Unleashing the Adventurous Spirit: A Journey through Wales’s Cambrian Mountains

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This composition has been created in collaboration with National Geographic Traveller (UK).

At some point, I began using the term “exotic” to depict the Welsh uplands, although more commonly they’re described as desolate, barren, and windswept. However, on this day, so close to the summer solstice, with weeks of unbroken sunshine, the scene in the Cambrian Mountains resembles an African landscape, evoking memories of the uplands in Kenya. The River Elan lies far below, its edges lined with vibrant trails where algae has solidified on the rocks, turning them an almost salt-white. The slopes display shades of tan and umber. In the heat haze, the horizon undulates and shifts. Replace the usual sheep with antelopes, and you might easily believe you’ve wandered far from this place.

This is a miniature wilderness within a small country, uncharted yet always within reach of civilization. I’m tracing a scarcely discernible animal path through knee-high grass and patches of dried-out bog, heading north without a specific destination, driven by the curiosity to uncover what lies beyond the next summit. This experience greatly differs from my initial foray into the Welsh hills when I moved here two decades ago. During that walk, the day felt like prolonged twilight, with mist swirling in the wind. Within a few steps from the road, I found myself disoriented. I followed an ascending trail and halted by a partially collapsed stack of stones. The silence engulfed me, and I had never encountered such apparent emptiness before.

Listening is akin to observing—greater focus reveals more. However, in that place, I could only discern the faint cry of a distant buzzard. After years of urban life, the void frightened me. Then, the mist drifted away, revealing a stretch of sky that filled with lapwings. To me, these birds are the most remarkable on these islands, comparable to the hummingbirds of the Americas or Africa’s hornbills and turacos. The sky closed as swiftly as it had opened, and the lapwings vanished. Yet, moments later, I encountered a curlew for the first time, its uniquely trailing call as enchanting as its remarkably long beak. I was captivated.

Since then, I’ve been traversing these hills nearly every day, observing and listening. The Cambrian Mountains have become my focal point, particularly the peaks encircling the Aberystwyth mountain road. This road condenses all of Wales’ landscapes into a few meandering miles: rivers strewn with boulders, cascading waterfalls, farms enclosed by stone walls, oak forests, and wilderness reclaiming industrial ruins.

I’ve observed the spectral forms of barn owls hunting above hedgerows, stealthily approached herds of mountain ponies—often too closely, causing them to startle and gallop away as they caught the sound of my footsteps. I’ve witnessed elderly farmers returning home after dusk, carrying ailing sheep in their arms. Their lives are intricately intertwined with their animals, reminiscent of the tribespeople I once saw tending to their cattle while elephants tore into trees in the Maasai Mara. Nearby, lions lounged on a rock, seemingly disinterested in a herd of scrawny cows and their lone guardian armed with just a spear. Welsh farmers don’t need to shield their animals from large predators anymore. Wolves once roamed these lands, but now they remain only in place names, one of the many losses in the Welsh terrain.

It takes merely an hour to traverse this small wilderness, from the undulating whaleback formations of the Elan Valley to the precipitously steep cliffs overlooking the River Wye. This waterway links the elevated places I cherish, from Plynlimon to the Black Mountains. I’ve listened to the melodies of skylarks and meadow pipits, watched the movements of wagtails and wheatears. Perched atop Moelfryn, I’ve witnessed storms gather and disperse on the opposite side of the valley, with ravens riding the updrafts. The term “exotic” originally referred to something “from another country,” which seems fitting. It’s the sensation that envelops me in these solitary hills, where my imagination takes flight. I’m both distant and at home.

Originally featured in the September 2023 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about wilderness exploration

What are the Cambrian Mountains known for?

The Cambrian Mountains are renowned for their remote wilderness, unique landscapes, and captivating wildlife, offering a haven for nature enthusiasts and explorers.

How does the author describe the Welsh uplands?

The author uses words like “lonely,” “barren,” and “windswept,” but also unexpectedly terms them “exotic,” especially under the influence of summer sunshine.

How does the author’s perception of the landscape change over time?

Initially finding emptiness unsettling, the author’s appreciation deepens through encounters with distinctive birds like lapwings and curlews, ultimately falling in love with the wilderness.

What does the author observe while exploring the Cambrian Mountains?

The author watches barn owls, mountain ponies, and even elderly farmers carrying sheep. These experiences highlight the close connection between humans and animals in this rugged terrain.

What role does twilight play in the author’s experiences?

Twilight, a time of appearances and disappearances, becomes significant. It’s not just a natural phenomenon but a theme that shapes the author’s observations and emotional connection to the land.

What does the term “exotic” mean to the author in this context?

The author describes the Welsh hills as “exotic” due to the unique and unfamiliar feelings they evoke, akin to being in a foreign land, even though they’re still within the author’s home country.

How has the author’s relationship with the Cambrian Mountains evolved?

From initially using terms like “lonely” to describing them as “exotic,” the author’s connection has deepened over time, turning into a daily practice of exploration and discovery.

How does the author’s description of wildlife in the Cambrian Mountains compare to other places?

The author draws parallels between the lapwings of Wales and other exotic birds like hummingbirds and hornbills found in other regions, highlighting the specialness of these species.

What significance does the term “twilight” hold in the author’s experiences?

“Twilight,” meaning “two lights,” symbolizes the time when the author witnesses both the fading light of day and the emergence of stars, mirroring the transitions in the landscape.

How does the author reconcile being “far away” yet “home”?

The author feels a paradoxical sense of being both distant and at home in the Cambrian Mountains, as the wilderness sparks the imagination while remaining a part of their familiar landscape.

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