Travel Writing Competition 2021: introducing the winner and the runners-up

We asked to hear your travel tales, and you didn't disappoint. After whittling down hundreds of entries, we've found the winner and four runners-up.

Published 2 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT, Updated 22 Nov 2021, 17:00 GMT
Bronwyn Townsend's winning piece followed her icy adventure with orcas in Norway. The judges commended the "use ...

Bronwyn Townsend's winning piece followed her icy adventure with orcas in Norway. The judges commended the "use of colours, characters and sensations" and "eloquent, informative prose".

Photograph by Getty Images

GRAND PRIZE WINNER

Swimming in the shadows of orcas, Norway

In the dimly lit depths of winter, some 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the frontier town of Skjervøy serves as a base for orca safaris, led by intrepid diving guides who take travellers into the creatures’ icy world. Words: Bronwyn Townsend

“Drop!” commanded Jonas, instructing us to enter the inky water of the fjord. Quietly, quickly and with as little splash as possible was the brief. Keeping our presence to a minimum was essential if we were to complete our mission. Throwing my left side over the rubbery wall of the rigid inflatable boat, I slid into the freezing waters deep inside the Arctic Circle.

Five days had passed since our first dive, our success rate standing at zero. But today, the conditions are in our favour. It’s mid-morning, yet the sun hangs low in the sky, suspended just beyond the craggy peaks of Kvænangen. Long shadows stretch to the rock-strewn shoreline, golden light painting the snow-covered mountain tops in sorbet hues of peach and salmon. The salty Arctic air is sharp with every inhale and a gentle breeze seeps through a breach between the seals of my drysuit and buff, making any attempt at curbing the sub-zero temperatures seem futile.

We’ve been following the annual herring migration, hoping to share the sea with the orcas that engage in feasting frenzies in the early winter. They’re late this year, though. Jonas has been asking other guides and all were experiencing the same difficulties: brief sightings, the occasional humpback fluke, but few reports of orca arrivals. Navigating the waters surrounding Skjervøy in far northern Norway, we spend the short daylight hours of the Arctic winter riding the constant roll of the tide, waves gently lapping at the boat’s exterior.

“Droplets like honey in the warmth of the sunlight rise and fall, a sign we can finally get acquainted with our guests. ”

by Bronwyn Townsend

Just a short distance from the main harbour, an explosion of water rising from the surface catches our attention. Droplets like honey in the warmth of the sunlight rise and fall, a sign we can finally get acquainted with our guests. Easing closer, we watch for more indications of who we’re meeting. Slowly, the members of the pod reveal themselves. The dorsal of a large male slices through the sea, followed by the shorter dips and dives of smaller curved fins — females. Then, an urgent gulp for air from the newest member of the family, a calf barely more than three days old, completes the tally. Eight in total.

It’s time. Pulling on my fins, I flip-flop my way to the edge of the boat. Swinging my right leg over, I straddle the side, pressing the seal of my mask against frozen cheeks. Turning to Jonas, he reminds us that the orcas are in transit, and we’ll have less than a minute with them. On his signal, we drop.

Bubbles fizz around me as I plunge into the frigid sea. I focus my gaze, trying to adjust to the darker surroundings, desperately hoping for a glimpse of the animal that’s so far eluded us. Gradually, a series of black-and-white figures dance in from the left, gracefully gliding through the water with a leisurely flick of their tail. I don’t dare to blink lest they disappear. Slowly, their silhouettes fade into the depths, bidding a silent farewell.

What the judges said: Bronwyn’s piece is not only artfully framed by cold-water plunges but also succeeds in building suspense within the short narrative. Most laudably, the colours, characters and sensations of this remote part of the world are brought to life for readers through eloquent, informative prose.

The grand prize

The travel experts at Kuoni have awarded the winner of the National Geographic Traveller Travel Writing Competition an eight-night Governors’ Grand Safari for two people, which includes a stop at Governors’ Camp Collection’s newest property, Mugie House, in Laikipia. With stays in three very different areas of Kenya — including a deluxe tented stay in the magical Maasai Mara — they’ll really get to know the culture and ecosystems of this incredible country. 

"The tide pulled me back and forth, my body oscillating over the art. With every push and pull, I could feel the raw power of the water," wrote Liv Helen Våge of her artistic encounter off the coast of Cancún.

Photograph by Alamy

RUNNER-UP


The tides of change in Mexico

Visiting an underwater sculpture park off the coast of Cancún sheds light on the relationship between humans and the ocean, as fish and corals make a home among poignant artworks. Words: Liv Helen Våge

I floated above the car. There was a child curled up on the bonnet of the VW Beetle, hugging the windshield. There was a defeated expression on his face as he clung onto the car, seemingly knowing it would do no good. A silvery fish suddenly rushed out of the rusty car door. I was reminded I was in one of the only museums in the world where the visitors are almost exclusively fish. 

