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2008 Travel Writing Scholarship - the winner!

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 2 June 2008 | Views [12108] | Comments [5]

It's been an adventurous week for our judges who have enjoyed reading the Scholarship submissions. We received over 200 entries from all corners of the globe and the standard was exceptionally high.

And the winner is.....

Of course there must be one winner - and our very worthy recipient of the 2008 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship is Susannah Palk!

Congratulations Susannah!

Keith Austin, travel writer from our judging panel had the following to say about Susannah's story;

Susannah’s story of finding the beating heart of Havana by taking the trail less touristed struck me both for its simplicity and for her ability to paint a world in a few words. As she wanders away from the brightly coloured facades to find the buildings “held together by dirt and depravation” where men fix old Ladas and the police turn a blind eye to the streetside entrepreneurs I found myself wanting to jump on the next flight to Cuba. I, too, wanted to taste the cigars, the rum and the salsa of the Malecon at midnight. And that, surely, is the basic aim of a travel story – to bring new places to life and perhaps persuade the more sedate among us to get out there and taste what life has to offer.
Susannah also impressed because her story structure is sound, her emphasis is on the reader and not herself, and her grammar and spelling are correct. These last two are important but hideously overlooked attributes in any travel story; travel editors get inundated with stories every day and simply cannot read every word of every submission. By misspelling names or misplacing apostrophes you are giving them the excuse they need to throw your masterpiece in the bin.

Read Susannah's story

Our runners up....

The competition was tight, and we strongly congratulate our runners up, as they were all exceptional. Keith Austin has made the following comments;

First runners up: Lynette Willoughby

Lynette’s story from the Kimberley had great characters, a good ear for dialogue and life-threatening action. What more can you want from a travel story? Her description of Stumpy the one-legged donkey shooter brought him to wonderful life. I wanted to read more about her 4WD campervan trip. Lynette has a good future in travel journalism if she keeps up these standards - and I should note that very little separated her and the eventual winner. (Read Lynette's story)

Second runners up: Mark Bailey

Mark took a different approach in that he looked at the slowly burgeoning tourism business in Papua New Guinea through a local tour guide who has been trying to teach his countrymen to embrace tourism and protect their environment at the same time. It’s a nice profile of a country seen through a man who has, to our eyes, nothing but who really has everything he needs to be happy. (Read Mark's story)

Third runners up: Emily Sim

Possibly not the favourite tourist destination du jour but Emily’s tale of living and travelling in Uganda, and of confronting death, landmines and the need to pee during a crowded bus ride was a terrific read. It was simple and unhurried, and she manages to convey a lot about her experience and her feelings in a few well-chosen words. Her description of a piece of old asphalt road as “a fossil from a faraway time” said so much in so little. (Read Emily's story)

Read the winning stories about 'An Unforgettable Adventure'

Winner: Susannah Palk

An old man is sitting quietly on the steps, looking me up and down as I reach for my guidebook. At the sight of my book, he is suddenly spurred into action. ‘One peso…one peso for photo, with me, famous Cuban’ he says. ‘Err, no thanks, I’m okay’ I reply.

As he becomes more animated, I have a momentary sense of deja vu. His face, his beady eyes, grizzly beard and communist beret are strangely familiar.

I close my guidebook and then I realise, this old man on the steps is the same guy gracing the cover of my guidebook!

‘Ah’, says the ageing poster, now smiling, ‘two peso, I sign book’… I must be in tourist territory!

I’m on one of the main roads in Havana Veija, Havana’s old historical centre, a patchwork of brightly-coloured colonial facades set amongst impressive cathedrals, castillos and town squares.

There is an almost theme park quality to the place and it’s crammed with tourists. Everything you’ve ever associated with Cuba you can get here; rum, cigars, mojitos, salsa, vintage cars, even revolutionary leaders -Che Guevara t-shirts anyone?

But of course, this is a sanitized Havana, minus the poverty, dirt and grime. Stray, ever so slightly, off the prescribed tourist path and what you’ll find is a completely different city. As I venture down a back street, metres away from the tourist clad Museo de la Revolution in downtown Centro Havana, I enter a different world. No brightly coloured facades around here, just crumbling buildings held together by dirt and depravation.

Layers of washing hang from lines strung out of windows. Women gossip across balconies as children play baseball in the street below. A man lies beneath his car, a little Russian Lada, wrestling with a mechanical problem. A cyclist zooms past, a double bass strapped to his back.

One man has set up a barbershop on the street outside his house. Down the road another resident is also open for business - a table and chair - repairing watches and shoes.

A police car cruises past, its occupants turning a blind eye to these small and illegal outposts of entrepreneurial businesses. I get an odd look from the police.

