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Travel Writing Competition Winners 2013

Last October, National Geographic Traveller (UK) opened its annual travel writing competition, in association with Quark Expeditions.

Travel Writing Competition Winners 2013
Elderly Huichol tribeswoman. Image: Danny Lehman/Corbis

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Entrants were asked to submit 300 words about their most inspirational travel experience, and it seems our readers are truly inspired. We received an avalanche of submissions, with wild and wonderful stories covering the four corners of the globe. National Geographic Traveller’s editorial team deliberated for some weeks before coming to the near-unanimous conclusion that the top prize — a 10-day polar cruise to the Norwegian Isle of Spitsbergen — should go to Ben Taub. Congratulations to Ben and a big ‘well done’ to our five runners-up, too!

The winning entry

Set in stone
by Ben Taub

Ravaged, cracked and ambiguous, the rocky landscape of western Mexico bears an uncanny resemblance to the skin of the Huichol Indians who inhabit it, as if it were somehow encoded into their DNA.Studying the stony texture of the tribesmen’s faces it’s easy to imagine how they came to acknowledge the earth as their mother. In Mexico the greatest stories are written in stone. Statues and ruins provide a window into the past and a gateway through which history and legend flow into the world. I had stood before the great Pyramid of the Sun, reliving the morbid tale of an anonymous Aztec stonemason whose life of backbreaking servitude is written into every marking made by his hand; a hand to which I was now connected via the permanence of stone. At the invitation of a Huichol tribesman I’d descended through layers of sediment built up over thousands of years, immersing myself in a steamy subterranean pit heated by red hot volcanic rocks. For the natives this daily descent beneath the surface symbolises a return to the earth from which they were created. Inside the temazcal a blanket of scorching steam filled the air like cotton wool while the dim glow of burning minerals accentuated every contour and crevice of the tribesmen’s faces, completing their transformation into stone. In Mexico, stone is a vessel for life; it comes from the molten core of our planet, the very source of our being; it carries with it the mysteries of our origin and for that reason has been carved into deities and worshipped by the ancient peoples of this land for millennia. By entering the temazcal the Huichol reconnect to an ancestry written neither in words nor the stars. Theirs is a heritage set in stone.

National Geographic Traveller (UK)’s editor, Pat Riddell, says: “Ben’s entry particularly stood out for its drama, sense of place and insight into the Huichol Indians. More importantly, it’s very succinctly focused, the structure is well balanced and the language remains beautifully descriptive. A very worthy winner. Thanks to all those who entered.” 

The runners-up

Nepal: Flying to Everest Base Camp
by Joe Reaney

I heard the plane before I saw it. Sitting mutely in a pallid departure lounge, the dirty put-put-put of the engine trickled its way into my subconscious. Rubbing my face I turned towards the runway and there it was: my peeling, patched-up biplane. I’d been in Nepal for three months and was ending my stay with a trek to Everest Base Camp. With little hiking experience, I’d never been confident about reaching 17,598ft, but as I now surveyed my means of transport into the mountains I wasn’t even sure of making the start line. Stepping into the off-white cabin didn’t do much to allay concerns and as I shimmied into my decrepit chair I had to sweep aside a flap of foam jutting from the headrest. I closed my eyes and awaited take-off. There was no taxiing, only the sudden spike in engine volume then a swift surge forward. I clasped my armrest and clenched my teeth as we tipped back. But when I next opened my eyes everything was calm. Outside the Nepalese capital, a spectacular blend of stair-cased rice paddies and snaking streams soothed the soul as we surged ever closer to the white-tipped summits of the Himalayas. The next half an hour was sublime. Razor-cut peaks merged into wave-crested outcrops; foaming white waterfalls tumbled into olive valley rivers; pines slid into village-dotted meadows. It was so captivating I didn’t even notice the rattle of the plane coming into land — until the brakes slammed upon the rising runway. As my feet touched the tarmac I looked back at my plane and rejoiced that I’d made it. Then I spotted the trail that in a week’s time would lead to Base Camp and I remembered: my journey had only just begun.


Zanzibar: Ramadan in Stone Town
by Lizza Lane

It was nearly evening. In the heat of the afternoon, hungry people were splayed out in the porches of their houses. They were waiting for sunset too. My watch painfully ticked over to 6pm and the sun went out like a light bulb. Suddenly, muezzins called from their minarets over the entire township. From my hostel balcony I saw them coming from every dark outlet; the narrow streets overflowed with men in white gowns accompanied by the roaring sound of their running footsteps. They headed toward the mosque, flung their sandals off and raced in; after prayers it was time to eat. Those first to finish stepped out, slipped into any shoe that fitted and galloped down the road pushing, shoving and leaping like a wildebeest migration. Listening to my own stomach I abandoned the balcony and joined the ravenous. People overtook me; I was knocked by elbows and my feet were trodden on. But that didn’t matter because suddenly the town square opened up before me. Lit up like Christmas were stalls selling fried beef, mutton, potato, chocolate, coconuts and barbecued seafood. Others were filled with earthy knick-knacks of the tourist trade. Grinning elderly women called me over for a ‘good price’. People were standing sitting, chatting and eating, and no one was alone. Mothers were holding back their children from gobbling too fast; women were gossiping and cackling together, and Masai Mara tribesmen were munching among themselves. From this I learnt food is our universal. Not only were the Ramadan nights a religious event, but social too, which brought the whole community together.


