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The Al Dhafra Festival and Camel Beauty Contest-A Desert Adventure

Or, Back in the UAE, part three

Have you ever had an experience so glorious that you relive it almost every day?

Just before Christmas of 2010, my boyfriend Dave and I went to the UAE along with my dear friend the amazing designer Tucker Robbins – you can read about how I met Tucker here, and about our Arabian celebrity friend and host Hussain Al Amry here. When Tucker was urging me to make a reservation to join him in the UAE, he listed a multitude of attractions: “There might be a date palm festival”, “His brother is the Minister of Culture who is very focused on the development of native craft in the UAE”, “They’re building everywhere! An arm of the Louvre!” etc. etc. There were a million reasons why I shouldn’t go. “Tucker, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but business in the past two years has SUCKED” was the main one. *

A very friendly black camel

However, when Tucker announced that a “Camel Beauty Contest” (The Al Dhafra festival) was being held in the desert during his stay, a turning point occurred. A camel beauty contest, seriously? New Ravenna might be going to hell in a hand-basket, but how in the world could I miss that?

My boyfriend Dave and I bought tickets, were met at the airport by Tucker and Hussain in his crazy white Mercedes, and within an hour we were in someone’s front yard, sitting on a rug on the sidewalk, with imperious falcons resting on little perches scattered around the yard:

You can take the boys out of the desert, but you can't take the desert...

During the next few days we were shown shown all the sights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which is about an hour and a half by car from Abu Dhabi), then our gallant host Hussain drove us, at 247 kph (I’m not kidding), south into the desert. First stop, the oasis of Liwa, where his boss, H.E. Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, the Minister of Culture and Heritage, was raised.

Abu (brother) Khalaf often refers to himself as a “simple Bedouin boy” (which is the equivalent of Warren Buffet saying “I’m just a simple country boy”). Liwa is just north of what is commonly known as the “empty quarter”–a swath of desert in eastern Saudi Arabia that is…completely empty.

Dave on the edge of the empty quarter

Apricot colored sand dunes stretch for hundreds of miles, south and east to Oman and Yemen just like in the movies. In fact, when describing his childhood Abu Khalaf likes to tell about the time when he was 14 and took his father’s jeep and drove across the empty quarter to Oman–and back–all the while neglecting to inform his parents of his plans.After seeing the desert through which he drove first hand, all I can say is that he should be happy that I was not his mother.

If you want all your camels to follow you (to a camel festival, for instance), put a baby camel in the back of your truck.

In any case, fast forward a few years and now, in another chapter of the “everyone thought we were crazy (crazy like a fox)” saga, visionary Abu Khalaf founded the Al Dhafra festival outside of his old stomping–I mean Four-Wheeling–grounds in Liwa. The goal was to celebrate and perpetuate the Bedouin culture and heritage, much of which is centered around camels. The first year, 20,000 camels showed up. Not being ones to ignore a good sign, they then planned and built a four star hotel on the grounds in eight months.

Abu Khalaf (grinning) while treating us to a real Bedouin experience

Basically, our good-looking hosts were the Arabian versions of George Clooney (Abu Khalaf) and Brad Pitt (Abu Hussain)–it seemed we always had an entourage, everyone knew them and wanted to speak with them, and we felt like celebrities ourselves.

A fine string of black camels-some walked for a month across the desert to get here! See the video below:

Two kinds of camels are allowed to enter the competitions--black camels and tan camels. The black ones are for meat and milk, the tan ones for milk and riding.

Bedouin encampments dot the horizon for miles around, but the main attractions are the 30,000 camels that arrive from all over the Middle East for the ” beauty contest”. Some of these camels are worth millions, will win millions, and you can get up close and personal with them on “Million Street”–the road on which all the buying and selling is occurring.

Yours truly, walking down "Million Street"

This is a male camel who is really LOVING all the ladies...His daughters behind him are worth over 500k each. Yes, that is a gold lame' blanket.

Other activities at the festival are: shopping at 180 souks selling Bedouin products, falconry demonstrations, date packaging contests, camel racing, and camel milking contests. Where to stay? We camped in tents along with our hosts, but check out the four-star hotel on the grounds, or this five star hotel (heavenly) about an hour away.

The souk area--they've put woven matting over the surface of the sand--it's brilliant.

Typical Al Dhafra scene

We were some of the only Westerners I saw–the others were shooting a film for National Geographic. Everyone was unfailingly polite and seemed delighted to see us appreciating their culture–and there were many different Arab countries represented, not just the UAE. I also felt completely safe, in case anyone is wondering. Dave and I kept pinching ourselves, we were so thrilled…but the pictures prove it, we weren’t dreaming. Truly it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

This particular camel is considered one of the most beautiful. Rumor has it she's not terribly fond of male camels...but she certainly seems to love her handler.

The camel races are incredible! The owners follow alongside the racing camels in their SUV’s and talk to them through radio devices. When camels need prodding, they use a radio-controlled whip attached to the little doll/rider on their backs. This is a very young camel–still too small to be ridden by a real human.

CNN did a wonderful short video on the camel beauty contest which has been uploaded to Youtube here, and word on the street is that a 3-D documentary is now being made about the festival–click here for details. Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if Abu Khalaf was involved…

Yes...it's a speed bump sign.

*(Full disclosure: New Ravenna was and is fine–in fact, bookings are now near or exceeding pre-recession levels (thank GOD). But if you are a fellow business owner, you know how difficult it is to tear yourself away even when things are dandy. I mean, the sky might fall while we’re gone, right? It’s tough.)

6 Responses to “The Al Dhafra Festival and Camel Beauty Contest-A Desert Adventure”

  1. Soraya says:

    It is just amazing!!

  2. Sara Baldwin says:

    No kidding Soraya. It totally blew my mind. I hope to be going back again in December of 2011.

  3. Wow, this was definitely the trip of a lifetime! Such an amazing adventure, and so many incredible things to see and do. And how fun is a beauty contest for camels :-)

  4. Sara Baldwin says:

    Hi Kelly, the camels were all bathed and fluffy and friendly and truly…beautiful! It's fantastic to be immersed in another culture like this, if only for a few days.

  5. Wooh! I'm having fun with this article. It is very refreshing. By the way what's exactly the most beautiful camel looks like? Thanks for posting. I really enjoyed it.

  6. Sue Burden says:

    What a wonderful surprise this was! I was looking around for some news as to where Dave might be, and I wanted to look at your new designs. Then I saw the blog!
    This is fabulous and I am so excited for you all. What an experience!

    What wonderful hosts you had – this is amazing. So happy that you had this time!

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About Me

Sara BaldwinSara Baldwin

Exmore, Virginia, United States

New Ravenna Mosaics founder and Creative Director, Owner, Sara Baldwin Design, Bass guitar player, Envisioner, Appreciator of the Sublime and Ridiculous.


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