‘You American?’ a middle-aged man in a baseball cap asks me as I turn to look back down the street. ‘No, no’, I hastily reply. ‘Ah’, he smiles, ‘good, we not like Americans here’. He flashes me a cheeky grin. ‘Hungry?’ he asks as he leads me to a house a few doors down. I am a little apprehensive but pleasantly surprised to find a miniature restaurant set up in the back courtyard, illegal of course.

Going local, I order the Cuban staple of pork with salty rice and a stew of black beans. The food is served by the matron of the house, Marie-Louise, who obviously thinks I am eating for three burley men. After polishing off my meal, well a good quarter of it, I take a stroll along the Malecon, Havana’s famous boardwalk where the city meets the sea.

Deserted during the day, life slowly seeps back along the Malecon as families, friends and lovers emerge to stroll the strip and watch the sun set behind the sea.

As it gets darker more and more people gather to meet and drink in the cool breeze. Young girls in short skirts and big hoop earrings, flirt and giggle with boys swigging drinks and swaying their hips to the music.

A few entrepreneurial types walk from group to group, selling peso pizzas as couples canoodle, positioning themselves away from prying eyes. By midnight this five-kilometre stretch of concrete is a sea of people and music. The Malecon, I’ve discovered, has the lot, cigars, rum, sea and salsa. The only thing missing is the tourists.



First runners up: Lynette Willoughby

Five days into our trip adrenalin levels were high, fresh supplies were low, and hot showers an all too distant memory.

As our 4WD campervan rattled along a red, dusty, corrugated track we dodged curious Brahman bulls, kangaroos and other animal life that choose to call this wild, north-western pocket of Australia ‘home’. Welcome to the Kimberley. The turn-off to ‘Drysdale River Station Homestead’ was an invitation that could not be refused. This million acre property offered camping sites with showers ! And the dining house offered Brahman burgers (what sweet revenge). We sat on carved red gum stools relishing beer on tap. Cold beer. And then we met Stumpy.

Stumpy didn’t mess with words. Two short sentences later we knew that Stumpy used to shoot ‘roos further up north. A confrontation with a salt-water crocodile whilst fishing in his ‘tinnie’ resulted in Stumpy losing half his left leg. Now he was hired to accompany bush pilots in helicopters (“choppers”) and shoot feral donkeys for the station owners. “We sus out the females and ping ‘em with a tracking device” he explained. “Come breeding season the males swarm around the female like maggots to a lump of meat. Then we get ‘em all in one go. Piece of piss”. Stumpy took another long draw on his cigarette, hitched his holster belt further up and lovingly caressed the handle of his rifle. His piercing black eyes reminded me of the wedge tail eagle we saw yesterday.

“What’s the fishing like around here Stumpy”? Stumpy carefully ground the butt into the red dirt and surveyed us again with those eagle eyes. Seemed like he was working out whether we could be trusted with confidential information. “Good barra on the Drysdale landing about 5 k’s up”. He paused again. “Gotta watch out for salties. If you see a moving ‘V’ formation in the water; get the hell out of there”. Then as an afterthought “We don’t like losing our visitors”.

We took Stumpy at his word. The barra were biting, and so were the mosquitoes. Nature called and I left my mates and walked further along the bank. I barely noticed the roughly strewn mound of sticks and dirt. Then I heard a noise. I spun around and saw a salt water crocodile snaking its way through the mud towards me. My life flashed before me. Most of what happened next is a horrible blur, but the terror of the moment will stay with me forever. Afterwards Stumpy explained in his usual laconic fashion. “You were dead lucky it missed you at the first lunge. Uses up their adrenalin; they’re knackered if they don’t get you first time round. Forgot to warn you about the females nesting. Here, I’ll shout you a beer.”

Second runners up: Mark Bailey

In some countries Kay Nupore could be a wealthy man. He runs his own tour guide business, he is the founder of a wildlife conservation centre, he has been nominated to run for ward councillor in the regional elections, and he has recently been interviewed by the national airline’s in-flight magazine. This, however, is Papua New Guinea; and, like most of the other 5.7million people living here, he lives on only a few dollars a day, his home is made from dried grass and wood, and he has no electricity or running water. But he has few complaints.

“You know, not many whitemen come here. But when they do, I find them – like you!” Smiling mischievously he was referring to how he had accosted me in the supermarket while I was comparing lettuces. Given Kay’s appearance: a diminutive, dark-skinned man with reddened teeth in his late 30s, sporting an unkempt beard and cheap clothing, he bears little resemblence to a tour guide.

But in an area only discovered by outsiders 60 years ago Kay’s experience is invaluable; he has been conducting treks and village stays in PNG’s remote and beautiful highland interior for over twenty years. In such inaccessable terrain it seems like each valley has its own dialect – nationwide there are reported to be 867 languages – and he not only speaks all the local languages but also seems to know somebody in every village.