The Museo Subacuático de Arte is an underwater sculpture park situated outside Cancún in Mexico, with sites accessible either by snorkelling or scuba diving. Before visiting, I expected an Atlantis or a Pompeii; a place dead and preserved. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The sculptures were bursting at the seams with life, sprouting colourful corals and dancing dramatically with algae and seaweed. The art is designed to create an artificial coral reef, drawing divers away from natural reefs that have become damaged by the flow of visitors. 

I let one of the inhabitants of the park show me around, and followed a nimble, striped fish to a massive bust of a man that looked like he was in pain. It could seem like his suffering came from the juvenile corals bursting out of his temples, aged by the brown plants covering his face. 

Nature was in charge here, leaving him in a continuous, silent struggle. Many of the 500 works in the park depict this match between humans and nature. But there’s also a deep symbiosis between the two. This is best reflected in the sculptures that have been modelled on men and women from the nearby fishing village of Puerto Morelos. Their statues stand tall in defence of their oceans, speaking out for a relationship between humans and nature that isn’t painful, but sustainable. 

The tide pulled me back and forth, my body oscillating over the art. With every push and pull, I could feel the raw power of the water. It seems strange that one can overuse and pollute something that possesses such strength and serenity. The image of the child on the car came to my mind, posing a poignant question about the world we’re leaving for the next generation. As I pondered, I let the warm waters swaddle me, my own exhalations composing a soft lullaby. Another fish scurried by, breaking me out of my reverie. At least for now, I take deep comfort in knowing that there are places hidden under the surface where nature is in charge, and humans are still the visitors. 

RUNNER-UP


Into Jumandi’s lair in Ecuador

Tucked deep into the shadowy bowels of the Sacred Valley of Contundo, tales of resistance await on an underwater tour. Words: Phoebe Harper

In a pothole of unknown depths, I count 30 seconds underwater before a creeping sense of claustrophobia propels me back to the surface like a bullet from a gun. Staring wide-eyed into black nothingness, I place my palms against the walls of limestone encasing me.

Along with a group of fellow tourists, I’m being led through the Cuevas de Jumandi, a network of caves spanning two miles through the Sacred Valley of Cotundo in the Amazon basin of eastern Ecuador. We’re following in the shoeless footsteps of a 15-year-old girl from Ecuador’s most populous indigenous group, the Kichwa. 

Chattering away in the dialect of their people, we’re also joined by Orlando Chuje Ruiz, a local guide who thankfully translates into English. “Her father was a guide. She’s been coming here since she was five years old,” Orlando explains as the girl strides on ahead, springing deftly between the rocks. We’re not told her name, as if the proud moniker of ‘Kichwa’ was identification enough. 

“Their legends pass from generation to generation like echoes through the cave.”

by Phoebe Harper

Navigating echoing galleries drooping with stalactites and passageways so low that you’re forced to crawl, Orlando pauses to tell us how these caves were once the refuge of the Kichwa. After Pizarro’s arrival on the shores of Latin America changed the continent irrevocably, women and children fled to these dark chambers under the leadership of Jumandi, the warrior chief of the Quijos. Here, they evaded the yoke of Spanish rule and sought refuge after Jumandi burnt the nearby missionary town of Archidona in protest against the oppression of his people. 

In the subterranean silence of that pothole, as the water in my ears muffles the roar of the waterfall in the chamber above, I imagine those forced to swap jungle for darkness. 

We spend the afternoon in the stale air of the underground, following a Styx-like river carving its way through the bedrock. Cave-evolved catfish reside in these waters, and we lower our head torches so as not to disturb the bat colony above. Shrieks resound as another scorpion spider is spotted by the tourist contingent. 

When I ask what became of Jumandi, Orlando obligingly regurgitates the story of the hero’s demise, after the Spanish eventually caught and dragged him from these caves to Quito. “He was killed,” he explains, which does little to convey the Guy Fawkes-style method of execution I encounter in later research. 

Orlando’s lack of detail seems characteristic of our visit. The acoustics of the caves defy easy communication and there are no visitor information leaflets or signs. The history of the Kichwa is an oral one, shrouded in darkness and protected by those who preserve a fierce yet quiet pride in their ancestry while adapting to modern change. Their legends pass from generation to generation like echoes through the cave. In this underground realm, untouched by the urbanisation that depletes the virgin rainforest above, the legacy of Jumandi endures.

"The women start playfully arguing with each other, limbs flailing, chins lifting, their voices rising and rising above the cacophony of noise echoing around the gigantic hall. Cleavers slam into freshly roasted ducks, sacks of clams thud and crunch on the wet concrete floor," wrote Lindsey Miller of a trip to North Korea's Tongil market.

Photograph by Getty Images

RUNNER-UP


The market behind the mountains in North Korea

Few travellers visit Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, but those who do are rewarded with pungent and personable encounters in the chaotic Tongil market. Words: Lindsey Miller

As I wiggle my way through the thick, buzzing throng of people, I can barely keep my balance. Children in red neckerchiefs clamber past in search of sweets; inquisitive couples peer over boxes of frozen fish; sunburnt men heave bulging hessian sacks across the 30-metre-long aisles, bumping through the crowd like defiant dodgems. Two warm hands grab me from behind and confidently push me aside like I’m a chess piece. Aromas collide; clatters crescendo; the humidity surges. This is a North Korean market. 

