to the summit of Foel Fraith and then lassitude took over. It was only 4.00pm but I liked the look of the head of the valley below as a tent pitch. The hills I had planned to climb that day suddenly looked too big and far away under the hot sun. After descending and locating a trickle of water I was quickly pitched and enjoyed a comfy snooze in the sun.
With the sound of approaching engines I was quickly cursing the idiots on trail bikes syndrome. Annoyance quickly turned to trepidation when I realised that it was two shepherds and their dogs rounding up sheep. They ended up about a hundred metres away when they killed their engines and started talking amongst themselves in Welsh. It was probably paranoia but I was sure they kept looking in my direction whilst taking. I had failed the pitch late, strike early rule for wild camping south of Scotland. They then started their engines and drove towards me before turning off up the hill. I waved and they waved back. I took that as permission granted to camp.
Sunset comes late in early summer, so after a lazy afternoon I ascended Cefn y Cylchau and watched the sun slowly sink towards the horizon. As it disappeared a heavy dew descended on the land. The outer of the tent was sopping wet when I returned a short time after sunset.
I was woken at 7.30am by the sound of engines. Peeking out of the tent I could see a dog rounding up sheep on the other side of the valley, a quad bike in hot pursuit. The shepherds were up early. I decided not to take the Michael, so after a quick breakfast packed up. I was walking before 8.30am which is almost a personal best, not bad considering that it was a Sunday.
I took to a narrow path that contours the slopes of Foel Fraith. This gave access to the south ridge of Garreg Las without gaining or losing any unnecessary height. The long wide ridge gives easy walking but is a jumbled mass of limestone blocks. It gives the feeling of being on a much higher mountain. Two huge cairns adorn the summit and I climbed both as it was difficult to judge which was the highest.
Clouds started to build and it looked like it was going to storm. This hurried me over the minor top of Carreg Y Ogof and across boggy ground where a path was picked up below Waun Lefrith. This contoured along the western slopes until the main path up the hill was reached. With the sun back out in full force a group of young backpackers who were climbing the hill looked ready to melt. It was then a simple walk back to the car, the ford across the river giving no problems.