Outdoors: Be a wild child for the night

Owls, bats and a 'smelly' cocktail party. Nikki Spencer got back to nature in Devon.
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The Independent Culture
AS WE enter the woods our guide, Chris Salisbury, tells us to pause for a moment before we step off the beaten track. "We ask you to unburden yourselves of one thing, one reminder of the world you are about to leave behind - your watch. This," he says, smiling, "symbolises your willingness to participate in everything thrown at you." And he opens a green velvet bag, and we give up the next 18 hours of our time.

"He's Robin Hood really," someone quips, and physically, he could certainly pass as a modern-day version, with his naturally-coloured clothes and his shoulder-length hair, topped with one of those wide-brimmed hats you see people wearing on BBC2 survival programmes.

It's 6pm on a Saturday night, and 25 of us - assorted families, couples and friends aged from about five to 50 - are about to go on a "wild night out", an event run on a nature reserve in the Dart valley by the Devon Wildlife Trust.

The "nights out" started a few years ago as a way of encouraging local schoolchildren to take a new look at their environment, and are now run every summer, and can be joined by members of the public from all over the country.

We've been told to bring outdoor gear, a sleeping bag and a torch, plus "a healthy appetite and a mind clear of preconceptions". The night, Chris explains, will be divided into four walks of about an hour and a half to two hours each. One to our campsite, one after dinner, one rather alarmingly scheduled for before breakfast and one after it.

The first we embark on is an Earthwalk, of the kind pioneered in the Seventies as an antidote to the rather staid nature rambles of the day. Sensory awareness is the name of the game. Chris is carrying two ancient wicker baskets, covered with rather twee checked tea towels. Whenever he stops, he pulls out a different set of props. At one point he has us all walking in a crocodile, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, holding mirrors at an angle so we can look up at the trees. At another he is hosting a "smelly cocktail party". We collect the most pungent and aromatic things we can find and then return to the group for a mass sniffing-session.

Our base for the night is a small clearing by the river and, although the event may be billed as "wild", roughing it is not on the agenda. When we arrive at the camp we are introduced to four volunteers from the trust who will cook our food (organic, vegetarian and locally grown), help us put our tents up if necessary (certainly necessary in my case) and generally make our stay more pleasant by giving out such home comforts as roll-up mats should we require them (my daughter Ella and I somehow manage to get two each).

After dinner, as a warm-up (literally and metaphorically) for bat-detecting and owl-watching, we play games where members of the group are blindfolded and have to listen out to catch their "prey". We enjoy ourselves so much that it's quite a while before we head off up the river valley in search of the real thing.

We may have got away from civilisation, but a bit of 20th-century technology still comes in handy. Chris uses a small black "bat detector" to track the bats' sounds, usually inaudible to the human ear. We shine our torches over the river and, right on cue, we see dozens of bats swooping down over the water to catch the abundant insect life.

The owls, however, are not so compliant. We hear one in the distance but it cannot be persuaded to come any closer, even when Chris tries to lure it with a recording of another owl. He assures us, however, that two out of three times this stratagem will work.

After a spot of stunning storytelling around the campfire, it is time to turn in. Chris explains that, in the morning when he wakes us, he expects us to "spring up like new-born fawns".

Anyone seeing most of us crawl out of our tents just after dawn would not have seen the similarity, but when Chris asks us whether we want a relatively easy walk in the woods, or a trek up on to the moors, I do find myself rather uncharacteristically leading the call for the latter.

The reward for our endeavours is not only a fantastic view over the whole valley as the sun comes up but also an early morning snack that is almost too beautiful to eat. On the heather Chris and the volunteers have laid out a blanket and covered it with slices of melon, orange, and grapes, surrounded with candles and flowers. Our "wild night out" has been a feast in many different ways.

Devon Wildlife Trust are running Wild Nights Out on 15 August and 5 September. Adults pounds 30; children pounds 18.75; family group (two adults, two children) pounds 80. They are also holding a Wild Day Out on 11 October. Contact Sarah Cossom on 01392 279244 for more information