Going Downstream, Going Upstream

In which The Author fills in the gaps

This entry connects a few previous entries, so I won’t bother retracing old ground. Check out (in order) Going Down the River, Further Up the River and Two More Waterfalls for the full geographical details.
Once again, please do not attempt to explore the Waterfall Country without suitable footwear. Sturdy trainers are (just about) okay – sandals, espadrilles, platforms, heels, ballet shoes and so forth are entirely out of the question! I really do not want to see the air ambulance flying over my house on its way to Penderyn as a result of somebody’s reading my blog.
I met Rhian this morning at Aberdare Bus Station. Rhian hates being late, so she was there a good five minutes before me. She was also prepared for a small-scale expedition in the Himalayas. After my last two trips to Waterfall Country, I know how to travel fairly light. I’d had a decent breakfast before I left the house. I was carrying only my wallet, my phone, my camera, and the clothes I was wearing. The BBC forecast was for ‘occasional light showers’. I hadn’t even bothered packing OS map OL12 (Brecon Beacons Central and East), because I knew I’d be on familiar territory.
Rhian had gone to the opposite extreme.
You know that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf realises they should take Samwise on their quest, and then makes him carry all their crap?
Call me Gandalf.
Rhian is the girl who came to London with me in September, thinking we’d be able to grab a reasonably-priced pub lunch, and who laughed she found when I’d made sandwiches. She stopped laughing when the fish and chips in the pub cost nearly fifteen quid; she then spent a small fortune on snacks throughout the day.
She’s obviously has learned from her mistakes. She’d brought a packed lunch, a bottle of water which had been in the freezer all night, two packets of crisps, a pair of trainers (because the ones she normally wears are more fashionable, apparently), a lightweight jacket, her phone, her purse, and had only left the kitchen sink at home because we’d have had to pay extra for it on the bus.
And she’d laughed at me in London.
At about 11.30 we arrived at the Angel Inn in Pontneddfechan. It’s in danger of becoming yet another of my locals. We decided to walk past and head straight for the waterfalls. On the bus into Glynneath I’d managed to talk Rhian out of Sgwd Gwladus (which is really a beginners’ walk) and persuaded her to make for Sgwd Clun-Gwyn. We climbed the steps out of the village and emerged onto Millionaires’ Row, just below the old school.
We crossed the road and started to observe basic Highway Code protocols: walk on the right, facing oncoming traffic, and walk in single file when a vehicle approaches. A month ago, hardly anything had passed me. It was a different story this afternoon. You can tell the tourist season is getting under way from the amount of traffic on the road.
We’d only just reached the end of the golf course when the first fat drops of rain started to fall. There’d been a negligible shower when we were walking into the village, but it stopped as soon as it started. Rhian and I looked at each other, and then at the sky. I had a flashback to my excursion to Littledean in 2013, when I got soaked and dried out in the space of ten minutes. We had a choice: should we carry on, or turn back and seek shelter in the Angel Inn?
We decided to press on. The shower didn’t look as though it would come to anything. If we were going to get drenched, we’d be drenched when we got back to the pub. If it cleared up, we’d have wasted an afternoon. We’re used to four seasons in one day; we went on a very short pub crawl in Aberaman a while ago, and when we left the pub it was chucking it down with snow. By the time we arrived back in Aberdare the snow had gone and we were back to rain. What could happen in July (apart from snow, of course)?
It took us about another half an hour to reach the layby where the path descends to Sgwd Clun-Gwyn. Here’s where the confusion sets in. I haven’t got my map with me, so I apologise in advance. I found out (after last time) that there are two waterfalls called Sgwd Clun-Gwyn: Uchaf (which means ‘higher’) and Isaf (‘lower’) – and I’m not sure which one I photographed a month ago.
There was a party of hardy souls in wetsuits making their down to the Mellte at the same time. When we arrived at the fall, about half a dozen suitably kitted people were already diving into the Mellte just above the lip of the fall. We stood and admired the scene for a couple of minutes, before I persuaded Rhian to scramble down the slope and stand on the shelf which forms the mid-point of the cataract.
If you’ve only got little Hobbit-sized legs, it’s not the easiest place to get to. Even so, Rhian followed me to the ledge and took a couple of photos before we headed back up to the riverbank. We followed the path back along the Mellte, heading for the bridge.
It was just about one o’clock, so we sat and ate our lunch, listening to the bird song and watching an extraordinarily large dragonfly zigzag across the water. Then the bellow of Valleys laughter broke the silence, and I looked instinctively towards the bridge.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake, it can’t be!’
Yesterday, scrolling through Facebook, I’d seen that a few friends of ours were planning a camping trip to Ystradfellte. Now, Ystradfellte is a small village – but it’s in the middle of 640 square miles of Brecon Beacons National Park. Chances of meeting a random Aberdare piss-artist? Vanishingly small…
Heading across the bridge towards us were Geraint B., Chris D. and Dai T.
We chatted for a few minutes, and exchanged notes on the territory. The boys had come from the Blue Pool, following the Mellte southwards. They were intending to camp near Ystradfellte, some way to the north. We were heading (more or less) towards the Blue Pool, but were going to cross the river and then go downstream towards the confluence with the Hepste. None of us had a map, but at least I had a vague idea where we were.
We pointed them towards Sgwd Clun-gwyn, wished them well, and crossed to the other bank. We climbed a steep slope above the river and dropped down to the observation point above the waterfall. Far below us, the boys were sliding along the slippery stones at the river’s edge. I picked up a fairly stout stick and hurled it in their direction, but it hit the water some distance away.
I popped my head out of the trees, bellowed, ‘Geraint B—!’, and ducked back out of sight. Unfortunately Dai caught sight of me, and the boys looked up at us in surprise.
Useful tip: If you have a friend who is scared of heights, don’t let her go near the edge of the gorge.
We climbed back up to the main path and picked up the route towards Sgwd-yr-Eira. If you’re planning on following in our footsteps, bear in mind that the path is very well waymarked, but some of the waymarkers aren’t necessarily where you’d expect to find them. Keep scanning through the full 180° in case you miss one. (For example,the post just above the fall is off to the left, about 60 yards away from the obvious route.)
The path weaves in and out of the forestry commission land. It’s an odd mixture of broad-leaved woodland and conifer plantations, and must be a rich wildlife habitat. I’d love to go there in the middle of the night and record the sounds around me. That’s an adventure for braver souls than I, though. It has foxgloves which are bigger than Rhian, for Goddess’ sake! Who knows what else lurks in these uncharted woods?

