It’s 55 hours from 7pm Friday to midnight Sunday. Enough time to flip a weekend of chores into two days exploring what lies beyond your front door. Sarah Leighton found the love of bikepacking with her Sonder Camino.
There’s something extremely satisfying about packing everything I need for a few days outdoors, and heading straight out from my front door. It reminds me of being a kid, when every bike ride was a real adventure. At the end of October, I plotted a 2 night bikepacking route from my doorstep in Cardiff city, to explore the Welsh valleys and the Gower Peninsula. This was my first time bikepacking on the Camino, with my only previous bikepacking experience being a couple of one-nighters on my road bike. My main issue is that I’m not a lightweight packer, more of a ‘just in caser.’ In my head, I had an image of everything being neatly tucked into a seat pack, frame bag, and handlebar bag. The reality however, proved much harder to achieve. So I accepted that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and put the surplus bits into a small backpack, with the intention of seeing how I could improve things when I was on my way. I’ll often agonise over decisions in the house, but once I’m out and immersed in the adventure, things become clear. It’s like learning on the job, not just reading the manual.
Cycling past Saturday shoppers
We’re fortunate to have a pretty good network of cycle routes in South Wales, which makes route planning a little easier by giving you a place to start. I’d planned the rest of the route around 2 places that I wanted to camp. So I headed out of the city following the River Taff, on cycle route 8. It’s quite funny to be all kitted up ready for an adventure, whilst cycling past Saturday shoppers. As soon as I’d left the city though, an overwhelming feeling of excitement hit me. The bike riding child was free, ready to explore, with nothing weighing her down (apart from the backpack of surplus items of course). I headed up into the Welsh valleys, where forestry tracks skirt the edges of the hills, looking down on the many mining towns nestled on the valley floors. The weather played ball, and although there were some ominous looking clouds around, I felt only a few specks of rain. I’d given myself plenty of time to get to the camp spot for my first night, with the first day only totalling around 60km (a hilly 60km though I will say!) It was all pretty easy riding in terms of terrain, with only the very last 500m requiring a bit more concentration to avoid stacking it before dinner.
The bright lights of the Welsh Valleys
I had a restful night in the tent, with the autumn darkness being the perfect setting for a chilled evening. The stars shone bright and I hoped for a good sunrise, because I’d purposely picked a very pleasing east facing view in anticipation. The sunrise wasn’t ground breaking, but the view still had me drinking my coffee with a smile. With a full day of riding ahead of me, I stirred up 2 sachets of porridge with peanut butter, and set about repacking the bike. Looking for any improvements I could make, I managed to redeploy my tent poles to a new and improved location. Bingo. This was exactly what I’d hoped would happen, and for what seemed like quite a small improvement, my level of smugness was through the roof.
The south side of the Neath valley, descending towards Neath, offered incredible views as I blasted my way down gravel tracks with wind turbines towering above. The terrain changing from gravel, to hillside paths, and eventually to the canal path that runs alongside the Neath canal. A quiet path, or at least it was on this day, which runs all the way to the M4 motorway. After successfully negotiating the extremely low bridges across the canal path without losing my head (literally), I made my way to Swansea, in anticipation of a much needed café stop. I’d taken a bike lock with me for fear that I’d not be able to stop anywhere for food with no one to watch the bike. As it turned out, I didn’t need the lock, as there’s a great café on the cycle path that appeared to be popular with cyclists. Glass fronted and easy to keep an eye on your bike whilst you order, before sitting outside. But most importantly, it had incredible cakes. I had a Galaxy blondie, in case you’re wondering.
From moorland to cliff tops
The sun came out as I cycled alongside Swansea Bay. I headed on towards the Gower Peninsula, famed for becoming the UK’s first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I took inspiration for this from a route I’d found on Bikepacking.com, and following that I quickly turned off the road to cross a section of moorland. From moorland to cliff top coastal path, and then the real challenge. A hike-a-bike section across the sand dunes. I had the time of my life! I spent way too long going back up the biggest sand dunes to get another shot, falling into ferns, and then doing it all again. I didn’t want to leave, but equally I still had a way to go to my second camp location. So I powered on, pushing hard to get to the top of a hill at the centre of the peninsula for sunset. From here, I rode farm lanes and fields at dusk, finally getting to the top of the hill that overlooks Rhossili Bay at the end of the peninsula, just as it turned dark. The camp spot that I had high hopes of being truly epic, turned out to be a little over populated, not by people though. Wild horses roam the hill, and they’re not the best campsite friends. And although I’m a lover of all creatures great and hooved, I’m not a fan of their galloping hooves thundering past my tent, literally inches away. I had visions of one tripping and flattening me, so I spent all night running out of my tent every hour, yelling like a maniac. I half expected to see a news article the next day reporting strange noises heard coming from Rhossili hill. There are burial chambers on the hill, and the remains of a World War II radar station, so I could see a good story in that. The next morning, I could see the storm that was forecast approaching, so made a speedy descent to get breakfast in a village pub. The heavens opened as I made my way back to Swansea via moorland, hills, and woodland paths. My plan was to get a train from Swansea back to Cardiff, and as I rode towards the city I questioned how muddy was too muddy to get on a train. But I figured they’d probably seen worse, and there was only one way to find out. No one batted an eyelid at the mud caked drowned rat on the train, as I sat and pondered when I could next do this all over again.