48H bikepacking through the desert of Wales

Testing Fjallraven x Specialized’s latest bikepacking kit on a classic Welsh overnighter

Words by Immy (@immycycles) & photopgraphy by @mattgrayson_photo / @panniercc

It is Wednesday at around 7pm on a hot June evening, and I’ve just arrived at Dolgoch, a small, squat whitewashed 17th century shepherds hut nestled deep in a valley in mid-wales.

I can hear laughter as I creep through the front door that has been propped open. It’s cool inside, with low ceilings and tiny windows. In the small garden, the group (whom I’ve never met) has gathered around a barbeque. There’s a flurry of activity; names, faces, hugs and a mug filled with wine and fruit pressed into my hands. I feel my shoulders relax.

I’m ragged with tiredness and frayed at the edges, but everyone here is so interesting. Stefan from Pannier, who I’ll learn seems able to create art out of anything; excitable, lively Monet who is interested in everything and seems wonderfully wild and adventurous; Katherine, who is warm and calm and makes space for you to breathe yourself into. There’s Jay, who is like that kid in your class trying to catch your eye as you’re getting shouted at by your teacher and make you laugh; Luke, who is helping Stefan and runs Outdoor Provisions, draws people together in his playfulness; Rich and Claire of Fjallraven - both of whom I suspect I could talk to for years and never fully plum the depths of their expertise; Matt, a journalist who feels instantly as if you’ve been friends with for years, and a second Matt - our photographer - who would process to flit with unbounded energy between us to tease out the story of our trip. When we eventually wander up to the dormitory rooms in the stuffy attic, my head is buzzing with the small glimpses of their world.

The morning yawns into a swell of activity, of questions about how we slept (‘not well,’ I say, ‘but I never sleep well’) and the busyness of a breakfast. We stand at the windows, toast in hand, looking over the hills at the swirls of midges and pull faces at one another. ‘I’m sure they’ll burn off,’ someone says.

Maps are unfurled; I pour over one with disoriented eyes before realising I am looking in the wrong section. Katherine traces the route with her finger, indicating bits of the route she’d ridden before. ‘This bit here,’ she points, ‘has the most beautiful wild swimming spot.’ The route will take us through the Cambrian mountains, following part of the trans Cambrian way and drop us into the adjacent Elan Valley trail as we work our way into Rhayader for dinner. If I complete it, it will be the longest route I have ever done on gravel. We have one last coffee, and everyone laughs at Luke’s outfit.

We set off as one, and I’m excited. I’m riding a Temple Adventure Disc in lichen green, and this is only the second ride we’ve done together. We’re getting used to each other. The route climbs almost immediately up, the elevation sudden and sharp, a shock to my body. My legs and lungs are burning with the effort, and my head begins to swim with the effort. I get off and walk, but no one seems to mind and they wait for me at the top.

We soon hit Strata Florida; a wide lime-white gravel road that descends quickly lined by pine trees. We kick up chalky dust as we skid and bunny hop downwards, racing one another and weaving to miss the deep potholes. At Strata Florida Abbey, we lose Monet to the architecture and Katherine excitedly points to the sky. Above us, circling with wings of deep fox-red buff and cloth-white cream are kites. I count one, two, three…five, six, seven…I notice that the air is rent with their kitten mewls, so loud that I’m surprised I hadn’t heard them before. I am in awe.

There’s been a problem with Matt’s bike and Luke and Stefan look worried. I’m not worried though. I’m sitting chatting to Claire, distracting her from the puncture she’ll soon regret not fixing at this rest spot. Our conversation meanders, and Katherine lounges back on the bench to rest in the sunshine. I like this waiting around. I like that there is no urgency, no sense that we need to be anywhere for anything in particular. The day seems to stretch out into infinity – the only time and place that matters is this moment now and how it will last forever.

A plan is concocted, Luke is sent on a bike rescuing mission and we head onwards. I very nearly miss the track to the stone bothy we’re eating lunch at. It’s hidden across an expanse of grass tucked behind a hill. I throw my bike against the wall of the bothy and collapse in the only scrap of shade I can find. The ride in has left me hot – hotter than I have ever been before – and dusty. My mouth feels drier than birch bark.  

