“All kinds of people come to try out gorge walking,” our instructor Bonney tells us over his shoulder as we tramp down into the gorge, kitted out in a wetsuit, hiking boots, a buoyancy aid and helmet. “The other week we had two men in their 80s on a stag-do, along with the stag and his eight-year old son.”
We stop at the edge of a river. “Now, jump in there.”
“What there?” I reply with some trepidation. “Best way to start, just jump straight in,” replies Bonney. After some negotiation, where I concede this really is the only way to get in to the river, I jump. Nothing, no wetsuit, thermal layer or warm thoughts can prepare me for the cold. It’s 10am on a crisp October morning and the water, which has tumbled down from its source high in the Brecon Beacons, is a refreshing 5°C. I bob up to the surface, gasping for air as my body briefly goes into cold water shock. “Two 80-year-olds did this?” I gasp at a grinning Bonney as my breathing settles and I doggy paddle into shallow water while my limbs get used to working as a team. Thankfully, this first jump is as cold as it gets as the wetsuit does its job in trapping a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit, which your body keeps warm. It takes about three minutes to feel the effect.
Best foot forward
After a short swim, we’re out of the water and scrambling (rather than walking) along the banks of the gorge. Walking in ankle-deep water along the riverbank is trickier than it looks. “Now you may see me running over the rocks, but that’s because I have these on,” Bonney had explained before we set off, pointing at his swanky wetsuit/hiking boot hybrids. “But you take your time, and remember to place the whole sole of your foot on the rock, rather than the toe or heel: it can get slippy.”
He’s not joking – every rock seems to be covered in a thin layer of slime. “Try to step on moss, it’s surprisingly grippy,” Bonney calls back to me as I slip for the umpteenth time. “Remember, moss is your friend.” In this shady valley and Site of Special Scientific Interest that 230 species of moss, liverwort and fern call home, that’s a lot of potential friends.
Gorge walking, or ghyll scrambling as it’s sometimes known after the Old Norse word gil, meaning narrow mountain stream, is an invigorating mix of swimming, climbing, caving, leaping in plunge pools and, as we’re about to find out, completing a series of challenges in order to make your way up a natural ravine.
Our first challenge is the bridge traverse. Scrabbling for fingertip holes in the rock to support myself, I attempt to crab-walk along a ledge as a wall of stone juts out towards me. If we fall, which inevitably my friend Emma and I both do, we’re told to fling ourselves backwards into deeper water (which I can assure you, goes against every natural instinct).
More challenges ensue, one seeing us on our hands and knees perched 2m above a confluence where two rivers meet, the idea being to roll sideways and propel ourselves away from the rock, landing backwards and upside down in the plunge pool.
After another thorough soaking we attempt the aptly named tree root traverse, which I’m happy to say I find a lot easier than the bridge. With a helpful “I hope you like spiders,” from Bonney, I’m off, this time successfully scaling the banks of the river using the gnarled roots of a trusty beech for support. It’s almost as if the root system was made with climbers in mind – the twisted branches and knots make excellent foot holds and where these run out, we indulge in a spot of tree hugging to slingshot ourselves to the next ledge or use an overhanging bough to swing Tarzan-style over the river.
In between each challenge we’re clambering up waterfalls, wading through water that suddenly rises to chest height, tightrope walking along fallen logs and traversing along the banks of the river (in fact everything you loved doing, but weren’t allowed to do as a kid). Walking with the river as our companion is absorbing and at calmer moments I stop to watch leaves float past my feet and marvel at this lost world I’ve found myself in. That’s the beauty of gorge walking – discovering a secret world in the heart of our most beautiful and well-trodden national parks. Some of Britain’s most striking waterfalls and gorges are inaccessible to all but those who are willing to get wet in the process, and as I look up at the water reflecting on the overhanging limestone crags I can’t help but feel privileged to see things from this unique perspective.
For the intrepid, there’s an opportunity to investigate the temptingly-titled wormhole. “As soon as you get inside you’ll see light ahead of you,” Bonney reassures us, pointing up at a black hole in the side of the gorge. “Climb towards the light, when you get to the top I’ll tell you what to do next. I’ll be waiting to catch you on the other side.”
With these worrying statements in my head, I attempt the near impossible task of climbing up a smooth, wet and slippery rock into the dark. “He lied,” my friend Emma calls back from somewhere inside the cave. “It’s pitch black in here.” I help Emma by wedging her feet (once I’ve found her feet) to the rock, and she in turn heaves me up to a sturdier platform.
After pushing ourselves through a ridiculously small gap, we wedge our backs against a rock and use this as leverage to move ourselves onwards and upwards. It’s moments like this, in utter darkness when even the smallest movement ricochets your helmet off the rocks on either side of your head, when you decide whether or not you are claustrophobic. I conclude that I’m not – but I sure as hell can’t wait to get out of here. After another 2m of near-vertical climbing we’ve turned 180° and are looking down a 6m tunnel worn smooth by water to what looks like just less than a person’s width – a wormhole as it were – with our instructor’s face smiling up at us from the bottom. “The only way to come down is head first,” Bonney calls up helpfully. “We’ve tried it at every angle and head first is the only way to do it, otherwise you might get stuck.”
Head first it is then. I let Emma go first, then wriggle into a human bobsleigh position and follow a little faster than I’d hoped. Bonney does catch me as he’d promised, but I think even he was shocked by the speed I came out of that cave.
Glad to be back out in the light, we knuckle down to some serious waterfall climbing. Here the River Mellte falls 40m in a series of four cascades. At times the cold water beats down on us as we plough a path up through it or crawl on our hands and knees beneath it.
Taking the plunge
Beyond the waterfall we reach a ravine called the Lost Gorge. The water having gouged the valley deeply at this point, tree roots reach towards the still pools and the overhanging crags drip with vines, ferns and bright green moss. The silence is broken only by the sound of Emma’s hysterics as she belly flops into a pool around the next bend.
Walking behind a waterfall has always been up there in my top 10 things to do, but the reality turns out to be a lot wetter and more nerve-wracking than I’d thought. As we crawl on a narrow ledge alongside a 2m drop to the rocks below, the water tumbles down on our heads. Once out on the other side the only way down, as Emma so willingly demonstrates, is to jump. The frantic energy of the waterfall subsides momentarily as silence engulfs us and we enjoy the utter calmness of a cool, deep plunge pool.
Having prepared ourselves with these mini jumps, it’s time to head to Loonies Leap – a 40m-deep plunge pool where we have a choice between the 3m Little Loonie (which I’m happy to demonstrate), your bog-standard 5.5m Loonies Leap, which our photographer does to great effect, and the 7m Super Loonie, which requires a running jump. I’m reminded why I brought Emma along, as she cheerfully takes the biggest jump, screams, stops, realises she’s still falling and screams again, before hitting the water and coming up giggling. It’s the epitome of a natural high – and that’s what’s so great about gorge walking: it’s a ticket to ride on nature’s fairground. There are no climbing walls and ropes here; you get what the gorge throws at you and tree roots beat a climbing wall in my books, as does a rapid descent down a waterfall – even a rock slide headfirst down a very dark cave. But for me, nothing matches being allowed entry, if just for a few hours, into a lost world into which everyone else can only gaze in wonder.