The Wild Atlantic Way

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

After having trepidation about driving so many miles and for so many hours on what was supposed to be my week off, by far my most favourite part of the trip to Ireland was driving along the coast. For most of it we hopped on and off The Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 km driving route that passes through 9 counties and 3 provinces.

We only covered a tiny part of this outstandingly beautiful stretch of coastline, taking in places like Mizen Head, Bantry, Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. I will talk more about the Ring of Kerry in a later post, but for now I wanted to share some photos with you that I took along the way and let the spectacular scenery do the talking for itself.

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On a humorous note, my friend and I didn’t realise we had been following the Wild Atlantic Way until we had already covered part of it. My friend said to me ‘What are all those signs with the hearts I keep seeing everywhere?’ and I answered ‘What hearts? All I keep seeing is the signs with the waves on’. It turns out we were both mistaking the WAW symbol for other shapes.

If I am ever lucky enough to return to Ireland, and I intend to one day, my trip will be planned around driving the coast taking in all the little bits I missed on the South West coast this time and travelling further north to discover more.

Finding my ancestry at a kebab shop in Cork

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

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My main motivation for travelling to Republic of Ireland is that is where my grandfather grew up. My grandfather died when I was 10 years old and, although I spent a lot of time with him, he rarely spoke about his childhood or his family. There were rumours and snatches of information that had been passed from other family members to my grandma and my dad, but I didn’t really know that much about him. A few years ago, my dad decided to research our family tree to find out more. Considering I am a product of my family, it was no surprise to discover that they moved around a lot, and therefore it’s difficult to find useful information. We do know, though, that my great-grandfather was a cabinet maker. Although raised in Ireland for some of his life before they moved to England, my grandfather was actually born in Scotland because that is where his dad happened to be working at the time. One document my dad did manage to uncover was the marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, which detailed their addresses in Cork. With the information that my dad had already gathered, I was fairly confident I could find at least one of the properties where my family had lived. My great-grandmother appears to have lived just outside the city before she was married, although I was unable to find the exact address on a google search. I think I know which area she lived in, but I suspect it has been redeveloped, and therefore decided not to pursue that one. My great-grandfather’s house, however, is on Coburg Street, virtually in the city centre. Even with my ability to get lost anywhere, it was easy to find.

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I should probably let you all know at this point that the house my great-grandfather lived in is now a kebab shop run by immigrants, which by the way, my dad found hilarious when I told him. I wasn’t expecting to find anything other than a building, if I was lucky, and I know I’m unlikely to have family still in Cork. I was just happy to stand in front of the house where one of my ancestors lived. Coming from a family that has moved around so much, and had various scandals and tragedies that have resulted in records and documents being lost, it was just nice to have a concrete connection to my great-grandfather. I doubt he would have ever thought about his great-granddaughter travelling from Wales one day just to see his house. I really liked the neighbourhood, too, and if for some reason you do find yourself on Coburg Street there’s a cool little coffee shop on the corner that weirdly reminded me of being in Alaska.

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It was great to visit the city of Cork too. I hadn’t really thought about what cities in Ireland might be like. I would expect Dublin to be big, but I wasn’t sure what to expect with the smaller cities. Cork, like Limerick where we would visit later in the week, both seemed nice. They have everything you would expect of a city centre, with a nice atmosphere and a slightly more laid back feeling than other cities I have visited. Most of the tourist attractions seem to be churches, which doesn’t really interest me, but it was nice to spend time in both cities. Whilst we were in Cork, I also learnt that there is a district called Blackpool. I was born in Blackpool, England. Although I would like to think there is some unconscious connection between the two thanks to my family, I imagine that the residents of Cork also just had a muddy swamp they wanted to drain to build houses on.

