“Resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” (Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness.)
Rumours abound that the mouth of the river Dart is at Dartmouth and its two sources are somewhere on Dartmoor. But due to poor map reading and a fascination with the blank spaces between rivers, I ended up at Totnes rowing club one Saturday morning surrounded by people in wetsuits and red hats. Hoping to make the best of the situation I donned a wetsuit, squeezed into a red hat and entered the water.
It transpired that I had joined an event inspired by Conrad’s above-mentioned novella. Variously a tale of imperialism and discovery for a legendary ivory trader: the inspiration is obvious. Indeed, although Conrad’s description of the journey up the Congo is a clear metaphor for the Dart, it remains a much-overlooked aspect of the story.
That said, I was hard pushed to perceive the parallels as I trod water in the liquidy brown. Surrounded by fellow Brits all brimming with a sense of joy and derring-do at being metaphorically and literally out of their depth. A familiar situation, it would seem, that has become civilised and less colonial over the ages. Nowadays you get a t-shirt for it.
The hooter sounded and the splashing commenced. Hordes of red hats set out on their journey of self-disovery towards the heart of Dartmoor. But after 2.5km there was a collective decision that something was wrong. I was the first to sense it as I rounded the final buoy and saw the vastness of water that still lay before me and the twin sources of the river.
It was the realisation that there was no mystical figure living up stream. Just a man waving his arm frantically for us to pull up on shore so that he could scan our wrist timers.
An uneasy fear spread through the pack, and with my nose just in front I swam like a Belgian steamer hoping to get to Dartmouth before the end of the year. But on reaching the rowing club I lifted my head to take a breath and saw a man on the riverbank waving his hand. What’s with all this arm waving. Perhaps he wants to ask a question, reasoned my exhausted brain.
‘Well done, would you like a banana?’
‘Yes please, thank you.’
They told me I’d won. But I daren’t admit what really happened. It was all a bit embarrassing really. I had entered the river to find the source of the Dart in the hope that it would complete my transformation to a higher state of being. Failing that I had set my sights on the mouth of the Dart hoping to find my beginning in its end.
But like Marlow, Conrad’s protagonist, I was lured into something that was far greater than I could comprehend through the fog of my goggles. And I was now back where I had started after discovering neither source nor mouth. Rather, I am left in a state of bloated contemplation, content in the thought that I had made it out of the heart of dartness.