In Search of Wonder, adjudication speech by Rory MacLean

Travel writers seek out wonders. That's our job. It always has been. And always will be. For over 4,000 years the traveller – starting with Odysseus in the Iliad, and pausing to catch breath here this evening at the Royal Welsh College of  Music & Drama – has set out into unknown territory, passing through conflict towards knowledge or enlightenment … in search of wonder.

And we have followed him or her on their journey, on this ancient rite of passage, in a narrative pattern that predates by millennia the psychological or character-driven novel. We have walked with the worldly wordy traveller in Marco Polo's voyages and in the devotional literature of the Middle Ages. We've followed his romantic heroes with – and through - Byron, Shelly, Keats and Goethe. Victorian traveller-explorers – with us at their side – have undertaken the search for wonders with scientific exactitude: the tombs of the Pharaohs, the source of the Nile. In Francis Bacon's words, all these travellers – returning from the unknown with illuminating eye-witness accounts, with wonders – were 'merchants of light'. 

Come the 20th century, with the physical world mapped, the travelling author began to travel in time, finding wonder in societies in transition and cultures about to be lost: Burma in Norman Lewis' 'Golden Earth', the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia in Thesiger's 'Arabian Sands', the post-Soviet wasteland in Colin Thubron's 'In Siberia'. Some of them turned inward, taking us with them on parallel journeys of both inner and outer exploration. More flippant practitioners made a farce of their adventures, carrying white goods across Ireland, playing cricket in Timbuktu. Yet even they were searching for wonders, and through them for a sense of a place in the world.

Of late critics have claimed that – in an era of mass travel and communication -- the planet has somehow shrunk and the trail gone cold. The truth – as Colin Thubron observed in the Times Literary Supplement - is that as our own lives have become wealthier, safer and narrower, so the lives of most of the rest of the world have drifted further from our grasp. Today there are no fewer wonders to discover, only unexpected places where they are to be found. At the same time for many travelling writers the quest took a domestic turn, shifting from Chatwin's pursuit of a brontosaurus skin in distant Patagonia, to walking the coasts of Wales, to the finding a pine-cone in an English forest, to contemplating a shell on a Scottish beach. 

Hence over time the travel writer has become less as a geographer of place, more of the human heart. The wonders he or she seeks have come to be in the remarkable lives of ordinary men and women. We practitioners travel to the ends of the earth to collect their stories but - as essential as the research trips are – our real travelling is done at our desk, in the intense distillation of the journey. It is back at home that we are best able to understand the lives of our subjects. And then, to enable readers to empathise with those lives, to help us to better know ourselves, to try to show the real meaning of things.

To my mind there is an especially humbling reason in the enduring value of travel writing. Every journey reminds the writer – and so the reader - of how very little he or she knows, and that becomes part of the challenge of writing: to try to understand something more about ourselves, and of the communities to which we belong. Therefore the duty of today's travel writer is as it has always been - to provide a new way of seeing and understanding the world, to better understand the condition of being human. And there is much wonder in that.

How then does one choose the year's 'best' travel story in this ever-changing, ever-supple wonder-filled genre? Does one prize a work for its adherence to tradition or its innovation, for its evocation of place or of character, for its factual precision or its power to evoke empathy? It was always going to be a tough call, not only because of the high standard of the entries. 

In 'The Rains of Titikaka', John Harrison follows in the footsteps of Cieza de Leon, the 16th century Spanish conquistador and chronicler, to the highest city in the ancient world. De Leon was fascinated by 'the strange and wonderful things that exist in this new world, and John shares that fascination, retelling on his journey Andean legends, seeking out the 'birth place of the sun and the moon'. It is a masterful story – rich in erudition, full of wit and soaring flights of beautiful prose – in which John writes of an unchanging ancient monument that reminds him – and so us all - that we change, that 'we are mutable flesh, organic; we are movement, flaring fleeting energy.' A beautiful work.

And then there is Nathan Llywelyn Munday's 'Seven Days: A Pyrenean Trek', which reads like a life's work, which is what it is. 'Everything begins in the dark,' Nathan writes at the start of his mountain-scaling journey; 'God dwells in the mountains. There was the Shekinah on Sinai, then the angel on Moriah. Mountains are holy because they rise above the plain, above humanity itself.' This is a journey that is shot through with legends and Biblical allusions, that rings with cowbells and chanting marmots, that introduces us to archangels and Native American spirits, as well as Nathan's father and fellow pilgrims. 'Most humans have at least one Odyssey to talk about', he writes in this learned, timeless work – and this is Nathan's.

To my mind, travel writing's role above all is to bring to life the Other, to help us to know the Other. In this – and much else - Mandy Sutter's 'Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me' triumphs, in its lean prose and true dialogue, in its disarming humour, in its evocation of a family divided by sexism and racism in 1960s white Nigeria. In this touching story, Mandy stitches together the threads of memory to create a moving tapestry of lost life, building bridges of understanding across time and place, enhancing literature's ever-changing, ever-supple genre.