Coburg Street is as far back as my dad has been able to trace that part of his family. However, purely by chance I may have discovered some more information whilst I was in Ireland. Towards the end of my trip, I went on a bus excursion around the Ring of Kerry. One advantage for me being in Ireland is that, as I have an Irish surname, it’s the first place I have travelled that I don’t have to spell it for people. The lady who took my ticket immediately noticed my Irish name and also that I am clearly not Irish. She asked where my family are from, and I told her Cork. She then asked if I was sure, because apparently my surname comes from Tipperary. I passed the knowledge on to my dad, who so far had found no Tipperary connection in his research. Who knows, though? One day I might be stood in front of a kebab shop in Tipperary thinking ‘this is where my great-great-grandfather lived’.

1,000 miles of new places

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Wow, I have had such a busy summer so far. I feel like I’ve barely had time to keep up with my laundry, let alone keep up with my  blog. We’re still only halfway through the summer as well, and I have lots more activities and trips planned. A few weeks ago I spent an amazing few days at Vegan Camp Out 2017. I initially planned to camp alone, but thanks to the magic of facebook I joined up with a group of other ‘vegan lonelies’ and we all camped together. Vegan Camp Out was such an incredible experience, I would highly recommend it to anyone who is vegan or vegan-curious.

Before going to Vegan Camp Out, I spent 8 days driving around Republic of Ireland with a friend. I’ve wanted to visit Republic of Ireland for so long, mainly because my grandfather’s family originate from there and I’ve always wanted to see where that part of my family are from. In the end, it was a random and slightly drunken conversation in a pub that got me there. My friend, who was born in Ireland and moved to Wales when she was a small child, and I were having a few drinks one night and talking about how we would both like to go to Ireland. The conversation soon developed to plans of how we could drive around the country and camp along the way. Cork and Limerick, the two cities where our families are from, were on the list of must-see places to visit, along with Waterford because we have a mutual friend from there so said we couldn’t visit Ireland without stopping by her home town. My friend then started telling me about all the other places we could visit, which meant nothing to me as at that time I had zero knowledge of the geography of Ireland. Everywhere sounded amazing, though, and I wanted to visit them all too.

A few days later, my friend turned up at my house with a road map of Ireland and I realised that this trip was definitely happening. Less than 3 months later, we were in a car packed with camping gear heading for Fishguard ferry terminal. Now, I have to tell you at this point that we didn’t pick the cheapest or particularly the easiest way to get to Ireland. Taking a car on the ferry is expensive, although there are some special offers if you book in advance, which we didn’t. If you’re travelling on a budget, flying to Ireland or catching the ferry as a foot passenger and then hiring a car on the other side is probably a better option. As we wanted to take our camping gear, though, we decided the extra spend was worth it.

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The ferry journey between Fishguard and Rosslare with Stena Line takes just over 3 hours each way and, for us at least, the sailing was very smooth. From Wales, you can also sail from Pembroke or Holyhead. I did have a small chuckle at the choice of film they showed on the ferry journey over. They decided to screen ‘Sully’, a true story about a plane crash-landing in New York. I wondered if it was their not-so-subtle way to convince people to stick with ferry travel.

I try to keep an open mind and not listen to other people’s reviews when I visit new places. When I told people I was visiting Ireland, that was difficult. Everyone was eager to tell me what a beautiful country it is, how friendly the Irish are and how much I would love my trip. Even people who had never visited Ireland before had something to share with me. Incidentally, people also told me that the Guinness tastes much nicer in Ireland (apparently it doesn’t travel well), but as I’m allergic to gluten I was never going to be able to prove that either way. After everyone’s rave reviews, I hoped that I wasn’t going to be disappointed.

