In early October it was still possible to sleep out in a light summer bag and not feel too much of a chill in the night, one last trip before breaking out the winter gear and it’s always good to keep the weight down when you have a boat strapped to your back. A pre-dawn start had me arriving in Llanidloes just as the shops were opening, handy as one of the greatest cafes, The Great Oak, I’ve ever been to is in Llani, slices of cake as big as yer ‘ead. Surely one of the greatest rewards of backpacking is the justified gluttony, cake for breakfast is simply fuel for the hills that lay ahead. A vaguely planned route involved paddling the length of a reservoir before heading up through the Hafren Forest to the sources of the Rivers Severn and Wye on the edge of the empty rolling hills of Mid Wales.
The water was framed by autumn colours, haws so red they looked artificial, fire coloured grasses feathered the shores. A graceless stumble down the steep wooded waters edge was followed by inflating a packraft on an outcrop of razor sharp grey slate rocks, packrafts are made of tough polyurethane but I was cautious that catching it on rocks that felt like broken glass could have resulted in a tragic pop and a long walk. The feeling of floating away on deep water was a great relief. I paddled the full length of the reservoir on a warm autumn morning, the waters were deserted at first though I later passed a few members of a sailing club, they didn’t seem to mind me passing through and stopped to talk in the sunshine. I’d assumed, based on the OS map symbols of a boat and a fish, that the reservoir was available for leisure use, apparently this wasn’t the case. As I came around a bend in the water I was met the glares of about 30 anglers, all eyes on me, one spoke up to tell me that this was a private stretch of water for permit holders and ‘you can’t come here on that’ swiftly followed by a Royston Vasey esque “this isn’t for you”. It was a genuinely innocent mistake on my part, but they were probably right to be annoyed. I apologised and promised to stick to the edge and pass through as quickly as possible. What followed was five minutes of embarrassing awkwardness as I slowly paddled through a sea of shaking heads and tuts, packrafts on open water don’t allow for a swift exit. Around the next bend the water opened up in to a vast lake and the incident was quickly forgotten. The rest of the paddle was sublime, hours of calm open water surrounded by hills and forests. Maybe the principles of packrafting in the UK parallel those of wild camping outside of Scotland, be discreet and arrive very early or very late……and don’t start fires.
After coming to a pebbled shore at the western edge, I was on foot through tracks and footpaths the Hafren forest, tall pines making stole the views for a while and the myriad tracks leading through the forest made navigating a little more complex, the sky turned a bruised grey and threatened to rain but never quite managed to commit.The rolling uplands beyond the forest were made up of of sandy coloured long moorland grass and huge tussocks which made for very slow progress, the ground was soggy underfoot with few visible streams flowing. The plan of camping by the small reservoir at the foot of Pen Pumumon Fawr got dimmer with the light, it had looked good on the map, a high body of water nestled by steep crags but the October sun wasn’t hanging around. To the north, another body of water, Buglyein, shimmered and sparkled in the evening light and made itself an attractive alternative place to camp. I pitched on a nameless hill, walking almost to the summit to find a place flat enough to settle on. I could see the shape of Cadair Idris to the north west whilst the hills of mid wales seemed to spread out forever to the south, utterly empty of human habitation, no distant lights or noises. The only sounds were birds, calling and landing in the water and the sound of the breeze on the grass, it was hard to imagine a more serene place to spend the night. Morning brought a dappled sky and a distant inversion below the forest, I reasoned that this was likely to be the final camp this side of winter where it would be possible to sit outside the tent at first light and brew coffee in comfort without giving consideration to keeping warm.Before leaving, I explored the the lake, a wooden boathouse looked like it should have been locked but wasn’t, inside was a small but comfortable room which would make a good shelter in worse weather, it also housed a rowing boat for fishing on the lake, it was reassuring to know there was a spare boat just in case mine got punctured. The wide valley coursed by the Afon Hengwm led me away from the water along a track that shrank to a bridleway which in turn faded away to grass. The emptiness of Mid Wales was quite striking, it was a weekend and I hadn’t seen a soul on the hills. A sheep flock being herded off the mountain side broke the silence during a river crossing. The weather turned a little on the climb past the planned camping spot, the sun was swallowed up by dark great clouds and heavy rain fell in the distance. I walked to the source of the River Wye, nothing more than a trickle in the rocks, the view out to the east showed the course of the river as it deepened and widened all the way back into England.Further along the ridge, the River Severn led the way back through the Hafren Forest, the route was made all the easier by following the signposts for the Severn Way. The river guided a journey through miles of dense pine tree which gave a little shelter from the cold drizzle, the skies cleared and the temperature turned cooler as I finally left the forest to meet the far end of the reservoir. Paddling against the sunset on a cold Monday evening was a fine way to end the trip and to rest my legs, the water was void of cantankerous fishermen, the only other life on the water were hordes of noisy seagulls and the split second sight of fish breaching the surface.