IoS/Bradt travel writing competition winner

The Pyrenees: A close encounter of the wild kind

While avoiding miracle seekers in Lourdes, Julia Bohanna found a surprise of her own in the mountains

My grandmother is talking about Lourdes' miracles, even though the town – with the lit-up Virgin Marys and rabble of rosaries – is far below us.

Please stop turning around, nana. I am behind her, on a donkey called Pierre, weaving through the Pyrenees. The donkey has sides like an overstuffed purse, a trembling mouth, and the dark hopeless eyes of a depressive. A caravan of us making clok-clok on a stony mountain path is following an over-confident Gallic guide who is now far out in front. The most eager riders are looking for golden eagles or perhaps a spiky-eared Scops owl left over from night hunting. Mist laces the mountains. It is too cold and too early to be truly appreciative. I don't want birds and I don't want miracles.

I am being punished for the sin of setting fire to my cardboard candleholder at Midnight Mass the night before. Hooded nuns around us hissed disapproval like cobras, as fire made chaos in a crowd. I was trouble to them – uninterested in Bernadette, the grotto, or the collective healing faith of the place. I didn't feel it. I was happy in cynicism. There as companion only.

"Isn't it beautiful."

Nana's reedy voice is sucked away by the mountains.

"There are bears in the Pyrenees you know, nana. Huge claws and hunger instead of humanity."

There is no provoking her but at least the stories of miracles and hope are fading. Her donkey moves so far ahead I finally cannot hear. Tomorrow we visit Bernadette's waxy preserved body in Nevers. More morbid devotion.

My donkey has stopped. He sighs. In a strange hoofy tiptoe, he moves – not forward, but sideways towards the edge. Stones flake from the side and give me an indication of his wish to die.

I think we both see the eyes at the same time. In the trees a few feet away, watching us. Not human eyes. They are amber. An animal. A large animal. The donkey's head jerks up and he makes a sound, the controlled squeal a child makes when hiding, afraid. Suddenly filling plastic bottles of the Virgin Mary with holy water while an old devout woman waits doesn't seem so dull. I crave the thin soup in the hotel or the cool balcony where I can watch the mountains. Or even the wheelchair conmen who beg and pack up at night to stride home.

Stones are still falling into the valley. The mist is clearing a little. Maybe it is one of the huge Pyrenean dogs out there. I listen for goat bells or the ma-ma bleat of a young mouflon lamb, which I know graze here. Or better still, a reassuringly smelly shepherd wearing a neckerchief.

There is nothing but those strange, steady, mesmeric eyes.

Now I can see a head, then a body. It is dog-like, crouching. They are the long muscular legs of a large, black-brown wolf – but with a grey muzzle. Old. Slow. I would like to see Lourdes again, not to be picked off as the weakest of the herd. That's what wolves do ... they separate the weak and the sick, surround them and tear off strips of flesh like liquorice. Don't they?

There is something that holds me in the wolf's gaze: a brightness, a soulful connection of sorts, despite the fear. We stare one another down – one species to another. Canis lupus. My donkey's chocolate flesh is now dewy with sweat. He ignores at first entreaties from my legs for him to move. But finally, with me still straining to keep my eyes on the wolf, he moves on, much faster and with more purpose than I have seen before. Still sweating, but now comically pretending youth and vigour. Head erect. Every purposeful hoof-clop stakes its claim and says: "I am not prey." The wolf stands for a moment like a fond lover, then turns, tail down – back down into the valley.

Later, our guide, in angry spittled French, will deny the wolf with a wave of a ringed hand. There are no wolves in the Pyrenees, he says. He would never put people at risk. Years later, I will read that they have indeed mysteriously returned to some areas and that farmers are taking measures to protect their herds. More dogs, red flags called fladry. Measures.

I will already be working in wolf conservation. I have put my fingers through a wolf's belly fur, cradled cubs, walked alongside them and been caught in the gaze of those mythical eyes. Fallen in love with a species even when I am giving them fly-raddled sheep's guts from a bucket. There is less cynicism in my life, replaced by passion.

My grandmother talked about miracles for a long time afterwards, but I brushed them aside.

The winners

Julia Bohanna was named as the winner of the 2012 Independent on Sunday/Bradt Travel Writing Competition at an awards ceremony at Stanfords travel bookshop in London's Covent Garden.

She received the top prize for her tale "A Wolf in the Mountains" (above). Julia's story was selected as the overall winner by a panel of judges from The Independent and Bradt Travel Guides, and the prize was presented by Hilary Bradt and Simon Calder of The Independent at the awards event on 4 September.

Julia is a fiction writer, and when travelling she loves to absorb new places and characters in the hope they will spark stories. She found Lourdes a strange and fascinating town, and spent much of her time trying to stop her grandmother filling both their suitcases with bottles of holy water. Julia lives with a child and chickens and writes the arts and books pages for the UK Wolf Conservation Trust's magazine.

Jonathan Lorie, director of Travellers' Tales, announced the winner of the unpublished category. That award went to Jo Forel for her quirky piece "The Whale", about the aftermath of a landslide in Peru. Jo is a Londoner who recently returned from a month-long adventure in South America.

Julia wins a week-long trip for two to Abruzzo, Italy, generously provided by Railbookers; she also has the chance to write a story for these pages about her experience. Jo wins a place on her choice of any Travellers' Tales writing weekend over the next 12 months.

Writing workshop

For those interested in learning about the art and craft of travel writing, there are still a few places left on Bradt's annual Travel-Writing Workshop, taking place in London on 16 September. The panel of experts includes The Independent and The Independent on Sunday's travel editor, Ben Ross, who will be offering tips on how to get your pieces published. See bradtguides.com/events.

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