Travel Writer of the Year 2012: The winners revealed

Our annual travel-writing contest is always hard-fought and, with nearly 200 entries, this year was no exception. But Pete Dommett’s evocative tale about Lithuania’s annual bird rally triumphed. 

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Illustration by Tim Marrs

 

How we picked the winner

Our annual travel-writing contest is always hard-fought and, with nearly 200 entries, this year was no exception.  But Pete Dommett’s evocative tale about Lithuania’s annual bird rally triumphed as the judges’ choice. 

Special mention must go to Charlotte England’s encounter with vultures at a ‘sky burial’ in Tibet.

And congratulations to all those mentioned on the Roll of Honour – every one of your stories entertained and informed us.

 

THE RESULTS:
 
Winner
 
The World's Edge by Pete Dommett, Bristol
 
Runner-up
 
Tibet by Charlotte England, Brighton
 
Commended
 
A Mongoose with Chutzpah by Susan Eames, Suvasavu, Fiji
 
Sealion Island by Victoria James, Tooting, London
 
Peregrine by Louise Taylor, Winchester
 
Also shortlisted:
 
Chris Dunn, Kent;
 
Paul McGranaghan, Strabane, Northern Ireland;
 
David Higgins, North Yorkshire;
 
Nicholas Hill, Cambridge;
 
Marcus Janssen, Rutland;
 
James Lowen, London;
 
Jane Matthews, Shetland;
 
Simon Pettit, Chipping Norton;
 
Darren Smith, Northumbria.
 
 
WINNER
 

The World’s Edge, by Pete Dommett, Bristol

On an isolated and otherworldly spit of land in the Baltic Sea, Pete Dommett is captivated by unusual encounters with some familiar friends during Lithuania’s annual bird rally.

It’s six in the morning and we are running to the edge of the world. The October air, etched with an early breath of winter, delivers an icy hit to my heaving lungs.

“Greitai, Peter! Hurry!” Boris calls over his shoulder, the pigtails of his woolly hat dancing in the darkness.

As we race past the fishing lodge, he nods towards the roof, where a solitary white stork is curled up like a cat. I smile in surprise at this icon of Eastern Europe. It should be slipping into an African summer, but here it is, lifted straight from the pages of my boyhood bird books: an avian omen for the day ahead.

The road ends at a snuffed-out lighthouse where we join the whispered gathering. I can taste the faintest tang of salt on the thin breeze and anticipation in the air.

Suddenly, a single firework spears the sky, a flame shot through cold black. The day has begun.

Boris has brought me here to the Baltic, to Ventes Ragas on Lithuania’s narrow western coast, for the annual bird rally – to see, or hear, as many different species as we can.

The calls come first: the enquiring quaver of a robin, the clatter of a blackbird, a mallard’s cartoon quack – comforting sounds of home that welcome me to this unknown place.

Then, as daylight seeps across the sky, the air around us is peppered with dancing finches, and the landscape reveals itself to me for the first time.

Ventes Ragas – literally, the ‘World’s Edge’ – is a shard of land stabbing south towards the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The sky and sea are layers of bashed metal, like old pewter, pressing heavily upon each other. The Curonian Spit, a seam of silvered sand, forces them apart and stretches from here all the way to ‘Little Russia’.

Looking east, this spur is a jagged eyetooth in the mouth of the Nemunas River, which flows for almost 1,000km from neighbouring Belarus. The delta is on one of the world’s major migratory routes. Above us now runs a seasonal stream of birds.

Shady knots of birdwatchers work the fields around the ringing station, gathering their first ‘ticks’ of the day.

Boris and I circumnavigate the huge, billowing trapping nets. We creep through the rushes, breathing the morning dampness, and find Kristina and her daughter, Ieva, who are searching for birds that have become entangled in the outer folds of the giant cobweb. Kristina explains that the birds will die here unless they are funnelled further into the net, to be caught and ringed later today. 

There is a ball of fluttering panic in one corner. Holding the material taut, as Kristina gently teases fragile legs and feathers from the mesh, I sense another new encounter. A brambling. The name alone evokes all things autumnal –orchard apples and hedgerow berries – with its plumage the burnt orange of turning trees and the grey-black of encroaching nights.

In a moment, it is flying again – deeper into the net’s gaping throat – in a fleeting taste of freedom.

Beyond the fields, the reeds and rhynes remind me of the peat moors of home. But among the familiar, I find the fantastic.

