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Exploring the Broads after dark in a wide, stable kayak is a magical experience, says Jonathan Manning
Sunset over Hickling Broad – image supplied by Alamy
The embers of a pink sunset have fallen below the horizon as I climb off the wooden jetty and into the rear seat of a two-man kayak. We’re floating below heavy rain clouds, but a brisk breeze offers the faint possibility that the sky will clear to reveal a galaxy of sparkling stars. There’s a new moon (the opposite of a full moon) and without a bright, white disc in the firmament, the stars should twinkle like diamonds on black velvet.
Our embarkation point, on a narrow side channel of the Broads, is the gateway to a vast waterland, an interconnected network of streams, rivers and drainage dykes, punctuated by more than 60 lakes. In all there are more than 125 miles of waterway across Norfolk and Suffolk for yachts and motor cruisers to explore, but take to the water in a shallow-hulled kayak and the opportunities increase exponentially.
With few distinguishing features above the reed beds, however, navigation is far from straightforward, and in the pitch black of night the challenge of finding your way, and more importantly, finding your way home, is even more difficult.
Fortunately, we’re illuminated like aircraft, a green light on the right shoulder and red light on the left, so our guide, Aran, can keep an eye on us and, “check you’re the right way up!” But there are no white headtorches to act as headlamps; white light attracts biting bugs, and with both hands clasped around a paddle there’s no way to swat the blighters away.
I try to synchronise my first tentative paddle strokes with my kayak partner, Vitali (we only met 15 minutes ago). Drips roll down the paddles and up my sleeves, but our progress feels smooth and balanced as we pass lines of moored boats, the occasional interior light providing a ghostly glow. With masts or motors, they’re the floating equivalents of caravans and motorhomes.
Turning left along the River Thurne, waterside holiday cottages cast dazzling light onto the water, but it’s not long before we leave the river for Candle Dyke then paddle out towards Duck Broad.
Reeds and shrubs line the shore, silhouetted against the dark skyline, and the wind ruffles the surface of the water, which in turn slaps against the kayak. I had hoped to see an owl or two hunting over the marshland, but there’s no sign of life. Only the squawks from roosting geese hint at a predator somewhere nearby.
Mostly, though, it’s the sense of stillness that feels wonderful. The Broads Authority says seven million people visit the national park each year, but at 9.30pm it feels as if we have this entire waterscape to ourselves, an epic expanse of lake, marsh and mudflat beneath a threatening sky.
It’s strange, too, to think that this is a man-made landscape, the rising water table filling the pits and holes created by peat diggers in medieval times. Records reveal that Norwich Cathedral burned 400,000 peat turves per year in the 14th century, before coal became England’s fossil fuel of choice.
The peat diggers’ work means many of the broads are extremely shallow. Aran has already reassured us that no one has managed to capsize one of the wide, fibreglass kayaks to date – but it’s good to know that if we were to come a cropper we’d only be thigh deep in many places.
As we paddle on, Duck Broad gives way to Heigham Sound, and I’m hoping we’ll make it to Hickling Broad, where on a dark night like tonight the shoreline is too far away to see, leaving kayakers bobbing in an eerie wilderness. Unfortunately, a late start and mild headwind deny us the chance to reach Hickling, a disappointment sweetened by Aran producing a flask of hot chocolate.
We nestle the kayaks in the shallows, weeds snatching at the blades of our paddles, and gaze up at the cloudy sky. My eyes have adjusted so keenly to the dark that it feels as if I can see all around me, and it’s only when I try to take a photo that I fully appreciate the pitch-black nature of the night.
The drink marks the halfway point of our adventure (we’ve covered about three miles), although the return is easier, our paddling more in harmony and the tailwind nudging us home. Of the three crews in the water, one couple are white water kayaking experts and fly along; another pair are sat in such vessels for the very first time, day or night; while Vitali and myself are somewhere in the middle, neither novices nor experts. It doesn’t seem to matter, with Aran keeping us together like a collie marshals its flock.
By the time we reach Martham, the lights of the waterfront properties seem blinding, and the contrast with the ‘nothingness’ of the broads is extreme. Above, the first handful of stars has started to sparkle between a break in the clouds. A clear sky would have been a bonus, but this has still been a magical experience.
A Stargazing Kayak Adventure costs £45pp with Norfolk Outdoor Adventures (norfolkoutdooradventures.co.uk)