“Not all who wander are lost.” A very famous quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, overused by the many desperate souls stricken with the wanderlust bug and myself alike. Although there I was, drenched through every layer of clothing by either sweat, mud or waterfall droppings, more exhausted and worn down than I ever thought I could be, in the middle nowhere, in a foreign country where even most of the locals don’t understand the language, utterly and completely lost.
In the summer of 2014 after a few weeks of living in London and becoming good friends with our housemates, Rory and Rachel, they suggest that my girlfriend and I join them for a day hike in Brecon Beacon National Park in Wales. Being an open-to-anything kind of traveler I agree without hesitation.Rory was originally from Wales and had told me a little about it; beautiful farmland, a lot of nice people who spoke mostly an odd language that both he and Rachel, an irish transplant, described as gibberish mixed with english. If you’re like most people, myself included, you have probably only heard of Wales in movies or books about old knights, but if you are not like the rest of us, you know that Wales is a small country just to the east of England.
After renting a car, buying some gas station “best of” 90’s R&B albums and a couple meat pies, we hit the road. The drive from London to Wales is a beautiful four and a half hours through insanely green marshlands and ancient farms. After about six gallons of coffee and a lot of bumping and grinding we arrive at Brecon Beacon (say that 3 times fast, extremely fun).
Looking at maps and googling some information before we got there, it seemed as though that for the cost of about a forty-five minutes of hiking, we would be exposed to a few caves and multiple mind blowing waterfalls surely to ruin your view of any falling water seen thereafter. I believe the words “stoked as hell” were definitely used as we set out on the trail, little food, a little water, and high expectations.
Despite every sign being written completely in Welsh, I had no doubts about my navigational skills and sense of direction. Growing up in the back country of the Sierra Nevada’s and having a lot of hiking and outdoors experience, I was confident. The trails were well maintained, we passed a couple of families with little kids and as I said, this was suppose to take less than an hour. Flash forward a little over an hour and we’ve reached our first waterfall, not knowing the actual name, we will call it The Shelf due to the fact that you could walk out onto this giant granite slab that the water poured over like a giants door stoop. We were all so stoked on the waterfall that I don’t think any of us really took into account how long it had taken us just to get the first waterfall. Nevertheless we continue down the trail.
After passing a few smaller waterfalls and about another hour or so of hiking we arrive at what I can honestly say is the best waterfall I have ever seen in person, in pictures, anywhere. This three curtain waterfall fell from about 30 feet into a crystal clear pool surrounded by extremely green shelves of moss. We were stunned just looking at the falls and then realizing that you could walk behind the water was the icing on the cake. It was like walking into a story book, I half expected a couple of birds to fly down and tie my shoes for me while a deer bakes me a cake.
After about 30 minutes of exploring around the waterfall and snapping pictures and soaking our faces and clothing in waterfall breeze, we decide it was time to depart once again. Little did we know, this would be the beginning to the REAL trip. At the beginning of the trail I snapped a picture of the trail map with my phone, and looking at it now it looks as though the trail is a loop and will eventually just lead us back to our car. At this time we are all excited, slightly damp, a little worn down and ready to head home. We trek on for about a mile when we come to a fork in the trail that was nowhere to be seen on the map, with no real indications about which way is back to the main lot where our car is. Around this time it begins to drizzle on us lightly, but were staying optimistic. Me and Rory decide to let the girls rest for a bit and head on down one direction of the trail to see if we can find any signs of where to head, after about a mile we find nothing but an old corral. Heading back to the girls we deduct that this must be the wrong way and that we should definitely get back to the car pretty quickly if we head the other direction.
At this point its getting more wet by the minute, darker by the second and the worry is becoming more and more real. We try to pick up the pace but our legs aren’t complying, they’re angry at us for not bringing enough food, for promising them a 45 minute easy hike and now already pushing them up and down hills and over riverbeds and rocks for close to five hours already; not to mention my girlfriend was nursing a horrible knee injury at the time. After about another 4 miles we reach what at first we thought was our parking lot and immediately start celebrating with waves of relief rushing over us.
No, our car is not in this lot, in fact there is only one car in this lot; an old van set up to camp there. We approach the van where an older lady is sitting in the passenger seat with the door open holding an expression of pure “go the fuck away-ness.” One of us asks if she could possibly help us and she rambles something in an unrecognizable language and closes the door to the van. We are completely petrified in that “all hope is lost” kind of way. I scan the blush red, sweat slicked faces of my friends as we all try to shake off the pure confusion and figure out what to do next. Just then an older man with a long white beard walks around from the other side of the van and asks “can i help you?” I have never been more happy or uplifted in my entire life. We ask the man if he knows where the parking lot at the beginning of the trail is and even though he doesn’t have a clue, he offers us a ride back to our car. His wife is not happy as he encourages the four drench, muddy, complete disgusting hikers to climb in the back of the van and sit on her bed.
We made it! were going home! Finally! After nearly six hours of hiking through the back woods of Wales we are finally sitting in a warm car headed back to the beginning of this insane trek, right? WRONG! As we reach the exit to the parking lot we are extremely disappointed to see that the gate to the lot has been locked for the night because it is now dark and the park rangers lock the gates at dusk. The man explains this to us and tells us that down the road a bit is a small village they passed on the way in, he wishes us luck and we depart once again to an unknown location.
After another three mile walk down a loose gravel road we reach a small village, and once again are hopes are renewed. Finally after hours and hours we have reached some sort of real civilization, but of course this couldn’t be the end. The village looked abandoned, no lights in houses on, no cars in driveways, no one, nothing, not a dog, not a cat, nothing; We stumble on through the village because we literally had no other options, no cell service, no idea where we were, we walked on.
Finally a beacon of light at the dark tunnel that is Brecon Beacon, and when I say light, I literally mean a light. We come up to a curve in the road and around the other side, a lamppost is shiny bright in front of what looks like a pub. Im pretty sure at this point we all were sure that it was some sort of exhaustion induced mirage. I give into the last ounce of optimism in me and begin to run towards the light, literally.
It is a pub indeed, and its open, sort of. The pub was pretty much empty inside except for two old couples sitting at a table with blankets over them, looking as though they had been there all day, every day, forever. The pub owner was behind the bar, staring at the 90’s action movie playing on an ancient television on the other side of the pub. He greeted us with a smile and a good laugh as we asked him how we could get a taxi to come pick us up. After explaining that taxis simply “didn’t come out this way” he quickly offers to drive us back to our car. We are amazed, nearly in tears, and starving. We decide to eat before getting our ride back to the car. The owner sits us next to the old couples enjoying what looked like many pints and speaking nothing but Welsh. Im not sure if it was the pure exhaustion mixed with slight hallucination or the fact we hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours and had walked nearly twenty miles or more but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, all made by the owners smiling wife. As I ate my platter of potatoes, turkey, sausage, and beans, while picking off my girlfriends duck in plumb sauce and butternut squash soup, I was sure that we had all died on the trail and this was heaven, and I was completely ok with it. After our meal the owner drove Rachel back to the car and had her follow him back to the pub to pick us up, it was around 11pm and we still had over four hours of driving before we would reach home.
We made it home in a daze, smelling of what I imagine old knights smelled likes and feeling like we had fought and killed a dragon. it was by far the most intense day trip i have ever been on and it will stick with me for the rest of my life. Even though everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong, I wouldn’t have changed a single moment.