Across the lakes, grey with West Country herons, are snowdrop sprinklings of great white egrets. And, encircled by lapwings, white-tailed eagles settle on the charred relics of trees that push up through the coppered water.

At lunch we eat Lithuanian salad – a mayonnaise-smothered mix of gherkins, boiled beetroot and egg – sharp and fresh and spooned straight from the jar.

Looking out across the Baltic Sea, now cool and milky like forgotten tea, Boris announces that we need to move on, from the coast to the forest. But I feel connected to this wild dead end now, energised by its isolation and beguiled by its birds.

As Boris consults our checklist once more, I notice a handful of tourists at the ringing hut, watching Kristina work. Her husband, Vytautas, brings her boxes of birds. Each wooden tray is divided into eight separate compartments, and in each of these, like little feathered sweets, sit brightly coloured birds: blue tits, greenfinches, goldfinches.

“Prašau! Prašau! Please! Please!” Children flock to the front and beg, with hands cupped, to hold one. With eyes wide in innocent wonder, they are birdwatchers in the purest sense.

One by one they release a rainbow into the sky. I take my turn. Kristina, smiling, gives me a gently buzzing bundle. 

“Acˇiu–,” I thank her.

Feeling the coiled energy curled tight within this delicate parcel of bones and tiny muscles, of folded wings and tensed nerves, I spread my palm. A brambling fizzes into the air, arching across the water and out over the edge of the world. 

 
 
Pete Dommett is a teacher for a health-education charity in Bristol. He has a lifelong interest in wildlife, which he now enjoys sharing with his children. His trip to Lithuania came about after he met a wildlife photographer called Boris near his home.
 
Pete wins a 10-day safari for two to the Kalahari and the Okavango Delta in Botswana with Expert Africa. He will stay at some of the country’s more remote bushcamps run by Kwando Safaris.
 
 
 
RUNNER-UP
 
Tibet, by Charlotte England, Brighton
 
We rose at dawn and made our way out across the vast, frosted mountain plain. The town - a small place in the Sichuan province of south-west China - was located well into the Tibetan Plateau and stood at an elevation of 4,000m.
 
I'd become accustomed to crisp, delicate air at this altitude, but today it felt heavier, and soon the diaphanous silver sky began to spit.
 
Like a precursor to the day's events, one immense, angular bird hung in the air as I huddled deeper inside my pitifully unsuitable outfit; I was wearing every item of clothing I owned layered over one another and I was still freezing cold.
 
We were all hesitant; the local monks, in jovial bursts of broken English, had assured me repeatedly that our presence wouldn't cause offence, but still we were anxious not to get invasively close.
 
While my friends settled safely behind a brook, at the bottom of a steep sloped plain, swept threadbare by the unimpeded mountain wind, I strayed gradually closer to the small group of slim figures above us on the hillside.
 
As I neared the site I found the ground increasingly scattered with debris: shriveled scraps of dried flesh, serrated knives, saw blades, and little metal plates. Picking my way through I reached a level with the men and settled on the ice encased grass a hundred metres or so to their right.
 
Before me a weathered mulch of ink-run prayer flag littered the opposite slope and far in the distance a series of higher peaks loomed over us, their hulking black forms rippled with sharp white snow; they looked inverted, like photo-negatives suspended against the pearlescent sky.
 
To my left the first sky burial was already under way, the deceased's relatives driving back a churning mass of feather and wrinkled, almost reptilian skin. Amber eyes glinted in the pale sunlight as sharp, hooked beaks ripped through flesh.
 
The Tibetans skipped nimbly around the steep slope, attempting to disperse the birds, their long hair wind-licked and billowing out behind them. 
 
Finally the creatures began to recede, hanging resentfully back, their characteristic hunch and shameless hop triggering shudders of primitive repulsion. The body they exposed was a strange mass of bone and sinew, stripped of all loose flesh.
 
With nothing left for the birds to tear away the painstaking process of grinding this into something more palatable began. Lurking behind the relatives the appointed bone-smasher wore a skirt and veil of blood spattered white plastic, wrapped unceremoniously around a stooped, matronly figure.
 
She bashed imperturbably away at the bones as the Tibetans passed a casual 90 minutes in intermittent prayer and chanting interspersed with jokey chatter and frequent, raucous bird chasing.
 
When the bone smasher stepped back, at last, the remains were buried, almost instantaneously, in a flurry of feathers. Leaving the birds to clean the ground the Tibetans descended and approached us, insistent we share their vat of yak tea, butter and bread. 
 
