Tuesday, August 21, 2012


It felt like summer arriving in Britain, away from the admittedly receding gloom that characterises the final days of winter in Nairobi.  My first thought was of how nice it would be to use a nice, orderly, clean, comfortable transit system.  A thought which was instantaneously banished from my mind upon boarding the tube.  Hot, sweaty, noisy and crowded...no redeeming features there.  On the long ride into central London I closed my eyes and fervently sought to will myself into some green, pleasant, quiet land. 

And lo! Just a couple of hours later my train was whirring across the north coast of Wales.  The sun was shining, glimmering off the water and the mud flats, the verdant hills, the vales which could be seen leading deep into the countryside, and off the battlements of the castles.  For Wales has more than its fair share of castles.  Some perch almost out of sight on cliff-tops, others are buried in green hillsides.  And we passed directly beneath the rugged battlements of Conwy Castle.  No fanciful fairtytale castle that.  Its looming walls, defended by replica siege engines, were not built for aesthetics, but rather to overawe if possible and crush if necessary any army foolhardy enough to throw itself at the symbol of Edward I’s conquest of Wales.

But I was not visiting castles on this occasion, and so my train swept away from Conwy into Bangor, where I boarded a bus to Caernarfon, seat of another of Edward Longshank’s splendid fortifications.  Caernarfon was my staging point for the Snowdonia National Park, home to some of the most spectacular landscape, as well as the highest ‘mountains’ in the British Isles south of Scotland.  Like mountains everywhere, these ones are in the business of making their own weather, so while it was sunny in Caernarfon, it began to rain as the Sherpa bus wound its way up into the foothills, and it was really coming down when I arrived at the Snowdon Ranger hostel just after four.
The next morning it was still raining (rain being the defining characteristic of Welsh summers, as of every other Welsh season), and so I decided to have an easy day to get over my jet lag and accustom myself to the weather.  The nearest town was Beddgelert, and I needed some groceries, so I made the 5-6 mile walk in, picked up the essentials, had a walk around the nearby foothills, and walked the 5-6 miles back.  It didn’t stop raining the entire day, something I was foolhardy enough to assume boded well for the following day, when I’d be walking over the mountain to Pen-y-Pass in the pass of Llanberis.

However, when I got up early the following morning, it was still raining.  Nonetheless, as I proceeded to slog my way up the Ranger path I had no misgivings about making my way into the heart of the park to enjoy the fresh air and the combination of solitude that comes with the open spaces and the solidarity that comes from the mumbled greetings that frozen lips direct at fellow walkers as we pass, steps getting increasingly robotic as the cold and wind take their effect on the limbs. 

It was still raining at the summit, Yr Wyddfa, as it’s known in Welsh.  They say that you can see Ireland from the top of Snowdon.  If I held my hand right in front of my face, I could just about see that, and nothing else.  I took the Pyg Track down, and arrived near Pen-y-Pass just as the sun came out, banishing the clouds and offering views down the valley and up the mountain.  After a cup of tea, I went for a short meander up the hill and found a nice lake, set up above the mountain roads, fed by streams that plunge precipitously down craggy cliffs and then slow down on fern-covered slopes in time to hurry gently into the cool waters of the lake.  I waited until the sun was dipping out of view to make my way to the hostel and get settled in.  That evening I got talking to an English gentleman who had recently been in Zambia.  It turned out that the friends he had been visiting ran a game farm, and so he caught up to me on the road the following day on my way to Pen-y-Gwryd, and offered to take my contact details to put me in touch with them.  The only paper he had for me to write on was an invitation to an investiture at Buckingham Palace (for his sister, he said)!  Only in Britain.

This day’s hike (it was still raining, and increasingly cloudy) involved an ascent from an old Roman encampment to a ridge beside Llyn Cseg-Fraith, and then a traverse of the rocky passes and rises that constituted Tryfan and Glyder Fach.  One minute I’d find myself looking down at a lake, its colour as slate grey as the actual stuff that makes up much of the mountains, and the next I’d be walking alongside it, looking up at the next ascent.  It’s easy to dismiss the landscape as overly pastoral because the elevation is comparatively low (Snowdon itself rises to a mere 1085 meters), but it is vertical enough that an extensive traverse takes a significant toll on the body. 

My worst moment of the day came when I found myself facing the knife edge of Y Gribin, which vanished up into the mist, and looked much more than I’d bargained on.  However, I wasn’t going to retrace my steps, so I tucked my map away and climbed painstakingly slowly up over the ridge to eventually reach Glyder Fawr, which in theory should have offered some pretty spectacular views.  It was, however, needless to say, a bit fogged in.  The mist comes and goes with alarming speed, your destination appearing and disappearing, like some elusive chalice from a fairytale.  Fortunately, the fantastical similarities have their limits, and the destination reappears more or less in the same place where it was before.  Although certain parties might claim, in an uncharitable moment, that my navigational skills are such that the effect is more or less the same. 

I eventually made it back down to Pen-Y-Pass, where I had a cup of tea before retiring for the evening to read about militant anti-colonialism in Africa during the 1920s and ‘30s.  The following day I awoke and prepared to head back over Snowdon.  At this stage my mind and body were no longer speaking to one another, but the former was still sufficiently alive to recognise, atop the mountain, two members of a British school party that had stayed at the Lusaka Backpackers in Zambia while I was there.  A small world indeed! 
I made my descent, the view being equally poor, and rested by a lake in the bottom of the valley, watching the clouds drift across the sun, up the hills and over the peaks.  That evening, I was adopted by a kindly English family at the hostel who invited me to partake in a game of ‘Uno’, fitting entertainment for my last day of vacation before making my way into London, and thence, on the morrow, to that little enclave, the People’s Republic of Berkeley, where I am already planning a tour through the local culinary delights to reacquaint myself with Mexican food at Casa Latina, pupusas at Platano, Tibetan dumplings at Cafe Tibet, Thai curry at one of the countless Thai eateries, Cafe Med pancakes, all to be rounded off with a nice cup of tea at the Free Speech Movement Cafe overlooking the little Shangri La by the bay. 

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