Students who want be to travel writers should enter now, says Simon Calder

You suddenly become acutely aware of the Newtonian principles of mechanics when the ground slides away from you, your boots slither helplessly and you collapse under the weight of the heavy backpack that should be your life-support machine.

With a coefficient of friction approximating to that of Teflon on wet ice, I accelerated into what appeared to be a raging torrent. Fortunately, the river was no more than a metre deep; and even if I had been submerged and all my possessions soaked, I would have been able to dry them out. This was how my trip to the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama began; having failed to get match-fit for the fixture against fierce insects, angry animals and malevolent humans, I was attempting to sharpen up by walking to Heathrow airport. A diversion along a riverbank just outside Hounslow, after a night of heavy rain, provided a taste of what was to come – except that when you are halfway up the Continental Divide without a clue, the option of hopping on the Piccadilly Line was not there.

You need not venture to difficult and dangerous places to write about travel. Indeed, some of the strongest pieces I have published in The Independent are fresh looks at familiar places: Paris is the most visited city in the world, but few writers have approached it from the angle of it being one of the planet's great African cities, and exploring the influences of Morocco, Mauretania and Mali. A million stories have been written about walks in Britain – so last week The Independent published one about a full-moon walk in midsummer. About 10 billion short-break stories on New York have been written, but I have read only one where the writer keeps his watch doggedly on British time – seeking out breakfast at 3am New York time.

The winner of this section will be able to convert their £500 prize into the raw material of travel writing: getting out and about, meeting people and seeking the inspiration that is the currency of great travel writing. They will also have the privilege of spending a week on work experience at The Independent – but even the journey to work could generate a story. Like writing, when walking in London becomes easy you are probably not stretching yourself enough.

The new Student Travel Writer prize is one of 13 in this year's Independent/NUS Student Journalism awards. You have until 31 July to enter. Other awards are for fashion writing, design, arts journalism, feature writing, reporting, photography, campaigning and the best website; click here or ring 020-7561 6501 for more details.