Gabon: An appointment with the doctor 

by Ian Packham

The first time I cross the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere, I’m heading to hospital. It’s a four-hour journey along Gabon’s Ogooué River on a speedboat with eight roaring outboard motors, 50 other passengers and cockroaches wandering about the lifejacket beneath my seat. The old clapboard buildings of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital house a museum. Among letters from Eisenhower and Einstein stands Albert Schweitzer’s piano; the lid raised as if he’s just popped out to treat another patient. Already out of tune when Schweitzer was alive, the yellowing ivory now peels from the keys in the humidity. Had Schweitzer been alive, the sound of Bach would have rippled out into the immensity of the Congo Basin rainforests. The river is wide; the colour of tea spoilt by too much milk. Heading inland, I know the river should narrow as we near its source, but any change over those four hours is imperceptible. The captain shifts the boat from one wide tributary to another without recourse to maps. Perching on fallen poles, herons ignore the sound of engines. The curtain of green on the banks absorbs the sound, making it feel like we’re the only people on earth. At the hospital’s founding in the early 20th century, Lambaréné was about the most difficult place to reach on the planet. Downtown Lambaréné sits on an island dividing the Ogooué; the hospital on the right bank hidden among trees until the very last moment. Bridges cross the expanses of water, but it’s quicker to use apirogue; along the way passing the grave of the man who gave his life to this tiny part of Africa.


Scotland: Me and Dad versus ‘the Way’

by Dave Barber

Mike was six foot four of broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Scotsman, plucked straight from a Porridge Oats packet. But now this bear of a man was sat whimpering into his Tennent’s lager. His left foot resembled an overripe fruit: swollen, purple and topped by a burst, coin-sized blister. He’d been defeated by the West Highland Way, Scotland’s most iconic hike — 96 miles running from Glasgow tenements past loch shores, distilleries, rowdy bars and brooding Munros, and culminating in the shadow of Ben Nevis. Completing ‘the Way’ with Dad was the realisation of a 10-year dream. The defining moment comes on the penultimate day, when, sat astride the Anoach Eagach ridge, bathed in spring sunshine and surrounded by silence, bar the gentle rustling of heather — I realise we’re going to complete this walk. The day had started less promisingly; two lonely figures trudging onto mist-shrouded Rannoch Moor, Gore-Tex-covered heads bowed against the drizzle. As thoughts of retreating to the nearest log fire and malt whisky crept in, the Scottish weather threw us a lifeline. We cheered the blue sky like an England goal and shed our waterproofs as the mist melted to reveal a moonscape of blanket bog, pockmarked with pools of dark, acidic water. Later, we tackle the Devil’s Staircase, the near vertical accent to the Anoach Eagach ridge. At the summit I drink in a view that’s inspired writers, poets and generations of walkers. Past the looming black pyramid of Stob Dearg, Glencoe stretches away to the distant ocean. As I watch Dad round the final switchback and stop to take in the vista, the look on his face tells me we’re going to make it.


An unexpected village pit stop

Simon Pattullo

Over each pothole the bus window slides open and warm Kenyan air sucks in. Red mist kicks up as the whole thing rattles and creaks as it thunders over the rutted asphalt deep in the countryside. I think of Lamu, the place I’ve just left, and I lament. Reading’s futile, maintaining contact with the seat impossible, and a shudder brings us to a halt. The exhaust lies fractured on the ground and a discontented murmur drifts from every seat but mine. I squeeze between passengers and jump off, returning the driver’s puzzled look with a shrug. He frowns, then gets back to repairing the bus. He’ll be long gone in an hour. There’s a village in the distance; mud huts dotting the scrubland. I reach it in minutes. I look up to see a man running towards me and my stomach shrinks. This was a silly idea. He stands before me with his wild beard, sun-bleached clothes and penetrating eyes, and I freeze. But he smiles, takes my arm and leads me into the village. Kids peer through gaps in the wall of the hut we’re in. They chatter and point as I’m shown how his family cook where they sleep. He tries on my hat and we laugh. They swarm behind the muzungu (foreigner) and I’m at once ashamed to have imposed myself, yet delirious to have had the chance. It’s amazing, but just a visit; I don’t belong here. In the distance we see red dust rising in the darkening sky; my guide points towards it. “Bus,” I say and he nods. I shake hands, turn and jog towards it. 

The prizes

The winner receives an amazing 10-day trip to the polar north worth £10,000, travelling on an ice-strengthened expedition ship around the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, courtesy of Quark Expeditions. They will have the chance to explore this land of glaciers volcanoes and polar bears, travelling under a midnight sun with frequent shore visits to see beluga whales, reindeer and walruses along with a plethora of seabirds. And for the intrepid, there will be opportunities to try sea kayaking, snowshoeing and hiking.

Five runners-up will receive a year’s subscription to National Geographic Traveller (UK). For those of you who’ve missed out and have a travel story to tell, keep your eyes peeled for our next travel writing competition, which will be held towards the end of the year.