It seems like a lifetime ago now, but in our February 25 Next Generation issue, we launched our competition to find New Zealand's best young travel writer. We called for entries from intermediate, secondary school and first-year university students, and were thoroughly impressed with the results.
Congratulations to our two winners, whose essays were chosen by Travel Editor Stephanie Holmes. She says, "Both winners created a strong sense of place and anticipation, and I was captivated by their journeys. I'm confident the writers have a bright future ahead of them and although they might not be able to travel right now, the world is waiting to inspire more beautiful tales from their next adventures."
Thanks to everyone who entered.
WINNER: Intermediate/Secondary Category
Ede Bird, Michael Park Steiner School
The growing darkness barely curbs Hawaii's warmth, the humidity still beading the air as we laugh our way down to the docks. Stomachs full of pizza, we're the second group to anticipate this opportunity — the first half of our crowd have already emerged out of the ocean and are waiting in wetsuits for us to arrive.
We are a collection of youth, speckled with adults, and we're here in Hawaii to help raise awareness about plastic pollution.
It's hard to couple the piles of plastic we see every day with this evening that's glowing with excitement. The brightness of Hawaii's daytime, the golden light that illuminates beaches, ocean, and plastic litter alike is the starkest contrast to the rounded beauty of the night.
We squeeze into salty wetsuits that pinch our skin, then rock our way into small canoes. Our guide informs us how to paddle and as we make our way towards the ultraviolet light in the water he makes cheery conversation.
"So where are you all here from?"
We take turns to answer.
It's a weird reminder to me, how fleeting these connections are. Less than a week ago, we met in Hawaii's open airport, exchanging names next to the baggage carousel. But these people, these connections, feel much stronger. It helps that we're all passionate for the same thing. Environmentalism ignites us, and we all share the fury, power, and energy from seeing the state of some of the beaches here.
We arrive at a small boat in a large fleet and the water is illuminated underneath us. Instead of the dark deep blue, a clean turquoise hue emanates from the ocean.
"The lights attract plankton. They know this, and come here to feed. You might want to sing to them, they love it."
The woman on the boat with us speaks this time as we fit ourselves with snorkels and masks.
"You can call to them," she says. "Hahalua."
We repeat, singing nasally through our masks.
The chant is whispered, continuing, as we pile into the water. It hits me like a shock, but it's not cold. Electrified with our anticipation, holding on to a pole off the back of the boat, we line up like enthused sardines. I lower my face into the water. A deep, clear, beautiful environment unfurls in front of my eyes.
Coral, fish, flashes of colour lining the sea floor, all highlighted by the glaring blue lights. I even spot an octopus, crimson against the rocks. But this is not who we're waiting for.
Our breath condensing in our masks, we wait, unwilling to risk a second of blindness to clean the goggles. And then out of nowhere, heralded by cries from the other boats, they appear. Hahalua. Manta rays. Angels of the sea.
WINNER: First Year University Category
Khadija Wood, Massey University
The oscillating pitches of people conversing in different languages reverberates on the nearby water. Cars are parked with slivers of space to spare. As we approach the water, I spot dozens of wooden canoes on the riverbank. This is the way to Wadi Shab, Oman's prime tourist attraction, located at the heart of a stone mountain an hour away from the capital, Muscat.
Once we board a canoe, the sounds on the riverbank fade into the distance, replaced by the soft splash of oars. There is a crunch as we hit the opposite dry bank, and everyone rustles on their backpacks, water sloshing in bottles, as we step on to the rough trail. My mum nods at the boatman and says with a smile "Shukran," thank you in Arabic.
"Welcome to Wadi Shab" he replies, his eyes twinkling.
My brothers run ahead, their shrieks echoing off the stone walls that surround us. Despite the crowded carpark, we walk in solitude, occasionally passing a friendly tour guide strolling past with their nimble, albeit parcel-laden, donkeys. The mountain contains plenty of desert life: greenery curls out of rock crevices and beetles plod sturdily through the dust. Irrigation channels (called Aflaj), line the side of the canyon.
After a good 20 minutes, the sound of water and squeals of joy break the atmosphere, and Wadi Shab appears in all its glory: a large pool of water, churning with children buoyant in their blow-up swim sleeves. The water has a teal glitter that intensifies into an emerald green at deep spots.
My little sister, Maria, strips off her clothes (much to the dismay of a French grandmother, who watches her in pop-eyed shock) to reveal a striped swimsuit. She squats comfortably by a pile of discarded shoes and the odd sock, clutching a damp cheese sandwich which she munches contentedly. Then without warning, she runs to the water and jumps in, dusty feet first, roaring "Batista bomb".
She resurfaces and splashes over to me, clasping my arm desperately (as if she isn't treading water expertly with her now clean feet).
Around us, goats trip down the mountain, nibbling old bread and observing people with a bland look on their furry faces.
Maria wraps her arms around my neck affectionately. "This is exciting, aye?" she grins, ignoring my choking attempts to stay afloat. I love Wadi Shab.