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Thankfully, and probably not surprisingly, Ireland was everything I had been told and more. Although I’d decided to take my own car over on the ferry, I was slightly concerned about spending my holiday driving. I can’t imagine a visitor to Wales driving around the country for a week and then describing it as relaxing and enjoyable at the end. Driving in Ireland, though, was an enjoyable experience. It’s a great way to explore the country if you want to see as much as possible, at your own pace, with the flexibility of being able to stop when and where you want. There are 3 types of road in Ireland – national, regional and local. They are all really easy to navigate, and everywhere is very well signposted. There are tolls on some of the national roads. The tolls are only a few euros, but I’d advise you keep some euros change in the front of your car so you don’t get caught out like we did. Rooting around through bags and camping gear in the back of the car looking for cash while you’re holding up the other traffic waiting to pass through the toll isn’t the most fun experience. Unlike my fellow drivers here in the UK, who would have responded to being held up by beeping their car horns and getting aggressive, they simply sit back, smile and wait patiently in Ireland. In fact, I’m pretty sure if they saw you searching for change for long enough, one of them would probably get out of their car and pay your toll for you.

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We didn’t have a definite plan when we arrived in Ireland, just a list of places we would like to visit. We ended up taking a circular route south, past Cork, and down to the South West coast taking in Bantry and Mizen Head. Then, we headed further up the west coast to Tralee and visited the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry and Limerick. On our return to Rosslare, we travelled across country and stopped in Tipperary and Waterford. I’ll tell you more about all of these places, as well as sharing lots more photos, in further posts.

Useful Info

Return ferry for 2 adults in 1 car Fisguard to Rosslare cost us €405. If you’re taking a car from the UK, make sure your car has a green card and you’re covered for European travel on your insurance and breakdown cover.

Júrmala

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Thanks to the unique way that Ryanair flights are scheduled (ie when no-one else wants to fly), on my recent trip to Riga I arrived 3 hours before the rest of my group and left 7 hours after them. This equated to a whole day on my own in Latvia. The first 3 hours I spent finding a health food shop in Riga, and generally getting lost in various parts of the city. The 7 hours I had spare on the last day I used to explore outside of the city.

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During our walking tour of the old town with our excellent guide Tom, he’d told us about Júrmala. About 25 kilometres (16 miles) west of Riga, Júrmala is a resort town that stretches 32 kilometres (20 miles) between the Gulf of Riga and the Lielupe river. The sea side of Júrmala has beautiful sandy beaches stretching along it’s whole length.

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Only about a 30 minute train journey from Riga city centre depending on where you get off in Júrmala (I’d recommend Majori), the resort is very easy to access. And if you’ve been wondering why Riga is fairly quiet for a city on the weekends, it’s because this is where all the inhabitants are hanging out. On the Sunday I visited I think it was particularly busy in Júrmala as we were experiencing a heatwave. The beach was the place to be. As with a lot of things in Latvia, it’s also very cheap. I’m not sure whether I bought a single or return ticket (I asked for a return but the lady at the ticket desk wasn’t the most communicative person I’ve ever met), but I paid less than 4 euros. Back home in Cardiff, 4 euros would barely get me to the train station on the bus.

Júrmala is also known for it’s buildings. All the guidebooks describe the architecture as romantic and classical, to me they just looked like something out of an American movie. Immaculate, pristine hotels that have been preserved in their original style stand next to abandoned houses that would be a renovator’s dream. Both are beautiful and intriguing, and I could have spent a whole day taking photos of the buildings alone.

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Away from the beach, the main shopping street is buzzing with tourists and Latvians. As I walked along eating my sorbet (I could have hugged the guy when he said he sold dairy-free), I could have been back in Skagway, Alaska mixing with the cruise ship passengers.

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As much as Júrmala felt comfortingly familiar, there is also a definite uniqueness about the place. I might not have known much about Latvia before I went there, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to find a beach resort with such character only a short train journey from the capital city. Purely by chance, I happened to walk past a derelict plot that was boarded up at 4pm. There was a group of people stood by the temporary wall, singing beautifully. A sign on the wall explained that a church once stood on the site, and even though it’s no longer there the congregation still gather at 4pm every Sunday to worship.

