Travel Writer of the Year 2013: The winners revealed

Our annual travel-writing contest is always hard-fought and this year was no exception. But Andrew Scott's tale about a school outing to the coast of Newfoundland triumphed. 

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© BBC Wildlife Magazine

How we picked the winner

The judges were in almost complete agreement this year.

Andrew Scott’s story about a school outing to the coast of Newfoundland was perfectly conceived and structured, beautifully written and a very worthy winner.

Congratulations are also due to all those who were shortlisted.

THE RESULTS:
 
Winner
 
Outside Chance by Andrew Scott, Newcastle upon Tyne
 
Joint runners-up
 
Brunei by Tim Knight, Cambridge 
 
Las Salinas by Paul McGranaghan, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland
 
Highly commended
 
A Winter’s Tale in Winterthur by Helen Moat, Matlock, Derbyshire
 
Ballerinas by Helen Whittle, Lincoln
 
Also shortlisted:
 
Bananas by Daniel Flenley, Liverpool;
 
Minneriya by Lauren Rayner, North London;
 
Road Trip by Susan Eames, Savusavu, Fiji;
 
The Signs by Helen Watson, Edinburgh;
 
Turtle Babies by Rose Stevens, Oxford.
 
 
WINNER
 

Outside Chance by Andrew Scott, Newcastle upon Tyne

Sensible gamblers bet on the favourite, but during a school trip to Newfoundland on the Canadian east coast Andrew Scott risked everything to take the choir whale watching – and hit the jackpot. 

We music teachers probably can’t save the world. Knowing that Elbow performed the London Olympics theme song or that Thomas Arne wrote Rule, Britannia! may not teach class 10F to respect each other or the planet. But what about choral singing?

Young people in harmony: a very good place to start. Then risk a flutter of nature-awareness – “That bird you’re watching is a chaffinch, Jason. Now look at the board” – and there’s just a chance that those teenagers will become responsible custodians of Spaceship Earth. With a little bit of luck.

Hence our Canada trip. Festival 500 in Newfoundland offered an irresistible interweaving of choral music with wildlife, and I had managed to get my school choir invited. Rehearsals and fundraising were progressing well; I just needed to sort our free day, so rang a nature tour company.

“Boat trips are a safe bet,” I was told. “They’re weather-dependent, but reliably find minkes and always have great views of auks on the cliffs.”

“Maybe not auks,” I replied. “We’re from Northumberland – our most numerous breeding bird is the puffin. What about that leaping humpback in your brochure?”

“Ah,” they said. “The Capelin Run.” (Newfoundlanders are laconic.) Researching capelin online, I found extraordinary photos of surf bulging with squirming fish, a primordial spawning frenzy coating the waterline with golden caviar.

I learned about St Vincent’s Bay where the beach drops away steeply, allowing hungry whales to follow the capelin right inshore. Yes, it was reachable by coach from St John’s, and – crescendo of good news – early July was the best bet.

Then the diminuendo: dense fog can engulf the area for days; the coach company needed booking weeks ahead, yet the run remains unpredictable, linked to neither date nor tide cycle. My exciting opportunity was becoming a worryingly long shot.

How to weigh the odds? Top wildlife experiences generally favour the tight-buttoned puritan, hard-won dividends rewarding patience, planning, self-sacrifice.

Only occasionally does Lady Luck smile on the wild-eyed gambler. It’s one thing to stake my own time, quite another to commit 50 stroppy teenagers to a possibly pointless two-hour coach trip. Each way. On a hunch.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

Approaching St Vincent’s, I vacillated between hope and realism, needing omens. An osprey on sentry duty raised my spirits, but most of the choir couldn’t see it or didn’t try.

Five miles, said the driver, then fog descended. I held my breath. Only at the final car park was the bay revealed, under our noses. Anticipating the worst, I stood to remind everyone about packed lunches, but their shouts cut me off. “Whale!”

Pandemonium. Scrabble for cameras, scramble down steps, battle through intransigent shingle towards the sea – and no fog in front.

In my dreamiest optimistic imaginings, I had never pictured what now took shape: half my alto section running ecstatically hand-in-hand along the beach, trying to keep pace with a rolling, magnificent humpback whale just yards off shore. 

Grey pebbles, grey sky, grey sea, great grey whaleback; my heart was pounding technicolour.

For three hours we spread along that joyous bay, marvelling at whales; we listened to their sighs, we could smell them, we even sang to them. At first there were three, eventually 14.

We were startled by explosive tail- and flipper-slaps. We applauded dramatic breaching. We were sprayed by exhalations.

