I’m cruising northbound along the A40, just past Manordeilo. The music’s loud and I feel good. I round a bend in the road and lo and behold, there’s a tractor ahead of me. He’s doing 30 mph, bouncing around in the cab with what looks to be an unruly child with him. I can’t help but think of Lee Evans’ stand up shows at this point. I’m not feeling the whole ‘I’m happy going slower because I can appreciate the scenery’ vibe today. It’s overcast, and I can’t even see the usual peaks of the Carmarthen Fans to the east — they’re shrouded in haze. Thankfully, the A40 is mostly straight along this stretch, and it’s not long before I dip into second and overtake him. It’s good to hit 60 again.
The route to Cwm Rhaeadar is surprisingly simple. No unreasonably narrow roads, no confusing number of turn-offs. I know I’ll remember this route next time, rather than rely on my Tomtom. I see the mountains in the distance as I approach Cil-y-Cwm. I recognise this area. I’ve been up this way before, visiting RSPB Dinas and Llyn Brianne. The opportunity to spend a bit more time exploring this part of the world is most welcome.
Spotting the familiar Natural Resources Wales forest signs, I arrive at Cwm Rhaeadar and pull into the car park. A couple of guys with a 4×4 are unlocking the metal barrier to the forestry roads. I guess they’re rangers visiting the forest to assess any damage after Storm Eleanor.
As I step into my walking boots, I’m emphatically aware of the sound of the wind rushing through the fir needles. I first became aware of my love for this sound walking through the coniferous ‘clumps’ of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex several years ago, but these take it to a whole new level. The multitude towering conifers surrounding the car park bring the sound to symphonic levels in my ears, and I feel a rush of excitement about exploring the forest. With a quick glance at the information board, and seeing that the English translation is ‘Valley of the Waterfall’, I know for sure I want to do the waterfall walk. It starts on an uphill slope from the car park.
For 2018, I’m trying to take my photography more seriously. After spending the last two years exploring Wales with nothing but my trusty Lumix DMC-LX7 (an amazing compact camera), I’ve decided to start carrying my ‘old faithful’ Nikon D300 digital SLR, a camera I used throughout my time as a freelance photographer, and one that is now around a decade old. Today this means I’ve also packed my wonderful, but heavy lenses — the Nikon 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 105mm micro, and the superb Sigma 10-20mm wide angle lens. These are either squeezed somewhere into the little space my Deuter rucksack provides or strapped to the outside of the bag in their soft cases. To add additional weight, I’ve also brought along my Giottos aluminium tripod — lightweight for its size, but still 2kg. I’m not used to carrying this amount of weight on walks so the going is a little slower than usual.
I don’t know it at the time, but I’m carrying 15kg on my back. I later discover this is the equivalent weight of the bergens the SAS carry on their ‘Fan Dance’ treks through the Brecon Beacons. Thankfully, I’m not walking 15 miles today. The waterfall walk is 2.5 miles. However, a 15kg rucksack combined with my lack of physical fitness, and negotiating an uphill walking trail that resembles a mudbath is no easy feat. It’s a slow, slippery slog to the top.
At the top of the trail, I come into deciduous woodland. But it’s not just deciduous, it’s Silver Birch! I have a special love for the aesthetic of Silver Birches. Their white trunks are just so eye-catching, and remind me of the sprawling forests of northern Minnesota. I haven’t seen many Silver Birch woodlands since I’ve been in Wales, and I don’t know where to find them. This one isn’t huge, but it’s a good enough fix for now. I imagine them in leaf against clear blue skies.
The waterfall walk is well waymarked, and my first waymarker tells me to hang a left, descending a slope into a fir woodland. I see my first signs of how much Cwm Rhaeadar has been battered by last night’s storm. Fallen branches litter the trail. I come across one tree that has obviously faced some hardships. It’s fought hard over the years — it’s branches grown at all strange angles. Its uniqueness is now in a sorry state, with most of its wayward branches snapped off, and main trunk showing a major split down the middle.
It’s not long before I arrive the bottom of the slope and cross a bridge over a fast flowing stream. The water is incredibly clear, yet has a turquoise tint — something I can only assume is down to the mineral content. I follow the trail upstream. On the left of the trail is a gully, then an embankment leading up to dense coniferous woods. It familiar feature I’ve seen on many previous woodland visits, yet I’m always amazed at the variety of plants that line these embankments. They say that the highest areas of biodiversity are on the ‘edges’ and that rings true here. It’s a mixture of grasses, mosses, ferns, and lichen. I’m pretty sure I could spend hours just photographing the different species close-up.
