Travel Writing Competition 2020: introducing the winner and the runners-up

We wanted to find the best untapped talent in travel writing — and you replied in your droves. From hundreds of entries to just four, meet the winner and runners-up of our prestigious award.

Published 3 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT, Updated 17 Nov 2020, 16:50 GMT
The winning piece of writing, from Doug Loynes, cleverly builds suspense in the lead-up to Thailand's Songkran ...

The winning piece of writing, from Doug Loynes, cleverly builds suspense in the lead-up to Thailand's Songkran festival.

Photograph by AWL Images

Needless to say, this hasn’t been a normal year. With international travel grounded for much of 2020, many of us have turned to past adventures for inspiration and escapism. The results of this year’s Travel Writing Competition, therefore, have an added poignancy in this extraordinary age of armchair travel. From the hundreds of entries, our team whittled the list down to a final four and was once again bowled over by the quality of entries and sheer breadth of colourful experiences from across the globe. We were inspired by your tales, which ranged from horseback rides in the Camargue to jaguar-spotting in Brazil and an eye-opening journey in the Congo. Our winner, meanwhile, took us through the streets of Thailand for a New Year celebration like no other.

THE PRIZE


Courtesy of TUI — the UK’s leading holiday brand — the winner receives £3,000 of vouchers worth of holiday vouchers to use to book a TUI Tour or another TUI holiday of their choice. 

THE WINNER


Thailand: Tales of the trigger-happy


As the New Year approaches, crowds fill the streets for Songkran. Armed with water pistols, Super Soakers and buckets, they’re ready to do battle in the world’s wettest festival.

Words: Doug Loynes

With my finger still hovering over the trigger of my weapon, I wipe the sweat from my brow as the morning humidity presses down upon me. Across the road, I catch sight of a market seller scrambling to take cover. He meets my gaze and I shoot him a tight, furtive nod. In return, he holds up three fingers. Three hostiles? I scan the perimeter. Nothing. I gesture for more information. Now he holds up two fingers. Again, I steal a glance down the road but I see no sign of any threat he could be alluding to. And then, slowly, he shows me the reverse of his hand, leaving just one finger extended. The middle finger. By the time I’ve turned to face my three grinning assailants, it’s already too late and I’ve been doused with an industrial-sized bucket of freezing-cold water.

Every year in Thailand, thousands of people take to the streets for the Songkran Festival — welcoming in the Thai New Year with three straight days of well-mannered watery warfare. Falling at the end of the country's dry season, a national water fight festival certainly offers welcome respite during a period in which temperatures can reach 45C, but behind the mayhem lies a very traditional Buddhist sentiment.

For centuries, the Thai people have gathered during Songkran to splash water over their friends and families, believing that this practice will wash away their bad luck from the previous year so that they may enter the new year with good fortune on their side. I therefore took great comfort in the knowledge that I was about to be cleansed of all misfortune as I stepped out of my tuk-tuk upon arrival in Bangkok, only for my wallet to be promptly blasted out of my hand by a six-year-old armed with a Super Soaker so big he had to fire it from his shoulder, as if it were a bazooka.

Armed only with a poxy water pistol, I spent most of Songkran cowering in various hidey-holes, which allowed me ample time for reflection. Western influence has certainly flexed its capitalist muscles in Thailand, with American food chains now outmuscling traditional street vendors at every corner and more 7-Elevens springing up than you can shake a Slurpee at. One might even argue that the Songkran Festival itself has cashed in its own cultural significance for an event that better appeals to the masses of tourists that descend upon Thailand each year. And yet, as I watch an elderly gentleman cackle in manic glee as he rains water balloons down upon a family of unsuspecting tourists, Thailand's enduring appeal becomes clear.

Sure, visitors flock to Thailand to find themselves in the foothills of Chiang Mai, typically before going on to lose themselves at the infamously heinous Full Moon Party. But it is the people of Thailand they remember and return for. A warm, fun-loving people who take pride in allowing strangers to share in their ways. Water and all.

What the judges said


Doug’s Songkran story threw us right into the thick of it, with his finger on the trigger, and cleverly built subtle suspense around a tense stand-off in the opening paragraph. He continues the clear, focused narrative with flair, ducking in and out of the water fight with informative snippets and his own takes on the festival. It’s an action-packed, well-paced anecdote that really stood out.

