Lines in the Sand | Fat Biking the 800-Acre Dunes of the 'Welsh Sahara'
We head to Merthyr Mawr to ride the sand dunes once traversed by 'Lawrence of Arabia'
There is sand beneath my feet and a fresh summer breeze floating in from the ocean beyond. The temperature is a humid 23 degrees, and yet the beach a few hundred metres away is almost empty, bar a few dog walkers and their good boys and good girls panting away in the coastal air.
I am standing a few hundred metres above sea level after a short but exhausting climb, on the sand dunes where the legendary Peter O'Toole was filmed portraying T.E Lawrence in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ - the famous 1962 blockbuster which follows the adventures of the eponymous Lawrence, a British military officer, through the Arabian Peninsula during the First World War.
But I am not in the Arabian Peninsula. Not in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, or indeed anywhere else within the vast boundaries of Western Asia. I’ve not even had to flash a passport to get here. I am on the second largest sand dune complex in Europe, which looks out over a coastline with the second biggest tide pull in the world. I am, as any sand dune enthusiasts will likely have deducted by now, in southern Wales.
"It's on this dune that Sir Ranulph Fiennes trained to race the Marathon des Sables"
Specifically, I’m just outside Porthcawl, a little town punching way above its weight in Bridgend County Borough, at the Merthyr Mawr Sand Dunes, the largest in the United Kingdom.
We have just completed a fat biking climb to the top of a rather exhausting, suitably large sand dune, and are finally, finally, about to reap the rewards in the form of a tasty, sand-grainy downhill. If you’re wondering what exactly the biggest sand dune complex in the UK looks like, it actually looks much like a hill range, only there’s sand beneath the grass, stretches and plains of sand breaking up the greenery wherever you look, and all the trails that run through the terrain are made of - you’ve guessed it - soil. Only joking. They’re made of sand. Come on now. Keep up.
The Merthyr Mawr Sand Dunes cover a jaw-dropping 800 acres of Welsh terrain. No wonder they're known, rather romantically, as the South Wales Sahara. To put that into perspective, 800-acres is the same size as Central Park, the same size as 340 international rugby pitches, or roughly one-fifth the total mass of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego during any given goal celebration for Portugal.
The view from the the top of the highest sand dune in Wales and the UK is ocean and beach on one side, and pure rolling green on the other, split up only by the occasional pond or lake and the sandy trails weaving through the hillsides. It really is quite remarkable scenery.
The only dune higher than the 200ft-high peak on the continent of Europe is the vainly-named Great Dune of Pilat near Bordeux in France, which reaches an enormous 377ft. If the French have beaten Merthyr Mawr in height though, they’ve lost on humour. The Great Dune of Pilat or “Grande Dune du Pilat” may sound grande, but we prefer the humble title the locals have bestowed on their biggest dune - “the Big Dipper”. Simple. Straight to the point. Namesake to a wooden roller coaster in Blackpool. We like it. We like it a lot.
"Yellow, green and blue, like a giant Brazilian football shirt stretched out into a hill range"
And the name is a good reflection of the local area, too. Porthcawl is one of the best spots in the world for kitesurfing and catching waves, and there’s a handful of world class mountain bike trails within half an hour’s drive as well - BikePark Wales, Afan Forest and Brechfa to name but a few. It’s possibly because of this, and the outdoor culture that it promotes, that everyone in the area seems so laid back, welcoming and passionate about their trade.
We spent time with locals Marc Rowley and Hugh Murray in the morning and day before filling our shoes with sand. Hugh runs an award-winning surf school “open 364 days a year” - only shut on Christmas - and Marc deals in kitesurfing.
At the moment Marc has an intern in the shape of Yury Manzon, a talented young Brazilian kitesurfer who has, voluntary we might add, travelled 4468 miles to trade his home coast of Ceará Cumboco, in the northeast of Brazil, for the waves of Porthcawl. Yes, you read that right. Brazil to Wales. We expect local football team Porthcawl Town haven’t ruled out the possibility of an agéd Cafu or Ronaldinho making the same move in the next few years.
“It’s my first time outside Brazil,” says Yury. “But I’ve had some of my best days here ever. I was invited to come here and get some experience and it’s been amazing. People here are really cool, and the conditions here… when it’s good, it’s amazing."
Yury is a goofy-footed kitesurfer, meaning he leads with his right foot on the board and favours a wind blowing left. His hometown in Brazil has impressive, incredibly consistent conditions for kitesurfing - but the wind is always blowing to the right.
