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Alex Thomson: Austin, Texas

And the winner of our Travel Writing Competition 2017 is… Alex Thomson, whose piece on Austin, Texas wins him a 10-day trip to Greenland with Quark Expeditions

By Alex Thomson
Published 18 Aug 2017, 14:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 10:34 BST
A black chicken

A black chicken

Photograph by Getty Images

Sunday afternoon at SXSW, in a dive bar on the outskirts of Austin, the crowds are parting way for the star of the show to arrive. Ordinarily there'd be nothing remarkable about that, but not during the behemoth of the SXSW music festival. This is after all the festival where Lady Gaga played inside a giant vending machine. Except this time, the star is a chicken, and for two dollars you can place a bet on where she might drop her business. Chicken Shit Bingo, held in the sweatbox Little Longhorn Saloon, is the bizarre but wholesome weekend attraction to remedy the big-brand showcases of the previous few days.

After a week of live music we'd wanted to find a beer away from the hiked prices of Sixth Street. We'd taken a Ride Austin driver at their word — 30 years an Austin native, almost unheard of in a town of mostly new arrivals.

Way out in the north end of town, the Little Longhorn Saloon sits alone, gathering dust — like most places seem to around here. A bit of old Texas, tucked away on the fringes and completely uninterested in what's happening downtown.

A live band took to their post in one corner of the room, tempting a few older couples to slow dance. For all we know they've been playing there every Sunday for a hundred years, doing the same few songs, perhaps. They're as rooted in the bar as the floorboards themselves. Outside there's free hotdogs and buckets of good-value Lone Star. My travelling buddy — new to Texas — gave it a slight put-down, sparking a two-hour conversation with a local Harley rider, who'd leapt quickly to its defence. They take their 'national beer of Texas' very seriously here, as they do their state's independent spirit.

Unannounced, the bar's owner ran to a table clutching the show tickets, and a few dozen people shambled into a wreck of a queue. Kids get to go first in line, in case the tickets run out, which they often do, we're told. So much so that, where possible, several shows are put on each day to cover demand. Ticket in hand, beer in belly and the Southern state sun showing little to no compassion — even in March — we headed back inside for the main event.

"Make way, chicken coming!" The crowd that had gathered part as the bird is squeezed under the mesh, into the cage. Outside, she lives in a huge enclosure, indulged beyond belief by the Saloon's owners and regulars, but in her arena she's Beyonce. There's a respectable hum of excited quietness before she drops — no more than 60 seconds after coming in, right on the number 20 square.

The number's called, and that's that — it's a loss. Hotdogs and beers continue throughout the day, though, as more people arrive with their own lawn furniture. Sometimes they run to the table for fresh tickets and back inside for another round of bingo. And so it might continue here for another hundred years, the same band playing the same sleepy country songs.

Follow @alexleethomson


The judges' verdict

Pat Riddell, editor of National Geographic Traveller (UK), said: "It was a tough process narrowing down the shortlist of entries this year, but Alex's stood out as a unanimous winner. "An unexpected topic tackled with a balance of humour and affectionate observation, it's a clever snapshot of the 'other side' of Austin and proof that sometimes the best travel writing is simply about storytelling."

The prize

Alex wins a 10-day Arctic Express: Greenland's Northern Lights polar expedition with Quark Expeditions, worth £13,000. He'll witness the world's largest fjord system of Scoresby Sund, discover the fascinating Inuit settlements and people of Ittoqqortoormiit, and have the possibility of viewing some of the world's most vivid displays of the Northern Lights.
There is also the chance to trek along the tundra, climb mountains and watch grazing musk ox and other arctic wildlife on the horizon.


The runners-up in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Travel Writing Competition 2017 can be viewed here:

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