As we ate, a second body arrived and instinctively the vultures seeped across the plain, leaving a sadly desolate scene behind; the vacated mountainside appeared to seep blood, the pulpy puddle a mincey, leaking, raw pink wound.
 
The odd hawk dipped and circled overhead, some crows picked through the leftovers and an outlying yellow yak ambled over the brow of the hill, made purposefully for the pulp and began to graze as we sat in a companionably mismatched circle on the dirty ground below. 
 
We picnicked in the shadow of the second burial, a tiny old woman unfolded from a cardboard box, frail and delicate and impossibly contorted, she was stripped of clothing and tied to a stake, in seconds she'd disappeared, buried entirely by the rapacious creatures.
 
In the light breeze one immense black feather floated down from the tumult above, landing softly beside me.
 
When we'd finished our hosts loaded me down with so much bread I couldn't close my bag and drove us back into town in a tractor, bumping violently over the potholed plain.
 
 
 
 
COMMENDED
 
A Mongoose with Chutzpah, by Susan Eames, Suvasavu, Fiji
 
It all came to a head the day the mongoose ran down the supermarket aisle.
 
I knew they kept cats in an attempt to control a mouse population so well established the mice strolled around the shelves instead of scooting and scuttling for their lives like all normal rodents.
 
Indeed, I’d already found a kitten curled like a prawn on top of the tea towels, sleeping on the job. But a mongoose? It just felt like one mammal too far.
 
We were travelling around the world on a mission to find a new home. When we added Fiji to our wish-list of countries we had treated the inclusion as no more serious than a daydream. Yet here we were on a four month visa, exploring the islands.
 
And to our astonishment the reality of living in the South Pacific was looking viable.
 
We had rented a little bure – or cottage - from a garrulous German ex-pat keen to share his knowledge about life in Fiji. We’d even found the perfect property. But I was cautious in the face of Fiji’s heart-wrenching charms: unsure whether we could really integrate into this exotic world.
 
It was the cool/dry season: a sensationally inaccurate term. Downpours of tempestuous rain followed by punishing levels of humidity regularly wrecked us.
 
“And if this is the cool, winter season, how will we tolerate the hot/wet summers?” I said to my husband as we sprawled in our sweat-soaked bed.
 
“We’ll acclimatise, stop worrying,” he said.
 
Then there was the wildlife. Every evening the flying foxes, or fruit bats, came sweeping in on their pterodactyl wings to feed on the papayas. Fiji’s only indigenous mammals made up in noise what they lacked in grace when they crash landed in the trees. They kept us awake until the small hours, screeching and squabbling over the fruit like an onslaught of banshees.
 
The surrounding rainforest threw up insects that looked like they ate Alice’s cake. Stick insects as long as my hand swayed like loose-limbed gangsters. Dinner plate spiders gave foraging coppery-green lizards pause for thought.
 
Muscular cockroaches waved their antennae at us with insolent bravado at their ability to dodge a carefully aimed flip-flop. Beetles like toy tanks fired off an abrasive bitter almond odour if we even thought about evicting them.
 
And every night our veranda lights attracted moths the size of Microlights. I’m not a wuss, but these were bugs that triggered my flight reflex.
 
So, I hunkered down in the scruffy little supermarket aisle to stroke the kitten and regain my equilibrium after being startled by the mongoose. The kitten twisted onto its back and set up a rusty purr like a miniature Harley.
 
Well, this wasn’t going to achieve anything. I straightened up. No staff members were in sight.
 
I peeped through the flapping plastic strips that led to the storage area. “Hello?”
 
“Yes, ma’am?”
 
“There’s a mongoose running around out here.”
 
“Thank you, ma’am.”
 
“Is that allowed?”
 
“Not really, ma’am.”
 
“Oh, right.” I paused, thinking he would come to investigate. He didn’t move. “There’s a kitten asleep on the tea towels,” I added.
 
“You want the kitten?”
 
“What?”
 
“You can have the kitten, ma’am.”
 
“I don’t want the kitten! It’s just, well, surely it shouldn’t be there? You know, lying on things for sale?”
 
He returned a look of utter incomprehension.
 
I tried again. “Not very hygienic in a supermarket is it? It might have fleas."
 
“The mongoose?”
 
“No, the kit… oh, never mind.”
 
I turned away feeling more unsure than ever. How would we cope in a country with such different values? In general I found the differences charming and often funny, but would tolerance sour when the novelty wore off?
 
I bent to take a packet of rice from the bottom shelf and found myself face to face with the mongoose. We both froze. I’d never been so close to one before.
 
