Travel Writing Competition 2022: introducing the winner and the runners-up

We whittled down hundreds of entries to just one winner and three runners-up. From discovering the secrets of French Polynesia to kayaking down Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, here are this year’s best travel tales.

The Blue Lagoon, a secluded corner of Polynesia hiding in the fringes of the much larger Rangiroa atoll.

Photograph by Getty Images
By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 6 Oct 2022, 06:03 BST

Every year, the editors of National Geographic Traveller (UK) judge hundreds of entries in their search for the next big travel-writing talent. The competition asks for 500 words on an inspiring, authentic experience that conveys a strong sense of the destination and the local people. Here are 2022’s prize-winning entry and runners-up.

THE WINNER: The Blue Lagoon

In a secluded corner of French Polynesia, Rangiroa offers extravagant beauty and wildlife. Words: James Bregman

Limon! Limon!”

Captain Hiro’s cry isn’t an offer of refreshments. He’s excitedly alerting his passengers to something.

On his instruction, we’ve left the safety of the moored boat and are wading towards shore. The waist-deep water is calm, clear, bathtub-warm. The only obstacles are the sharks.

They dart about in their hundreds, weaving at torpedo speed around our nervous steps and butting the occasional ankle. Most are modest-sized reef dwellers, as skittish as they are kinetic. The lemon shark now joining them is twice the size and much less timid.

Navigating this welcome party feels a fair price for entry to a beauty spot whose inaccessibility keeps crowds mercifully away.

The Lagon Bleu is a lagoon within a lagoon, one geological quirk inside another. This secluded corner of Polynesia hides in the fringes of the much larger Rangiroa atoll, a remarkable location in itself — a narrow ring of fragmented land with an expanse of ocean in the middle. Its 120-mile perimeter traces the shape of an ancient fringing reef that once encircled a towering volcano. Millennia after its peaks sank into the Pacific, today’s Rangiroa sits just feet above sea level. Its 360-degree horizon and sleepy pace make for a distinct edge-of-the-earth vibe.

On the giant atoll’s western reach, where stretches of continuous land give way to a patchwork of motus — small coral sand islets — the fauna of the Blue Lagoon lives its quiet life.

Hiro offers ironic applause as we make it to the lagoon’s outer beach, where the next guardian awaits: an albatross floats over the boiling sand, keeping a close eye on the visitors. Just beyond the seafaring bird’s outsize shadow lies our destination.

Photogenic scenes aren’t rare in Polynesia, but this one merits a gasp. Marked out by a border of coconut palms, the lagoon’s centrepiece is an immense pool where legions of coloured fish and yet more sharks cruise around in glassy clarity.

As we marvel, Hiro joins us on the beach for an impromptu lesson in Polynesian heritage. Using his own arm as field guide, he proudly points back and forth between his tattoos and the sea life. Revered turtles, rays and eels depicted in ink are matched by real-world examples, though none are quite as sacrosanct as the abundant mano (sharks), venerated across the Pacific as embodiments of ancient strength and divinity.

We wade across the lagoon to explore the far shore, where the reception is chilly. Emerging from the foliage comes a clan of nesting white terns, which look angelic, but prove formidable as dive bombers.

When the sun sets over our homeward journey, the boat is buzzed by what looks like another squadron of seabirds. On closer inspection they’re flying fish, skipping across the wave crests for remarkable distances. They fall gradually back as Rangiroa’s harbour comes into view. It’s as if they’d been escorting us back; the wildlife of the hidden lagoon, it seems, tolerated our presence for the day but is still making very sure to see us out.

What the judges said: James’s entry stood out for its clear, concise sentences and effective structure. The opening quote draws the reader in and cleverly steers us into the experience, setting the scene and introducing the destination. All in all, it’s an excellent piece and impressed all the judges.

