Mauritania, Haiti, Gatwick airport... Independent readers have gone wild in an astonishing range of destinations. Nearly 1,000 contestants revealed their close encounters with the natural world in 500 words, in a bid to win a prize worth £10,000 – an Alaskan voyage for two with Princess Cruises, plus a shore-based extension into America's wildest state. That's almost half a million words, every one of which has been read by the editorial team at The Independent. Not that judging entries was a chore – it was a huge pleasure to read great tales told with vitality (even the one about Gatwick).
Friends, relations and travel-insurance companies should breathe a sigh of relief that most of the writers returned home in one piece. Near-death experiences figured prominently. Bears are perceived as the leading threat to life, followed by crocodiles and humans. Fran Landsman found a different kind of encounter with mortality in Bali: "In Sabali, I came across a funeral of 45 people – five years' worth of deaths saved up for one enormous bash." Yet many people found theirpersonal wilderness close to home; the most written-about destination was not Bali, Botswana or Brazil but Scotland. Other European countries made a strong showing.
"An inverted rotten tooth dominating the cold, eastern horizon" is how Paul Blankley describes the Battle of Nations Monument. The location is at the end of tramline number 6 in an East German city – "Where Napoleon met his Leipzig, as might now be the phrase if he hadn't escaped from exile on Elba a few years later."
Some accounts made me wonder whether places such as Australia are really suitable for human habitation: "The high-pitched drone of a thousand mosquitoes is a constant torment," writes Bryn Palmer from the sacred Aboriginal territory of Arnhem Land. "The patchwork of red blotches over our foreheads the next morning is evidence of a royal insectile feast." Meanwhile, Michael Skey was finding sleep difficult in the Outback: "Camping wild means pulling up at a rest-stop by the side of the highway, pitching a tent on the verge, hunting in the semi-darkness for firewood as 70-ton road trains roar past, and later choking on acrid fumes trying to start yet another fire with damp wood."
After weeks of reading, I met up with the two other members of the judging panel: the writer and broadcaster Valerie Singleton, and Princess Cruises' UK director, Carol Marlow. We spent hours debating the shortlist, but the verdict on the winner was unanimous. Now, everyone knows that Christine Davies of Beckenham has won a £10,000 trip of a lifetime – except the winner herself, for whom the call of the wild is apparently proving irresistible. If, on your travels, you bump into Ms Davies, tell her the good news.
From the Yarina jungle lodge in Ecuador, Helen Rukin sums up the mood of Independent readers in wild parts of the world: "All the things you worry about are true. Yes, it is damn hot, with a humidity to chew on. Yes, there are insects everywhere and they do all want to bite you. And yes, a bath would be nice. But when you are there, your only wish is to have more time."
The runners-up, two of whose stories are featured here, each win a copy of the Insight Guide to the Alaskan Wilderness. They are: Lee Sims, London E17; Peter Vigurs, Stoke-on-Trent; Penny Hinke, Hale; Clare Winsch, Glasgow; Christa Laird, Oxford; Dave Cowell, Alcester; Gina Hall, Daventry; Fran Landsman, Bath; Helen Swift, Matlock; Sally Spedding, Great Billing Park; Debnita Chakravarti, Reading; Tiffany Murray, Ross-on-Wye; John Griffiths, Garway Hill; Rowena Quantrill, Bradford-on-Avon; Katharine Bagshaw, Hope Valley; Steve Ward, Chelmsford; Peter Whitehead, Saint-Didier-sur-Doulon, France; Pamela Butler, Middleton-by-Wirksworth; Kirsten Guschal, Cowling; and Martin Davies, London SW15.
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