Stefan and Katherine begin cooking on a small gas stove. I can smell the peanut butter, onion, chilli oil and lime as the flames flick into life. While the noodles are simmering, Stefan hands out scraps of notebook paper and tells us we have ten minutes to draw something before eating, so I settle into the corner of the bothy and draw a wobbly line version of the stone bothy surrounded by kites. Lunch is as delicious as it smells; salty, nutty, with a hot kick in the throat from the chilli oil. I go back for seconds and have, since returning home, eaten this recipe every lunch for a week.

My bottles are empty, so Claire shows me how to read the copper-coloured stream to filter water, indicating the fastest-flowing section, the small waving arms of the little green plants growing across orange-veined stones. I watch her wide-eyed as she talks, drinking her knowledge in. Claire is one of those women who can read a landscape through the way the wind moves through the grass, through the resilience of its insects and the shape of the sky. It’s a magic I want to harness too, crafted from years living alongside nature in an unofficial studentship, enthralled by every aspect of it. I fill my bottles and drink deeply; the water is cool and clear.

The afternoon’s ride is undulating and the views are phenomenal: Tall broad mountain sides severed by a tape of bright white gravel twisting along its base above a glassy reservoir. I’ve only seen scenes like this in magazines, and I can’t believe I am here. We stop a lot to take pictures and I almost decide to turn back when we come across a huge bull blocking our path.

We find Stefan again, painting as he waits for us, and he points to the reservoir, and somebody proposes that we go for a swim. We aren’t meant to, but it’s hot and we’ve not seen anyone in hours, so we clamber down the riverbank and slip in. I’ve never wild swam properly before, so follow Claire, Katherine, and Monet’s lead, still fully clothed. The water is sharp and cool but is not cold, and we are shrieking as we duck our shoulders beneath the glassy surface. I’m not brave enough to follow the others out of my depth, but Katherine congratulates me for giving it a go anyway. I’d told her earlier this was a new experience for me, and her pride in my attempts fill me with confidence. Stefan tells us the pub is only about half an hour away and we laugh. There is time and distance, and then there is Stefan time and distance.

The road to the pub is, thankfully, almost totally downhill, for which my legs are grateful for. On arrival, I sit on the hot tarmac and eat an outdoor provisions bar, the smell of stale alcohol and vinegar filling my nose. My mind swirls with the excitement of the day, dizzying. Waiting for our food, we paint again, using our beer to mix the watercolour and ask the couple on the table next to us which one wins. They choose Stefan’s, of course.

The light begins to fade, and we set off for the last 5 km to the campsite. My body is aching, but in a good way, and I’m feeling the heaviness of sleep in my face and legs as we snake across tiny country lanes and over a slightly terrifying rope bridge.

I sleep impeccably. I don’t normally sleep well in tents, but the sleeping bag is comfortable and I’m exhausted. I get up early the next morning with the dew on the grass and huddle in my sleeping bag on a bench and we drink tea. I make a huge bowl of sliced fruit for breakfast; overnight oats and every single flavour of outdoor provisions nut butter on offer. It is the breakfast of champions, I think, and eat it all in one go, hungrily spooning more peanut butter onto my plate after I’d cleaned the first with my finger.

The terrain today varies between quiet country lanes, and tussocky hillocky rutted moorland where staying upright proves challenging. As it was yesterday, we are up and down more frequently than we are flat, but this is where my temple seems to come into its own – I’m slowly falling in love with her.

As we turn back into the valley towards Dolgoch, I can feel the heaviness mount in my legs, and every incline feels like wading through toffee. I’m excited to find the swim spot off the main road and do my best to push ahead with the others. Behind large boulders we find a plunge pool, with clear, cold water and the group jump in, fully clothed. I catnap on a sleeping bag poncho next to Claire, a warm breeze playing along my back.  When I wake, I can see the sky has deepened into a blue black in the distance and I can smell rain.

We decide to push on the final few miles up devil’s staircase – an absurdly steep, but unbelievably beautiful series of hairpin switchbacks - to beat the downpour. The group thins as we all take it at our own pace, faster riders dancing up the elevation with ease. I’m one of the last, pushing my bike through burning calves and aching shoulders up the near vertical face of the black tarmac.

At the top of the staircase, I find I am alone, and the sky breaks open with fat, warm drops of rain, and the smell of crushed ferns and wet asphalt fill my nose. The valley unravels before me, deep shades of dazzling moss and emerald greens heightened by rain. In the middle sits Dolgoch, white face huddled against the elements, and I can see small colourful smudges of the group racing down the gravel track. I sit here for a few moments and watch. It’s a beautiful place to be.


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