A trip down the River Dart: The Wildlife with Monty Halls (and Reubs!)
21:54 GMT, 6 July 2012
The weather down here has been pretty grim of late.
We’re supposed to be in the most gentle and benign part of the year, with misty mornings and golden dusks, so why, when I looked out over the harbour the other day, did it look like a monsoon in Delhi
Why are all the gulls flying backwards and upside down And why do I have to put on wellies just to take Reuben for a walk, my face spattered by raindrops the size of lightbulbs
Monty Halls at home in Dartmouth Devon
The River Dart transforms after the big storms, turning into a great, turgid, slothful leviathan.
As it has done for millennia, it scours and strips the banks of all loose material, spewing it into the sea in a series of eddies and whirlpools.
En route it sluggishly passes my door, laden with sticks and seaweed turning lazily in water as dark and thick as chocolate.
It was in just such a gap after the latest downpour that one of the local lifeboat crew invited me out kayaking.
Hayden is a paramedic by trade, and as such sees more drama in a single week than most of us do in a lifetime. Incidentally, I think paramedics are criminally underpaid – these are the people on the very frontline, who crawl through the wreckage to hold a clammy hand, who are first on the scene when the bodies are twisted and torn. It seems to me that if we value life they should be some of the best-paid people in Britain, not the worst.
'We duly set out as the sun was dipping below the horizon, with the town just settling into its nocturnal patterns behind us'
That aside, Hayden is a very good kayaker, and has the tatty, floppy hat to prove it. He suggested the splendid idea that we should paddle through the dusk and into the night. We duly set out as the sun was dipping below the horizon, with the town just settling into its nocturnal patterns behind us.
The street lights were beginning to glow, with the occasional babble of conversation from a soggy beer garden drifting across the water towards us.
There’s something particularly evocative about sounds travelling across water at night, giving them a tinny, exotic feel – even if the sound in this case is the ripples of laughter in response to a rude story told over a pint of Old Badger’s Behind.
We paddled upstream to the tiny hamlet of Dittisham, stopping for a quick half at the Ferry Boat Inn (this was, after all, a survival situation).
Turning back downstream, by the time we reached Old Mill Creek it was properly dark, the trees on the bank shadowy and imposing, reaching out over the water’s surface like dense rainforest.
This isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound – when The Onedin Line (remember that) was being filmed, they used this creek to represent the Amazon. It’s a tranquil spot of calm eddies and estuarine mud, the realm of herons and the occasional otter.
As we were turning to paddle home, Hayden suddenly gave a shout. ‘Wow,’ he said, ‘quick, turn your torch off.’ Having absolutely no idea what to expect – a crocodile possibly, a poisoned arrow winging out of the undergrowth – I did just that. And suddenly I was paddling on what looked like a comet blazing through the night trailing a fiery twisting tail.
As the flooded river had scoured all the nutrients from the bank on its path to the sea, it had created an intense plankton bloom. In response to our paddles breaking the surface, and the kayaks ploughing their furrow along the river, the plankton was glowing with phosphorescence.
This mysterious green light is a biochemical reaction to disturbance, and in all my travels I had never seen it as intense as it was on this river, on this particular night.
And so Old Mill Creek echoed to the laughter and shouts of Hayden and myself, our every paddle stroke a fiery footstep that propelled us through the darkness.
The lights of Dartmouth could be seen behind the headland, the unmistakable halogen hue of civilisation, as in a dark creek beyond the sight of the town we carved glowing embers in a river that had suddenly become a furnace, brought to life under our keels.