The wild life with Monty Halls (and Reubs!)

The star of TV’s Great Escapes is starting a new life on the rugged Devon coast with his family – and faithful hound. Every week he’ll share their adventures in this unmissable new column...

After years of travelling the British Isles and beyond, Monty's finally decided to settle down

After years of travelling the British Isles and beyond, Monty's finally decided to settle down

Announcing you’re going to set up a wildlife tours business is one thing, but actually doing it is quite another. Sometimes dreams are best left as just that. To make them happen carries all manner of risk and real-world uncertainty.

But all great journeys start with a single step, and mine was into the boat to explore the River Dart. For this first outing my crew consisted of girlfriend Tam (first mate), baby Isla (foghorn), dog Reuben (deckhand), and several of Tam’s visiting family members.

It’s a strange sensation to motor away from Dartmouth’s manicured seafront and within minutes be puttering through what could be the Amazon basin. The trees come right to the water’s edge and the valley echoes and crackles with life. It has one distinct advantage over the Amazon basin, though – you can stop for a cream tea every few miles. If Dr Livingstone’s expeditions had been like this he’d have been polished off by chronic obesity within a month.

The illusion of being moderately intrepid was maintained, though, by the rustling highway of the river, to the point where I was fully expecting some parakeets to fly overhead or a tapir to emerge from the margins. Although that didn’t happen, what did was probably – in fact definitely from Reuben’s perspective – just as exciting.

As we meandered through one of the larger turns in the river I saw something in the water. We were 300 metres from the bank and a long way from anything. The first thing I spotted was a small head pushing along determinedly, whiskers bristling, while just behind a fluffy tail was being used as a rudder. As we got closer we realised that it was a stoat. We drew alongside and I could make out its little legs whirring away, eyes fixed on the far bank. What an amazing thing. It turns out stoats are very good swimmers, and can reach islands up to a mile out.

There was a great deal of ‘ahhhing’ and ‘come on little fella-ing’ from all of us in the boat, which drew the attention of the dog. Until then Reuben had been occupied with his deckhand’s duties, which consist mainly of barking at the water and lying on my feet to keep them warm. You can imagine his delight as he hoisted himself to his feet to be met with the sight of what appeared to be a swimming squirrel under his twitching nose. This was like all his Christmases and birthdays arriving at once.

'Imagine Reubs' joy to see what appeared to be a squirrel swimming under his nose,' says Monty

'Imagine Reubs' joy to see what appeared to be a squirrel swimming under his nose,' says Monty

At this point, bedlam broke out on the boat. Reubs was very, very keen to retrieve said squirrel for – as the Japanese whaling fleet might put it – scientific purposes. We were equally keen he didn’t. Reubs set out with some vigour, claws skittering on the floor as his legs pistoned beneath him.

Kerin – Tam’s brother – had the presence of mind to grab his collar as he thundered past, and found himself skidding towards the water attached to 40kg of delighted dog. Help was summoned, and Reubs was manacled to the steering console. He started barking, the baby started crying, it started to rain, and the stoat accelerated away. It seemed a good time for us to leave.

And so this first mini expedition ended with our motley crew returning to Dartmouth in disarray. Reubs was huffily staring at the far bank, Isla was bellowing at the indignity of it all, and Tam had retired under a tarpaulin to comfort her and – I suspect – reflect on her choice of boyfriend. Here’s hoping future trips will be more organised, and much less emotional. A sentiment shared, I suspect, by the stoat.

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