But for Kay, his most rewarding tour is the fruits of his own work. “I try to teach them not to destroy our land; they can make money from the forest.” he explains, recounting how he convinced his village of the benefits tourism could bring; eventually persuading them to constuct a cage-less wildlife refuge, showcasing local creatures like tree kangaroos and birds of paradise in their natural habitat. Since then, on the land originally set aside for his deceased son, he has built a traditional hut to serve as a guest house for more adventurous travellers.

He realised tourists come to PNG to see unspoilt scenery, traditional culture and amazing wildlife. And his own village has it all: a small row of round-based wooden huts with conical thatched roofs, set against a backdrop of verdant forest that rises up steeply to contrast against a deep blue sky; warm indigenous villagers; and a first-hand insight into the Papua New Guinean wantok (tribe) – along with gardening and pigs, the most important aspect of PNG society. He explains how the wantok give money to each other, provide food, give each other jobs, and fight for each other, to the death. Thanks to the success of his scheme Kay has become one of the most respected figures in the area, recently being chosen by the surrounding villages to run for councillor in the regional elections. Sitting in his impressively colourful garden watching his children chasing a neighbours chicken, it is easy to see why Kay has few complaints. “I am a rich man!” He says laughing, though I suspect only half jokingly. “Maybe even richer than you.”

Third runners up: Emily Sim

The road to hell is unpaved. It is narrow and dusty and riddled with potholes large enough to swim in when the rains come. Occasionally there is a bump of decades-old asphalt jutting out of the dirt, a fossil from a faraway time. Since that time, a generation of babies has been born to a soundtrack of gunshots and screams, and these days those babies are now giving birth to their own babies. Half the population of Uganda is under the age of fifteen and the proportion is even higher in the North. Here, rebels waged a gruesome war for over two decades. There are few who are old enough to remember the paved roads of the past.

I see my first dead body along the road to Kitgum. Despite living in Uganda for over six months and attending a handful of the numerous burials that took place in our village, I have not yet seen death in the flesh. In Rwanda I had been to the genocide museum and seen concrete slabs, which lie on top of 200,000 bodies in a mass grave. Inside the museum are hundreds more bones neatly sorted and lined up side by side like pieces of Lego ready to be put together again. How can this be real?

Through the bus window, my eyes see the body, wrapped in a sheet, with two small feet sticking out the end. Feet the same size as Tefula’s, the tiny boy who cried when he first saw my white skin but later taught me to count in Lusoga despite his knowledge of English being limited to the word ‘bye’. For the next few hours I am numb. My head swims with small bodies. Thankfully something else eventually takes over. I have to pee. I stagger down to the front of the rocking metal cage. The conductor says, ‘OK, OK soon’, and half an hour later I leap off into the bushes. ‘Ahh...No!’ the conductor pulls my arm back and laughs again. ‘Not there’, he says shaking his head, and pushing me towards the road at the back of the bus. ‘Landmines’ he says and mimes an explosion with his hands. My mind tumbles with the question of which way I should be going. There are twice as many passengers as seats, not counting the babies sprinkled around everyone’s laps. A scrawny chicken pecks my foot, my bags are piled high on my lap, someone’s sweet potatoes are wedged tightly around me, there’s a baby poking my knee, and a goat somewhere behind. Conversation ripples through the length of the bus and I pick up a few strands in English and a few tiny fragments in Lusoga. The rains have drenched the fields and the crops have sprouted, bringing forth livelihoods and sustenance. Men’s sweat lingers with goat breath and rotting jackfruit skins and milky babies and fresh rain. I breathe it all in deeply, for I don’t want to forget.







a jouney not so far,a journey not so close,

a life not so far,a life not so close,

a game not so easy,a game not so tough,

a change not so easy,a change not so tough,

a country in which people love people,

a country in which life gives new life to its own life,

a country in which no one wonders about the future which is very bright,

a country in which the trains move very slowly and leaves very quickly,

a land on which some great energy has stepped and shown for so many years.

  walking-buddy Jul 12, 2008 6:08 AM


Its a nice post.

I hope you dont mind if I link this site to mine ^^

  Ansella Sep 15, 2008 11:14 AM


I think Susannah meant to say "dirt and deprivation," since "depravation" is a synonym for depravity, and I don't think she means that Cuba is morally corrupt.

  Diana Dec 20, 2008 11:41 AM


I think Sarah also meant to say 'burly' men not 'burley'

  Sarah Jan 5, 2009 11:23 PM


Oops, obviously I meant Susannah. I see the irony that my correction of her article was incorrect!

  Sarah Jan 5, 2009 11:25 PM

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