The grand prize: James and a guest will join National Geographic Expeditions for the opportunity to discover the spectacular east coast of Greenland on board Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant’s luxury expedition ship. The 11-day voyage through fjords, icebergs and glaciers offers the chance to spot seals, Arctic foxes and even polar bears. Travellers can also learn about the traditions of the Greenlandic Inuit, whose lives follow the rhythm of the changing seasons.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the South Sinai Desert.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the South Sinai Desert.

Photograph by Getty Images

RUNNER UP: The bridge of the world

Egypt’s South Sinai Desert reveals a world apart. Words: Henry Worsley

Saint Catherine’s Monastery stood alone in the centre of the South Sinai desert, hunched and quiet like an aged Madonna in the shadow of the peaks.

Hidden inside this layer cake of brick and mosaic walls lay the very bush which had burned before Moses, so they told me, although the sacred shrubbery itself was firmly hidden from sight, cordoned-off by local policemen wary of Islamic State remnants that lingered in the area.

Our ascent was made at midnight, our path guided by the light of the full moon. I was hiking with a small group of Alexandrian teenagers. We stopped briefly at corrugated huts that straddled the route up the silvery mountainside, drinking mint tea and looking out over the black gully beneath us.

The landscape was the most alien I’d ever seen. When I looked for shapes and forms hospitable to a human being, I saw only something like an image of a mushroom under a microscope. Each rocky feature was bulbous, only the vague outlines of the mountains visible in the grainy light, rising like melted candle wax from the penumbrous abyss below. Beyond our breathing and footsteps, only silence.

Approaching the summit of the mountain, the temperature began to drop. This was the coldest place in Egypt; the coldest place in all of North Africa from here to the distant spine of the Atlas, 3,000 miles away.

We passed a small mosque, its door open, abandoned to the gnawing cold. Dawn remained hours away, but as we began to freeze in the north wind, something dim was spotted glimmering above us: an Orthodox chapel, built originally in the time of the emperor Justinian, smashed and resurrected after storms had shattered its fragile frame.

Inside, several nuns warmed themselves around a fire-filled bowl. They cast long shadows, chanting hymns in Russian, while behind the screen a long-bearded priest prepared a sacrament for the pilgrims. The sound of their Slavic lament swirled in echoes through clouds of incense. Eventually, we shuffled into the half-light outside.

When the sun rose, the group of boys I was with stared dumbfounded for an instant, enchanted by the celestial beauty of the fireball rising into the sky. This was Ra, the Ancient Egyptian god, heralding warmth and a new day.

“Allahu akbar,” they said, pulling off their shirts and posing for selfies, while to my back the nuns continued their mournful chant, now tinged with major chords of hope and rebirth.

I realised I was standing on the bridge of the world — not just the land of Abraham’s God, but the crossroads of a timeless spiritual yearning, a place of singing and fasting, of hermits and grace.

Suddenly, it all seemed so obvious why they called this place ‘holy’. As clear as the sun.

Few reach the stretches of the Rio Dulce through the jungle of north-eastern Guatemala.

Few reach the stretches of the Rio Dulce through the jungle of north-eastern Guatemala.

Photograph by AWL Images

RUNNER UP: Alone on a slow river

A kayak trip down Rio Dulce uncovers a side of Guatemala untouched by visitors or time. Words: Finnuala Brett

For an hour, I’m alone in the canyon. Steep cliffs of vegetation have risen around me; the river slows into viscous, glassy green. The prow of my kayak makes little noise as it parts the water’s surface, interjected by the occasional howler monkey and drowned out by the cries of swooping birds. A shaft of afternoon light settles on their flurried wings, catching the haze of the late day.

Few seem to reach these stretches of river, where Lago de Izabal narrows, and the Rio Dulce winds through the jungle of north-eastern Guatemala. There’s little engine noise up here. The yachts and lanchas sit moored in the town of Fronteras, and the daily boat bus to Livingston has already passed. People are replaced by birdlife, great grey pelicans and flitting egrets; the roads turn into waterways that bend around tangles of tree roots. Since leaving my riverside hostel, with my belongings squashed into a dry bag and a friendly “Adios!” waved to the young host, the straw-roofed cabanas and their rickety docksides have petered out. Any fellow tourists have long vanished.