Runner-up Nikki Scrivener explores Goma, in the shadow of Congo's Mount Nyiragongo, where social and environmental forces simmer below the surface.

Photograph by Getty Images

RUNNERS-UP 


Congo: Hanging in the balance


In Goma, in the shadow of Mount Nyiragongo, social and environmental forces simmer below the surface and an uneasy tension hangs in the air.

Words: Nikki Scrivener

The wind kisses my face as we fly out of the city. Anxiously, I cling to the back of the stranger in whose hands I’ve so perilously placed my life. The straps of the bright red helmet (made futile by their lack of any fastenings) whirl about my face, adding to my general sense of disorientation. With agility and ease, he dodges potholes and oncoming traffic, showing little concern for our safety. Other bikes pull up alongside us, but with a quick twist of the wrist, we race on, leaving only a cloud of dry dust rising between ourselves and the city of Goma as we accelerate into the wild, untamed countryside of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The volcano is now in sight; it grows larger and more imposing with every few metres we gain.

The backstreets of Goma are gruesomely disfigured by the hardened black mass of volcanic rock that only recently flowed like a deadly river through the city. The lava rock, now solidified, twists and turns through alleyways and along narrow roads; a constant reminder of the threat posed by Mount Nyiragongo, which sits just 12 miles north and keeps a constant, menacing watch over the town. The volcano viciously erupted in 2002, destroying 15% of Goma and leaving over 100,000 of its residents homeless. The summit of this deadly mountain is my destination.

Earlier in the morning, as I’d strolled along Boulevard Kanya Mulanga, I gained a sense of the two worlds that coexist in this troubled city. The scent of freshly baked pastries and brewing coffee wafts gently from the French boulangeries. Meanwhile, a constant stream of sparkling white UN armoured trucks and 4x4s flows by.

The United Nations peacekeeping presence in The DRC is unmatched almost anywhere else in the world. This country, containing one of the greatest supplies of natural resources on Earth, has suffered years of war and exploitation from Western powers and internal forces alike. This morning, the occupants of these fortified vehicles wave as they pass by, unaccustomed to witnessing a lone tourist in the sea of Congolese faces.

Eventually, the driver pulls the bike off the dirt road, and stops in front of a small concrete building: the permit office for Virunga National Park. The park is one of Africa's oldest protected sites and contains one of its largest biologically diverse areas. It’s also home to approximately 300 of the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas. Bullet-riddled signs welcome visitors, reminding them of this country's volatile history.

However, that history is not entirely of the past; several rebel groups still operate in the park and pose a constant threat to visitors and staff. Before setting off ,we’re introduced to the four-man armed guard that will accompany us — each has an AK-47 slung across his back. We’re told it is their job to protect us while we hike. Whether it’s from the gorillas or the guerrillas, they don’t say.

Runner-up Deborah Telkman discovers Southern Brazil’s remote Pantanal region in her colourful travel writing submission.

Photograph by Getty Images

Pantanal: When the cat’s away


Southern Brazil’s remote Pantanal region — the home of the majestic jaguar — conceals a wealth of curious sights.

Words: Deborah Telkman

“There!” says our guide Susan, pointing into the gloom beneath the overhanging trees at the side of the rolling brown water. As I peer into the darkness, a shape begins to resolve itself, and suddenly I find myself in the presence of the most iconic animal of this continent: a jaguar.

I'm sitting in a small, open boat on the Tres Irmãos River, deep in the Pantanal region of Brazil. The sun is beating down: It's nearly 40C and I can feel the sweat sliding through my hair. This is ‘Jaguarland’: a freshwater wetland covering an area as big as the UK and, Susan tells me, the best place in the world to see these elusive animals in the wild. 

The journey has been a long one: three flights, followed by two days sliding along the sand and mud and under the rickety wooden bridges of the Transpantaneira Highway to Porto Jofre. Finally, boarding the boat that would take us to our ‘flotel', we sped down the river, prow aloft and the wake flying behind us. I felt as though I was part of a Bond film.