We were mesmerised by scale, by the flexible immensity of each change of direction: sometimes a demure slip into purdah behind a sea-silk veil, sometimes a muscling aside of slowly boiled mercury, sometimes a cataclysmic launch, upwards and sideways and clean through the laws of physics.

We witnessed one of nature’s great celebrations. Such excess of energy, such exuberance, fuelled by abundance: the Capelin Run, those riotous riches of the humpbacks’ annual banquet.

And we were minstrels in the gallery, privileged extras at the feast. I needed tethering, like a helium balloon.

As we left the beach, surprisingly some students were already in the coach. I was concerned, so sat next to Jason. “You okay?”

A shrug. “See one whale, you’ve seen them all,” he said. Oof. Low blow. I felt winded, deflated.

For half the drive back, I struggled with how to answer him. Should I protest? Debate? Plead? Wither him with sarcasm?

No. Others were astounded by the whales, but in the end Jason’s response was legitimate. I recalled my own late-developed bird enthusiasm, taking years to overcome teenage boredom. Reluctantly I held my peace. A teacher can open doors, but the student chooses which ones to enter.

Class 10F still don’t know their Arne from their Elbow. Few of them recognise a chaffinch. Nevertheless, nevertheless… Despite everything, I’d definitely wager that Jason will remember those humpbacks. And occasionally the planet.

If I were a betting man.  

 
Andrew Scott was born in Africa, and following 30 blissful years in the classroom – being paid to encourage young people to sing – he is now exploring ways to combine that with his other hobbies: family, wildlife, travel, genealogy and writing.
 
Andrew wins a 10-day trip for two to the Serengeti and Lake Victoria in Tanzania with Expert Africa. After staying at Sayari Camp looking for lions, leopards and the odd black rhino, Andrew will track wild chimpanzees on Rubondo Island.
 
 
JOINT RUNNERS-UP
 
Brunei by Tim Knight, Cambridge 
 
It’s shortly after midnight in the Brunei rainforest, a haven of biodiversity amid the ecological vandalism that is devastating Borneo’s natural heritage.
 
I’m lying awake, listening to the kind of sound that can reduce even the most intrepid explorer to a gibbering wreck. Just yards from my sleeping bag, someone is snoring loudly.
 
Since we left the sanctuary of the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre this morning, our ears have been continually assailed by a barrage of sounds; some melodic, some mystifying and some, like the six o’clock cicadas masquerading as tile cutters, simply excruciating. And now the observation platform where we have bivouacked is reverberating with the seismic nocturnal rumblings of a well-built schoolmistress.
 
I was looking forward to falling asleep under the stars and waking to the exuberant whooping of the local gibbon troop. I should have known better. 
 
From the moment we punted across the river and began scrambling up the muddy bank towards the ridge, it was an uphill struggle, literally. The rope handrail was out of commission, having been commandeered by giant forest ants for use as an elevated superhighway, so the soundtrack to our ascent was more Slip Slidin’ Away than Climb Every Mountain.
 
My own rite of passage was marked by blood, sweat and tears: a leech bite to the groin, which could have been worse, admittedly; an orgy of stingless bees gorging on my saturated salt lick of a t-shirt; and an altercation with a spiky rattan palm that left me embarrassingly bereft in the shorts department.
 
There were compensations, of course. Witnessing the rainforest’s intoxicating effect on the students, as their journey unfolded like a tale of the unexpected, made these indignities easier to bear. 
 
They marvelled at the millipede that smells of marzipan; gawped in disbelief at a pile of dead leaves miraculously transmogrified into a horned frog; and caught a fleeting glimpse of a male Asian paradise-flycatcher, as heavenly as it sounds. 
 
The more receptive among them even learned to distinguish the calls of the barking gecko, the barking deer and the apparently completely barking helmeted hornbill, whose crescendo of absent-minded hooting culminates in a madcap cackle.
 
Right now I’m feeling pretty unhinged myself. The platform shudders again. I’ve learned from bitter experience that lying here in the hope of drifting back to sleep is futile. 
 
In the interlude between snores, my entire being is tensed for the next onslaught. The choice is simple: batter her to death, or take a nocturnal stroll. I reach for my torch.
 
Tiptoeing around the moonlit mounds of flesh, I creep out of camp and climb the steps leading to the wooden walkway.
 
Constructed to reduce soil erosion, this elevated path also has the perceived benefit of making walking easier and safer, thus enabling timid or unfit tourists to penetrate deep into the forest without the inconvenience of negotiating the odd tree root.
 
