Another Sunday afternoon discussion in a pub. Two friends letting their imaginations run away with themselves. Wouldn’t it be good to just disappear into the wilderness for a few days? Go somewhere really wild, where you won’t see anyone, where there is no phone signal and no car headlights lights on the horizon. No fences, no rules, no measurement of time beyond the setting sun. And I’m not talking about your favorite Lake District tarn with its four foot wide gravel paths, picnic benches and cairns like stalagmites in a show cave. I’m talking about somewhere so silent that there aren’t even any footprints. Probably have to go to Canada or Siberia or somewhere like that. Somewhere with an expensive air fare anyway. I’ve only got a few days holiday anyway. Plus we’d be at the mercy of the weather – if it’s foul and there’s only a little tent for the two of us that’d be pretty miserable. Once stuff gets wet, it stays wet. In Norway they have those little huts where you can dry your stuff out in front of a fire. Yeah – I’ve seen that on Instagram. We can’t bloody go to Norway on Thursday, I don’t get paid till next week.
Rhayader is, according to Google, 2hrs 52 mins away from my house. A few miles from there is a car park deep within the Craig Goch valley. Under an hour’s boggy walk from there is a stone building with a sturdy, recently renovated roof, a plumbed in toilet and an excellent new cast iron fireplace. There are solid sleeping platforms, flowing water courtesy of a babbling brook and most importantly no lock on the door. This stone building, once a family homestead, is in the most idyllic of settings, has a light airy feel and is now free and open to use by anyone who wishes to stay for the night. Welcome to your first bothy.
An old friend and I arrived in that deserted car park on a beautiful April afternoon. Quick kick around since the tatty football tumbles out the opening boot of the car. It was unseasonably hot. And still and quiet. Where we were standing was within walking distance of four different bothies and we weren’t in any rush.
Before we’d set left Nottingham I’d been to that well known expedition supplies retailer ASDA and bought enough dried food to stay fresh and feed two hungry lads for three nights and four days. This was necessary because where we were heading there would be no shops, no pubs, no plug sockets and we were about to discover not even any real paths.
No pubs? Whisky is the best for volume to weight ratios – Talisker works perfectly with sore feet and an open fire. No shops? This didn’t mean it going to be instant noodles and coffee for the near future, oh no – my walking companion would be liable to call mountain rescue if the consistency of his just-add-water cottage pie wasn’t up to his standards. This was to be a tasting tour, a good food guide to roughing it in the wilderness. We’d cook on a two burner trangia amalgamation and use wood fires whenever we could, but more on that later. No paths? To safeguard against not actually finding these bothies in the darkness of mid Wales I was carrying a couple of maps, a compass and an emergency GPS device. To safeguard against our inability to use any of the above we also carried my tent. We set out our aims as we laced up our boots.
- Do not go inside any building except a bothy for four days.
- Do not buy anything because we already have everything we need.
- Do not drink all the whisky on the first night.
The first evening’s walk was short so I didn’t mind also carrying an ASDA bag full of fresh minced beef, bacon, tomatoes, red wine and garlic to make a romantic spaghetti for the first night. As a less experienced bothy user I was not prepared for the irritating task of having to carry the empty wine bottles for the next three days. Take note wilderness seekers – use plastic bottles that can be refilled with water!
The bothy was amazing. We arrived under a cloudless sky, with white butterflies flying in and out of our laden ankles. The lambs were so completely unintimidated by our arrival that they bounded towards us and proceeded to frolic around underneath our footsteps to be. Their affectionate bleating and prancing threatening to disturb the otherwise completely tranquil scene. Walking without flattening these woolly white admirers was quite a challenge. When I finally swung my bag off my sweaty back, sipped some ice cold stream water and sat down to read my book I felt like Jesus at the sermon of the mount – all these lambs hanging on my every move.
Red kites came, cried and went and the sun slowly moved across the horizon, dipping beyond and reappearing due to the gentle curvature of the landscape. The heat of the day had been almost completely stolen by the clear night sky by the time I turned on my head torch and went inside to get the fire going. We talked more rubbish and wondered if we would be sharing our accommodation with anyone else – after all, others were just as likely to turn up as we were. We were uninterrupted and the bolognese was as romantic as I’d hoped.
The morning was cold and we were heading west in the direction of the next bothy. There were paths marked on the map but we quickly found that this meant little on the ground. I suppose that a marked bridleway would at least mean gates to look out for but there weren’t any fences to put gates in. Nothing but lumpy yellow grass or water. Macro navigation using the compass but we were pretty content to go slowly. There would be nothing on TV when we did arrive.
