Wild camping in the Black Mountains - a Microadventure

We had 24 hours......

With our daughter staying with her grandparents for the night we had from 12 o'clock on the Friday through till lunch the following day to enjoy our "Microadventure" and the Black Mountains was selected as the ideal place as it's pretty much the closest near mountainous area to us (nr Winchester) and we fancied a high level bivvy. 

With 6 hours "lost" to driving we planned a circular route from the Blaen-y-cwm car park (which lies at the top of the Mynydd du Forest (10 miles or so north of Abergavenny) that would take in the peaks of Pen Twyn Mawr (658m), Pen y Gadair Fawr (800m) and Waun Fach (810m) with between 6-10 miles per leg depending on the route we took.

Packing is, for me, half the fun and deciding on the kit to take and trying to remove as much of the unnecessary weight as possible was key for this trip as we wanted to be fast and light and we tried to keep Donna's rucksack down to a 24l bag so as not to put too much stress on her back which wasn't 100% better from the disc problems she'd experienced earlier in the year.

Because of this I just couldn't get everything in to my 25l bag so took my trusty Deuter Guide 45+ which comfortably contained all my kit plus the cooking kit.

Just in case it's of interest, here is my kit list from the trip.  Donna's was pretty much the same less the stove and plus food;

The camera choice was maybe slightly overkill for the trip and it did add a bit of weight and take up space but I wanted to try and get some good pictures along the way and it's less bulky than the 5D so in it went!

Final checks before heading off
Day 1
We arrived at the car park just after 5pm and were ready to set off around 5:30 after the final kit adjustments and map checks.

Smiling in the evening sun
 We decided to walk the circular route clockwise so that the longer leg would be before the night's bivvy and the "boring bit" along the road and through the woods would be over and done with - we should have stuck more firmly to that plan!

The boring bit - along the road from the carpark
 I however, decided that it would be quicker and easier to dive in to the forest a bit early and pick up of the many logging tracks shown on the map....

Which would have been fine if the tracks on the map had translated a little better onto the ground - I'm not saying they weren't there, they were just very overgrown and made progress hard work.  We persevered until we met up with the path we'd originally planned to be on - did we save any time or effort? No!

Route check - "yes, that's the path we'd originally planned to be on!"
Once we were back on our original route the going was significantly easier. The long winding logging tracks, punctured here and there with pine stacks giving off that amazing aroma and groups of sheep who's aroma was less lovely!

Forest paths like this make the going very easy - unless you head off into pines!

On the map this is a nice wide logging track..... 

We met lots and lots of sheep on the walk - well it is Wales!
About halfway through the forest the footpath leaves the logging track and heads SW up the flanks of pine trees towards the edge of the forest and open heath land. It gains height pretty steeply and the enclosed trail through the pine trees feels very different to the wide, graded, fire roads that we started off on.

Another logging track

Up through the trees
The pine plantations are so dark and quiet that it can feel quite eery at times and the small patches of sunlight that suddenly come into view where the next fire road passes through are very welcome!

Pine plantations have a sound deadening quality that's quite eery
We finally came out of the pine trees and followed path that the sign said led to the Gadair Ridge and tracked the edge of the forest fence until meeting the open land and intersection with a large double-track and small cairn.

Grwyne Fawr or Gadair Ridge?

The edge of the forest and the start of the ridge top
Just after the cairn there is the open of continuing on the double track or (as we did) walking along a smaller path which, after around 2km, tops out on the summit (at 658m) of Pen Twyn Mawr.

Pen y Gadair Fawr
From the summit you can see the footpath pretty much all the way, down and then up again, to Pen y Gadair Fawr (800m) - as the going was good and the ground dry we made good time along this section and reached the fairly windy summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr around 8pm.

Pen y Gadair (800m)

The summit cairn of Pen y Gadair (800m)
We didn't pause long on the summit as we were conscious of time and sun light (sun set was expected around 9:25pm) and wanted to be the other side of Waun Fach before settling down for the night - so on we walked.