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Far below us we could hear the rushing of water. I knew from the map (and my previous visits, both blogged and unblogged) that there’s another waterfall on the Mellte. I tried to remember its name, but it didn’t come to mind. I was fairly sure that Phil, Jason and I had encountered it during our expedition years ago. I was reassured when Rhian and I found a signpost to Sgwd y Pannwr. The path led down a steep slope, with an estimated walking time of fifteen minutes. We decided it could wait for another day and pressed on towards Sgwd yr Eira.
It’s a bit easier to get to it from this side of the Hepste than it is from the Penderyn side. Not a lot, though. From the junction of the path, the signpost estimated a walking time of eight minutes. It took Samwise Rhian and me just over five minutes to reach the bottom of the gorge, down some inconveniently deep steps. But at least they were steps. Unlike the climb up on the other side.

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Rhian broke her Sgwd yr Eira duck this afternoon, when we crossed behind the curtain of water and emerged unscathed on the other bank. It’s hard to believe that some people from Aberdare still haven’t done it. It’s a half-hour journey on the bus, another half-hour (if that) through spectacular scenery, and then a rapid drop to one of the most memorable sights (and experiences) in South Wales. If you’re adequately equipped, then please go and see it for yourself. You won’t regret it.
Whether by accident or design, we arrived at Penderyn just in time to miss the bus. That gave us an hour in the Lamb Inn. Again, I’m in danger of becoming a regular.
That might happen, actually. I’ve outlined an idea of going to the waterfalls once a month, whatever the weather, and photographing them in every mood that Mother Nature has to throw at them.
As usual – watch this space…
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