Beads of sweat are washed down my arms by the trickle of water from my kayak’s paddles. From under the brim of my cap, I squint across to the far side of the canyon. As I hold still, floating gently downstream, a new noise breaks the stirrings of wildlife.

Two cayucos (small canoes) emerge from the shadow of a creek I hadn’t yet noticed, slipping across towards the middle of the river with a figure standing poised at each prow. Their boats are longer than mine, elegant and curved up from the surface, and laden with plastic bait-jugs. As I drift closer, I wave and call across the water in greeting. The sound echoes against the limestone cliffs.

The late sun is bright behind the two young men, and as one of them dives gracefully from his cayuco, it catches and holds the splashes in glittering amber. The seconds lengthen, and the other fisherman and I watch the water’s surface as it stills and throws the bouncing light back into our eyes. It seems like an age before the diver eventually bursts back up from the water surface, startling the birds from nearby branches. He clutches a snake-like shape in his hand, triumphant. It’s an anguilla, still used in Indigenous Mayan fishing as a bait for tarpon.

The river has already carried me far downstream; the divers busy themselves with their catch. I realise that without the quiet slowness of my kayak, I might not have encountered this way of life. Modern life, skimming past in motorboats, has not seemed to settle here.

The sun has passed this corner of the river now, the canyon walls casting me back into shade. As my paddles return to the water, the noise of wildlife rises to meet the settling dusk. Rio Dulce falls into slumber, and I’m alone in the canyon once more.

A family of brown bears.

A family of brown bears.

Photograph by Getty Images

RUNNER UP: Going on a bear hunt

A hike in Japan’s Hokkaido island leads to a face-to-face encounter with elusive creatures. Words: Elizabeth Wainwright

“You need a bell for your bag,” the woman says, handing me a ticket for the cable car that will take me to the start of the trail.

“A bell?”

“So the bears hear you coming.” She picks up a bell, and it tinkles a high-pitched greeting as she hands it to me. I clip it onto my rucksack, now ready for my six-day hike through Daisetsuzan National Park in Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido. I walk outside, fearing and hoping to see a bear.

The next few days bring blizzards that blow through ice and rock, dripping-wet green forests, mountains that emerge from clouds, and vast views. In Japanese, ‘Daisetsuzan’ means ‘great snowy mountains’. The Indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido call the area Kamui Mintara — ‘playground of the gods’. I meet few gods, or people, or bears, though they are all here.

I’m inhabiting a landscape that feels familiar, at times reminding me of Scotland and the Alps, but also strange. When the clouds close in, I feel I’m at the end of the world. I think of the Japanese Studio Ghibli films that conjure mythical creatures and magic realities, hidden but for those who have eyes to see. I have stepped into the looking glass, and I see rocks and plants differently, hear peculiar animal noises. I begin to doubt I’ll see a bear though, the regular tinkle of the bell on my bag starting to annoy me. I reach for it, ready to remove it, but something stops me.

Most working Japanese people have a day off each week when city dwellers head to the hills. My bell and I have company. For part of the day I walk with a man from Sapporo, the island’s largest city, and we talk about the tsunami of the year before. The previous week I’d been on the main island’s east coast meeting affected communities — people were living piled on top of each other in flats, their homes still flattened rubble. “People struggle with the lack of privacy,” he says. “We are very private. But still, the tsunami brought us together.” We arrange to meet for food in Sapporo the following week.

On my own again the next day, my bell incessantly talking, I feel I’m being watched. I stop, lift my eyes from the trail, look down to the valley below and to the hills the other side. She is standing there, looking at me — a mother bear with her cub behind. I’m too far away to be a threat and so is she. Studio Ghibli still in my mind, I half expect her to speak to me. She doesn’t. My bell doesn’t either. Now, only mountain silence resounds. I’m not sure how long we look at each other, but eventually the air shifts and the bear and her cub carry on their path, and I carry on mine, each in our own private but shared wonder of a world.

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