If you find yourself in Riga and you have a spare afternoon, I would definitely recommend an excursion out to Júrmala. And if it’s a hot day, the dairy-free sorbet is a must too.

Riga

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I kind of have a split personality when it comes to travelling.

I travel on my own quite a lot. There are a lot of advantages to travelling solo. For one thing, I get to do pretty much everything I want to whenever I want. I also tend to meet more travellers when I’m on my own and make friendships, however fleeting, that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. As a vegan traveller, when I’m on my own I will try and get to every vegan-friendly food outlet listed on Happy Cow. I also tend to research destinations intensely, and by the time I get there I have a clear idea of what I’m going to see and do.

Other times, I travel as part of a group. This version of me is almost the complete opposite of the solo traveller me. If someone else is planning the trip, I barely know anything more than which flight I’m on. And sometimes I’m not even clear on that. When I’m in a group, I’m happy to follow everyone else and see what happens.

My recent trip to Riga was as part of a group. Other than it being the capital of Latvia, I knew very little about Riga before I went there. Our long weekend was kindly organised by friends I first met when I travelled in Alaska. They planned a fun-filled, varied weekend for 8 of us and they couldn’t have done a better job. I got to experience the culture of Latvia, learn about the history and also party the night away in some of the best night spots.

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One of the advantages of group travel is that I get to experience activities that I wouldn’t be able to on my own. Bowling, for example, isn’t much fun if you haven’t got anyone to compete with. Whilst in Latvia, we took party in an Escape Rooms challenge and also enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in a top spa. The two activities could not have been more different, and both would have been more than a little awkward had I been on my own. I think it was a good idea we did the Escape Rooms first, after one of the most adrenalin-fuelled, stressful but also immensely fun 60 minutes of my life, I definitely needed that spa experience. I don’t want to give anything away about the Escape Rooms, but our group did manage to escape with 5 minutes to spare :).

Over the past year, I have developed a new obsession whenever I travel anywhere. I have to find a free walking tour. For the price of a well-deserved tip, you get to experience your destination at an easy pace with an enthusiastic guide. The free walking tour of Riga did not disappoint. Our guide Toms was very entertaining and informative. He gave us a potted history of the city, and also Latvia in general, and showed us lots of points of interest in the old town that we would have otherwise walked past without even noticing. I think the most interesting part for me was learning about The Baltic Way. Although I was alive, albeit a child, during this event, I have no memory of seeing it on the news at all. To peacefully protest their right to independence, inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined hands and formed a continuous line through their three capital cities. If you want to learn more about this incredible feat, which was planned and executed in just one month, click on the link and watch the video made by a 6th grader. She does a much better job of explaining the history and significance of the event than I ever could.

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Bern

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Bern is the capital of Switzerland and, handily for me, also where two of my friends live. After spending a few days skiing in Engelberg, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take the take the short train journey to explore Bern and catch up with my friends.

As an added bonus, my friend Miles wasn’t working whilst I was visiting, so I had my own personal city guide for the day.

Built in 1530, Bern’s clock tower is probably it’s most famous attraction. It sits on the first western gate of the city, and isn’t just a regular clock that will tell you the time. It is an astronomical calendar clock, and while I admit to having no idea how to read most of the information on the clock the detail of the design is incredible.

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If you’re feeling energetic, a walk up the hill to the Rose Gardens rewards you with incredible views over the city. What struck me most is the mixture of the very old with the very new in Bern. Traditional Swiss buildings with uneven, sagging roofs and not-quite square windows sit in front of large office blocks while bright red trains shuttle back and forth. In the city centre, high end retail brands are housed above creaky, wooden cellar doors that open to underground stores.

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Thankfully, the torrential rain we experienced in Engelberg did not follow me to Bern and I had a clear day to explore the city. A word of warning, though, don’t attempt to tour Bern on foot unless you are feeling active. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of stairs. While they add to the charm of the city, you do a get a good cardio workout with your tour. No need to worry, though, there are lots of cafes to stop at for a break and a cup of coffee or a glass of beer.