There’s something vaguely unsatisfying about this artificial separation from the forest floor, particularly when you are leading young students on a voyage of discovery. 
 
Although some creatures have begun to use the walkway rails as jungle thoroughfares, there is generally far less traffic here than at ground level. I console myself with the thought that the termites will have demolished it within a decade. 
 
Tonight, though, I’m grateful for the chance to leave behind my sodden boots and walk barefoot for a change, which will allow me to move more quietly.
 
I have been awake long enough for my eyes to become reasonably accustomed to the dark, but I can’t rely on night vision to spot fire ants under my feet. Every few yards, I turn on the torch and check the walkway ahead with a quick sweep of the beam.
 
Approaching the first set of steps, I shine the torch forward. Without warning, an unmistakably feline head appears above the top step, momentarily frozen in the spotlight. I’m face to face with a wild leopard cat.
 
It’s hard to say which one of us is more surprised. The one with the pink nose and blazing eyes is first to recover and leaps away into the darkness, vanishing in a black-and-yellow blur. 
 
I’m left staring at the empty step, wondering whether this tantalisingly brief encounter was merely a figment of my feverish imagination, brought on by acute sleep deprivation.
 
Instinctively, I turn around, looking for potential witnesses, and have to content myself with a toad that sits impassively on the walkway. ‘Did you see that?!’ Predictably, his expression remains inscrutable.
 
Back in camp, the schoolteacher is still snoring. I resist the urge to give her a big hug, particularly as her husband is in the next sleeping bag, but I make a mental note to invite her on my next overnight expedition.
 
 
Las Salinas by Paul McGranaghan, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland
 
Las Salinas blisters like a chemical burn; the air reeks of ammonia and the air aches to the cries of mewling gulls.
 
Bones splinter under my feet, the water in my bottle is now hot and the pools in the salt pans are as red as blood. Not a single plant can be seen, nor another person: I am the only one here.
 
I’ve seen dead gulls suspended in the brine like ghosts, but this is the first one I’ve seen on the track between the pools. The cracked hexagonal tiling of the ground continues through the fading corpse. Only an outline of feathers and bones remains.
 
I did not come here to see this, yet it represents Las Salinas more than my quarry ever could. The shadows of heckling gulls flicker across the desiccated carcass. They are mobbing me because they want me away from the nests they have built on the banks of the salterns. I don’t need their encouragement to move on. As the saying goes: when you’re going through hell, keep going.
 
It hasn’t rained in six months and it has become a rare event to see a cloud in the sky. The dust and salt of the track along the levees absorbs what little moisture there might be in the air here.
 
The water in the salt pans is concentrated brine, dyed red by algae that thrive in hyper-saline conditions. They are fed by murky channels of green seawater, pumped in from the Bay of Cádiz.
 
It was in these channels that I saw the dead gulls and wondered how long they had been there, pickled for posterity in the bleak wastes of Las Salinas.
 
A few white buildings, stone barns with orange roofs, hint at human life. Otherwise there is nothing but flat, parched space for miles and miles until the conifers return around the pools and the town of El Puerto de Santa María appears through the caloric waves that slice the near horizon up into mirrored strips.
 
I had come this way on a whim, to see sunflowers of all things, and having failed to find them had followed the track as it veered away from farmland and ran out into this maze of dykes and levees. It was as I approached this arid land that I saw pale flames in the distant pools.
 
There could be no doubt as to what they were: I saw the crozier necks and the prawn plump bodies, the baleen heads that looked like ballet shoes and the legs like stalks of rhubarb.
 
When I had approached them they had taken to the air, their necks and legs frail aerials compared with the wide wings with their raw flesh flashes of brilliant scarlet and black edges.
 
I had followed them, as time after time they flew farther on and I followed farther after them until I came to the spectacle of the dead gull branded into the path on the levee. My will-o-the-wisps were flickering between the coruscating water and the rippling air far out from the shore.
 
Perhaps they knew I couldn’t follow them any longer. I turned back, back to the gate I’d scaled to get out here, back to the main track that ran all the way to El Puerto.
 
I passed the precious nests, messy tonsures of straw and feathers with the speckled eggs incubating in the air. Here and there was a bloodshot feather blushing on the grey ground, the bill of a long-dead bird, and frail bones scattered like seed over the unwelcoming earth.
 
Only when I got to where the levees began to support vegetation did I see them again. They were closer this time, wading with a tender gait through the green water.
 
Their necks were long query marks, curling like cats’ tails from their heart-shaped bodies. I had heard that flamingos had been the origin of the legend of the phoenix, and at a distance, caught in the boiling air of the heat haze maybe so.
 
