Hidden deep in the Rhondda Valleys, up where the river Rhondda is just a tumbling stream turned red from copper rock, is a secret waterfall. On an autumn Saturday we set off with a picnic, taking with us the last bottle of homemade elderflower wine.
The first part of the walk is steep, up a forest track, oak, beech and pine trees gripping onto the sheer drop that falls away from the path. At first we can hear the tune of an ice-cream van rising up from the valley, but then we can only hear the song of the water rushing down hillsides, echoing in caverns under moss-covered rock. Up, up, up we climb, until we are in the soft hills above the clouds and we feel light, as though we are nothing but breath.
There are flatlands at the top, the path boggy and edged with bullrushes and heather, where the dogs love to run through the pale marsh grass. Then we dip down again, into a strange fairytale forest, silent, the trees dripping with soft green bunches of old man’s beard. The dogs pick up a scent and dart back and fore, excited. Raffi comes back to us but Layla and Mina disappear into the trees.
We call them but there’s no response. Then we hear barking, far away, echoing across the valley. We call them, again and again, more and more urgent, but then the barking stops and there is just silence.
My partner stays at the spot where the dogs disappeared while I walk further along the path, calling, whistling. The forest feels as though it’s holding its breath, nothing moving. But then, movement in the trees. Mina. But Layla is not with her.
Mina was a streetdog. She knows how to survive, and how to get back to us. When I thought Layla was with her I wasn’t so worried, but now I’m frightened. I check my phone to see whether any friends may be nearby to come search with us, but we are a long way from anywhere and there is no phone signal.
I walk into the trees. The ground is soft, bouncy with moss. The light is dying now and I wonder how long we can stay here before we go home to fetch torches and help. I’ve had the experience of losing a dog before, those awful torchlit nights spent calling, but that was in the city, not in a wilderness like this.
The forest dips down, steep, and then there’s a sheer drop to the river below. I don’t know how long she’s been gone now but as I stare down at the river a horrible thought starts rising in my mind and won’t go away. Layla, I shout, urgent:
And then there’s the sound of a twig snapping. Something is moving in the forest. And there she is, running towards me, panicked and panting.
It’s too late now to make it to the waterfall. So we go back the way we came, Layla staying close. We are elated with relief, repeating the story to one another, how scared we were, what might have happened. We eat our picnic by another waterfall in that magic time at dusk when all the colours become deeper, more intense, before fading on another day.