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Engelberg

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I am very aware that a couple of weeks ago I teased a couple of photos from my recent ski trip, but didn’t actually give any details of where I was. Since then I have been super busy working on other things, and I’ve only just had the chance to sit down and share some more.

I spent 3 days skiing in Engelberg, Switzerland. Don’t let my photos of sunny, blue skies and fresh, white snow deceive you, I actually took all the pictures on our last day. Our first day on the slopes saw us skiing in some of the wettest conditions I have ever experienced. It took me back to my days working as a videographer in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where I would have to go out on the slopes no matter the conditions. It rained up to 2000m. Myself and my two friends I was skiing with were all soaked. And I mean drenched right through to our underwear soaked. When we stopped for lunch, we had to wring out our gloves. Visibility was also poor, I couldn’t see more than a couple of metres ahead and the light was so flat that I had no idea what my skis were hitting. Luckily, thanks to the ridiculous price British Airways wanted to charge me for ski carriage, I had rented skis rather than take my twin-tips. Although they were heavy to carry around compared to what I’m used to, a solid pair of carvers were definitely the better option. On our second day, the rain subsided but visibility still wasn’t great. We managed to do quite a bit of exploring on the lower slopes during those first two days, though. The snow was skiable, just hard work on the legs because it was a bit slushy (my calf muscles felt like someone was trying to stretch them and use them as a tightrope!).

Then, exactly as predicted by the weather forecast, the cloud disappeared, the sun came out and we got to see the beautiful landscape around Engelberg. As well as what was in front of our skis, of course.

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At 3,238m the Titlis is a fun ski area. Although the pisted area isn’t huge, there’s enough to keep you occupied for a few days. The area is famous for its off-piste skiing, although has had it’s share of avalanches. I saw quite a few people venturing off-piste, even when there were small avalanches still falling around them, but I wasn’t about to risk it.

Obviously not wanting to miss a tourism, and therefore money-making opportunity, the Titlis mountain is also home to Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Every day, busload after busload of tourists turn up to catch the gondola to the top and see the views from the bridge. There are also a lot of opportunities for them to part with their cash at the top station, including a very expensive Swiss watch shop and a photo booth where they can have a holiday snap with their favourite celebrity superimposed next to them. Most of the day trip tourists, ie not skiers, were visiting from Asia and seemed to be just as excited to have their photo taken in front of cloud as they were to see the actually scenery. I couldn’t help but think that if it was British tourists they’d be demanding a refund if the weather and the views weren’t anything but perfect.

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If you are lucky to be there on a clear day, the views from the top of the mountain are spectacular. And, from the point of view of the day trippers, I guess we’re the crazy ones for choosing to travel back down the mountain on two very thin pieces of wood with hundreds of other skiers whizzing past us.

Useful Info

To get to Engelberg I flew British Airways from Heathrow to Zurich £130 return (EasyJet also offer flights from the UK to Zurich).

2 hour train from Zurich Airport to Engleberg, changing at Lucerne, costs 44CHF one way.

I booked a bed in an 8 bed ‘crash pad’ at Spannort Inn for 60CHF per night. The Inn is right next to the train station, and they also have private rooms. There are no self-catering facilities, but they have a nice Swedish coffee shop and restaurant on the ground floor and you can pay extra for breakfast. There are lots of restaurants to choose from in Engelberg, but it is recommended you book a table to avoid disappointment.

The Garth

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After my night-time hike up Pen y Fan on New Years Eve, I was definitely up for putting my walking boots back on as soon as possible (or as soon as my legs stopped aching, at least). My wish was soon granted when a friend said she was looking for people to join her on a walk up Garth Mountain organised by Cardiff Council. For all the things we have to moan about our local council, we are lucky that they organise a programme of free events throughout the year. Part of that programme is a series of 3 hikes guided by the council rangers.