But at closer quarters they seemed cooler and calmer than the mythical firebird. Now that I had found them, there was nothing to do but admire them.
 
With the memory of the dead gull seared in my mind, I saw in those birds the common fire that illuminates all living things. When they had nothing left to give, like candles they would gutter out.
 
On that day I walked out of Las Salinas and into El Puerto. I sat at a pavement café where I had the street to myself, where the sun ate up all the shadows, where a cold beer never tasted better; where I dreamed of wild roses.
 
 
HIGHLY COMMENDED
 
A Winter’s Tale in Winterthur by Helen Moat, Matlock, Derbyshire
 
“Come on, we’re nearly there,” I call back to you.
 
I’m on a foolish quest for wildlife in Winterthur – a town in northern Switzerland better known for its heavy iron railway industry and technology, not the natural world.
 
You follow me though woods that fringe the town along soggy paths darkened by ash and pine.
 
Below us offices and factories, rows of terraced houses and a tangle of railway track shrink to a model railway set. You are sceptical - Winterthur is not an obvious wildlife haven.
 
It’s true, even the woods seem to be devoid of life: silent, still, unanimated.
 
But still I climb until we reach the Eschenberg tower, an iron construction that stands on the wooded height. You gaze in dismay at the soaring frame. You have a fear of heights.
 
“Let’s go up. Maybe we’ll see deer or a woodpecker; who knows, maybe an eagle owl.”
 
You edge up the spiral staircase like an old man, grasping the railings, until 170 steps and seven platforms later we’re at the top. The woods, the settlements and the hills beyond unfold themselves, but there’s still no sign of life – not even a wood pigeon.
 
Disappointed we make our way back down the hill. The light is fading out. The charcoaled trees close in on us as the winter sun sinks behind the forest. The air is heavy with an icy clamminess. Ash washes from dark grey to milky white in the fog.
 
Then I hear the snap of a twig. I look around to see a young fox following us on the path. She stops, black-gloved paw comically suspended in mid-air. Our eyes connect.
 
She tilts her head to one side, her snout quivering, holding my gaze all the while. I try to outstare her but the vixen isn’t to be outfoxed. Fox 1: human 0.
 
I continue on down the track, glancing behind from time to time. The fox pads behind, still following me, her thick smoky tail with its white tip sweeping the ground like a feather duster.
 
I stop. She stops, her bright eyes holding mine as if to say, “Human, you ain’t no big deal.”
 
“Careful,” you say. “The fox is behaving oddly.”
 
But the fox’s inquisitiveness has drawn me in, her boldness captivating. I stop again to look, intrigued.
 
This time the cub doesn’t stop with me but continues to move in my direction with a slow deliberate gait, the kind of casual loll that animals use to stalk their prey.
 
I can hear the dull swish of paws on rotting vegetation. Her black-laced trumpet ears twitch nervously and her body is alert and taut.  But still she comes, her red coat splashing colour in the monochrome forest. And the world is reduced to me and this young fox.
 
Slowly I move towards her, speaking absurdly to the vixen in German. “Es ist schon gut, Füchsin. Brauchts dir keine Sorgen zu machen. It’s all right, fox; no need to worry.”
 
I’m remembering my father’s chickens; how a fox had come and annihilated the brood, one chicken at a time, night after night.
 
The fox was never seen but its presence always felt: bold, violent, merciless. Each morning we’d find a shredded chicken strewn across the garden, guts and intestines and scattered feathers bloodying the grass.
 
My father had raged against the fox. No matter what measures he had taken to protect his chickens, the fox had found a way in, until the last one was gone. How we had hated the fox: cunning, sly, ruthless, playing out its fabled role. 
 
But now I’m standing before this young fox, this living, breathing creature, and both of us are feeling vulnerable and exposed. We stand there, muzzle to face, vulpes vulpes to homo sapiens, unwilling to break the connection that binds us in this wood.
 
“Careful,” you call a warning again somewhere back in the darkness. “This fox is so fearless it could well have rabies.”
 
But I don’t hear you. It’s just me and the fox. I edge nearer. Still the cub doesn’t flinch. I am so close now I can smell her animal body and see her breath looping the chilled air.
 
The light is all but gone, the fox just a shadow in the gloom apart from the burning brightness in her yellow eyes, intense in the darkness. Her body stiffens, her long lean back rigid, her eyes fixed on me.
 
“Schon gut, Füchsin, bleib ruhig. It’s all right, fox. Quiet now.”
 