The next waymarker tells me to continue on, but I see a left-fork that I want to check out. The mud reaches bog-like proportions here. My boots sink and the muddy water goes over the top of my boots. The cold feeling of damp spreads through my socks. It’s at this point I feel ordering some gaters a necessity for future walks. The detour, however, is worth the damp socks. I’m in a clearing. A line of wiry marsh grass intersperses regular grass, which seems hyper-green on this grey day. A row of tall conifers is on the left, and some deciduous trees lay to the right. Towering over them is a mountain lined with bare Larches, then brown scrub and ferns. For a moment, I’m in Wyoming, USA, but once my imagination subsides, I’m back in Carmarthenshire, Wales as a few raindrops hit my face. I try to photograph the scene, but the light is just too flat. I know this will make a great photo someday, but not today. I head back to the main trail.
The trail is picturesque as it follows the stream. As often in the forests I’ve visited, the valley streams and rivers are enclosed by deciduous trees, then flanked by their coniferous cousins. The towering, branch-less trunks of the Douglas Firs are like slats in blinds, and beyond, I can see the contours of the surrounding ridges. In Spring, with the almost luminescent glow of freshly grown foliage and the dappled sunlight glistening across the stream, this is going to be a gorgeous place to be.
After a mile or so of following the footpath, I emerge onto a gravel forestry track. I can see the waterfall through the trees, and hear its distant roar from here. Another footpath leads from the forestry track in the direction of the waterfall. The way-markers suggest it’s not actually part of the waterfall walk route, but I’m keen to follow it, as I’m guessing it leads to the base of the waterfall. This gorge hasn’t escaped Storm Eleanor either. Several arboreal casualties lie across the path and the river. There’s a stile up ahead, and as I climb over it, I feel the seemingly increasing weight of my rucksack. I want to approach the waterfall by walking straight up the gorge, but boulders and rocks block a direct route. I’m going to have to hug the slopes to progress.
It’s soon clear that hugging the slopes of the gorge isn’t going to work. I’m immediately losing traction on the semi-decayed humus and soft mud. I try to climb directly up the slope on my hands and knees. It’s at this point, I can feel my rucksack pulling me back down. I lose traction and start to slide. After a lot of exertion, I finally make it over the top and sit breathless on the high, wooded slope overlooking the river. After chugging a load of water from my bottle, my breath returns and I continue along, further up the gorge.
I find a spot in view of the falls and spread out a carrier bag on the floor so I can enjoy the view. The falls here are much more rugged than the ones I’ve previously seen in Wales. The water gushes over the top of the crag high above me, and cascades down over several stages of rock before meeting the base of the falls. I realise that photographically, however, it’s less than ideal. The sides of the falls are covered in trees, denying me a clear view. I feel a certain amount of guilt as my love of trees conflicts with my love of photography. I’m wishing I could get rid of the trees and capture an epic shot.
I want to get down to the base of the falls. From this overlook, I should be able to climb down into the gorge. It’s steep, but doable — though there’s no way I’m doing it with my pack on. I haven’t seen anyone else at all on the walk, so I leave my pack on the slope, grab my Nikon, and carefully climb down to the base. It’s beautiful down here, but difficult to get a good composition. I do my best with a reference shot, enjoy the view a little more, and climb back up the embankment.
I head back down the gorge to the main track. It continues over the stream and back up the opposite hillside. At the top of the path, I detour again, hopping over another stile onto the bracken covered eastern slopes of the gorge. There aren’t so many trees on this side, and it’steep and slippery. The views of the falls aren’t as full as from the western side, but they’re still impressive. There’s also an abundance of larches — mostly bare now, but at the right time of year, they’ll make for an impressive display next to the falls. What I can’t fail to notice is the incredible panorama of the forest valley itself from here, though again, it’s spoiled by the flat overcast light.I know that the base of the falls can be reached from this side too, but I’m wary of attempting it in these conditions. It’s going to have to wait for my next visit on a finer day.
Returning to the main route and having passed the halfway point, the journey back is mostly downhill and a lot easier. More broken branches cover the path, and at one point I’m unable to see where it goes due to an entire fallen tree blocking the path. The sun comes out briefly and I get to see a hint of the forest in better light.
Returning to the car, with my first visit to Cwm Rhaeadr at an end, I think about all I have seen today. This is a gorgeous forest, and I can’t stop thinking about all the photo opportunities that I will get on a fairer day. I may have to wait until Spring, but when it arrives, I’m heading back up here at first light, and will likely spend the day here. Hopefully by then I’ll be stronger and fitter, and maybe this rucksack won’t feel so damn heavy.