Cycling through rural Uzbekistan, Judi Zebedee – winner of the encounter category – stops in a village to ask for water… and gets more than she bargained for. Scroll down to see the runner-up
The Uzbeks are legendary for their generous hospitality and fun-loving nature, so to one family in a small, rural village, a passing, middle-aged Englishwoman on a bicycle was like a gift from the gods. I’d only stopped to ask for water from the well, but having nowhere to stay that night other than a tent in the wilderness, an offer of accommodation seemed too good to refuse.
After 12 hours spent cycling 120km across the desert in 40C heat, against a ferocious headwind, the last thing I needed was a party, but with a dozen sets of gold teeth grinning eagerly in my direction, who was I to argue?
As grandad sliced the orange flesh of the most sublime melon I have ever tasted, “Mama” was dispatched to the kitchen and eldest son was sent in search of vodka. Despite his Spiderman T-shirt, the two-year-old grandson was feeling anything but a superhero as he was deposited in the lap of this odd-looking stranger.
Before I had time to say “I’m exhausted”, a low table was lifted on to the topchan, a traditional Uzbek tea-bed, and I was invited to take my seat. As the stars twinkled through the canopy of vines, my plate was heaped with tomato salad fresh from the garden, warm flatbread straight from the oven, and ladlefuls of steaming meat and potato stew. Grandad’s tales of his childhood became ever more animated as the vodka flowed, testing my rusty Russian to its limits. The women of the house nestled in close, taking turns to try on my sunglasses and admiring my “golden” hair and pale skin – politely ignoring its crust of sweat and dust.
Just as I was hoping the prospect of sleep might be looming, the neighbours turned up en masse, bearing a DVD player. As Europop blared from the antiquated machine I was powerless to resist their insistent appeals to join in the dancing. Two years in Africa had left its mark on my dancing technique and these raucous yet demure Uzbek women collapsed in fits of helpless giggles as I wiggled my trouser-clad hips across their garden.
No amount of patient tuition could get my shoulders moving like theirs, but our techniques gradually merged into a kind of central Asian-style hokey-cokey.
Eventually, seeing that I was flagging, the ladies cleared the topchan and urged me to roll out my sleeping bag. Still unwashed, but relieved to be horizontal at last, I was just drifting into a dreamless sleep when I heard a rustling beside me. Fully clothed, Grandma had climbed onto the topchan and was settling down for the night. Grandad clambered up to her left, youngest son to my right and, to complete the sleeping arrangements, a small, flea-ridden kitten appeared from nowhere and curled up on my head.
In less than six hours I had become a fully-fledged part of an Uzbek family – and I still didn’t even know their names!
Judi is from Culmstock, Devon
THE JUDGE, Welsh author Howard Marks, says:: “Two stories shine out: Judi Zebedee’s, and Neil Leckie’s story about river adventures in North Queensland (see below). It’s not easy to pick the winner, but I have to, and I choose Judi’s. Her ability to engender suspense and surprise while keeping the narrative comfortable and engaging is first class. I look forward to reading more of her work.”
THE PRIZE: A trip for two on a new northern Namibia and Angola itinerary with Exodus (0845 287 7623, exodus.co.uk), crossing dramatic landscapes to Himba villages and the Tunda-Vala escarpment, visiting Etosha national park and going on game drives. The tour includes return flights from Heathrow, 10 nights’ camping, one night in an en suite chalet, and meals.
Neil Leckie takes a perfect swim in Queensland’s Daintree rainforest – perfect except for the crocs, that is …
“Are we sure there aren’t any crocodiles here?” asks one of the more suspicious (or possibly sensible) members of our group. We have, in fact, been assured by a couple of locals who own our accommodation that this is one of only a handful of safe swimming spots in the area.
In far north Queensland’s Daintree national park, water is everywhere: the Pacific Ocean stretching east for thousands of miles, huge rivers swelling from tropical downpours. In summer, with the humidity at an unbearable level, the air feels thick with moisture. However, arriving in the wrong season presents some serious challenges for those looking to cool off, or just enjoy a leisurely swim. The clear, glistening sea water looks good enough to drink but is off limits for over half the year, due to the presence of some of the deadliest species of jellyfish in the world. This isn’t the kind of location where every hotel has a pool, either, which narrows down swimming options to just the rivers. Hence our current dilemma, as the other danger – impossible to ignore, due to the warning signs at every creek, stream, river or estuary – are crocodiles.
Our journey began with a 10-minute drive from the town of Daintree to a muddy track surrounded by dense rainforest. Time for us to walk the rest of the way. Forty long minutes later, we arrive at our destination – the spectacular, roaring Cassowary waterfall tumbling from a 30-foot cliff into a large pool.
The water is murky and looks deep in places, but with the mosquitoes and sandflies taking advantage of our hesitation, the choice is either to get eaten alive on land or take our chances in the water. We decide on the latter. The temperature is perfect after trekking in the afternoon sun, and the sense of isolation – the feeling of pleasure at having escaped the tourist trail and repressive heat – makes the experience all the more thrilling.
Then, suddenly, a movement on the water’s surface. We freeze in the midst of our euphoria … all those warnings come flooding back, as does the image of the seven-foot monster we spotted on our river tour the previous day. Then the creature emerges from the depths: a turtle, slightly larger than my hand, comes up to the surface, spends a few seconds sizing us up, then heads back down, unperturbed. In a moment of panic I forget the camera; but no matter – up it comes again, and it is soon joined by a companion, to give us (and the big jungle perch swimming next to our legs) some company, as we spend the next hour in a state of bliss.
As we depart reluctantly, our bodies aching from the exertion and the already swelling insect bites, we can’t help but smile at having had this small piece of paradise all – well, almost – to ourselves.
Neil is from Edinburgh