Waterfalls

It was always going to be hard for me to steer clear of a road named The Waterfall Way. Linking the tablelands of Australia’s New England to the mid north coast of New South Wales,the twist and turns down to the ocean are regularly punctuated with a chocolate box selection of falls. The stops from west to east are a story in climate and geography. Commencing in a parched landscape of wild gorges and dry bushland, thin strips of silver white water spill off cliff edges and into unseen creeks. High plateaus offer wild flowers and cool forests through which rivers gather speed and depth to forge their way down steps into deep gullies. Moisture picks up closer to the coast, where rainforests form to offer crystal cascades and lush fern pools, and the water speeds into the coastal plain before mellowing broadly to the sea.

With such excess there is a danger of waterfall fatigue: parking up, strolling to a lookout, taking a picture and hopping back in the car for a short journey to the next stop. In fact, the waterfalls continue north in pockets of rainforest tucked amongst ancient volcanic plateaus all the way up into Queensland. In the wonderful natural surroundings of Springbrook National Park it is as if there is one final grand culmination before water sweeps over the Great Dividing Range and into the horror of a Gold Coast horizon. Plunging pristine water toppling over the edge before being becalmed in a complex of gaudy cashed up retirement waterways.

Tucked away before the Gold Coast looms, in the quieter western side of the park, another waterfall tantalises the traveller who crosses the border by the back way. Nestled within a beautiful green valley is the once more imaginatively named Natural Arch, replete with shady pool and shimmering cascade plunging through a tunnel of rock. It’s midway round a processional loop walk through the rainforest, where sun rays filter hazily through the tree ferns and parrots chirp away in the canopy. On a humid summer morning, the cool shade of the forest and continuous thrash of crystal water is the perfect gin ‘n tonic.

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What is it about waterfalls that are of such appeal that we seek to recreate them in garden features the world over? On balance they are usually very pretty, from elegant slivers to bubbling tiers and tormented torrents of foaming fury. They are, as much as anything, a break from the ordinary…where a placid river or lake suddenly comes to an abrupt halt and decides to throw itself over a cliff. There is an unparalleled feeling of freshness and purity and, often, invigoration from getting close to gallons and gallons of tumbling water. It can make you feel alive. It can make you want to pee.

The power of waterfalls is compelling and is why they are often best viewed after rain, or sustained snowmelt. Yosemite in May is very different to Yosemite in October. Postcards of massive gushing falls in northern Australia can tell a lie for the trickle that often dwindles in the dry season. In the UK, the weather is usually more reliably conducive to year round falls, with new ones springing up across high streets during supposedly exceptional but all too regular winter storms.

W_wales2013 was one of the better British summers and I felt slightly aggrieved to catch only the tail end of it. Nonetheless it was a balmy 20 degrees or so when I found myself in South Wales towards the end of August, on a different kind of waterfall way. Situated in the Brecon Beacons National Park, this literal tour de force was completed on foot along the Four Waterfalls Walk. For pronunciation lovers out there I can make your day by telling you that this commenced near Ystradfellte and took in a wonderful meander to view (brace yourselves) Sgwd Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr [1] and Sgwd yr Eira [2].

It sounds like a trite cliché (hey, who doesn’t love a trite cliché), but each fall (or, I assume, sgwd) had its own style and character. Each one builds to the next and the final stop on the itinerary offers the ultimate white water thrill for not especially adrenaline seeking junkies. For, at the curtain falls of Sgwd y Eira, it is quite possible to walk behind the voluminous mass of water plummeting down, and – for some – to take your dog reluctantly along for the ride too. Inevitably there is plenty of spray and you will get wet, but – well – you are in Wales and you will get wet in Wales sooner rather than later. Why not make it here and take the chance to really appreciate the forcefulness of nature. Why not take your ear drums to the brink, pleading for mercy from the explosive, monumental thrash of the gigalitres of water that descend before your eyes? Amazing.

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Like Wales, Oregon is pretty familiar with rain, confronted as it is with a moist pacific airstream and climatic battle between deserts and mountains. One early October day in Portland is restricted to bookstore meanderings and coffee shop escapes, ducking out between downpours to make it to the next warming hipster refuge. Traversing wet sidewalks through a tangle of black umbrellas and beige raincoats, the city seems enveloped in the cinematic monochrome of a film noir. There is oppressiveness to the rain, something which is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by its citizens but causes frustration to time-limited visitors like me. There are only so many lattes to sup and bookshelves to roam.

The next day shows marginal improvement – overcast but dry – and seems as good as it will get for an escape into the wilds. Passing the quite possibly interesting town of Boring, there are no views of Mount Hood to be had, rising Fuji-like out of the farmland and forests of the horizon as depicted so tantalisingly in the Lonely Planet picture. Brief glimpses are snatched beside Mirror Lake, with little reflection other than that internalised in relation to being potential early morning bear fodder. Further sneak peeks appear in the rain shadow of the mountain to the east and, here, the sun returns for a while to transform the colours of the fading autumnal forests.

With Mount Hood now somewhere behind, the road ends at the huge barrier of the Columbia River, carving a broad swathe through the Cascade Mountains and splitting Oregon and Washington States. The river has created a mammoth gorge lined with cliffs north and south. And so, with a large river system, significant rainfall, and high cliffs, there is a certainty of a quite spectacular run of waterfalls.

This particular waterfall way is undoubtedly a more developed road than that back in New South Wales, as dual lane sweeping curves follow the river in what is a dream to drive. Of the frequent cascades, it is Multnomah Falls that offers the most iconic sight. For once it seems a human element, an unnatural structure, has enhanced a natural spectacle. Splitting the precipitous double-decker descents of white water is a pedestrian arch bridge, where humans can run from bears and so effectively offer a sense of scale and perspective. Indeed, even the bears would look small opposed to the streaks of water tumbling from somewhere unfathomably high up in the sky.