I took in its tiny pointed nose: button eyes that looked like polished stones and silky fur. Mongooses were far more beautiful than I’d given them credit for. I knew they weren’t native to Fiji but had been introduced from India in the 19th century to prey on the rats in the sugar cane fields. No doubt this one had come into the shop to sniff out the rodents.
 
It tipped its head in a crisp little jig-jag movement. I remained motionless. Then it touched its nose with its paw in what seemed like a jaunty salute.
 
In a flourish of pure chutzpah, the mongoose left the shop through the front door. Another stranger in a strange land, but one who had clearly adapted to its adopted country.
 
I had to smile, and in that instant I decided that I could do it, too.
 
 

 

Sealion Island, by Victoria James, Tooting, London

 
Sea Lion Island is five miles long, one mile wide, and flatter than a whoopee cushion detonated by an elephant seal. It was, so our pilot swore, ‘down there somewhere’.
 
Nothing daunts the Falklands Islands Government Air Service fleet of gutsy planes and gutsier pilots. For two weeks I’d travelled from one island to another in the eight-seater twin-props, which felt at times like a private jet, at others like a bus crammed with shopping and schoolchildren.
 
So I didn’t worry when we reached Sea Lion Island and found nothing but cloud. We circled, and circled, until the pilot glimpsed something through a wispy tear – and the plane dived down like a penguin into a bloom of krill. 
 
On the cracked tarmac, five of us were swiftly exchanged for the departing guests. Then the plane leapt up through the blurry gap and the cloud sealed behind it. Wearily, we trooped into the lodge, telling ourselves it’d clear by morning. 
 
But on waking, mist was draped across my window like a grimy sheet tacked up by a student in lieu of a curtain. Over breakfast, the Warden – a man as closed-off and quiet as his island – informed us we were his only guests.
 
What none of us knew then, was that we would be staying for a while.
 
As the fog condensed and dropped to ground level, my heart sank with it. Who doesn’t wish for ‘perfect’ weather when on holiday?
 
I couldn’t have foreseen, though, that the days that followed would open up a whole new way of experiencing nature – and yield some of my most memorable wildlife encounters.
 
That first day, I hiked the peaty track to the easternmost tip of the island where a hide overlooks a nesting site of Southern Giant Petrels. Obstacles were strewn in my way – vast, fleshy ones, lying panting in the grassy dunes. Even on a clear day, sound and smell would have provided the earliest clues to the presence of a dozen lolling elephant seals.
 
Before I saw the gargantuan harem master, I heard him, groaning like a dyspeptic gourmand. But I smelled him first: a noxious whiff that could have come from either end and rivaled even his neighbors, the petrels, whose oily regurgitate once earned them the nickname ‘Old Stinker’.
 
By the second day, the whiteout was complete, but I wanted to see the rockhopper colony that nested on a south-westerly clifftop. The map showed a field boundary leading to the plateau, so I struck out from the lodge until I reached barbed wire, and followed it.
 
Stumbling frequently over what I thought were stones, I was surprised to feel one crunch beneath my boots, and reached down. It was a truncated spinal cord, still attached to an outsize pair of powerful – and evidently indigestible – orange feet. 
 
The colony, when I found it, was a scene of avian horror such as Hitchcock never imagined. In the writhing fog, penguins huddled on the barren plateau as death fell upon them, remorseless and unseen, in the form of sinewy caracara, the native Falklands falcon. And I knew exactly where the successful raptors flew to finish off their struggling prey: the fence-line.
 
Spooked and disoriented in the whiteout, I nearly missed the lodge on my way back. Chastened, I spent the next day indoors, reading about Falklands geology and wondering how long the foodstores would hold out.
 
At dinner, I encountered the others. We all displayed signs of cabin fever, though I can’t recall who suggested what we did next.
 
As evening fell, we left by a side door. Very close to the lodge was a gentoo colony with, at that time of year, a large crèche. We knew the responsible tourism drill: Approach no closer than five metres.
 
So we located the crèche by ear – not difficult – sat at a respectful distance, and waited.
 
It wasn’t long before they came, lurching out of the twilight towards us. Whether from boldness, infant curiosity, or the eternal hope of food, the gentoo chicks had come to visit.
 
They pressed close – clearly no-one had ever told them of the five-metre rule – and warbled and trilled for what felt like hours as we sat motionless and rapt. In the darkness, their vague, downy shapes seemed part of the mist they had emerged from.
 