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At 307m, Garth Mountain is more just a big hill. ‘Garth’ in fact means ‘hill’ in Welsh, and locally it is simply known as ‘The Garth’. Only a twenty minute drive or train journey from Cardiff, it provides accessible walks from the city where you can enjoy incredible views over South Wales. We started our walk from Taffs Well train station. There are a number if routes up The Garth, and the one we took was a steep ascent with a more gradual descent. The path uphill was mainly stones underfoot, with steps cut into the hillside. We also followed the tarmac road for part of it. The route down was slippery thanks to the damp, grassy ground. I knew we had definitely taken the right route when we met a young man covered in mud at the top who was walking in the opposite direction to us. Sliding downhill on the mud may be a challenge, but it’s a lot harder to climb up a muddy slope.

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The weather in South Wales can be, shall we say, unpredictable. We were so lucky to have an almost perfectly clear day. On the city side of the mountains we could see the whole of Cardiff right down to Cardiff Bay. On the opposite side, looking up the valley, the skies were clear up to the start of the Brecon Beacons. And, towards the border, we couldn’t quite see the Severn Bridge. Some of the other walkers in our group are incredibly knowledgeable about the geography of the area. This really helped me as I’m short-sighted and I wasn’t wearing my glasses. They patiently answered my questions such as ‘What’s that white blob?’ and ‘Are they all wind turbines over there?’

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Experiencing adventures isn’t always about travelling thousands of miles and visiting other countries. Sometimes it is simply exploring what’s on your doorstep.

 

Pen y Fan: Conquered

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At 886m, Pen y Fan (pronounced ‘pen-ee-van’) is the highest peak in South Wales and the Southern UK. Amongst other things, it is famous for being the place where army recruits are pushed to their physical limit. However, on a sunny weekend afternoon you will also see family members of all ages hiking up the mountain to have their photo taken on the cairn at the top. Anyone in good physical fitness can tackle Pen y Fan, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking the mountain isn’t a dangerous place. One of the things that makes Pen y Fan an easier summit to conquer is that the road up to the mountain is already at a high elevation, deceptively so if you take the gently rising route from Cardiff. Only an hours drive from the city centre and the coast (that’s a short distance in Welsh driving time – we don’t really have motorways), you don’t realise how far above sea level you are. For those who have no interest in hiking up mountains, by the way, the drive through the Brecon Beacons is well worth a day out on its own and you don’t even have to step out of the car to experience the breathtaking views. Once you take on Pen y Fan, though, you gain more elevation very quickly and the weather and conditions can change almost instantly.

My first attempt at climbing Pen y Fan was about 3 years ago. We had endured a cold and icy January and February in South Wales, and it had even snowed in Cardiff (when you see actual snow in Cardiff, you know the rest of the country must be neck-deep in the stuff). In March, the weather changed suddenly and dramatically. The sun came out, skies were blue with barely a cloud to be seen, and most people were wearing shorts and t-shirts. One of my managers at work wanted to hike Pen y Fan as part of a training programme she was on for a bigger challenge up in Scotland, and she asked for volunteers to keep her company. As a non-native keen to tick another item off my ‘Things you have to do when you live in Wales’ list, I eagerly raised my hand. We parked at The Storey Arms, the most popular starting point for Pen y Fan. The first half of our walk went really well, and we all happily marched along enjoying the beautiful weather and incredible views. We did think it a little odd when two men passed us in the opposite direction wearing crampons and carrying ice axes, but we didn’t give it too much thought. Our route took us to the peak of Corn Du (pronounced ‘Corn-dee’), Pen y Fan’s neighbour, first. It’s one of those optical illusions that are common in nature that makes Corn Du look higher than Pen y Fan when you’re stood at the bottom. Although at 873m, there isn’t a lot in it. We were about halfway up Corn Du when we started to spot the first patches of snow. By the time we got to the top, it was like an ice rink. My manager still insisted it was fine and we should carry on to Pen y Fan, then she slipped and launched herself into my backpack. As I watched two black Labradors slide past me, desperately trying to get a purchase on the ice, I proposed we leave the higher, and therefore even icier, summit for another day.

