Abu Dhabi camel culture
The annual Al Dhafra Camel Festival kicks off today Discuss this article
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Before the days when petroleum wealth brought malls, tower blocks and other symbols of modernisation to the UAE, your average Emirati had no more prized a possession than his camel. Nowadays, although having a beast which can resist the harsh conditions of the desert is not a necessity for survival, the people of this region still have an emotional attachment to the magnificent animals.
Chances are, your average city-dwelling local will still keep a few camels out on land in the Al Gharbia region of the emirate. In fact, the UAE is home to some 380,000 camels – the fifth largest number in the Arab World.
Over the next few days, some 24,000 of the creatures will be transported to the town of Madinat Zayed in the Western Region for the annual Al Dhafra Camel Festival. Visitors of all nationalities are welcome at the event, which offers a fascinating insight into the bond between the Arab people and the camel.
The part of the festival that has gained the most publicity in past years is the camel beauty contest (or camel mazayen in Arabic); the equivalent of a Crufts-style dog show, where the animals are paraded around and marked on their appearance. And with prize money of more than Dhs33 million to be won, there’s some serious rivalry.
At the festival, you’ll also find shops selling handicrafts made by Emirati woman and traditional foods. Meanwhile, there’ll be quizzes and traditional games for children.
And, as the festival lasts eight days, you’ll have plenty of time to bag yourself some keepsakes and see thousands of camels.
Getting the hump
There are plenty of other ways to get up close and personal with camels in the UAE
Buy a camel
Located a mere five minutes’ drive from Al Ain Hilton, heading out on 137th Street, the livestock market is a treat for the kids and a wakeup call for anyone living the sheltered life in the bigger cities. Watch as local tradesmen barter over the life of a young goat, casually holding a previous win by its hooves in a pincer grip. A great place for budding photographers, but worth remembering that this is a real place of work – tourists are welcome, though not the reason for its existence – and, as such, respect should be practised at all times. Don’t go pointing your lens until you’re sure nobody will mind.
The real draw, of course, is the camel market, the last of its kind in the UAE. You’re welcome to wander the area free of charge, but that doesn’t stop the army of Pakistani and Afghani hopefuls spotting an opening. They’re very insistent that you tour with them – almost aggressively so – but they do understand a thing or two about camels. Agree a price and they’ll get you into the enclosures for photos, as well as making sure you see all that the camel interior has to offer – from wobbly legged newborns to craggy old has-beens.
As a brief overview, it’s worth knowing that a baby camel can sell for as little as Dhs3,000, with a fully grown male starting at around Dhs25,000 (so buy young and nurture, if you’re looking). The camels’ skin tones represent which the region they hail from from – the darker beasts having spent their time wandering the vast wastes of Saudi’s Empty Quarter. As a morning out, the livestock market makes for a fascinating experience, though if you come expecting a camel ride, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, prepare yourself for a little local tradition in action.
Visit a camel race
If you feel the need to set out to Abu Dhabi’s camel racetrack, we advise a ridiculously early start as not only does the first race start at 6.30am, but you’re more than likely to get lost as you search for the fabled location.
So, follow the Al Ain Road to Al Wathba for about 45 minutes from the Corniche, and keep a keen eye out for the road signs. If you have a GPS, set it to 24°11’26”N by 54°38’29”E, then hope for the best. When you see a large metallic stadium rising from the sands you’re almost there. This structure is the Al Wathba racetrack that’s only used for the big public holiday events. You need to keep along this road and eventually you’ll come across a jostling collection of camels, owners and race fans, cheering on as the humped beasts run for glory.
Other than racing, there’s little else to do, with a lack of stalls, shops or burger vans, so it’s best to pack some sandwiches for sustenance. After waiting around for a while, a shout will go out and everyone will race towards the railings, You’ll hear the thunder of hooves and see a cloud of dust as the animals charge towards with their tongues lolling and spittle flying from their mouths.
Perched on their backs are tiny robots, which the owners use to control the galloping beasts. The electronic devices, which are made in East Asia and cost up to US$2,000, can be used to whip the animals, steer them and tug on the reins to slow them down. Their use is now mandatory after the traditional method of employing child jockeys was banned by the government in 2005 after complaints by human rights groups about putting minors in this obviously dangerous situation.
Meanwhile, locals in 4x4s speed alongside the track, whooping and yodelling to encourage the beasts to run faster. It’s a thrilling spectacle, and one every person in the UAE should experience.
Camel racing at Al Wathba takes place on Thu, Fri and occasional Saturday from 6.30am-8.30am from October to April.
Ride a camel
Dozens of places in the UAE have camels that you can sit on for a few minutes while you pose for your Facebook profile page picture, but Al Ain Camel Safaris is one of the few companies that offers lengthy treks. The firm’s base is located about 30 minutes’ drive from Al Ain Hilton Hotel, on the red hills that line the northern-most reaches of the city. Plan for an evening trek and get the chance to pretend you’re Lawrence of Arabia as the repetitive sway of these magnificent creatures relaxes and hypnotises you.
Call 03 768 8066.
Drink some camel milk
The Al Dhafra Festival will also include a competition to find the camel which produces the most milk, with its owner picking up a cool Dhs1 million prize. That’s a lot of cash, but when you consider that camel milk is expected to be one of the UAE’s growth industries in coming years, it’s understandable.
It’s boom time in the camel milk market as the rest of the world finally catches on to the health benefits of the white liquid. Compared with its cow equivalent it has five times more vitamin C, 10 times more iron and twice as much vitamin B. It’s also packed with insulin-like proteins, making it safe for diabetics to drink, and also contains antibodies which help fight cancer, hepatitis B and Alzheimer’s. Although its taste takes a bit of getting used to – imagine a saltier version of cow’s milk, with flour added – it’s not unpleasant to drink.
Most supermarkets in Abu Dhabi now stock it in their chilled section, while camel milk chocolate is also fast becoming a popular snack.
Check out www.alnasma.com to get your hands on some camel milk treats.
• There are two species of camels – the one-humped dromedary, which is indigenous to this region, and the two-humped Bactrian, which lives in northern Asia, China and Afghanistan.
• Two breeds of camel are bred in the Gulf – the asayal, which have light skin, and majaheem, which are a darker brown colour. Asayal’s are the local breed, and hence are more common in the UAE.
• On average, camels live between 40 and 50 years, although the oldest recorded age of a camel was 80.
• They can go for weeks without food and over a week without water.
• After lengthy periods without drinking, they’ve been known to gulp down 125 litres of water in as little as 13 minutes.
• Their top speed is 65kph in short bursts, and 40kph for longer distances.
• They can carry up to 450kg of weight on their backs.
How to get there: Take the Al Ain Road out of the city, over Maqta Bridge. Then take the E11 road, following signs to Jebel Dhanna. After about 30km, you come to an Adnoc gas station. Take the next exit, following the signs to Shamis. After about 15km, you’ll come to Madinat Zayed.
Dates: December 16-23
Timings: Proceedings start at 9.30am, but, like many events in the UAE, it won’t really get going until after lunch.
More info: Call 02 657 6171
Time Out Abu Dhabi,