There has been an electrifying buzz surrounding this year's Travel Writing Scholarship, and with very good reason. We received over 340 entries, and you guys are talented travel writers!!
The judging panel have landed back on Terra Firma after being escorted on a virtual odyssey through the wonderful, bazaar, surprising, lump-in-throat-sad, and the staggeringly beautiful worlds created by each scholarship applicant.
Congratulations to everyone who shared their story....our judges said the top 5 were ALL exceptional and it was very difficult to separate the winner......but I know you just want RESULTS!
And the winner is......
David Stott (our mentor) said of Jessica's story;
"It was extremely hard to separate the top five, but Jessica took the prize for several reasons. First, her fantastic pen portrait of rush hour in Cairo put me right in the moment, as the distorted roar of the muezzins ("Even in prayer Cairo is deafening") rose into the sky above the car horns. Second, she did a great job of evoking the moment that fortunate and patient travellers sometimes get to experience, of coming to feel at home in a foreign place. Her comment to the gridlocked taxi driver ("You need a louder horn") was sardonic, sympathetic and funny. Though there's always room for a little extra polish, Jessica's writing shows loads of potential and, just as importantly, passion for the work, and I'm confident she'll grab this opportunity with both hands."
Read Jessica's story below
Our 4 runners up (in alphabetical order)
"Sophie's story shone with enthusiasm, and vividly illustrated the traveller's internal journey from outsider to insider. With some effective use of multisensory imagery – fish scales glinting in the sun, tarpaulin flaps beating on a car door – she did a great job of carrying me with her right to the arid Portuguese hills. A glittering future surely awaits."
Read Sophie's story below
"Toby's story tricks you into thinking it's a rollicking yarn about tribal gents with unusual tastes in body adornment, but the comic tone sets up a serious issue that confronts travellers in wilder parts of the world: the impact of deforestation and modernisation on indigenous cultures. It's one of the key issues that responsible travel tries to address, and therefore represents an excellent choice of topic for this competition. Having given us a taste of their lives, Toby's poignant ending leaves us hoping that the world can find a place for the Sarawak forests - and the tribes and spirits that call them home."
Read Toby's story below
"Elliot did a superb job of obeying the First Rule of Writing: make the editor's job easy. His grammar is spot on, his story rolls along at a well-judged pace, and he allows his characters (introduced by name – always a good idea) to unfold by showing us, not merely telling us, who they are. He also shows a healthy regard for the often enigmatic culture of Aboriginal Australia."
Read Elliot's story below
"I loved Rebecca's depiction of the chaotic street life in Jaipur, and in particular the vignette of the rickshaw driver asleep on his vehicle. She also demonstrates a nifty turn of phrase: the motorbikes weaving through traffic "like needles knitting death certificates" was the most extraordinary phrase I read in the entire judging process. With talent like this, and the resourcefulness her life story demonstrates, Rebecca definitely has the makings of a successful travel writer."
Read Rebecca's story below
GOOD LUCK JESS.....
Jessica is packing for her trip of a life-time to Kerala to become a travel writer on the long and dusty road with Footprint Travel Guides. Namaste Jess!
Make sure you check back to read about Jess's adventures.
If you haven't already, make sure you sign up to the SCHOLARSHIP MAILING LIST so you can stay in the know.
READ THE WINNING STORIES
Jessica Lee's story (winner)
I am slowly going deaf. There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout: definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local. Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise. I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss. This city is adopting me.
My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock. Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone quieter era. Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime. My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how: he makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day, and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn. The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.
Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket. It is a hopeless task. Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels: comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure. We are all sinking into deafness in this city. My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone. “Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.
“Kuula masnoon,” I agree. Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic babel.
Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun. With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume. A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner. They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them. It is nearing time to pray. The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith. The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another. Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below. Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.
As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves. Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar. Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration. “You need a louder horn,” I say.
“Aywa,” he nods in agreement. Yes. I sit back in my seat and smile. I have begun to belong.
Sophie Ellis's story
The tarpaulin flaps gently in the wind, beating against the side of our car like a drum-roll. Suitcases and camping equipment are tightly packed underneath - as my fourteen year old self scornfully avows - ‘my only link to civilisation.’ We stop the car in the town square of Alcantarilha, a tiny, traditional village in the Algarve, to get supplies. A dozen pairs of crinkled eyes turned towards us. In their faded sun dresses and hats, the matriarchs of this Moorish town line the streets, sitting on the steps of their homes, armed with a fan and a sweeping brush. Here they’ll stay for the whole day, chatting and overseeing the activity of the village. They rarely smile and look a bit like gargoyles.
