The first prize includes a Tulip Motion Line Notebook computer, an Epson Stylus Color 200 printer and a software package including Microsoft Office 97, Windows 95 and Encarta 97, together with pounds 750 cash to spend as you wish.
To win this superb prize, simply write an account of your gap year - in no more than 1,000 words - detailing where you went, what you experienced and how you think it has benefited you since.
The entries will be judged by The Independent, Royal Mail's international division, and travel guide experts Lonely Planet.
The 25 runners-up will each win a Lonely Planet travel guide and phrasebook of their choice.
Just send your 1,000-word essay together with your name, address and daytime telephone number to: Independent/Royal Mail Gap Year Competition, 22 Endell Street, London WC2H 9AD.
And if you're interested in taking a gap year, you can send for a free copy of Gap Year Guide, a helpful new booklet compiled by Royal Mail's international division and Lonely Planet. Featuring advice, tips and tales from other people's adventures abroad, it's the first step in deciding whether a gap year is for you.
For your free copy of Gap Year Guide, send an A5 SAE to Gap Year Guide, 22 Endell Street, London WC2H 9AD.
The closing date for the competition and free booklet offer is 28 April, 1997.
It's 5am. I wake up suddenly and open my eyes. Directly above me is the bright blue morning sky, met by the mountains that surround the sea. The sound that woke me is the muezzin, the call to prayer from the mosque. The last syllables are still floating across the small Turkish village as it slumbers. And the movement all around me is the rhythmic lapping of the Mediterranean against the boat that I am sleeping on. I stare blearily at the peace and beauty that surround me and think, for the hundredth time, how incredible my life has become.
When I am old and wrinkled, I will tell my grandchildren about that moment. And all the other moments and experiences - the flirtations, the confused conversations, the sights I have seen, the journeys I have taken, the friends I have made. Because that is what travelling gives you: a vast back-catalogue of sunlit memories, of experiences and situations that would never have happened in a nice, safe life in Britain.
If you're thinking of going travelling, then don't. Don't think, go. It will be the best decision of your life. Travelling is too conventional a word for it; it is adventuring, wandering off with a rucksack and a train ticket, with only you to decide where you end up. It's the chance to explore not just new countries and cultures, but also yourself. Away from the safety of home, you have to rely on yourself much more, and you grow in confidence and strength.
It can seem a scary prospect at first, particularly if you're weighing it up against starting a career. You may feel that a six-month gap on your CV with nothing beside it but "India" will not impress a prospective employer. In fact, the opposite is true - a survey carried out by Royal Mail's international division shows that most employers look favourably on time spent travelling, believing that the experience helps increase confidence and broaden horizons as well as teaching you the ability to cope in most situations. They're right. Imagine trying to navigate yourself across a city you don't know, to catch a ferry you don't have a ticket for, whilst looking for a toilet, holding a guidebook in one hand and trying to eat a chicken kebab in the other. It is character building, believe me, and such uncomplicated things as job interviews pale in comparison.
I have to be honest and admit that I didn't start travelling until a couple of years after university. Even at 26, I am already regretting the time I missed; as you get older it is harder to make the break and get away. The travelling scene is, particularly in Europe, made much easier for under-25s and this really is the time to do it, when you're free from the ties of a mortgage or a family and have the ability to take off with no guilt or anxiety for what you're leaving behind.
Even when you are 26, it gets more complicated. My boyfriend and I are going travelling round Europe for eight weeks in the summer and we're having to leave two flats and his job. We're swapping security for two months of sun-soaked hedonism, tramping around Europe free of all the responsibilities and stresses of adult life. We'll come back homeless and penniless, ready to start saving to do it all again. And we'll have a huge stash of memories to keep us warm through the winter.
This is the thing with travelling. The memories stay with you for life. But there are too many to catch on camera, and most people who travel write a journal to keep track of the lazy days and hectic nights. We're going to send postcards to ourselves from every new place we visit, so that when we arrive back in England we'll have reminders of how we felt at every step of the way.
There are plenty of reasons why we shouldn't go, but there's never a perfect time. Many people don't travel because of money or career worries, and then suddenly realise, in their thirties, that they've missed their chance to get out and see the world. There is nothing worse than regretting something you haven't done, when you know that the time for doing it has passed.
The time to go is now. It's easier to travel now than it has ever been. Most banks offer loans for travelling, and the best bargains in travel are for under-26s. Employers are becoming more flexible, careers less structured. There's a whole beautiful, brilliant, unpredictable world waiting to be discovered. Get out there and see for yourself. And then write about it.
Rules: 1. Employees of Newspaper Publishing, Royal Mail, Lonely Planet and their relatives may not enter.
2. The judges' decision is final. No correspondence will be entered into. 3. Winners and runners-up will be notified by post within six weeks of closing date. 5. No work can be returned. 6. Usual Newspaper Publishing rules apply.