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Finishing a convenient circumnavigation of the globe here I am now back in Canberra. There are few falls here, other than watery concrete features around the angular constructs of the parliamentary triangle. But in a couple of days I will be going up to Sydney and, with time on my hands, I will make it scenic, detouring to Fitzroy Falls in the Southern Highlands. An old reliable favourite, fed by a reservoir and plunging off sandstone into a gum tree valley. A lyrebird may well be imitating the sounds of crashing water and a strong minty eucalyptus scent will pervade the senses. Again, it will be splendid. Because waterfalls are always splendid. But for now, I must come to a halt and stop this gushing about gurgling water and thrashing torrents, soaked in a spray of swirling liquid currents and dramatic downpours. Because now I really, really need to pee.


[1] For anyone with a customised 2014 calendar Christmas present…this one is the front cover!

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Wales tales

Church Stretton. So says a sign on a railway platform midway between somewhere in the Midlands and somewhere in Wales. It has very little relevance to my whole trip apart from the fact that this railway line I have never before taken has stopped briefly in a town that looks so cosily cosseted in the Shropshire Hills that I want to remember it. And perhaps come back and stop and walk atop its hills and meander back through its vales to refresh with a pint of cider in a beer garden of an old stone pub with whitewashed walls and hanging baskets and the noise of contented sheep bleating nearby.

Cwmbran is the station sign at which I disembark, situated in the South Wales valleys and a landscape not without its own hilly charm and abundance of bleating sheep. It can also lay claim to having a supermarket on every roundabout, one of which – Morrisons – is swiftly visited for a few day’s provisions vital for picnic lunches and delicious home-cooked dinners. With me, Dad and Aunty Val, taxi driver and cook, pivotal cogs as ever in creating a fine few days.

Where there are valleys there are hills and it didn’t take long to get amongst them. A drive through a warren of lanes led Dad and I to a spot below a big hill with a Welsh name. This is where I refer to Dad’s Facebook pictures and check what on earth it was called. Twm Balwm, which means top of hill to catapult sheep at English. A short but steep walk confirmed its prominent position for attacking folk, with hazy views over the South Wales coastline, across the Bristol Channel to Somerset and Devon, and north and east back in the direction from which I had come.

Amongst this landscape much water runs and – in places – runs to dramatic effect. The next day, in a corner of the fabulous Brecon Beacons National Park, we followed the course of the Afon Mellte as it made its way from underground to plunge over several rock ledges, each as unpronounceable as the next. Anything billed as the Four Waterfalls Walk is bound to be of appeal, and the falls of (wait for it…) Sgwd Clun-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr, and Sgwd yr Eira provided a showcase of white water spectacle.

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wal01From our approach at Glyn Porth the cascades increased in drama, culminating in Sgwd yr Eira, a curtain of water that has carved an overhang through which walkers can walk behind water. Sure Jesus, it’s not quite walking on water but it’s the next best thing. The sound of roaring water over your head, spray peppering clothes and camera lenses, slightly dubious slippy-looking rocks, and small dogs reluctantly getting in the way all add that exciting touch of adventure. And hopefully this adrenaline can just about get you back up the hill for a tasty sandwich and the onward march back to the car.

Considerably less exciting is a stop in a fishing shop in Pontypridd, but it wasn’t too long and Dad got a few birthday goodies so all was still well with the world! Nearby though there was more drama of the Winterfell kind, courtesy of a couple of hours in Caerphilly and its castle. This had everything a good castle should with moats and ramparts and crenulations and spiral staircases up lofty towers and banquet halls and dungeons and catapults. Parts had been restored and renovated, others remained ramshackle, which meant you could really get a sense of what it was like back when Welsh people were catapulting sheep at the English and devious plots of intermarriage and murder were being concocted over a feast of wild boar and spicy cheese on toast.

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No such scheming over dinner, though the roast pork was a welcome substitute for wild boar. Extra potatoes could be justified by the walking earlier in the day, but I think so much was eaten that another walk was to be encouraged the following day. Especially after a tasty slice of cake and a passable coffee in Abergavenny in the morning, prior to a different kind of sugar high.

wal04A walk up to the Sugar Loaf involved some notable uphill drags, cutting across unruly bracken and withering woods, and striking out for the top. Up here, the slight sunniness of the valley in which we started was no more, with a windy, cool bleakness emerging with every step. The clouds were scraping the tops of the Brecon Beacons to the north, and only occasional hollows of pasture glowed with the rays of the sun. But this is high summer, and several other people were still in shorts atop the loaf.

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wal06Of course, the views were far-reaching and rewarding, but it was quite nice to have gravity on your side for a while as others battled up. Down steeply at first but then a gentle descent along a ridge and through an ancient wood, emerging out into some kind of civilisation with farmhouses and tractors and manure. Unfortunately on this circular walk the car was still a fair way around the corner and it suffered (as did we) from that final, unrelenting drag.

Still, it was something of an accomplishment with which to finish this short sojourn in South Wales. Well, not quite finish, for there was a rather large trifle to try and finish back at Aunty Val’s that evening. Already it seemed that much had been achieved off my bucket list – roast, trifle, upland walking, history, trips to Morrisons – in just a couple of days. Indeed, Wales offered a well concocted taste and teaser for the crème de la crème, the emergence into a blue sky Devon. I’m sure the main will be just as good as the starter.

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