Despite the remoteness, however, we’re not alone. Six other boats are here, each one anchored and swaying slightly against the strong river current. In each boat, eyes and cameras are all trained on the sleeping predator beneath the jungle canopy. He's been sleeping for a while now, but we wait in the heat, hoping for some action. It's quiet here, apart from the hum of insects, the birdsong and the occasional, hopeful click of a camera.

I hear a splash behind me, and turn to find a giant otter looking curiously at me from the water. He's eating his lunch, an enormous bright green catfish, turning the slippery fish dextrously in his delicate paws. The boat behind ours was filled with serious photographers, their huge lenses bristling like bazooka barrels. So focused were they on the jaguar that not one of them noticed the amazing dinner show going on behind them.

Suddenly, a sound like machine guns shattered the peace: camera shutters firing in rapid succession. The jaguar was on the move. He stretched languorously, loosening muscles stiff from sleep, then padded down to the water to take a drink. His colouring has a similarity to leopards, but he's larger, heavier set, more powerful.

We watched as he walked through the water, at the river's edge, perhaps searching for Yacaré caiman hidden in the reeds. Each paw carefully placed to cause as little disturbance as possible.

A family of capybara, a rodent that can reach the size of a Newfoundland dog, was grazing on the bank. As the jaguar approached, they froze, eye to eye with the cat for a moment before giving a bark of alarm and racing off into the bush. Denied a meal, the cat emerged, dripping, onto a small beach. It shook, sending a rainbow of glistening droplets into the air before stalking back into the dark heart of the Pantanal.

Isabel Eaton, runner-up, captures the wilderness of the Camargue in her travel writing submission.

Photograph by AWL Images

Camargue: Horses for courses


Rippling across Southern France, the marshlands of the Camargue offer the chance to fulfil a decades-old dream of a horseback adventure.

Words: Isabel Eaton

Hooves sink deep into the mud and saltwater splashes our thighs, transforming grey-coated Camargue ponies into freckled Appaloosas. On reaching firmer ground, we break into a canter, sending startled flamingos and my happy heart soaring.

On a muggy morning in early May, I’m following in the hoof prints of a dream born 20 years earlier. As a pony-mad teenager, I was captivated by a documentary exploring the wild marshlands of the Camargue on horseback. Daydreams of saddlebags filled with fresh baguettes and sun-drenched gallops among exotic wildlife formed a seed of longing that took root on bleakly-brown hacks through wintry Fenlands.

Expectation further thickens the humid air, therefore, when Valérie and I finally set out from her stables on the edge of the Étang de l'Or two decades later. The wettest spring that locals can remember, where rain burst from swollen purple clouds in violent torrents seemingly intent on washing out the old landscape and starting afresh, has painted the countryside an exuberant green, and the air vibrates with the chattering of thousands of birds, frogs and insects.

Winding through the thicket that borders the reserve, ducking low to avoid branches shot with vivid spring growth, my eye is caught by the electric-blue flash of a European roller bird taking flight, the first glimpse of foreign fauna. The ponies, however, are focused on the jangling bells of nearby sheep and skitter nervously as we approach the clearing where they graze. Passing the summer months in a traditional wooden cabin among the marshes, without running water or electricity and far from the nearest village, Bernard, the grizzled shepherd we find guarding the animals, talks of nights that resound with the calls of bats, birds and mosquitoes and days that revolve around his obedient flock.

Finally in company, he’s keen to converse but, impatient to explore, we canter on until firm ground finally gives way to salty marshland. Slowing to a walk, our ponies pick their way through the reeds, instinctually navigating to shallower waters. I breathe in the salted air and as a family of flamingos fly overhead, twig legs trailing, there's no doubting that I'm in the Camargue at last. At the edge of the marsh, we trot past a field of umber-coated Camargue bulls, the ponies notably less perturbed by these fleet-footed beasts with their cruelly chiselled horns than by Bernard's harmless flock.

Destined for the Course Camarguaise, the area's traditional bullfighting spectacle, the black bull is as much a symbol of the region as its white horses, and local vehicles are proudly adorned with stickers of both in this region of France where old customs are proudly maintained.

One last canter and we're back at the yard, jodhpurs salt-flecked and cheeks flushed with happiness. When Valérie asks me whether I’ve enjoyed the ride, my French may be faltering, but my response is certain — I’ve never enjoyed one more.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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