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Cold water swimming: From the desert to Welsh mountains

Amr Madbouly in the River Ogmore
Amr Madbouly taking to the water in the River Ogmore near his home

The average air temperature in Cairo, like the average water temperature, doesn't fall much below 20C at any time of year.

So it may come as a surprise to find one of the keenest advocates of cold water swimming in Wales - where winter freshwater temperatures routinely drop close to freezing - is an Egyptian who spent his formative years in the heat and dust of a desert.

For Amr Madbouly, a decarbonisation engineer at the beleaguered Tata steelworks in Port Talbot, the sharp contrast is one of the things that makes it so appealing to him, and has turned him into an enthusiastic promoter of Welsh nature on social media.

"Somebody who's coming from a very dry and rough desert environment, when you see green it's amazing. It looks like heaven," he explains.

"When you have so much heat and sun in your life you long for cold and you're like, finally, it's colder now. I love it."

In fact he loves it so much he rises from his bed at home in Bridgend at 05:00 each day to go and plunge into a river or waterfall.

Amr Madbouly at Llyn y Fan Fach
Llyn y Fan Fach in Carmarthenshire was one of the first places Amr experienced in the Beacons

His favourite place is Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) National Park and coming to Wales was motivated by a desire to live close to its mountains and waterfalls.

Amr, 34, said he was interested in the "Celtic environment and nature" from a young age and started learning more about the landscape when his girlfriend, whom he later married, sent him pictures of the countryside near her home after they first met aged 17.

On finishing studying in Cairo, he moved to Germany with his wife and then on to the UK after Brexit, initially to be near family near Newcastle.

However, he said: "One of my dreams has always been to live near the Brecon Beacons and the Welsh countryside because I always found it very special and so spectacular with all the hills and the mountains and lakes.

"I found a job in the steelworks and was like 'whoa, that's the one'. I applied for it, got it and we moved to Wales. It's been about six years ago now and I'm absolutely loving it."

Amr Madbouly at Henrhyd Falls
Amr only goes into the water if it is safe, and warns people to be cautious with cold exposure

One of his very first forays into the Beacons "when I fell in deep love with Wales" was at Llyn y Fan Fach, one of a pair of lakes bookending a dramatic walk along a ridgeway in the western end of the national park in Carmarthenshire.

"This place is marvellous. It's an absolute heaven. This is an amazing place to walk, to enjoy the atmosphere. It's fantastic."

Another favourite spot?

"The Llyn Cwm Llwch by Pen-y-Fan is a nice little lake in front of the mountain and it's marvellous. It's really fresh all around the year.

"You've got to be very mindful and respectful of the cold water because it can be an absolute grace, a healer and be really good for you, but at the same time if you don't know what you're doing it drains your energy really, really fast and that's the risk."

It was the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns that really ignited Amr's passion for the countryside.

"When they allowed us to go out more, that's when I really started [thinking] 'I'm going to get out. I can't cope any more staying in the house'."

The pandemic also inadvertently entrenched a love of cold water swimming. After being vaccinated against Covid, he developed an auto-immune flare, later diagnosed as arthritis.

"I was absolutely devastated because my fingers are swollen, I can't close my fist, I can't walk, my vision is full of black dots. I was struggling with everything, getting dizzy, fainting, the whole system gone upside down," he remembers.

Amr Madbouly in Keepers Pond
The temperature at Keeper's Pond on the Blorenge, near Abergavenny, was below freezing for this chilly dip

Doctors wanted to put him on immunosuppressant medication, but first agreed that he could look into lifestyle factors to see if that could help.

"I kept searching and found a crazy guy called Wim Hof [the Iceman cold water advocate], and I started learning all the breathing techniques and the cold water. I was already in cold water before but this is really cold [in an ice barrel].

"I started doing that every single day and I started seeing the change happening every single day. I start going for blood tests and the doctors are seeing change and things are improving."

And it spiralled from there.

"I had severe depression and I became so much better in mood," he said.

"I can't imagine myself not doing this now because every time I'm not feeling well, or frustrated or down, maybe about the job situation, once I get in I'm just somebody else.

"I come out so happy, smiling, excited about things and that's why I do it."

Port Talbot steelworks
Port Talbot steelworks are sandwiched between hills and sea

His daily routine now starts at about 04:30 or 05:00 with "my little dip in a river or some sort of waterfall" before heading to work but he "can't pass the day without doing it".

One weekends he takes his family along with him: "It's something I'm addicted to. But I think it's a good kind of addiction."

He has recently started taking groups of people who have come across his enthusiastic Facebook posts to some of his favourite locations.

While happy to share this knowledge from time to time, he doesn't want to lose what makes it special to him.

"I always loved to go alone and just let that out and relax by myself without any human around," he says.

With the ongoing uncertainty over Tata's future, Amr worries about the possibility of having to move away from the countryside he has grown to love so much, should work require it.

"I'll be absolutely gutted because I've formed such strong ties with this place and it's given me a lot.

"It's given me happiness, comfort, it's been home for me as well and my family so it's very hard to think that we'd have to leave all this beauty and go somewhere else."