The clock is about to strike 6pm and it is almost twilight. Anna Aiko, astride Princess, ambles across the silky sand of the Dubai desert, somewhere in the back of beyond.
The Japanese-French explorer is dressed in a white top and the traditional white Arabic headwear. And the scene looks straight out of a Hollywood film — Lawrence of Arabia, maybe.
Anna is making her way back to the rest of the caravan, who have stopped to attend to something. Head trainer Hamdan Al Rumaithi gets off the slick 4x4 truck to double-check if all systems are a go.
It is just another day for Anna and the others as they undergo rigorous training with sessions in the mornings and evenings and over the weekends. They have been doing this for over three weeks now, preparing for the annual camel trek which will happen in December.
This year’s event is tentatively scheduled to start on December 9 and will see trekkers traverse 700km on camelback in the Empty Quarter of the UAE. They will cover three emirates and 11 checkpoints over 10 days, with their final point of arrival being the Expo 2020 site.
While it is an opportunity for Emiratis to retrace their roots, the event is ever popular among expats here who wish to go back in time and explore the beauty of nature and relive the old Bedouin way of life.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this year — which is the eighth edition of the event — has received an overwhelming response, with participants from the UK, US, Spain, Japan, India, Jordan as well as the UAE signing up for it. Registration is still ongoing and the last date to sign up is today (Wednesday).
Organisers Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center revealed that they have received 500 applications so far — a number they expect to swell before the deadline.
Expect the unexpected
The trainees Khaleej Times met at the camel farm couldn’t hide their excitement as they prepared to take part in the event for the first time. Briton Howard Leedham is one such expat.
As someone who served in three tours during a 20-year stint with the UK Special Forces, he finds he's even able to draw some parallels between the experiences.
“One thing that is quite reminiscent of the military is that you never know what's going to happen until you do it,” he says, as he puts the saddle (called ‘shadad’ in Arabic) on the camel. "So, you come here and you have no idea where you're gonna go — long ride, short ride — or what the exercise is going to be until you're actually doing it."
Bonding with the camels is taking some time though, he shares. “We are already learning that each camel has its own character: some can be very grumpy! But, eventually, if we make the grade, we will be allocated a camel and that's when we'll build a relationship with the camel. So, it's a bit early to bring carrots just yet,” he quips.
Howard hopes he can make the cut and experience this special journey. “I've worked in the desert for quite a long time, so I’m really looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to just leaving my phone off for a good few hours a day. Plus, the scenery in the desert is stunning: constantly undulating, constantly changing. I hope I make it,” he adds.
A good type of fear
American Meriam Sehrewerdi, who has ridden camels since when she was a child, admits she did have a bit of fear initially.
“Probably at the beginning, especially when you prepare your shadad, because it is your seat," she says. "If it is not done well, then there is a high chance that you will fall. So far, I haven’t done so and, hopefully, I won’t. There will always be some fear — but it is a good type of fear.”
“Animals are like us — they feel," Meriam adds. "But if you have good energy, treat them well, and show love and care, they won't give you a hard time. It will definitely be easier on you.”
Egyptian expat Amina Samy, for whom the experience is a first, has nothing but high praise for the 'ship of the desert'.
“This is my first year participating in the camel trek. I saw a billboard on Sheikh Zayed Road, which piqued my interest. I don’t have any experience with camels and horses — but I think they are beautiful and majestic creatures, so I’m excited about this challenging adventure,” she says.
Unlike her counterparts making their debut, Anna is one of the proficient ones, having participated in the trek last year. Her passion for travelling has seen the seasoned 42-year-old tread the ancient path of the Silk Road, the ancient caravan tracks of the Frankincense Trail, as well as the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia and the enigmatic Socotra.
“It was an amazing experience,” Anna says about her adventure last year. "I discovered the heritage of the UAE and the vast desert of the Empty Quarter. Every day was different..."
In the beginning, she says, there was a sense of amazement as one discovered the desert but, overall, it was a life-changing experience as she and the camel "became one".
"Camels can feel what we are feeling, with even small gestures. Also, during the trek, we got to bond with the other trekkers and share our different cultures. It was a good way to connect with people in the middle of the desert where you don’t have phones. It was just humans and nature — a nice way to connect with yourself too,” recalls the adventurer, who has trekked as much as 2,300km — all on camelback.
As we wind through the desert during their training, Al Rumaithi continues to give out expert instructions. He’s paternal to a point but does it with the finesse of a friend, throwing in a bit of humour for good measure. If his driving skills on the sand dunes are anything to go by, they are in good hands.
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