Wilderness Wales


Waterfalls in Spate

Ystradfellte Falls, Brecon Beacons

The weather report promised showers, heavy and prolonged in hilly areas. After a few days of rain it seemed an appropriate occasion to visit the Ystradfellte Waterfalls. I arrived at Pont Nedd Fechan at 6:30am, a nice early start. Although there'd been occasional showers through the night, they were quite widely spaced. It wasn't raining when I arrived. I hoped that state of affairs might continue for a while before I needed to don my waterproofs.

Within a couple of minutes of leaving the car a light drizzle started. I figured it wasn't likely to stop soon so I put my waterproofs on. In no time at all it was raining steadily. The first part of the walk along the Nedd Fechan was most pleasant, I felt cool and dry. The muddy brown river was high. Under the canopy of trees the lime green leaves seemed almost luminescent. There were a considerable amount of dead leaves lying around, a deep reddish brown in colour, which I found very odd for the time of year. They were more reminiscent of December than June, and made a nice contrast with the greenery.
After crossing the footbridge I turned left to follow the Afon Pyrddin to the first waterfall, Sgwd Gwladus. As I approached the rain started to ease and it seemed I might enjoy the luxury of taking my first photographs in dry weather. On arrival I was a bit disappointed, the waterfall was nowhere near as dramatic as I'd hoped, but was still perfectly respectable nonetheless. I consoled myself with the fact that this river was a small tributary and that the other waterfalls would probably be better.

I decided on the composition, set up my tripod, then took my time taking exposure readings. Just as I was ready the rain, instead of stopping, started becoming heavier. I quickly attached the camera to the tripod and set the exposure. Just as I pressed the shutter release cable, disaster struck, the shutter jammed open! I quickly tried fiddling with things as the rain started pouring down in earnest, but to no avail. I put the camera back in it's case.

What was I to do now? I sat on a rock and looked at the waterfall whilst musing over the problem. It was raining so hard.I could feel the cold of each raindrop as it hit me. The last time this happened I had to open the camera and remove the lens so that I could unstick the mirror, but in this rain? I was reluctant to do that anyway since I was halfway through a roll of film.

{[yf0118.jpg]}During some ten minutes of pondering, with no respite from the incessant downpour, I found myself looking up at the surrounding forest and thinking that this must be what it's like in a jungle during the monsoon season. It obviously wasn't going to stop anytime soon. There used to be a wooden hut just twenty yards away, but it was removed some years ago. I really could have done with that shelter. Eventually, I managed to find a tiny dry patch below the adjacent cliff and looked at my camera once more. To my relief it had unstuck itself. I quickly took the photographs and continued on my way.

I had considered following the Pyrddin to reach Sgwd Einion Gam, the highest waterfall and my personal favourite, but it's tricky to get to at the best of times, let alone these conditions. It's also a one way detour, you have to return the same way to rejoin the route. I had a fair walk ahead of me so I decided to give it a miss this time. It's probably the least visited waterfall in the area.
{[yf0218.jpg]}I returned to the bridge and rejoined the Nedd Fechan. The rain eased off but didn't stop. The next stretch wasn't excessively muddy as it often is. I stopped to take a quick shot of the next small fall which is unnamed, but still quite impressive with this amount of water. My camera's inbuilt exposure meter had already ceased to function as it does in extremely wet conditions, but it has a mechanical shutter so it carries on working regardless. I'd also brought my hand-held spotmeter which is pretty vital for waterfall photography in conditions like these.
{[yf0318.jpg]}   Horseshoe Falls was my next stop, this looks good from a variety of angles so I got quite a few shots of this one. This is the only fall in the area with an English name, perhaps the Welsh didn't consider it large enough to bother naming it. It's a small fall, but very shapely. The wide riverbed above the fall was perhaps two-thirds filled with water, it usually occupies only a narrow channel next to the east bank. I've only ever seen the full width of the riverbed filled once.   {[yf0418.jpg]} 

{[yf0518.jpg]}As is my usual practice I followed the riverbed rather than the path from here on, but it was as slippery as ice. It's often slippery but seemed excessively so this time, so I made my way along the edge of the bank instead. The Lower Ddwli Falls were next and looked quite respectable, but nothing out of the ordinary from a distance. I took the obligatory photo and climbed the bank back up onto the path. From the top the falls looked a lot more impressive, especially the narrow section at the top of the falls. The power of the water was quite apparent here.

Finally, Sgwd Ddwli, the last main waterfall on the Nedd Fechan. I was keen to take a photo to match the composition of the one on my desktop, but the contrast range was horrendous, at about 7-8 stops between the foreground and the waterfall, so I bracketed and hoped that I could sort out the mess with Photoshop. By this time the viewfinder was starting to mist up from the inside.

{[yf1418.jpg]}I took the opportunity to take a quick self-portrait here, using my compact (which, unlike my main camera, has a self-timer), purely for record purposes you understand. I then had the problem of changing the film. Fortunately the rain wasn't too heavy, but cover wasn't easy to come by. I managed to find some denser foliage that provided reasonable protection and with a little fiddling about managed the job without too much difficulty.