So, for the last 3 years I’ve been dreaming of getting back up Pen y Fan to finish what I started. I could, of course, have just driven back up there on a nice sunny summer day and ambled up to the top with a packed lunch. But no, that would be far too easy. Instead, I decided to sign up for a walk up Pen y Fan, in the dark, on New Years Eve.

When you tell people you live in Wales, there are a few facts about the country they will relay to you. Some of these are related to famous Welsh people like Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony  Hopkins or The Stereophonics. Another is that we have a lot of castles. Possibly the most well known fact about Wales, though, is that the country is not known for it’s great weather. As I looked at the weather forecast on the morning of 31st December, in the vain hope that it would say 20° and calm, I wondered what I had signed myself up for. Why couldn’t I have just gone to the pub on New Years Eve like everyone else?

Although it is of course free for anyone to climb Pen y Fan whenever they want (and a surprising number do on New Years Eve), I chose to sign up for a guided walk with SVL Adventures. For the small fee they charge, you get a fully guided walk with people who know the mountain like the back of their hand and have lots of knowledge and expertise to share.

My evening started off in a very covert fashion as I followed the directions to the meeting point that our guide Simon has sent me (only people who signup for the walk are allowed to know the location of the meeting point). There were 18 of us in our group, plus Simon and two other guides. We quickly got our gear ready and attached green glowsticks to each other’s backpacks so we could be counted in the dark. I briefly wondered if said glowsticks had any impact on the number of UFO sightings reported in the Brecon Beacons. At about 9.30pm we were all ready to set off on our adventure. I’m so glad that Simon was there to lead us, because in daylight I don’t have a great sense of direction, and in the pitch dark I didn’t have a clue where I was. Left to my own devices, I probably would have just walked laps around the car park. Climbing Pen y Fan at night obviously means you don’t get to see any of the breathtaking scenery, but I have to say, when it is all lit up, Brecon is quite a sight from above.

Most of the elevation in the route wee took is in the first hour of the hike. Along with the fact that the first section was sheltered from the wind, this made it much more manageable for me psychologically. We took regular breaks, and luckily the temperature wasn’t cold enough to freeze my hydration pack.

After the first steep climb, the ground levelled  out a little bit and we started to walk along a ridge (apparently – I honestly couldn’t tell in the dark). Simon warned us as we were approaching a much more exposed section, and a few seconds later I was almost blown off my feet. Fortunately it wasn’t a head wind, so I did at least feel like I was still getting somewhere as I put one foot in front of the other. Simon kept us all in check with helpful advice such as ‘Don’t go more than two feet to the left because you’ll fall off the mountain’ and ‘Don’t panic if you see green eyes staring at you in the dark, it’s only sheep’. I must admit, after hiking in bear and moose country in Alaska last year, having sheep as the only wildlife to worry about at least ticked one item off my list of concerns.

Because we were such an organised and efficient group (I bet Simon say that to all his groups!), we had plenty of time to reach the summit of Pen y Fan by midnight. It’s surprising how many other people you bump into up there, I dread to think how busy it gets during the day when only sane people hike it. We all queued up to get our obligatory photo on the cairn, someone shouted ‘It’s midnight!’, and then after a quick rendition of Auld Lang Syne we all realised we were stood on top of a mountain in freezing cold winds and decided it was time to head back down.

We took a circular route back via Corn Du, thankfully once again using the more sheltered areas of the  mountain. We did have light rain on and off throughout the hike, but it was never so bad that I had to put my waterproofs on and my walking trousers were dry again by the time I got back to my car at 3am. Later that same day, a friend of mine hiked to the top of Pen y Fan and it was covered in snow. We didn’t see one snowflake whilst we were there, so it just goes to show how quickly conditions can change on the mountain.

