Perhaps I’ve only just noticed, but all of a sudden people seem to have started using the term microadventure. On Twitter the #microadventure hashtag has sprung up, containing tweets from people who have hiked out into the countryside, pitched a tent in a field and posted a photo.
Microadventures out of London, was the title of a post the hardcore adventurer Alastair Humphreys added to his blog recently. Full of excitement I clicked on the link only to discover the options included a stroll through Wendover Woods in the Chilterns, a bumble along the Thames Path, or a hike up to the clump of beech trees at Chanctonbury Ring, an iron age hill fort in the South Downs. Now far be it from me to mock an outdoorsman of his considerable stature, but in the old days didn’t these used to be called walks? My good friend and Everest tent mate Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson posted photos of his kayaking trip in Singapore harbour to Facebook, describing it as a microadventure. In the old days this would just have been known as a paddle.
Nevertheless, I set out to walk a 15 mile section of the 1066 Country Walk in Sussex a couple of weekends ago with an open mind. I posted a photo of my pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter, ham and mustard sandwich and chips in a pub garden along the route to Twitter along with the #microadventure hashtag, but was disappointed by the reaction. The consensus seemed to be that by stopping for a pub lunch my day out could no longer qualify as a microadventure.
— Mark Horrell (@markhorrell) April 20, 2013
Undeterred I’m going to stick my neck out and say that after my trip to the Mynydd Du hills, South Wales last weekend, I have now become a microadventurer. I have a new 90 litre rucksack (or more accurately an 88 litre rucksack) the Osprey Xenith 88 to become accustomed to before my expedition to Denali next month and a weekend of backpacking with an overnight wild camp seemed just the ticket. The Mynydd Du (Welsh for Black Mountain) is a range of hills on the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Confusingly, on the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons is another range of hills called the Black Mountains (in English, and plural) better known for containing a peak with the curious name Lord Hereford’s Knob. The northern and eastern sides of the Mynydd Du form a dramatic escarpment, falling away gradually in gentle grasslands on the southern and western sides. This is caused by a combination of red sandstone merging into carboniferous limestone which is more resistant to erosion.
My walk was based loosely on one of the walks in Graham Uney’s Backpacker’s Britain series of books. I’ve remarked on them in this blog before; they have often resulted in expletives when I’ve found myself wading through deep bog off the beaten track, and ended up with boots resembling the ingredients of a flowerpot. But I love the books really. They have introduced me to many new areas of Britain, and they contain walks that can be classed as microadventures if ever a walk could. I made an immediate start into a forest of gorse bushes alongside a river bank. Gorse branches can grow up to an inch in diameter, and are prickly. They can bend a long way before they break, and cluster thickly together. It’s not easy forging a route between them and ducking beneath branches when you have a large pack sticking up behind you. A machete would have been useful, but as this was the British countryside and not the Amazon jungle, hacking a route through them would be frowned upon. After ten minutes of tripping, cursing, and bulldozing a way through, I emerged at the far end clad in an innovative hedgehog outfit, and struck up a grassy ridge onto open moorland.
As I approached the edge of the escarpment the wind welled up and I stopped to put on an extra layer, but the sun wasn’t far away, and despite a cold chill in the air I enjoyed clear views for the remainder of the day. For the next two kilometres I walked along the long whaleback of Fan Hir (Long Point), with a steep drop over the edge of the escarpment to my right and gentler slopes to my left. I was alone but could see figures on a footpath beneath the foot of the cliffs below me. At the end of the whaleback the path dropped to a col above a small lake, Llyn y Fan Fawr, before rising again to Fan Bryneiniog (Beacon Point), the highest point in the Mynydd Du at 802m. I joined a broad trail here, and the hill’s prominence meant there were many other walkers. For the next hour or so I kept to the escarpment edge as it turned a corner to the west and rose and fell in folds. To the north the cliffs looked out over lush green farmland, and a small lake Llyn y Fan Fach nestled in a small hollow beneath the escarpment. The ridge here is known as Bannau Sir Gaer (or the Cheshire Beacons). At the far end the main trail dropped gently down a spur to the north to reach the lake at the base of the cliffs, and as I continued west into open hillsides I found myself off the tourist route again.
For the next 21 hours, from two o’clock in the afternoon until eleven o’clock the following day, I didn’t see another human being. The scenery was less dramatic than the escarpment edge, but never featureless. I crossed over wide grassy plateaus and rocky outcrops, along ridges and over the summits of Garreg Las (Blue Stone), Foel Fraith (Spotted Plain) and Garreg Lwyd (Grey Stone). To the north I could see the emerald of pastureland in the lowlands below, cut into a jigsaw pattern by stone walls and hedgerows, while to the south the wide expanse of grassy hillsides cut off the view into valleys in the distance. I pitched my tent in a deep cleft enclosing the Afon Twrch (Mole River), which rose in the gentle slopes below the western side of Fan Bryneiniog just five or six kilometres to the northeast, but had already become a powerful torrent. My camping spot was set among boulders beside the noisy river, but I was sheltered from the wind by the walls of the cleft, and found a flattish spot to pitch my tent. The tussock grass beneath me provided a soft cushion as I rehydrated myself with several mugs of Earl Grey tea and read a few chapters of my book about Denali.
The following morning I left the open moorland behind as I descended the river valley to the south. It took me several attempts to cross to the other side of the river, as the water was deep and fast-moving, and although there was no shortage of stepping stones, the rocks were smooth and slippery and I didn’t want to end up in the drink. This eventually happened when I jumped across a more innocuous side creek further downstream. As I stepped on a smooth slab to leap over a two metre gap, my feet slipped forward and I found myself lying on my back in the middle of the water, with my pack beneath me. It took five or ten seconds for me to lift myself up again, and for a brief period I had some idea of what a tortoise must feel like lying upside down, its arms and legs flailing uselessly above it. Eventually I found purchase with my trekking pole and was able to lift myself up. In future years I may look back on this incident as the moment I accepted the legitimacy of the term microadventure. Instead of uttering a stream of profanities and shouting at my map for taking me on a route devoid of a decent footpath, as I might have done in the past, I shrugged off my pack, sat down on a bank, and told myself that now I can call this a microadventure. My 88 litre Osprey pack had excelled as well. As the sky was clear that morning I hadn’t covered it with a rain cover. I was expecting to emerge from my paddle with a pack full of wet kit, but the fabric had remained waterproof despite being completely submerged for a few seconds. The contents of my pack were still dry.
I descended off the hills, and for most of the second day I walked on footpaths through woods and fields, and along narrow trafficless lanes. But towards the end of the walk I ascended onto grasslands again, to cross over the long stone-terraced grassy hillside of Cribarth, known as The Sleeping Giant because of its resemblance to a resting figure. The area beneath it is scoured by a network of abandoned tramways which have now grown into lush green terraces which look like they’ve been landscaped and freshly mown by hill-loving gardener. The area to the north is pockmarked by a patchwork of sinkholes which look like giant craters left behind by an eroded meteor, and disappear into the earth above a substantial underground cave system.
I looked down into the valley of the River Tawe, where I had parked my car the previous morning, and reflected on two days of peaceful backpacking away from the bustle of London life. The Mynydd Du had proved to be a good combination of dramatic scenery and peaceful wilderness.
It had been a decent walk, or to give it its other name, a microadventure.
Aaarrgh – I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to keep using the word in a tongue in cheek fashion until it eventually sticks. Look – I’ve even tagged this post microadventures. The end is nigh.
If you’re hungry for more, you can see my photos from the trip.