Another sheep!
Clusters of sheep and ponies were our only company until 2 motor bikes passed us on a section of very good path - now I know that there is a bridal-way/BOAT the runs past the reservoir but I'm pretty sure motor bikes aren't allowed on this bit. However, they said "hi" and were in their 40's/50's so maybe they were allowed to be there - I like to think so as it galls me to think otherwise.

Waun Fach summit (810m)
We reached the summit of Waun Fach and had a look at the map and tried to come up with some options for the night's bivvy.  Based on the wind and ground conditions we decided that the land to the NNE of Pen y Manllwyn and between the permissive path that we'd been following and the large bridal-way would be a good place to start so that we could easily get back onto the bridal-way the next day for our return walk back past the reservoir and back into the forest.

We found a flat patch of grass - there was a lot of grass so that bit was easy, finding the flat bit was less so - and then I moved us to a place where there was a slight indent which would help us rig the tarp over Donna's trekking poles to shelter us from the wind which, by now, was blowing around 15mph.

So with the tarp set up and warm clothes on (I'd been in shorts and t-shirt until that point) we started heating up the pre-cooked lamb stew that we'd made earlier in the day.

The Trangia was taken on this trip due to versatility while still remaining lightweight - the recent addition of the gas burner attachment meant that the meths element could be dispensed of and the cleaner/more controllable gas bottle could be used instead.

Warm food and a hot drink was pretty much all we needed before climbing into sleeping bags and bivvy bags and settling down for the night......  Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said I moved us to a "better" location - well in hindsight it wasn't! The wind shifted so that it blew straight through the tarp and the ground was sloped so that Donna constantly rolled into me - but we still slept so can't have been that bad!

Day 2
Morning!  The pattering of rain on the tarp and the buffeting of wind led to me hopping out of my warm bag and changing the direction of the tarp to offer us a bit more protection from the elements and once this was done breakfast and coffee were called for.

Paleo breakfast!
I wont try to explain what Paleo is for those who read the above picture caption and thought "eh?" - Google will give you a much more involved and detailed explanation than I can.  But the breakfast was a bit of a trial run of a new receipt which Donna found on the Backpacking Chef website - a great read for trail food ideas.

Essentially its dehydrated sweet potato and apple which you heat in water and then add nuts and raisins - sounds a bit odd but it tasted good, was hot and gave us loads of energy!

Cooking breakfast in the mist

Sweet potato porridge
With breakfast over with we packed up the wet tarp and donned waterproofs for the walk back to the car.

Slightly different clothing for day 2!
At around 6:30am we headed off across the grassy tufted slope, aiming for the bridal way that would take us back past the reservoir to the forest car park that we'd started from the day before.

Walking into the mist
The path was much wetter than the path we'd taken along the ridge top the day before and while the going was good it was slightly harder in places thanks to loose rocks and muddy puddles - wouldn't be Wales without a bit of rain and mud though eh!

Grwyne Fawr Reservoir
After a few miles the reservoir came into view.  There is a fenced nature reserve around the reservoir and we paused at the gate to explore the small bothy which lies at its head, just next to the weir.

The steep path down to it and its proximity to the steep back pretty much keep it out of sight which I guess helps with its decent condition - everything you'd need for a very basic, but dry, night was there including a wood-burning stove and we both said that it'd be fun to come back on another trip and make use of it.

The last leg is along the bank of the reservoir itself, passing the dam and then the last 2 miles or so following the path of the river before entering the forest again and dropping back down to the car park where (thankfully) the car was waiting.

In an example of perfect timing the light rain that had held off since leaving our bivvy started again just as we were packing out kit into the car so we decided to forego the post walk cuppa and head back along the M4 to England, and home.

While it may have been around for some time before him, the concept of Microadventures has been made popular by explorer Alistair Humphreys and it's well worth a click onto his site/blog for more info as they are an accessible form of "adventure" for pretty much anyone regardless of time or money.

Walk details via Garmin Connect, recorded on my Garmin Forerunner 935;
Day 1

 Day 2


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