Earlier this week I joined a press trip to get a new wildlife-come-sport experience being launched by the RSPB at its flagship Broadland reserve of Strumpshaw Fen. Starting next month, on one weekend every fortnight, expert guides will escort kayakers - whether novice or expert - through the tranquil backwaters and reedy side channels of the River Yare between Strumpshaw and Surlingham.
Wildlife really kicked off once we retired from the main drag of the River Yare, and headed south towards Surlingham Broad. Here we entered privileged territory: reedy, shady, secluded, luxuriant, dense and rich.
Waterborne wildlife-watching messes with your concept of time. We were out for just a couple of hours, yet it seemed like a full day. Perhaps this is because kayaking means you work hard for your wildlife - in terms of calories expended. Perhaps it is because the experience is so intense: being splashed with droplets from the paddle makes you a participant in Nature, rather than a voyeur. Perhaps it was because it was simply great fun. Highly recommended.
We were a motley bunch of hacks, ex-hacks and communications professionals - most with little in the way of kayaking experience. (Read Andrew Stone's account of the day in the Eastern Daily Press, with photos that prove I was actually on the water!) That wasn't a problem. Guides Hamish Wheelan (of the London Kayak Company) and Martin Rendle (head of the Active in Nature project) soon put us at our ease, gave us a safety briefing and offered an efficient teach-in on how to paddle and steer. Then we were off.
Sponsored by Sport England - which, says the RSPB's Rupert Masefield sees an opportunity to use an interest in nature to get people active, the Active in Nature is a meeting of minds at the meeting of the waters. Kayaking around Surlingham Broad and environs offers wildlife-watchers the opportunity to see birds and dragonflies close up from the level of the water. It also offers outdoors enthusiasts a neat way to experience natural wonders. And everyone gets a surprising amount of exercise at the same time (after six miles paddling, including a mile or two against the wind, I was more than a little sore).
It wasn't all about the insects, of course. The odd Marsh Harrier made an appearance, quartering low overhead. Being sat in the water made me feel ever so slightly like a Water Vole that might end up in a harrier's talons. Reed Warblers chuntered from the density of reeds. I had half-hoped I might hear a Savi's Warbler - after all, there do appear to be a few around in east Anglia this summer - but no such luck. Matt, RSPB Strumpshaw's assistant warden, spotted an Otter haul out - and closer investigation revealed confirmatory evidence: tarry, fishy spraint; web-footed tracks; and a discarded freshwater mussel.
The guided kayaking trail runs from 16 July to 20 September. It costs £35 for adults, and is open to anyone from age 10 and up. Booking is essential: for more information phone 01603 715191. Once on the water, the trail follows the River Yare towards Norwich before branching off onto Surlingham and Rockland Broads. The trip takes around 2.5 hours.
Sheltered by the reeds and little affected by the tide, this was dragonfly manna from heaven. Red-eyed Damselflies perched on lilypads, fighting off the attention of Common Blue and Azure Damselflies. Hairy Dragonflies scudded past, full of intent. Black-tailed Skimmers and Four-spotted Chasers each defended their patch... and was that a Scarce Chaser perched on the reed stem yonder? Yes! Banded Demoiselles helicoptered, ignorant of our attention. Inevitably, it was the Broads speciality, Norfolk Hawker, that stole the show: Ol' Green Eyes, full of aerial intent.