Tuesday, May 21, 2013



For many travellers to Abu Dhabi the trip will begin in the shopping malls and end at Ferrari World and the high octane of the Formula 1 races as, because of the marketing done by Travel agents world wide, that is Abu Dhabi and much of the UAE.

However, there is a great deal more to Abu Dhabi than this. For a start Abu Dhabi is more than the city. It is the largest Emirate in the UAE with three major nodes - the capital -Abu Dhabi, the Oasis city of Al Ain on the Oman border and Al Gharbia, the industrial city in the Western Desert. Between these cities there is plenty for a traveller to explore.

One of our favourite experiences while living in the Emirate was the camel racing and the camel souk at Al Ain.
Camels at the Camel Souq

The Camel Souk is behind the Al Bawadi Mall on the outskirts of Al Ain. Here the locals bring their camels for sale either as breeding stock for camel racing or beauty contests or for slaughter as camel meat is a delicacy particularly at big celebrations.

The Camel Souk is best visited in the morning when trade is at its busiest and the exchanges are at their most interesting and vocal. You can, if you’re worried about finding the Mall and the Souk, simply follow the stream of small trucks heading to the Souk with two or three camels strapped onto the tray, their heads swiveling in idle curiousity as the trucks speeds along the highway.

If you are heading to the Souk it is advisable to observe the dress code and, particularly if you are a woman, ensure that you are wearing a reasonably long skirt and a long sleeved blouse as the Souk is a predominately male preserve and local custom is that women are “modestly” dressed.

Once you begin walking around the Souk you can be assured of many offers of help and advice on the qualities of the camel you should look for for breeding or beauty along with offers to pose for photographs with you alongside their camels... all for a small fee, of course! However, this is all part of the fun and experience of the Souk so relax and enjoy it.

However, to us, the most entertaining and best experience of Abu Dhabi are the Camel Races that are held at any number of the local race tracks scattered across the Emirate.
At full stretch Camels racing

There are weekly races held at the Al Wathba, Al Magon and Al Ain tracks throughout the year, although more often in the Winter months as it is cooler and more comfortable  for both spectator and camel. The races are sometimes advertised in the local newspapers, particularly if they are part of a festival or sponsored by the Royal Family, otherwise it pays to contact the Camel Racing Federation ( +971 2 5839200 ) and check the timing and location of the races as, while they are said to run on Thursday and Friday mornings between 7.00 am and 2.30pm, the timings can vary. Several times we discovered that the races had finished by the time we got to the track around 11.00am - 12.00pm. However, training goes on every day so you can watch the camels being put through their paces even if you miss out on the excitement of racing.

Camels heading for the track - Al Ain. Abu Dhabi


We always knew when we were nearing a race track as, along the horizon we would see strings of camels heading towards the venue. Then, as we got closer, the road would be blocked by the constant parade of camels all blanketed in the colours of the different stables that were based around the track.

Once through the parade of camels and safely parked we were able to wander at will around the holding pens and grooming areas where the camels squatted on the sand idly chewing their cud as their trainers and owners groomed and prepared them for their races.  The preparation often included the checking and cleaning of the robo-jockeys.
Robo-jockeys being readied for racing.
The “robo-jockeys” are boxes, dressed in the stable “silks”, with a revolving whip, controlled by the owner, that are strapped onto the camel, just behind its hump and substitute for human jockeys. Although there are, apparently, occasions when races are held with human jockeys, who must be over 15 years old, riding we never saw one.
Camels waiting for their race

The races, which can take any where between 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the length of the race, are organised by the age of the camels with the young camels racing around a 4-6 kilometre track and the older ones covering up to 10 kilometres at speeds of over 40 kph with what appears to be any number of camels in the race. We saw races with 10 camels as well as races with 20 or more camels jostling for position along the track.

The race starts with the camels being lead onto the track and marshalled into line behind the starting gate. While this is going on the owners and their drivers, in their 4x4s, line up on a parallel track with the robo-jockey radio control at the ready. Spectators gather either at the starting gate or  climb aboard a mini bus to follow the camels as they race around the long oval track that is the race course. One of our friends even secured a ride on the roof of the TV broadcast camera van as it, too, tracked the race on its specially designated parallel track!

 In the starting cage each camel is held steady by a trainer clutching a halter rope until the order to start is given. At that point the trainers drop the ropes and dash for the fence line, leaving their sandals in huddled clumps on the track, as the starting gate lifts and the camels begin their mad dash around the track, enthusiastically accompanied by the stream of 4x4s  each with a camel owner leaning out of the passenger window, robo-jockey control box at the ready, ready to urge his particular camel on.
And they're off!!! Trainers let the camels go as the gate goes up for the big race.

Unlike horse racing which echoes to the sound of hooves pounding along the track, camel racing is silent as the camels stretch, speed and pad their way along the sand. However, as the race spreads out the excitement of the owners, trainers and spectators builds and horns start tooting, owners yell encouragement to their animals and the hiss of the robo-jockeys’ whips flailing the air urging the camels to faster speeds can be heard. At this point the camels, with foam flicking from their flapping lips, increase their stride in an effort to pass the straining animal in front and thus win kudos for their owners, especially if the race is one held under the sponsorship and auspices of the His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and organised by the UAE Camel Racing Association,as there is every opportunity to win their owners huge cash prizes, luxury vehicles, and even golden swords and cups.

Incidentally, at the 2013 Camel Races the third and fourth round winners each received Dh1million    ( $US272,000)  in addition to a golden sword, with the Organizing Committee allocating a total sum of Dh3,380,000 ($US920,000) to the lucky owners in second to fifth place.

1 comment:

Ethan Smith said...
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