The square itself is old and crumbling. The stone cobbles shiny from footfall and, looking up, each old building has a cornice of swallow’s nests, running like a choker around the guttering. Standing underneath, you can hear the chicks and see the occasional beak emerge from the eyelet of the nest. There’s an ornate fountain in the centre of the square with carvings in the stone, and weather-worn dents where people have sat with their hand dipped in the water. The phrase nook and cranny truly applies to Alcantarilha – there are several. I stumbled upon a church, hidden in a backstreet - it's walls literally made out of skulls and bones. “In remembrance of our ancestors, the people who built village,” says a woman seated at a minuscule pew behind me.” She’s instantly recognisable as Portuguese but her English is impeccable – a nod that tourism might be impinging a bit too closely upon these rural old towns. No wonder the old community watches over the village so protectively.
There are two more churches and a pretty bridge dating back to the 16th century and which the village itself is named after. In one dimly-lit corner of the square is a little shop - it's shutters and window frames painted vivid, chalky blue. It’s run by a family who've lived in Alcantarilha for at least five generations (or so I'm told by a local who waves his hand vaguely about the specifics) and sells fruit, cool iced tea and watermelon to gorge on in a shady spot during the summer months, when the heat is so intense it burns through your sunhat. If you venture deep enough between the shelves, you'll find a cabinet full of fresh pastel natãs - Portuguese delicacies of custard and sweet, flaky pastry. On Thursdays, fresh fish is delivered and tanned boys throw the fish across the square from an ice box, across to the cooler in the shop. Mid-flight, the scales catch the light and the boys all cheer and clap.
Walking through the square every day, I can smell grilling seafood wafting from one of the local restaurants and hear thimble-sized espresso cups clinking from the village's only cafe/bar. No neon lights or translated menu's? I was wrong - this is civilisation. The same old eyes from the same old steps follow my movements with suspicion or curiosity – I’m not sure which. But after several days, I notice that the gargoyles are smiling - wide, wise, toothless grins. I’m welcome, and they aren’t made of stone.
Toby Nowlan's story
You guys want to see Borneo?" We’re in Kuching, bordering Borneo’s jungle province of Sarawak. The man addressing us looks Malay and appears drunk. I’m surprised when he continues: “I’m Brian, this is my friend Dave. Come down the river!” I have yet to discover that Brian and Dave are from tribes of hard-drinking headhunters and penis piercers. “Sure,” I say glancing nervously at my ordinarily English travelling companion.
Piling into Dave’s car, we’re immediately offered beer. Preconceptions of untouched paradise begin to fade. From the backseat I ask; "Could you teach us some Bahasa Malayu?"
"We’re not Malay,” proclaims my new friend Brian with a hearty chuckle. “We are Sarawakian!" Another assumption crumbles.
Brian belongs to Sarawak’s Iban tribe, Dave to the Berdayu. Despite history of trade with the Chinese, British occupation and recent integration of Sarawak with Malaysia, they have held steadfast to their origins.
Oil palms line the road. It’s customary in Kuching to have a grandfather who keeps a bag of human skulls in his porch. Dave launches into tales of ancestors' headhunting habits in the ‘Rajah days’ and of skirmishes with Philippine pirates. With every mile driven, Bornean tribal identity is further unveiled. Brian describes how after a heavy night of drinking, the Iban may treat a lucky hung-over individual to a penis piercing, or ampalang, which increases the pleasure of love-making. I double check that we'll be safely up and away before morning.
We stop to join a family gathering for lunch in a tiny Berdayu village. Dave pours lankau (local fiery rice wine) into cups fashioned from plastic bottles with a parang (machete). He pours a cupful away; an offering to forest spirits who would otherwise ensure that someone spills and wastes their drink.
Our now extended clan climbs into three longboats; half a metre wide and six long. The boats settle into the water until their gunwhales are a few inches above the river. We haul up onto an island of shingle and driftwood.
The group arranges itself in a circle, cross-legged and shirtless. Tattoos of spears and snakes wind around their torsos. The air is soon scented with the aroma of clove cigarettes. A fire crackles in the centre of the assembly and the lankau continues to circulate. A guitar appears and the group erupts into choruses of mandi ai pasi (‘bathing in the river’).
This scene is becoming less common. Mining and logging companies are ripping out the region’s forest, displacing tribal villages and endangering their ways of life. As the sun sets, the merriment falls away.
Aboard the longboats once more, intoxicated, anatomy thankfully intact, we drift silently back to the village. Throughout their turbulent history, Sarawak’s tribes have held true to their contradictory identity: resisting oppression, integration and cultural dilution. Until now, that is. My river journey leaves me fearful for the Iban and Berdayu.
Behind me an unsteady Dave reaches for his lankau which, seconds later, tumbles onto his lap. Perhaps the forest spirits have already left.
Elliot Norton's story
I would never have made it to the sacred waterfalls of Wujal Wujal had it not been for the Aboriginal ladies who met me in a white Toyota 4WD. I was surprised to see descendants of the first Australians driving a Landcruiser along the banks of the Bloomfield River. I had foolishly assumed that Aboriginal people always travelled on foot. With hindsight of course this was absurd. But at the time, seeing black Australians behind the wheel of the latest Japanese off-roader ran contrary to my naïve expectations.