The fog lifted a few days later and the plane came early, droning in while we ate breakfast. As we rose above the last of the cloud I luxuriated in the feel of the sun on my face. 
 
But I have never forgotten the sense-lessons of Sea Lion Island: the stench of elephant seals, the shrieks of harried penguins, and the touch of fledgling down, light as mist. 
 
 
Peregrine, by Louise Taylor, Winchester
 
When I was about seven, I saw a TV drama about a Scottish girl and a pair of nesting peregrine falcons. The girl had an unfairly large number of adventures thwarting the egg-thieving attempts of two collectors.
 
I watched open-mouthed and then took to staring up at the sky, hoping to see a peregrine plunging out of ordered flight to snatch a pigeon on the wing.
 
Alas, there were no peregrines on the Wirral, where I lived. It was rumoured, however, that several inhabited the rocky cliffs two hours’ drive away at Aberdaron on the Lleyn Peninsula.
 
We made a trip there, me clutching a pair of newly-acquired binoculars in a brown leather case and nursing a hope of becoming a crusading naturalist, just like the TV girl and my hero, Gerald Durrell.
 
Binoculars aside, anything less like a naturalist – amateur or otherwise – would have been hard to imagine. Picture the scene: me in a red duffle coat, blue Wellingtons and hair in bunches, squinting through the fine misty rain that is a Welsh speciality.
 
My family got bored long before I did. To give them their due, we made several repeat visits over the next 10 years. And, though I saw many birds including the skeletonised remains of a sparrowhawk that still had a headdress of feathers, members of the falcon family always eluded me.
 
Nonetheless, the call of the tiercel and his falcon regularly wrote my dreams.
 
Fast forward 15 years from that first hopeful foray and those same binoculars and I are in Kenya. Friends and I are studying a map of Hell’s Gate National Park, deciding on the advisability of a 14 kilometre walk to and from Hell’s Gate Gorge.
 
The ranger at Elsa Gate is dismissively reassuring. “It’s no problem,” he says, pointing to a dusty track that winds its way through the scrubby savannah. “It’s an easy walk.”
 
Before starting, we pause in front of Fischer’s Tower, a freestanding, cylindrical slab of volcanic rock. It looks like the remnants of a castle, with the lonely job of guarding both the massive cliffs of columnar basalt behind it and the savannah in front.
 
However, I am quickly distracted by my first kongoni, a knock-kneed, fawn-coloured cousin of the wildebeest. There are also zebra. It is odd to see them from the vantage point of my own legs.
 
The road to the gorge is long and unshaded. Fine dust clings to our clothes and gets up my nose. I sneeze almost constantly. Distant plumes of steam and an increasingly pervasive sulphurous smell makes me wonder how close I am to a volcano’s hot heart.
 
It is almost midday when we reach the gorge and all I can do is sit on a rock, gulp water and conclude that I know just why the place was named Hell’s Gate. Any thoughts of exploring the gorge are gone.
 
The way back is worse. I am hot. I am so hot that I find myself imagining that my head is a chunk of barbequing meat and my hat a slice of cheese melting over it.
 
We debate the best use of our remaining water. Someone says we should take small sips and conserve the rest. Someone else sneers. “We’re not lost,” she says. “And even if we were, I wouldn’t die with a half-full flask of water next to me.”
 
I agree and drink the rest of my water. It is as warm as freshly made tea and makes me sweat all the more. It would be wonderful to take off all my clothes and my flesh, too, and walk back in only my skeleton.
 
With my head hanging almost as low as those of the heat-stunned gazelles that stipple the savannah, I am surprised when Fischer’s Tower looms up before me. For a moment I fear it is a mirage. Then I know: the heat and dehydration did not get me.
 
Relieved, I hang back from the others, who are already hurrying towards the ranger’s office and its soft-drink stocked fridge. I look at the cliffs. They are guano-streaked and pockmarked with crevices, sheltering nesting birds. Vultures hang motionless and silent on the hot thermals.
 
Then, another bird comes from nowhere – seems almost to burst from the sun – and drops into a dive. Through my binoculars I see slate-grey wings swept back behind its head.
 
Talons flash in the sun and rip into the prey. The smaller bird falls in a tumble of feathers and hits the ground like a backfiring rocket. Above it, the peregrine checks his stoop and descends more leisurely to earth. From the cliffs, another peregrine breaks into an excited cough-chatter: “kek-kek-kek,” she calls. 
 
The tiercel and his falcon guard the gates of hell. My seven year old self smiles.
 
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