[yf0618.jpg]}Next was an important moment, to photograph Sgwd Ddwli from what I consider to be a classic angle. I took one of my best ever photographs here, during excessively heavy rain, and although the waterfall wasn't quite as dramatic this time, I was keen to try to repeat this shot. As I was setting it up the rain intensified again. Taking the photo was extremely tricky. The viewfinder was misting up, the filter and lens were both misting up and my camera was getting soaked. Added to that the tripod was at a very awkward angle in amongst the roots of a tree. I did the best I could in a difficult situation and crossed my fingers that I'd get a decent result.

It was about 9am by this time, an appropriate time for a break I thought. I got out my flask and poured myself a nice hot cup of tea. I sat there for a good while absorbing the dramatic sight. There seemed to be something ironic about sitting there in the middle of a torrential downpour enjoying a cup of tea; an unruffled Brit enjoying a traditional British summer.
The next stage of the walk was very relaxing, it was quite peaceful away from the falls, and the rain eased off a little. I found myself thinking back to my first ever visit to this valley on a hot dry summer's day some nineteen years ago. I remembered my very first impressions of this place and pondered on how much my life had changed since then, while so little had changed in this valley. It was a nostalgic moment.

At Pont Melin Fach I briefly heard the sound of a vehicle, but didn't see it. It was a warning. I was lucky to have avoided people so far, it's very rare to have the whole of the Nedd Fechan to myself, and I was very grateful for that, but I knew this state of affairs couldn't continue. Only once have I ever done the whole waterfall circuit without seeing another person, and that was at night in October.

Further up the valley I reached an interesting small bend in the river, very difficult to capture on film though. I decided to take a 360 degree panorama using my compact, but after planning it all, nothing happened, my compact was dead, the moisture had killed the battery in that too. I decided not to bother, maybe next time.

{[yf0718.jpg]}I finally reached Pont Rhyd y Cnau but took a shortcut up the hillside before reaching the bridge. The rain actually seemed to be stopping for the first time so I took off my waterproofs. I was a bit damp underneath, but that was obviously due to perspiration rather than deficient waterproofs, my new Craghoppers Pakka was doing a respectable job.
After another quick cup of tea I continued up the hill and out of the valley, but where was the track? In my eagerness to take a shortcut I'd turned right too soon. Not to worry I thought, I'll just walk north until I hit the track. What I hit instead was a very deep gully. I looked for a way into it, carefully scrambled down, negotiated a very awkward fallen trees' branches and scrambled up the other side.

Having dealt with the obstacle I saw the track ahead, on the other side of another gully! I decided to stay on the side I was on and headed east. Gradually the gully became less deep and I decided to cross it to the track. Fifty yards further on the track crossed to the other side again...

The rain was becoming heavy once more, it had restarted shortly after I took my waterproofs off, in fact I'm not sure if it ever really stopped. But it was very light so I refrained from putting my waterproofs back on until the situation demanded it. Once I was out of the woods I had no choice.

{[yf0818.jpg]}I encountered the road for a few hundred yards before branching north-east along the path to Porth yr Ogof. I passed a horse chewing grass which seemed to make a point of ignoring me. After I walked past, it trotted along the path behind me and into a field from where it started neighing loudly. It continued to do so from the shelter of some trees on the opposite side of the field. It kept watching me so I was obviously the cause of it's disconcertment.
{[yf0918.jpg]}Chattering kid's voices announced my arrival at Porth yr Ogof before I could actually see the place. Sure enough, the car park was almost full, mostly with minibuses and there were scattered groups of cavers everywhere, all groups of children decked out in bright red uniforms.

The Afon Mellte running into the cave was most impressive, and at first glance it appeared to fill the entire cave entrance. Naturally as soon as I set up to take some shots the rain started coming down even heavier, a recurring theme throughout the day. I did have a few thoughts about cavers spoiling the view, but then again, it wouldn't be Porth yr Ogof without cavers, would it?

Fortunately the river wasn't so high that I couldn't get inside, and there was a very small patch of rock just inside that I was able to sit on. This was the only shelter I got from the rain all day and it was quite a relief, particularly since it was now really belting down. The falling rain outside and the torrent flowing into the cave was quite a sight.

Yet another cup of tea accompanied my dinner - cold pre-nuked microwave chips. Nothing like a bit of fatty carbohydrate to keep you going. Unfortunately I forgot the salt and pepper. I was reluctant to leave but I had to go sooner or later. I took even more photographs before I left.
It was nice to get away from the humans once more and the return journey started with a pleasant easy stroll along the riverbank. By this time I was feeling pretty wet, even if it was only condensation it was building up considerably with no chance to get an airing in between the showers. It would probably be most accurate to describe the day's weather as "heavy showers interspersed with periods of rain".

The dead leaves that were so common along the Nedd Fechan were largely absent along the Mellte, although there were a number of areas were bracken was prominent, with new green ferns growing out of the carpets of reddish-brown dead ones, so the same colour contrasts were present.