We had carried plenty of wood to keep us warm on the first evening but planned on gathering more each day before we arrived, this would give us something to do besides quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films and comparing the attractiveness of weather presenters. Around lunchtime we found a load of dead wood by a little steam. We built up a little fire pit with nearby rocks and after dousing some cotton wool balls (weigh next to nothing and very compressible) in the meths that we were carrying for the spirit burners got a fire going pretty quickly. This boiled water for cups of tea and made up our pine nut and apricot couscous which we sporked in the gentle breeze.
The spell after lunch was very tough indeed. Where the morning mostly followed a lake and over a few little lumps the afternoon was a pathless trudge across deforested yellow grassland which was desert dry on top and boot stealing bog below. We were walking at less than two miles per hour and falling over a lot. It was undoubtedly the roughest, heaviest going place that I have ever walked in my life. We subsequently learned that the appropriate name of such terrain is babyhead.
The babyhead is formed from the destruction caused to the soil by deforestation. The rotting stumps are left decomposing and become tussocks of grass which are slightly larger than skull sized on average but sit about a foot from the surface of the true ground. The grass grows in a full 360 degree arc and disguises the true shape of the head. The terrain may seem like a giant steeping stone puzzle and that the quickest way to make progress would be to step from head to head. Upon standing on such a lump it bends, slowly, and in an entirely unpredictable direction causing the heavily laden walker to stumble. Instead the walker may choose to walk by placing their boot between these heads. One step, two steps and all is well until eventually, and this doesn’t take long, one foot sinks into a completely camouflaged bog which grips the whole leg tight. Joints bend the wrong way, socks become saturated and the sweat pours. In short, babyhead is a tank trap for humans. And in the Elan Valley it stretches as far as the eye can see.
On the map there was a footpath that led directly to the bothy but as soon as we reached the edge of the forest all signs of it were vanquished by the precious timber. It was a relief to read that nearly every other comment in the bothy book complained of the arduous journey through Wales’ equivalent of quicksand followed by hacking a trail through dense conifer plantation. It was longer than anticipated but we’d made it to the Moel Prysgau bothy and couldn’t wait to get that chorizo frying.
Fried choizo releases wonderful juices which spit onto the wood fire and seem to fill the whole deserted forest with an aroma so invigorating and compelling that it is almost comic. When these crisped nuggets are then mixed with rosemary laced smash and Parmesan cheese the result makes the pain of twisted knees slowly melt away. The Talisker helps too.
In the middle of the night it rained gently and a quick midnight urination gave me a sense of scale for how far away we were from anything or anyone. It was very, very dark.
The next morning was clear and smelled like damp pine needles. We lazily left the woods and shuffled up the forest road blinking away the dark night. I kept my eyes peeled for any nice dry lumps of wood, I didn’t know what to expect at the next bothy but the map showed it to not be near any woodland. It was a short walk so we took plenty of opportunities to sit down and enjoy the breeze.
When we arrived in the bothy we were very pleasantly surprised – flushing toilet, two separate bedrooms upstairs and even a plumed in kitchen. As I unshouldered my heavy bag, laden with scavenged firewood, I was pleased to see a stockpile of perfectly split logs the size of my car in the lean-to. We even had company – a London based kayaking club who were just a much up for a drink, a chat and a big fire as we were. It was a late night.
The next morning our luck had changed, it was a cold as it should have been and wet too. It was a slippery trudge back to the car. A lighter bag was offset by the additional water-weight that everything soaked up. It was bleak, but I felt like we deserved it. Back at the car we got changed into some dryer clothes and set off for the nearest service station. It felt like being abruptly woken up from an excellent dream.
It cost £60 in petrol to get to the start and back. This was split between the two of us. Parking was free.
We managed to pick up enough food for three nights and four days for about £30 from ASDA. We had hot breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The recipes were nearly all dried but the food was nothing short of delicious. Please get in touch if you would like any advice. I really would love to help!
Total cost for three nights and four days – £45. Bargain.
We didn’t really need any special equipment, an OS map and compass are a must however, you can get both for less than £15. I’ve also got an Ortleib map case and it’s just excellent.
For those of you who are interested, as a backup we took my old Eurohike tent which cost me £8 from Oxfam but didn’t need it. I’ve used that tent a lot – it does the job in anything but very high winds.
My bag is a huge Lowe Alpine one I got off Ebay for £20. It’s basic but robust.