The reason I would not have reached the Bloomfield Falls was not only that the last mile of the dirt track beyond was impassable by car. It was also because, if I had proceeded any further, I would have been trespassing on the land of the Kuku Yalanji people. But with Francis and Kathleen Walker with me, two of the traditional custodians of the land, there was no such problem. Kathleen was shy, but not painfully so – the calm expression on her face betrayed nothing more serious than a bout of timidity with strangers. And Francis, by contrast, was much more forthcoming and gregarious. She was clearly the spokesperson of the family. Francis brimmed with pride and confidence as she presented their land to me, talking through which bushes and shrubs were used for what ceremonial or medicinal purposes by their ancestors, and telling Dreamtime stories about the features of the World-Heritage-listed rainforest landscape.
But despite the modern, motorised transport and the Western clothing, some things had not changed for Francis’ and Kathleen’s clan since time immemorial. When we arrived at the bottom of the falls, my attempt to go for a dip was stopped abruptly by an admonishment from Francis. The walk up the gorge had made me hot and sticky, and the sub-tropical humidity of northern Queensland in late summer was stifling. But my entreaties were to no avail. I could not swim in the plunge pool beneath the 40-metre-high falls because it was a highly sacred place, where only the initiated were allowed to swim under tribal law.
‘So who decides which privileged few get to swim here?’ I asked.
‘The elders,’ Francis explained.
‘And how do they make the decision?’
‘That’s their business.’
‘So what happens if you swim in the pool when you’re not supposed to?’ I asked.
‘You die,’ Kathleen explained.
‘What, the elders have you killed?’
‘No, no; you just get crook and die.’
As I sat chatting to the Walker family at the base of the roaring waterfall and a thin film of spray covered me from head to toe, I felt I was being enveloped in the liquid embrace of an ancient culture. I knew I was only just starting to scratch the surface of its mysteries. But as the tiny, condensing droplets of mist-water cooled my body down, I felt my inhibitions begin to chill too. I did not properly understand the Kuku Yalanji culture, but I had taken the first step.
Rebecca Wicks' story
In the most beautiful garden I've ever seen, the emerald feathers of a squawking parrot catch my eyes as I lift them from my notepad. I'm in India, in a place called Samode Bagh, about 40km from Jaipur. I can finally breathe again.
"People come here to escape the craziness", the manager tells me, proudly. He's just given me my room for an extra nine hours, free of charge, because I tell him I can't bear to go back any sooner than I have to. He nods knowingly as he lifts a mobile phone to his turban and informs housekeeping. He’s seen it all before.
I arrived at Samode Bagh two days previously, having paid a man with a Toyota to take me to this promised land. The beaten up car was luxury to me, as riding on the tuk-tuk – my previous mode of transport – had me verging on a quarter-life-crisis. With no road system to speak of, the people of Jaipur drive without lights at night. They cycle on ancient bikes with barrels of hay and rusty cookers strapped to the back, and they weave through traffic on motorbikes like needles knitting death certificates. A journey on a main road could quite easily be halted by a passing wedding procession. A herd of goats could come running at you from the sidelines, or a lonely, roaming cow could rear his head suddenly, obliviously spiking your ever-ready camera with his horns. It’s a perilous adventure through aggravation and grime, one that had me constantly holding my scarf to my mouth, struggling for a breath of normality.
But the driver, who sleeps every night in his tuk-tuk under filth-ridden blankets and dutifully rises at the beck and call of his passengers, shows no fear as he peddles through the chaos. He slams on the breaks with practiced expertise as an elderly lady stumbles blindly out in front of us. “Sorry, sorry!” he calls back to me, picking up the pace again as I struggle to keep my lunch down.
I’m snapping my camera every ten seconds. The fear for my life is…occasionally… overridden by awe. I've never seen so many colours. As we’re moving, saris, all the colours of the rainbow blur into roadside stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables. The eyes of bewildered bovine shine next to wrinkled men making shoes, right next to piles of drying cowpats. Founded in 1727, the shimmering, pink stucco capital of Rajasthan is now home to over five million busy people. It feels as though they’re all on the same street as me.
Back in Samode Bagh, life slows down. There's no Internet connection here. Most of the staff live next door in a camp of concrete huts, surrounded by milking cows. At dinnertime, I sit on the lawn before a roaring fire. I spoon my chicken masala into my mouth and sip my Kingfisher beer happily, as a trio of musicians paint the night with Bollywood colours - classics, so we're told, although most of us wouldn't know.
Flicking through the photos on my camera, I realise that the Hathroi Fort at sunset looks even more beautiful than I noticed on the day, set against the hazy hills. And the smiles of local children as they run around the ruins are genuine, though I looked at their world with cynicism and fear at the time. I’m safe in this garden. I’m grateful for the structured, safe existence I call my own at home. But in retrospect, it’s never going to seem as exciting.