Young travel writer competition winners

National Geographic Traveller launched its inaugural travel writing competition, in association with i-to-i, to find the next generation of talent.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 4 Apr 2012, 12:02 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:36 BST

Entrants were asked to submit 400-500 words about their most inspirational travel experience and we were inundated and truly impressed at the high standard of submissions, especially as the age range was from 18-23 years. After much deliberation Jess Connett was awarded the top prize while five runners-up will receive a year's subscription to National Geographic Traveller.


Tribal Tales
Words by Jess Connett

In a dimly lit room, on the other side of the world, I sat quietly, watching an age-old tribal ritual playing out in front of me.

We were in a tattoo parlour, at the invitation of a traveller we had met hours earlier, and in the company of young Iban tribesmen who had moved to the big city for a chance at life outside the longhouse walls. They brought their skills and their ancient tattooing traditions here and were bestowing their art upon the skin of our companion. We sat upon the floor while the tattooist and his canvas took centre stage.

The room was calm; we spoke little and when we did it was in hushed, almost reverent tones — we were honoured to witness the creation of a hand-tapped tattoo. The artist stretched out the skin of his subject's shoulder and then dipped a thin needle, tied tightly to a wooden stick, into a pot of dark, swirling ink. He placed the needle to the flesh as we collectively held our breath. Softly at first but then with increased pace and vigour the artist began to tap the ink into the skin using another piece of wood — using a method and tradition as old as the Iban tribe.

Malaysian Borneo is a place almost impossible not to fall in love with. Standing in pristine rainforest for the first time, listening to incessant animal calls, is incredibly invigorating: it seems the place is alive with a spirit which can never be silenced. Our experience of Sarawak was one of incredible variety, from the bustling street markets of Kuching where locals strike up conversation without hesitation, to the dense jungles, deserted beaches and incredible wildlife outside the city limits.

Adventures, kindness and sustenance — for both body and spirit — were never far away. We learned about the Iban from the tribesmen themselves and were seduced by the wonderful otherworldliness from stories of ancestors headhunting and evil spirits. And after all the talk and the education it was incredible to see it all for ourselves.

We watched the furrowed concentration on the artist's brow, and saw his subject's face turn blank with pain as he lay on the floor. We listened to the constant 'tap tap' as the needle dipped into the skin, staining the flesh indelible black. Two perfect bunga terung (eggplant flowers) emerged from the blood and ink — the symmetrical flowers blooming upon the skin. This is the first tattoo an Iban boy receives when he reaches puberty to symbolise the journey through life, travel and progress. Unlikely to be their last though, as they believe that after death, only tattooed skin is visible to the gods — it's their way of telling their life story to the divine.

We emerged refreshed and bewitched by Borneo, vowing to return.

The prize

The winner receives an amazing four-week trip to China, thanks to i-to-i Volunteering. The first two weeks will be spent at a conservation centre for endangered species such as the Giant Panda, followed by two weeks working with disadvantaged children while exploring the city of Xi'an. The prize includes shared accommodation, all activities and excursions, most meals, return flights from London, in-country orientation, a local in-country team and 24-hour emergency support. 

National Geographic Traveller's editor Pat Riddell says: "Jess' entry particularly stood out for its drama, sense of place and insight into an ancient custom. More importantly, it was a compelling story which draws you in and is very succinctly focused. The structure is well balanced and the language remains descriptive without being over elaborate. A very worthy winner."


A raw tragedy
Words by Lizzie Davey

Outside, the surrounding green hills were dotted with brilliant white posts commemorating the dead. Row after row of them reared up, uniformed in their stance like soldiers waiting for battle. The landscape was bleak. No cars whirred past; no birds tweeted in the blazing midday sun. No sign of life. It was easy to believe this desolateness could have spread for miles beyond the horizon. There weren't even any houses to suggest that life did exist here, but not today. Only the white posts marred the scene and a large square industrial building which could easily have passed for an unused barn.

Inside, the silence was almost tangible. The air hung heavy with anger, regret and a deep unforgiving sadness. It felt wrong to stand in the middle of this vast space so unafraid and so safe when just over 15 years ago, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims had been killed here. They too had once felt unafraid and safe in this United Nations protected haven. Their Dutch protectors, who had promised them safety, were overpowered by the Serbian army who committed what has been referred to as the worst crime on European soil since WWII…

The mass execution killed thousands instantly. Some of the hostages managed to escape over the hill behind the building in the hope of returning to their families, from which they had been torn apart for months, only to be killed by Serbian soldiers in the woods that lay on the other side.

On the far wall hung photographs and stories of some of these unlucky men. Personal belongings — a comb, a cigarette holder, a pocket watch (not aged at all) — sat mournfully on ledges beneath the often smiling faces of their owners. Two visitors — young women — reached out to one particular photo. Their unsteady fingers traced the contours of the handsome face, trying to get close to him. Unashamedly, they sobbed; deep harrowing sobs a jolting reminder of how raw this tragedy is for some.