Tongil is the largest indoor market in Pyongyang, and the only one where resident foreigners are cautiously welcomed. The giant structure is thought to have 8,000 traders doing business on a typical day. I look around and that seems about right. Private trade is so highly sought after in Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea that unlicensed vendors spill out into the surrounding car parks and grass verges, ready to pack up and leave should the authorities descend. 

Suddenly, two bright green cucumbers are thrust in my direction. 

“Madame!” A vendor dressed in a blue tabard and white cap strains over her table. The smell of the sweet, green flesh fills my nostrils, scrambled with a sour blast from the towers of sweating, homemade spicy kimchi displayed across the aisle. The vendor’s neighbour, determined to not be outdone, grabs two larger cucumbers from her stall. 

“De-li-cious,” she says, as if sounding out a magic spell, waving the cucumbers like wands. A small brown envelope peeks out of her tabard pocket — her stall tax, which is payable to the women in red suits and gendarmerie-style hats patrolling the aisles. I shake my head to both of them. No sale. The women start playfully arguing with each other, limbs flailing, chins lifting, their voices rising and rising above the cacophony of noise echoing around the gigantic hall. Cleavers slam into freshly roasted ducks, sacks of clams thud and crunch on the wet concrete floor. Too expensive, watch where you’re going. 

“Chosun apples!” bellows a vendor proudly. The apples may be North Korean but looking around it seems that a lot of what’s on display is imported— officially or otherwise. Fruit and vegetables from China, rice cookers and chocolate from Japan, alcohol and snacks from Russia, butter from Ukraine. For decades, the regime outlawed private trade. Then, to stop the country collapsing, it turned a blind eye. Now, it is the lifeblood of the economy. But even so, I am very aware of the ‘No photography’ signs, written in English, looming ominously over every entrance. Tongil Market exists, but it doesn’t. 

As I turn to leave, a team of grandmothers charge past me towards the apples, their purses packed with a combination of won and US dollars. As they wave their hands to lower the price, a stranger’s hand glances past my cheek, grazes my chin and shoves a small piece of delicious, cold watermelon into my mouth. Sold.  

RUNNER-UP


The forest’s custodians in Australia

At the northernmost tip of Queensland, forest lore is the preserve of the Aboriginal people, who share survival skills, stories and botanical knowledge on a wilderness excursion from the village of Kuranda. Words: Francesca de Prez

Errol said he’s going to tell me the story of a little boy and a forest. This forest. 

If the colour green had a smell, this would be it. The scent seeps through my pores, activating my primeval senses. Distant screeches of kookaburras fill my left ear. The white wing of a cockatoo flashes past the corner of my right eye. A kind smile spreads across Errol’s bronzed face, life radiating from his dark eyes: “Once, when I was a child, my grandfather said he’d take me to a fishing spot just around the corner — which became the next corner — and then the next. When I was so exhausted and thirsty I couldn’t walk anymore, he told me to wait and disappeared into the bush.” Long pause. “What happened next?” I ask. “Tell you later,” is the calm response of my Aboriginal guide. 

“Suddenly conscious of my status as an impermanent being in a permanent place, I feel liberated.”

by Francesca de Prez

Even though we both stand on the same rich soil under the same hot sun, we seem to be in different time zones. Only one of us realises we’re already two and a half hours into our one-hour tour, and it’s not him. Errol’s people, the Djabugay, have been the custodians of this land for over 10,000 years. This rainforest, which embraces the village of Kuranda in Far North Queensland, is 100 million years old. What are 60 minutes? Suddenly conscious of my status as an impermanent being in a permanent place, I feel liberated. Today, I also want to lose track of time. 

We hunt and we gather. The tart taste of munumba plums fills our mouths as we meander through smooth eucalyptus trees and slender fan palms, dodging the hooked tendrils of vicious yabulam canes (or ‘wait-a-while’, because if you get tangled…). Top tip: when eating a lime-flavoured green ant, immediately squash it onto your palate with the tongue. I ask Errol if he’d survive alone out here. “Course. I’d get a bit lonely though.” 

Time passes after all. As we walk back along the Barron River, I wish I could join the loud Aboriginal kids splashing around, mimicking wild animals. They bring to mind another little boy — “Errol, you haven’t finished your story!” Before he does, I’m offered a juicy twig to chew on instead of popcorn. “When my grandfather finally reappeared, he took me deep into the bush and with a stroke of his knife, he chopped a thick liana in half. A waterfall burst out and I drank and drank, until the source was exhausted. Now, my tale has two morals…” I feel clever and interject: “That you should only exploit resources when really necessary?” Errol nods, satisfied. “The second moral is more important, though.” I shrug, clueless. “Never,” he says with a cheeky smile, “trust an Aboriginal person when they tell you the destination is just around the corner.” 

The National Geographic Traveller Travel Writing Competition will return in 2022. Keen to learn from the experts in the meantime? The Masterclasses return in 2022 from 24-26 January.

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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