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Published: January 8th 2015
If your only exposure to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival is through our eyes, you probably assume the only things to do or see involve camels, camels and even more camels. That is only partially true. I only have eyes for the camels and the camel-related events, and that makes up a majority of the events, but there is more to the festival than just camels.
The festival is an occassion to highlight various cultural aspects and heritage of the United Arab Emirates. There are competitions, that are rewarded with SUVS, that do not involve camels. We witnessed some of them, skipped a few others and some we simply watched on tv at night in our hotel.
We went to the championship round of the Arabian Saluki Races that was held on the camel race track. The event started over 2 hours late and last about 15 minutes. Seriously. Those dogs are lightening fast and very competitive. It took longer for the veterinarians to confirm the winners' health and eligibility than it did for both the male races and the female races.
We skipped the Arabian Horse Races because they started right after the Saluki races and with
the 2+ hour delay, we were ready to get back to camel business. The horse race track was also about 15 miles away, which was unusual since everything seemed to be within a several miles.
A side note about distances: We were advised to have a vehicle while we were at the festival because everything was spread out in the sand dunes. We ignored the advice because it sounded stressful and we enjoy doing a lot of walking. I could see the argument for either case. The roads were fantastic and the traffic extremely easy to navigate (unlike many Middle Eastern countries we have driven in). So, having a car rental could have meant more exploring over the dunes or to campsites further away, but it never kept us from seeing or doing what we wanted.
We got in a lot walking--probably between 8-10 miles per day--which meant we were in a good position to stumble upon things we might have missed if we were driving (and we were in a good position eat like we were on vacation!) But, the most surprising thing to us was how anyone with empty seats driving past would stop and offer
us a ride. I know it sounds dangerous, but it is really just part of the Bedouin culture (to help a person in the desert). If we opted out of getting a ride, it was not a problem. It meant the driver waived and went on his merry way. Or it meant he stopped and asked us where we were from and if we were enjoying the festival and then he went on his merry way. No pressure.
If we accepted a ride, it meant we were driven to or near wherever we were going, welcomed to the UAE and the festival and often given an invitation to the celebration dinner at the driver's campsite. Nothing more.
There were days we may have accepted 3-5 offers for a ride and there was never an issue. This took a little getting used to after traveling to countries where everything is a chance to capitalize on unsuspecting tourists. It was refreshing to say the least. It really made the experience more relaxing and a give us great opportunities to interact with the exhibitors.
Aside from camels, Emirates have a passion for their falcons. One person told us, they are
valued pets like dogs are to Americans. Never heard dogs compared to falcons before, but we get it. Falcons are big business--with costs as shocking as the cost of a prized camel. At the festival, there are competitions for falcons. If we understood everything correctly, they are evaluated on their speed and fastest falcon wins. We did not attend the falcon competition despite being strongly encouraged, but we did catch the replays on tv. I know this would be shocking to many Emirates, but they just don't seem as exciting as the camels.
Some of the other cultural heritage competitions included dates, date packing and sour milk. We sampled the dates, but did not stick around to see them being judged.
One other aspect of the festival involved the Traditional Souq. This is where the Bedouin women get to shine. They set up kiosks in a setting that resembles an old market or souq and sell their traditional handiworks and food. The food is not to be missed, but we can warn you: a lot of the meat dishes included camel. Needless to say, we went vegetarian.
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