I reach out a hand … but she’s gone, bounding off the path and into the undergrowth.
 
And my world expands again to the forest, the town waiting below and you now by my side. 
 
 
Ballerinas by Helen Whittle, Lincoln
 
The taxi drops us where the road ends, and describes a slow bumpy circle before rumbling away through the warm drizzle and salt spray. 
 
First light scrapes an optimistic line across the stormy horizon beyond the beach, palm trees toss their bed-heads dementedly above the brightly painted concrete benches, and foaming waves smash a hundred shades of green onto the narrow strip of brown sand that separates the sea from the village of Manzanillo. 
 
Slung with cameras and binoculars, and close to the Panama border, warnings about personal security flood back to us when a door-sized man swinging a 2ft machete approaches us purposefully through the thickening rain.
 
As our eyes widen, his huge hand extends, he bares his teeth, and grinning, he introduces himself as Raymond, our guide for the local forest refuge.
 
Our first request is to identify the drenched pigeon hunched on the power lines. Raymond pauses before offering his judgement, “Dis is de pigeon we almost like to eat.”
 
A small flock of parrots flies fast and noisily from the trees ahead and the species is soon confirmed as “De parrot we can almost make talk.”
 
We raise amused eyebrows at this most original take on birding, but somehow lower our expectations for the morning tour.
 
The creeping dawn reveals gangs of turkey vultures hopping nonchalantly though the refuse in their search for previously unappreciated morsels.
 
Raymond doesn’t stop – “Dese birds are almost my least favourite” – but for us, from a faraway vulture-less land, they are edgy and entertaining local street life.
 
We lose the roar and tang of the waves as we turn inland and find ourselves beneath the canopy of the forest proper, where every leaf twitched by the rain catches the corner of my eye, but little animal life seems to be moving.
 
After inspecting the dimly soggy forest floor Raymond is soon beckoning: beside his fingertip, and smaller than his nail, a red poison arrow frog sits smooth and rounded in its deadly ketchup-coloured skin; surely too small for a skeleton, it looks like a tiny bendy toy. And now we have seen one, it seems they are everywhere, clambering fearlessly through the towering mosses.
 
“Eyelash viper!” It takes a few moments peering hopelessly into the gloom before I realise the snake is in full, easy view, a saucer-sized golden spiral, like a pretzel poised on the ridge of a wide buttress a few metres away.
 
Apparently it is waiting for a carelessly unobservant hummingbird and is quite poisonous: “Bites to humans make de vomiting, diarrhoea, pain, and sometime almost de amputation or death.”
 
Raymond cheerily holds his mobile phone a hand span from the eponymous scaly eyelashes and snaps a portrait before moving on to deliver on his promise of a caiman.
 
Emerging from the dripping high trees we find that ‘outside’ the sky has stopped raining. Beneath us falls a small valley, lush with stands of papaya, banana, sugar cane and avocado and soon we are sitting beneath a stilted wooden building, munching our pack-up breakfast and chatting to the farmer, who explains it is all for sale.
 
The half-million dollar price tag of this isolated and idyllic spot reflects the desirability of the 16 hectares to foreign developers more than the revenue from crops.
 
Maybe in another life we might have become neighbours to the tiny yellow and black bananaquit protesting loudly from its nest in a nearby orange tree.
 
On the edge of the clearing, Raymond shows us to a tree whose white trunk is scattered with enormous conical thorns. And between these, grazes a small herd of the most extraordinary creatures – like cockroaches in tutus.
 
They have wide-spaced, butter-coloured eyes, and their backs are neatly covered in translucent elytra, from below which sprout feathery long white ‘tails’.
 
The whole look is of frilly skirts frothing undisciplined from beneath the hem of an organza dress cloak.
 
Having established that these gorgeous debutantes are in fact wax-tailed hoppers which neither bite nor sting, I gently prod a finger between the front legs of the nearest, imagining that it might climb on.
 
So I surprise even myself with a squeak when it launches vertically and whirs past my face.
 
A pale blur in the air, petticoats flying, it is the nearest thing to a fairy I have ever seen and for the few moments before it resettles I am entranced. It is so marvellous I prod another so we can all delight and believe in six-legged 'Tinkerbells'.
 
Eventually we move on, to more snakes, frogs and birds and the horny browed Caiman Raymond promised, but the fairy bugs have made my day and won my heart.
 
And on our return home they will command just as much talk time as the tamandua and tapir we are treated to elsewhere in Costa Rica.
 
 
The two runners-up and two highly commended entries each receive two Lonely Planet guidebooks of their choice.
 
 
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