This building in Srebrenica — barely visited and untouched, bar a sprinkling of commemorative photos — serves the purpose of reminding visitors of this atrocity that happened in their time. It is largely untouched by tourism, instead dedicating itself almost as a shrine to the families who lost loved ones.

To stand next to the sobbing women felt wrong and the overriding feeling was to reach out and get close to them just as they were with the photo. But no one can make this any better for the families of the victims; the only thing left is the awareness of the disaster in 1995, which is exactly what Srebrenica does in an unobtrusive non-sensationalist way.

I met George on the way out. His twin brother and father were killed in the genocide. His smile didn't quite reach his eyes as he claimed, "There is nothing more we can do but move on."

Faded decadence
Words by Bryony Cottam

From our second floor window, we watched the firefighters hose down the flames that licked and crackled up the walls of the wooden dacha. I imagined spontaneous combustion, while a smell of burning rubber drifted through the thick oppressive air.

Zharka (it's hot) was possibly the word I used most while in Tver, along with holodny chai or iced tea. I had been as unprepared for Russia's rich spectrum of food and drink as I had been for its intense heat. In one of its many cafes I was met with a choice of ornately painted samovars with sweet citron tea, espresso cups of rich dark chocolate, sundae glasses of iced tea, and creamy milkshakes.

Tver lies 100 miles north of Moscow where the Volga and Tvertsa rivers meet. Once an important medieval town and later much visited by Russian nobility, the city is home to stately palaces and churches, now crumbling under the sun. As we walked around the city, this sad contrast between the beautiful and the tarnished became more apparent. Women in glossy high heels and summer dresses walked their tiny dogs as we manoeuvred around the dirt on the cracked pavements of the streets, and the sweltering heat left our t-shirts sticky and grime coloured.

Back at our accommodation, we took photos of the fake tan lines made by our flip-flops on dirt-blackened feet while we waited for the shower water to run clear. But hidden by Russia's severe image, we discovered many little-known gems: the warmth and welcoming nature of so many of the people we met; the unexpectedly good cuisine (especially seafood); the fashionable shops in Gum (the capital's luxury shopping centre); and Moscow's challenge to Harrod's food hall, the lavishly decorated 'Eliseevskiy'. Not what we had been led to expect at all.

Some of Russia's stereotypes, however, still ring true. The long supermarket aisles stocked floor to ceiling with the hundreds of different brands of vodka gave some explanation for the unconscious mounds clothed in both rags and business suits alike that we scurried nervously past in doorways and the underground. Yet this, we were assured by students in the area, was largely an issue of the older generation.

Transport still has some way to go. Just the thought of taking the elektrichka (slow-moving electrical commuter trains) makes me ache. Past experience involved being squeezed onto long plastic benches between a woman with a mewling cat in a bag and two big drooling dogs that sprawled across the floor, and fanning ourselves with anything that could be used as a fan. Halfway through the journey, an elderly woman in a shawl appeared and began selling misshapen, soggy Cornettos from a large tiger-print suitcase, and then got off two stops later. In 40-degree heat on a four-hour crowded train it was some of the best ice cream I have ever had.

The woman in white
Words by Sophie McGrath

The girl in white spins around the centre of the room sending her long skirt into bloom. She raises her gaping sleeves into butterfly wings and jumps; she stamps imaginary insects under her feet; she shakes her shoulders into rhythmic convulsion; she limbos down to the ground and then all the way up again. She never stops dancing — a mad, unchoreographed energy of limbs propelled by the beat of a fast, heavy song. Every so often she makes a sound, a hum, or a whoop that mixes with strings, flute and drum.

She moves as if nobody else is here, her eyes half-closed and a broad smile on her face. But she's not alone, far from it. In the dimly-lit drinking hole — a round hut on a hill — we are seated, a group of travellers on low stools clutching vials of sweet honey wine. Two women sit roasting coffee beans above a smoky fire; the incense of its coals permeating the room.

The musicians, men in white cloaks trimmed with red, yellow and green, play the lyre and the flute; one clad in a shirt and shorts of navy cloth, studded with silver buttons. The girl is dancing for us all, dancing in the most visited place in Ethiopia — the ancient pilgrimage site of Lalibela.

We've just visited its 14 magnificent churches, all carved entirely out of the ground almost a millennia ago. According to legend, an angel brought King Lalibela to heaven, where he was shown a celestial city and told to make its mirror on earth. But this story only hints at the place's symbolism. Everything seemed not merely physical but also suffused with meaning and miracle.

I saw old women in white cotton shawls press themselves against the churches' smooth walls, kissing doorframes with tender passion; I saw a pillar covered in a faded white cloth that our guide said had been glowing with divine light for four centuries. Windows of different shapes and sizes told the crucifixion story set across storeys of soft pink stone, meaning heaven, earth and hell.

And now the girl is dancing and I wonder if she's telling wordless stories too. For the second time today, I feel like I'm trespassing in a world I have only the barest understanding of, whose legend, and legends, I can't read. I want to stay here until I know why she's dancing and what it means — or that it doesn't mean anything. I want to stay here until I can see angels too. The girl raises her arms and the gaping white sleeves hang down like wings.