Climbing Pen y Fan was an exciting way to see in the New Year, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting challenge. Yes, I did go to the pub on New Years Day, but I felt I deserved that pint of cider after the work I’d put in the night before.

Why I’m OK with failing my 2016 challenge

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At the start of 2016, I set myself an annual challenge. Sasieology is about visiting new places and trying new experiences as a vegan. This year, I set myself a target of visiting 12 new places and trying 12 new activities, one for each month of the year. And I failed. I don’t mean I missed my goal by just one or two, either. I failed miserably. But do you know what? I don’t mind, because one of the big things I have learnt this year is to not give myself such a hard time when I don’t meet my own expectations. I probably could have pushed myself to visit more new destinations, and signed up for countless activities just for the sake of hitting my target, but I would have exhausted myself and no doubt stressed myself out about the whole thing. Instead, I just allowed 2016 to take me where it wanted to.

There are lots of reasons why I didn’t achieve my aim this year. Back in January, I had a whole list of places I thought I’d go and ideas for activities that I could try. But then, life got in the way. I got a bit distracted by my new job, which certainly isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life but it is a whole lot better than my last job. I spent over 5 years working for a company that seemed intent on sapping even the last bit of energy and enthusiasm out of me. Now, I work for a company where my energy and ideas are encouraged and I feel valued and respected. And if putting more effort into my new job for a while means I’m not spending so much time on my blog, that’s a hit I can take.

And while I didn’t make many of the places on my intended list for 2016, the year did take me to a lot of new places that I wasn’t expecting. My sneaky friends got me to Amsterdam (not that I took much persuading) for their secret surprise wedding, and when another friend was packed off to Frankfurt to work for three months, I jumped at the chance to go and visit her and also explore Cologne whilst I was there. Then, I returned to Germany to meet up with some travelling buddies in Berlin.

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I also got the chance to revisit an area that I’d kind of side-swiped years earlier when I went skiing in Les Arcs and Le Plagne in France. Plus, I returned to some old favourites such as The Green Gathering Festival just down the road in Chepstow, and visiting my family in Austria.

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Although I haven’t got around to trying many new activities this year, I have signed myself up for some interesting past-times and workshops. Earlier in the year I learnt how to prune fruit trees, which has proved very useful in Plasnewydd Community Garden where I volunteer. I was also dragged in as a last minute replacement for a workshop where we learnt to upcycle our clothes as part of #LoveYourClothes week in Cardiff. They needed a couple of extra people to be in photos, but I actually got so engrossed with the vest top I was upcycling that I completely forgot the camera was there. Considering I was pretty much banned from Home Economics class at school because I kept breaking all the equipment (not on purpose, which my teacher understood, but still annoying very costly to the school), I thought I did quite well and I can’t wait to show off my new vest top once summer eventually arrives in Wales again.

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One of my big focuses of 2016 has been to increase my voluntary work, both by getting involved in more local projects and volunteering at vegan events. I flyered two vegan festivals this year. I have to admit I was expecting at least a little negativity from the general omnivore public, but everyone was lovely to talk to apart from one man who simply shouted ‘I love pork’ at me (clearly eating meat has done nothing for his articulation or communication skills). I am also part of a group formed to open the first library of things in Cardiff. The project is still in its early stages, but we are very excited and I can’t wait to tell you all more soon. If anyone in the Cardiff area would like to know how you can get involved, please let me know.

So, as you can see, although I didn’t hit my target of 12 new destinations and 12 new activities in 2016, I have still had a busy year. I’ve already got some exciting and new experiences planned for 2017, so please keep reading Sasieology for updates. I’d love to hear from some of my readers about your travels and adventures too. This is me signing off for 2016, but before I go I’d like to wish you all a very merrry Christmas and a happy new year wherever you are in the world x