After weeks of deliberation, we’re thrilled to announce the results of the Rough Guides and Journeys are made @gapyear.com writing competition. The winning piece can be read here, but we’ve also picked two fantastic runners-up.
Kyle Cunningham chose the theme “my greatest adventure”, writing about several days of searching for the rare silky sifaka in the lemur-filled jungles of north-east Madagascar. He had us enthralled by this remote rainforest and its mysterious denizens.
Catherine Morris chose “the place I call home”, ably showing that great travel writing isn’t just about far-flung destinations. Her evocative descriptions and clever observations particularly impressed the judges.
You can read both pieces below.
Forest angels – Kyle Cunningham
In the north-east of Madagascar lies a massif carpeted in dense, emerald foliage, known locally as the place of many spirits. In the days spent wandering Marojejy National Park’s verdant forests, I heard talk of diminutive, hobbit like spectres with furry hands and feet inhabiting these mountains. I heard of a ranger quitting his position as he was haunted by a silent, female spirit watching from the cloud forest of the upper slopes. I heard of people falling asleep in one camp, only to be levitated from the ground and awaken in an entirely different camp.
What was clear was the deep spiritual connection the local people had with Mount Marojejy, the sacred mountain. Their ancestors had used the thick rainforest on the mountain as cover to escape the harsh rule of colonial forces. In the present day, people use the mountain not only to grow crops such as pineapple and vanilla, but for a wealth of medicinal plants.
I could not move forward more than a few paces without my guide pointing out a plant with extraordinary pharmaceutical properties. “This cures a stomach upset when boiled,” the guide would say, scratching furiously beneath a green stem to extract a root. Even, “this one is for cancer,” indicating to a vine creeping up the deep, twilight red trunk of a rosewood tree, the two either locked in eternal combat or entwined as perpetual lovers.
It was perhaps suitable then, that my reason for visiting this most sacrosanct of places was to search for the angel of the forest, a pure white lemur of almost mythical status known as the silky sifaka. I had read that this lemur was of such a wild spirit that it was impossible to raise in captivity and as such, not a single specimen existed in a zoo. So rare is this creature that it is confined to this singular mountain range and numbers less than a thousand.
After two days, including a treacherous walk to the summit during a 24 hour long downpour (my guide joked that this is also called the place of much water), we spied a flash of pearlescent white in the canopy. Like a true spirit, the white seemingly evaporated as if a droplet of rainwater on the ground in the heat of the rising sun. We walked on.
The blinding white reappeared, this time a little closer, before flickering off into the distance. As if hunting a mirage, for a creature that felt real in sight and sound, but not quite tangible enough to touch, we reached the tree where we had last seen a shimmer of white. Above us sat our forest angels, their icy fur juxtaposed against the chestnut bark of the tree’s branches like salt encrusted on granite. A group of eight were inspecting us with their gentle, otherworldly faces. For all of the remarkable stories of apparitions and spectres I’d been told, none were as astonishing as seeing this palpable, seraph-like creature.
The place I call home – Catherine Morris
There’s an uncanny feeling you get when you arrive somewhere. When you step off a bus, or a train or plane, there’s a thrill, or exhaustion, or relief; both happiness and trepidation, comfort and excitement rolled into each other like the sleeping bag in your backpack, or the soggy, well-thumbed book inside your cagoule pocket.
When you breathe, you fill your lungs with the smell of the place and let the taste of it settle on your tongue; the warm, foisty, fungal tropics; the crisp, clean mountains and fjords; the choked urban heat of your favourite city.
What you see is vibrant and new; a fast moving film you feel you are merely watching rather than starring in, over too quickly, an enjoyable flick through someone else’s photograph album. Or else a large painting in a gallery, serene and thought-provoking. You can hardly believe you are there, and too soon, you’re not.
Each place has a different beat, it’s own soundtrack, chatter, babble and soaring silences.
Your senses soak up the food and the flora, the salty sea, the sweat on a growling bus and the bumpy road and store them in your memory bank to be triggered sometime in the future by a picture or a word, a sound or a smell.
But the place I call home feels like nowhere else on earth. It looks like dirty slush in the bus station after a deep, white snow. Like peeling new tarmac in the summer heat. Like green domes and minarets nestled among sooted sandstone. Like mills and clock towers with ghostly grey windows that reflect a divergent landscape. Of wooded walks from Teapot Dam to Tinker Bridge. Of patchwork green hills and boggy moors stitched together by dry-stone walls. Where shiny white limestone towers like castle walls and water sinks from tarn to beck, through pitted clints and mossy grykes into deep pots and gills, and colours the grass to make it shimmer a silver-green when the sun shines. Where the sky clouds over, dark as millstone grit, and the cold’s as biting as the sandstone beneath your knees and hands as you climb the rough lumps that have been thrown and scattered among the moors.
It smells of cloying hops on brew day at Timmy Taylor’s, curries around Lawkholme and Yorkshire puds on Sundays. Spring is incendiary holy smoke. Summer is a new coat of creosote. Autumn is parkin on bonfire night. Winter is meat and potato pie on New Year’s Eve.
It echoes like the looms of worsted spinners, chugs like steam engines and reads like books about breaking looms and tempestuous loves, of working class nouse and aspiration, it’s voice often voiceless, straining through glottal stops and monophthongs.
Yet when I step off the bus, uncanniness remains. I’m home, but no longer live there. Unfamiliar things in familiar places, but always Home. The place I can walk up to the back door and know it’s still open.