Road to Haiti
Words by Nathan Ferreira

"We're crossing the border in that?" a flustered English team member anxiously asks. Joking about crossing in a 'box on wheels' had become a reality. After waiting for over three hours we filed out of the 'luxury' 24-seater into the chaos of noise and people at the Haitian/Dominican border. Nestled in the crease of an arid mountain, the road to Haiti had been half eaten by a turquoise lake, leaving it seemingly only accessible by amphibious tanks. Most locals just walked, well, waded across. Just another commute.

I was mentally planning out how I could carry my completely impractical suitcase. The pavement was replaced by a short wall of stones that messily lined the lake. We looked on terrified and exhilarated as high suspension vehicles sloshed through the water and grated through the boulders that littered the road, almost certainly breaching the vehicles' warranty. A vehicle very much like the one we were about to climb into. At least the weather was great.

The arduous wait, clear blue skies and heat made the lake almost tempting to dip into. However, garbage lining the lake's edge soon jolted me back to the actual task at hand.

Clumsily, we squeezed our bodies and luggage aboard the congested logistics container perched upon the rugged lorry. Already holding 12 people, it was lit by small, high, cut-out windows and an open doorway. We greeted our fellow commuters with smiles and nervous laughter as we stood saturated in sweat, nervously processing our situation. They warmly returned the favour.

The machine started and immediately put our balance to the test. Causing us to cling to the dilapidated roof for dear life, she convulsed and screamed like no vehicle ever before. We scraped against another people container and banked at a 45-degree angle so that all that could be seen out the window was the surface of the water.

I looked out at homemade boats bailing water at the same rate as paddling. The rippling turquoise jewel bowing to the weathered mountains for a brief second before getting catapulted back. I was so exhilarated; this was the most terrifying experience of my life balanced by the love of being there the adventure of entering into a beautiful country with a purpose.

Eight-hundred metres and 20 minutes later we reached Haitian soil, relieved and with a small taste of nature's devastation. Rambling over the dusty roads, we set off again, balancing sightseeing and eye protection with our contacts in two open top trucks. The sun melted golden, marking the direction we're to travel; casting nostalgic shadows on the quarries and scrubland bordering the lake. Just as we begin to embark on the next stage of our adventure, the axle breaks — perfectly cued with our greeting of "Welcome to Haiti!"

Namibian nights
Words by Louise Pruce

Here in the Gobabis district of Namibia, five hours' drive from the nearest town, the absence of light pollution casts the vast night sky as a dark, sparkling masterpiece. Sat cross-legged in the dust, I leaned back on my hands to take it in and laughed in disbelief. When I chose to volunteer at the Harnas Wildlife Foundation — a wildlife orphanage and medical centre run by the van der Merwe family — I didn't imagine a sky could look like this and I certainly didn't expect to be beneath it attempting to put nappies on baby baboons.

Along with three other volunteers, I was to spend the night with five babies; baboons rescued by Harnas, which cares for orphaned and injured wild animals before releasing them in to the wild. The protected 8,000 hectares of land operates as a soft release area for cheetah, leopard and baboon, among others, allowing all animals suitable for release the chance to develop their natural skills and instincts whilst being monitored. The baby baboons were at the first stage of rehabilitation and without their mothers they were terrified in the dark and desperate for a warm body to cling to.

This was where us volunteers came in. Naturally, they weren't toilet trained; hence the need for nappies. At 8pm, I'd found myself in Marieta van der Merwe's lamplit kitchen pushing holes through Pampers nappies for tiny baboon tails. One nappy stayed whole; the impish Jakob had been kept as a pet by an elderly lady who had taken him to the vet to cut off his tail, allegedly to make the nappy routine easier.

But, tail or no tail, the babies were not keen on nappies. Usually brimming with mischief during the day, night rendered them fragile and frightened; the soft hooting noises they made in their dark enclosure broke my heart as they scooted as close as possible for comfort. So close that inching a nappy up two legs and a tail was not really an option.

Forty-five fruitless minutes later, I abandoned the attempt and we wandered over the still-dark lawns to the concrete outhouse where we would spend the night. Uncomfortable was not the word. The Namibian night was several degrees below freezing and I slept in a raggedy sleeping bag on a wooden bedframe in a concrete shed with one 'wall' of metal bars. Just as I closed my eyes, Jakob decided he needed to take a wee; all down my pyjama-clad leg. I slept in half-hour bursts; freezing, uncomfortable and with a sopping wet leg.

But when I woke — disorientated, stiff and in pain — the sudden knowledge that a little baby baboon was clinging to my chest — head tucked under my chin, fast asleep and feeling safe — made my entire existence worthwhile. I had thought I'd be 'giving' as a wildlife volunteer in Africa. I had never expected to receive so much in return.

The runners-up prize

Our five runners up will receive a year's subscription to National Geographic Traveller. For those of you who have missed out and have a travel story to tell, look out for our next travel writing competition towards the end of the year.

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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