Sunday, 20 May 2012

Duke of Pwn: The Second Voyage

Many (many many) years ago, me, Neil, Joe and Leigh did the Duke of Edinburugh Bronze Award. For those not from UK, this is a 2 day hike, with camping. You plan the route, and walk it. From that hike we have so many funny memories, that I couldn't begin to start writing about. So many that we have since said, on multiple occasions, that we want to do something like it again.

In April, with the wedding coming up, I wanted to take the chance to go on another weekend hike with my friends. Partly to take my mind off it, and partly because the chance of it happening would be less afterwards. I put the idea forward to Joe and Neil, and they were very much up for it. I spent two weeks on and off researching Brecon Beacons, the best places to walk, and what you can see along the way.

The Brecon Beacons is a huge national park in UK (Wales). On the internet people only ever write about day-long hikes. I decided that for ours I wanted to camp rough. There was difficulties in finding a route that would be not too much and not too little for 3 days, that started at a car park, had camping spots at 1/3 and 2/3 of the route, and ended at the same car park. I also needed landmarks to help us follow the route (as I didn't want to use compasses or satalite navigations). After lots of searching, and phoning the park, I planned a route that passed a few waterfalls, reservoirs, forrests, big stepping stones, Britains biggest and most dangerous caves, and even airplane crashes.

I made a Facebook group, inviting Joe, Leigh, Neil, Liam, and Tim. A group, not too large, that would be awesome for walking. It would also mean we could use 2 tents, and split the food better between people, minimising how much weight we must carry.

A few days before the event I phoned Neil, who said he hadn't looked at the group, thinking it was after the wedding, and because of that he hadn't booked holiday from work. I then phoned Tim, who had double booked himself. Two people down, but four is still a good number, the same as the original, but Liam instead of Neil.

The day of the camping we had decided to leave at about 7am, to get to Wales for 9 to start. That would mean we could walk, have lunch, walk, then end for the night at a good time. We had planned 15 miles.

I woke up to messages from Joe, saying that he went out the night before, done an 'all nighter', and at 6am still hadn't gone to sleep. We were 3.

Upon arriving to the Brecon Beacons I quickly realised the error in my planning. There were large mountains all around. The one we needed to climb, right at the start, was huge. Something we could not do and still do 15 miles in the day. We decided to cut the first days walk in half. On the map above, this can be seen by the pink line.

The walk up the first hill was one of the hardest things I've done. It was a constant incline, with a few big declines to make us start again. We were having to walk through snow pretty quickly, and stopped for a break much earlier than we had ever planned. Getting to the top was difficult, we wanted to get help from the wild horses but they kept running away, but eventually we made it on foot. Horses would have made it easier, though I doubt they'd have made it up the bear-crawl steep top.

The top wasn't much more pleasant. It was completely covered in snow, and because it was the top of the mountain, it was the source of many streams. This meant that every few steps we took we would step in a stream, soaking our boots (or thin trainers, in Liams case). We couldn't take a straight line, as we constantly had to avoid the bigger streams.

We eventually got to a bigger stream, and thought it would be easy to follow that. It wasn't. Bigger rivers, that high up, very often have smaller rivers going into it. Whichever side we walked on seemed like the wrong side. We would cross the stream at every opportunity, only to regret it. The grass was only only wetter on the other side.

On one occasion, I was at the front trying to navigate through marshy grass, when we start walking along mud. I trod forward, as softly as I could to make sure it was okay to walk on, and it seemed fine. The second step I took landed me knee deep in mud. I tried to quickly pull my foot out, but it wouldn't, and instead nearly took my shoe. An hour later Leigh nearly had the same as he scrambled up the side of the stream.

There were some nice areas near the water that we could have stopped, since we were all tired, but we were aware we had only walked for a couple of hours.

We stopped at a nice areas of stream, on a bank, to make the first food for the day (other than the mornings McDonalds). We got out the stove and made 3 tins of tomato soup. We then poured the soup back into the tins, and ate it out of those. We looked pretty homeless.

When we continued the walk it had felt like we had done at least 10 miles, but I noticed that we still weren't very far from the road, and from memory I thought we should be too far to see. We were aiming for a village in the middle, Ystradfellte, but had hadn't seen any sign of it. That made me realise we had gone off track so we decided to walk west, up to higher ground, to survey the area.

The top had a really nice view of the park. We could see some farms and houses, and could just about make out where the village probably was. It was getting dark by this point (maybe 6:30) and we could see that if we walked any further we wouldn't have anywhere to camp. We looked for the flattest area and set up our tent. We had only walked 6 and a half miles, of the planned 15. We had walked only half way to the original first camp (as we tried to go more direct than the original plan).

For food we cooked pasta. It worked pretty well, though the sauce was horrible. I hadn't really drank much in the day, since I had only bought 1.5 litres of water, planning to refill in the streams, but I wasn't sure how safe the water was (considering the wedding was in a few weeks time).

We were too tired to do much after that. We played cards for a little bit, and then tried to get to sleep. It was cold and windy, and the ground wasn't at all even. I had a text off Joe, saying he was going to try and make it on the second day. I loaded up my GPS, got the coordinates we were at, and told him to meet us there at 9am the next morning.

I was about the start one of the most uncomfortable sleeps of my life, when I heard footsteps outside the tent. Next to where we camped was a fenced off area (really high up, so we weren't sure what it was), that said keep out. In my mind, knowing that the army uses the Brecon Beacons from training, I thought it must be for that, and the footsteps and knocking on the tent were people from there playing a trick on us. I told my friends, and we got out and did a perimeter check, but found nothing.