{[yf1218.jpg]}After the footbridge the first of the Mellte waterfalls loomed ahead. I passed a couple of walkers and then witnessed the fall, Sgwd Clun Gwyn. When I first clapped eyes on it I was very surprised, it was one of those "Wow!" moments. Normally a very narrow fall, it filled about three-quarters of the width of the river. This was far more impressive than the falls on the Nedd Fechan.

As I continued my journey south I wondered why the Mellte was so much higher. Perhaps it was raining more on the eastern Fforest Fawr? Perhaps it was because the Mellte has two rivers feeding it from the hills rather than one? Even so, I had not noticed such a discrepancy in years past. In retrospect the day's continual rain was probably the major cause, hours had passed since I'd left the Nedd Fechan. The falls there were probably a lot higher by that time, I generally walk this circuit anti-clockwise and thus usually see the Nedd Fechan falls last of all.

Most Impressed by Sgwd Clun Gwyn, I began wondering what Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn was going to offer in the way of visual entertainment. As I walked along the cliff ledge above the fall the sight below was one of watery chaos and fury. Not until I'd gotten to the end of the ledge and backtracked to the fall itself did I witness it in it's full glory. It was absolutely awesome!

{[yf1318.jpg]}The waterfall produced a thunderous roar in full surround sound, the shape of the fall and the cliffs acting like an amphitheatre. I could almost feel the power of the fall transmitted through the rocks below me. I sat there for some time absorbing the experience, it was an unforgettable moment. This fall far outshone all the others, the entire walk would have been worth it for this single fall alone. I didn't want to leave. Unfortunately the photograph doesn't do it justice, the wide-angle lens tends to diminish it's stature and the photo only shows the top part of the fall, there are more drops to the left and behind.

Nothing could have impressed me much after that so Sgwd y Pannwr was bound to be an anti-climax, but it was on the way so there was no point avoiding it. Sure enough, it failed to make an impression, but had I seen it first my reaction would no doubt have been very different. By this time I was getting tired and feeling very wet, and since this is my least favourite fall anyway, I frankly couldn't have cared less about it. Shame really, because it was actually pretty good.

Even so, I know that things can look different with hindsight so I made the effort to photograph it anyway. First I had to change the film though, and it was really belting down again. I managed to find a dry spot under a nearby crag but with so much water dripping off me it didn't go nearly so smoothly as the first time. I got the film out ok, but then some water dripped into the camera. With everything so wet it took me quite a while to find something to clean it with.

Setting up the tripod for the umpteenth time was getting to be a real chore and when I looked through the viewfinder all I could see was a large blurry white area surrounded by a blurry not-quite-so-white area. I cleaned the filter and lens but I couldn't clean the viewfinder, I just pointed it in the right general direction and hoped for the best.

Next in line were the Lower Hepste Falls, these are amongst my favourites, but with my growing tiredness and increasing wetness, not to mention the inevitable anti-climax factor, I decided to give them a miss this time around.
I soon encountered another group of red children and was reassured that it was quite possible to cross the river behind Sgwd yr Eira. I had been getting worried about that after seeing Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn. Before I reached Sgwd yr Eira I encountered a group of cavers that I recognised from Porth yr Ogof coming towards me. How did they manage that I wondered?

The steep steps dropping to the final waterfall were as much of a pain as they always are, quite literally, I started to get a pain in my right knee on the way down. I haven't had any knee trouble since December so I could do without this. Still it only seemed to be a temporary problem due to the very steep steps.

Sgwd yr Eira was in good form but made no real impact on me after the glorious Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn, not until I approached it that was. The small fall on the left gave me an initial splattering and the main fall itself was generating quite a bit of wind close up. It started to feel as though I was walking into a storm.

The fall wasn't too wide to prevent me walking behind it, but halfway through the backwash was incredible. For a few moments I felt as though I was walking through a car wash. It was really quite a moment, but it was over all too soon, so I walked back behind the fall and did it again, pausing in the middle and turning all the way around to experience the full blast! My hands went numb with cold in a matter of seconds. An excellent climax to the walk.
Of course, there was the small matter of the last few miles. The climb out of the valley was strenuously steep and left me quite out of breath. After a brief rest the going across the now forested moorland was easy, aside from a few large muddy areas that I had to negotiate. I passed a few more cavers, again from Porth yr Ogof, this time going down the cutting past Craig y Ddinas.

I presume this cutting once had a railway track running down it from the nearby silica mines. I found myself fantasising about a roller coaster ride down it, that would certainly speed my return, but how to slow it down at the bottom? Perhaps a big loop? No, forget I said that, I don't want to give anyone any ideas...

Back at the car I found that I was indeed thoroughly soaked, but not at all cold. The Craghopper is certainly not the best choice for an all day rain walk, Gore-Tex would undoubtedly be a better option for serious rain walking, but I imagine it would acquit itself well for short walks or occasional showers. In fact all I could think about at the end of the walk was a nice hot shower and some dry clothes.
I must confess to having done very little walking prior to this so my fitness level had dropped quite a lot, surprisingly so in fact, I can't remember ever feeling that tired on a little stroll around the waterfalls. The whole walk totalled no more than ten miles, with very little ascent to speak of, and lasted almost nine hours! Of course much of the time was taken up with the photography and the long rests.