White-water paddling in Wales makes for an odd sport. Take some beautiful countryside, the kind that’s peppered with hills, woods, oodles of stinking mud, gullies, the occasional walker, rocks, sheep, and an excitable rush of water, and then throw in some garish paddlers with their bright plastic boats.
The rugged idyll of nature gives way to a chorus of effing and blinding as a noisy maelstrom of hijinks, invectives, and bright colours flushes its way downstream, leaving a wash of soft eddies in its trail. It’s perhaps not surprising that fishermen of Neath valley try their darnedest to keep paddlers off the Afon Tawe.
Having awoken early and driven to Wales on Friday morning, Ivan, Chas, Stuart, Gary, Darren, Jay, Tom, Steve, and I were happy to slip off quietly down the river, leaving the local fisherman to remonstrate with our support team for the day, Mike and John, informing them the rainbow hues of our boats would scare the life out of the fish, if not the limbs off them.
Given the profusion of rain in the week, it was a little surprising when the run played out as a medley of scrape ‘n’ grind, mixed with the occasional tree, a 10-foot waterfall, a couple of fun rapids, and then and then an encore of scrape ‘n’ grind. To add to the excitement, Mike and John drove the length of the river, jumping out from bushes at every other bend, snapping hundreds of shots on their cameras like a pair of paparazzi.
It was a tidy day–if you ignore the mountains of sheep droppings that littered the river banks–and after a few hours paddling, we arrived at the get-out and decamped to our luxury bunkhouse just outside of Pontneddfechan. We quickly threw our wet kit all over the place, chatted with the landlady about her dogs, and then slunk off to a local pub to imbibe the night away.
On CAP trips drinking is a necessary part of the proceedings, and our first night was no exception to the rule. It’s the club’s way of giving something back to the community, paying something into the local economy in gratitude for using their rivers. Over a few hours we proceeded to show much, much gratitude, and just as we were calming ourselves down the reserve CAP group arrived, adding Jo, Danny, Pam, Ed, Keith, Gemma, Chris, and Jez into the fray.
This renewed gratitude continued well into the night. John demonstrated a flair for Mexican a-holes, and Adrian (the valley’s renowned cocktail waitress) dished out sex with a sheep, virgin pussies, and, if I recall correctly, a couple of cocktails as well. Staggering back from the pub the night descended into games of Kick Chaos Jenga, Humping the Kitchen Table, and all other manner of unique CAP perversions.
Saturday started with the requisite hangover and an amazing cooked breakfast by the CAP ladies. Stuffed to our gills, we put on our makeup and John headed off to conquer Wales, while the rest of us got ready for a day of paddling and walking the Afon Mellte. Due to Mike’s exceeding cunning and considerate planning, the put-in was but a short, ten-minute walk from the bunkhouse. Traipsing off over the fields we were barely out of sight of the bunkhouse when we arrived at the river. Unusually for CAP we were quickly on the river, and hurtling toward all manner of watery dangers.
Less than ten minutes in, there was trouble. Tom was in his boat getting humped raggedly by a tree. Since these Welsh woodlands don’t get much in the way of fresh chicken, the combination of brisk morning air and Tom’s youthful looks had been too much for this particular tree to bear. Tom was eventually pulled from under the trunk, and CAP’s very own riverside nurses delicately helped him out of his drysuit. Some painful swelling made it clear Tom’s paddling was over for the day, so the rest of us said our goodbyes before pootling off down the river.
Another bend or two, and it became clear that the Mellte deserves its exciting reputation. Faced with a big and gnarly, stepped waterfall, we portaged up and along some ridiculously steep woodland, before setting up some cameras to watch Darren, Steve and Gary threw themselves over the waterfall’s last section.
After Jay took a reflective moment to pull a perfect Buddha pose, we squeezed ourselves into our boats and were off down the river. Pulling ourselves over the occasional shallow, we rocketed down a couple of well-tempered slides, shot any number of nice rapids, and yanked our boats and our bodies over some zany woodland portages. In no time at all we arrived at the Mellte’s highlight, Sgwd y Pannwr.
Sgwd y Pannwr is a 25-foot waterfall whose vicious roar attracts walkers from miles away and on cue, a couple of them appeared who rocked back and forth in their climbing boots, foaming at the mouth, when we told them we were going to paddle over the waterfall’s monstrous lip.
As a waterfall virgin I couldn’t make much sense of the situation, but while on the one hand I was scared witless, on the other I was fuelled by an unfathomable urge to paddle myself recklessly over the fall. I watched the others sacrificially throw themselves at this goddess of the river, and it was quickly my turn to make the lonely walk back up river to my boat. Perhaps it was fear, or perhaps just water between my ears, but paddling out into the flow I felt nothing except a tinge of bemusement at how surreal death looked.
Paddling over a 25-foot waterfall is an odd sensation. One second you’re paddling along, minding your own business as you approach the noisy precipice, and the next you’re rushing through the air, splashing into the water and winding yourself rotten, although it all seemed to happen very much at once. I swam, but it was a victory; if I’d been wearing a wetsuit, I’d have had a victory pee as well.
The rest of the paddle passed in a haze. Some scrape ‘n’ grind, a few juicy rapids, and then we rushed headlong into the Mellte Gorge. We played at the notable Gunpowder Mill weir for a while, and some of us tried to drown ourselves in the 40-foot deep pool, while the experts looped manically like a flock of demented, bobbing ducks on speed. Heading off there were a few more rapids, perhaps another dirty portage or two, and then in no time at all we were at the get-out.
The evening passed in a torrent of drinking. One minute we were sober; the next we were peeing on our shoes, and slurring our words as well as the locals.
Sunday morning began with another grand breakfast, during which time the cursory hangovers made their appearance, and we listened to the girl’s stories of Darren’s night time antics.
For the final day’s paddling we traipsed off to the Afon Nedd Fechen, but try as hard as we might to will it full of water, all we could find was a trickle of muddy water, so quickly changing our plans we headed back to the Afon Tawe. Unlike Friday’s paddle the dour local fisherman couldn’t see off their hangovers to come and warn us about the inherent evils of kayaking.
Nonetheless, we climbed into our rainbow hued boats, and set off for our final day of sheep droppings, imposing rocks, waterfalls, soggy lunch, and all the river could throw in our path. We paddled hard, frolicking our way down the valley, happy to be in the fresh air, happy for our helmets to bounce off rocks, and happy to leave bloody trails of knuckle-skin in our wake.
Because while white-water paddling in Wales makes for an odd sport, it is, without doubt, the only real way of getting rid of a Welsh hangover. Perhaps that’s something we’ll one day teach the fishermen.
By Mark Easton
Photos courtesy of Jez Clark