“In Brazil we always have the same direction of wind and the same conditions. Here I can get the wind blowing from the left, so I can go front-side on to the waves. I’ve had to learn a lot but it’s a great experience. The swell here is the best.”
Marc adds: “I may be biased but I’ve travelled around the world with surfing, kitesurfing and mountain biking and I still rate South Wales as among the best, anywhere, for all three.
“We’ve got big beaches that are often empty. They’re not busy like Devon or Cornwall. The conditions are really good. And then within half an hour we’ve got something like five of the top mountain biking trail spots in the UK and Europe, which Yury has now fallen in love with!”
Yury also saw snow for the first time in his life when he first arrived in Porthcawl. It may be his first time in the rolling hills of Wales, but it seems like it won’t be his last.
"If you do fall, you’ve got a big bronze pillow waiting to collect you and absorb at least a little of the friction on impact"
Back on the sand, our fat bike guide for the day is Corum Champion - both Corum’s real name, and one which would fit snugly into any self-respecting superhero comic - of Porthcawl Surf and Bike hire. Corum has a shop on the shores of Coney Beach. He’s got boards, he’s got bikes, and he's got the kind of atmosphere you’d expect from such a spot.
Corum has only been renting out fat bikes for about a year but has gone from strength to strength in that time. We start our route by rolling straight onto the beach. It’s seems from our first few pedal strokes that the day may be somewhat of a struggle, having to pedal twice as hard as usual to move half the distance, but thankfully it turns out we’ve just started on a particularly soft stretch of sand which quickly transitions into harder beach.
Corum is exactly the kind of guide you want when you're out for a good day. He’s left, come back to and loves the Welsh coastline, and it’s evident from his lax aura that he’s in it for a love of the lifestyle.
We turn off into the dunes proper after a kilometre or two on the golden beach. Looking out at the untouched sand and with the heat baking down on top of us as we go, you could be anywhere in the world; a fact only furthered by the scurry of sand lizards that dart in front of our bikes as the (never-gets-old-saying-it) Big Dipper comes into sight.
Corum tells us that it's on this dune that Sir Ranulph Fiennes trained to race the Marathon des Sables, an infamous six-day, 251 km ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert often described as the toughest foot race on earth. Thankfully, particularly given the fact that we’re bringing fat bikes up there with us, we only have to climb the Big Dipper a handful of times. Or as many times as we want to slide back down it on big, chunky wheels, to be specific.
And after a few minutes of recapturing our breath above the view - yellow, green and blue like a giant Brazilian football shirt stretched out into a hill range - we mount the saddles of the fat bike and make our way.
The Big Dipper offers a variety of lines, so, if you will, you really do get to draw your own line in the sand. You can head straight down the sand from the obvious opening, or take one of the ridgelines on either side and drop in at a point of your choosing. You can also pick up a surprising amount of speed, even on a fat bike, when you point those chubby wheels straight down the grains, and it’s tough to find something quite as satisfying as the feeling of getting airborne off a little sand kicker, knowing that if you do fall, you’ve got a big bronze pillow waiting to collect you and absorb at least a little of the friction on impact. We can confirm that this theory does indeed test out.
It’s a playful time, far from the ferocious rough and tumble of the nearby trails and downhill trails, but a whole separate experience and one which compliments the area well. We’d later ride the Darren Fawr trails in Bridgend on a more traditional full-sus mountain bike, a small but incredibly playful network of trails made of black and blue loops.
The black saps your energy on the steep ascent but gives every bit back on the way down, and we could ride the blue all day, the climb sloping gently upwards before releasing you on a descent of turnbacks bermed-out to the max and dropping you back at the car park.
On its best days Porthcawl can compete with anywhere in the world; not only for fat biking but for surfing, kitesurfing and more traditional mountain biking as well.
As I grab the pedals of my fat-wheeled new friend and hike ‘n’ bike up the Big Dipper one last time, I look out over the contrasting blues, greens and golds of Merthyr Mawr which once stood in for Western Asia. I'll be the first to admit that 'Stuart of Bridgend' may not have quite the same ring to it as 'Lawrence of Arabia', but in that moment, I feel every bit as epic as the famous adventurer. My mother always said I tend to let myself get carried away.
Do It Yourself
Getting there: We flew into Cardiff Airport with FlyBe airline, before getting a £3 train from Cardiff Airport station to Bridgend.
Accommodation: We stayed as guests of Olivia House B&B for two-nights. Numerous camping options are also available.
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