I quickly fell back asleep, but Leigh and Liam were too on-edge. I woke up 14 hours later.

I had texts and calls from Joe, saying he is in a pub, but not knowing what to do. The area I described didn't match where he was, and we eventually realised he was more than half an hour away. We gave him the name of the village which we were only a kilometre from, and told us to meet us there in an hour.

We packed up our tent and started the walk down the hill towards the village. We got about half a kilometre when we reached a farmers fence. It was one we couldn't get around, and had to walk north, away from the village, to find a way past. Eventually we couldn't keep walking off track, so we climbed over a gate and sneaked through the field, which lead to the farmers house and road. We walked down the road, to find yet another farmers house. We had to walk all the way back again, off track, trying to find another way. Along the way there were signs saying it was private, and really loud dogs barking at us.

The walk went on for ages, and eventually we found another stream that we had to find a way to cross. We used this to wash our dishes from the night before. By this point it was also raining, so weren't feeling too happy, and just wanting to get to the village that earlier in the day we were just 1km from.

We passed the ruins of some old buildings, and back through farmers land with sheep. At least now we were finally taking the right route. Part way along the field we saw somebody riding towards us on a quad bike. Things were looking up, we were back on track, the rain had stopped, and we could ask this man for directions.

The man that stopped was the farmers. He told us we weren't far from the village, and gave us directions. I couldn't register the directions he was saying, as I couldn't take my eyes off the sheep on the back of the quad with it's legs tied together, and the dead lamb on the front. All I remembered was 'down the farmers road'.

We continued walking and passed a field of horses. Liam was convinced that horses love mints, and was trying to feed it one. The horse didn't seem to care for it.

We got to the farmers road and walked down it. At the bottom was a fairly small pen, full of far too many bulls. There was no way we would be able to walk through. We would literally be having to step over them. Not wanting to walk all the way back, as we still had no idea of an alternative route, we decided to go into the pen, but climb right over the wall to the right. We did this without dying. We then had to sneak through the farm (as we ended up right in it) and down the path.

The village wasn't far away. A man walked past us, and Liam asked "how far is it to the town?". The man laughed that he had called it a town, but told us it was half an hour away, and that the pub landlord was a moody guy. When we got there, about 4 hours later, we found Joe, and almost nothing else. There was one pub that Joe said he went in to try and charge his phone. He was told it was their policy that he couldn't. When he was in there he said the landlord turned away a family, saying all the tables were reserved.

The village we were in was close to the caves. We were all pretty demoralised by the walking, but decided we would go down to there. I had read online that many people die in the caves, so I wanted to see what the big deal was. We walked to the entrance, which had two signs saying how dangerous, and how people die in them.

The one entrance was tiny. We tried to crawl through, next to the fast running stream, but it was getting wetter and wetter, and also lower. Not wanting to get too wet to sleep that night, we backed out.

We went to the other entrance, which was really big. A lot more 'cave looking'. Leigh, not liking caves, stayed back while me, Liam and Joe went in. It had a load of rocks, which ended in a pool of water. We were about to walk out, when I noticed a little higher up was a tunnel-like opening. We climbed up to it, and we saw that after a few metres it opened out into another cave-room. I considered crawling through, but again there was a load of water on the floor, so I backed out.

The caves were really interesting to see. I wish I had the proper closing and helmets to go through. We continued walking around the area, and saw another set of caves. This time it had a wooden gate blocking it. I was debating going in the entrance, just to see what it looked like, when a guy stopped us to tell us about the cave. I asked why so many people die, and he said that when you enter there is water, about a foot deep. Even experienced cavers walk along that, but then the ground stops, and they plummet into deep water. They cannot see it coming as the light bounces off the water, stopping them seeing any depth. Where the water goes deeper, it also is wider than the ground above, leading to a current that pulls people to the sides, and under the rocks. Not very nice. We walked back the cars to pick our bags up again.

We decided to stop few a drink in the pub. A nice man served us, but he had a not so nice man behind him. As he served us, the not nice man told him he should ask for ID. We sat down and played cards. A few moment later the nice man came over and said he was asked to make sure we weren't playing for money. When we were leaving we asked for directions, the not nice man was annoyed, and told him there were other people to serve (turns out they too were asking directions).

We started walking towards the next (the first original) camp-site. It was only 2 miles away (probably 5 miles, since everything else went wrong). After about a mile, Leigh's blisters from the day before had became too much, and he wanted to stop. We were in a farmers field, with animals in the next one, but decided we were probably hidden enough to try camping there.

We cooked a feast of Super Noodles. It wasn't very nice. After we had cooked we put up the tents, then played Big Two, drank some more of the Skittles vodka, and went to sleep. The tent was at such an angle that you would literally slide down to the other side if you didn't stop yourself. This was the second most uncomfortable sleep in recent memory. The walk for that day can be seen as the purple line on the map.

As we were packing up the tent in the morning the farmer came over to tell us off about camping on his field. There wasn't a lot either of us could do that that point, which made it a bit awkward when he was trying to tell us off after we had already apologised. We packed our bags and decided we couldn't walk any further. What we had already done was really tiring, even though in two days we hadn't done what we planned in one. We had managed 15 miles, apparently, but I find that hard to believe. We walked for maybe 15 hours in total.

Joe drove us back to the cars, and we went home. We plan a return in the near future.

1 comment:

  1. Better planning next time - and really an OS map and compass would have been easy!
    I was orienteering in the wilds (?? hehe) of Surrey all weekend, midgie bites, bramble scratches and nettle stings, but good fun (I think)