The Al Dafra Camel Festival

Beth here. While my parents were in town, the AL Dafra Camel festival took place in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, near Liwa. I had seen an article about it in Abu Dhabi week, and once my Mom saw the same article, her heart was set on going. So, one day while Vic needed to work, off we went! As friends and family know, Vic is the photographer of our family. Photos that accompany this post are courtesy of my Mom’s camera.

The featured article said that the festival was about an hour west of the capital…which was not true. It was a solid two hour drive through the scenic desert. As we (finally) approached the festival, I became a bit concerned because all the signage was exclusively in Arabic. (Most signs here are in Arabic and English.) I became a tad concerned about getting around, particularly because we were in a Toyota Camry, not an SUV.

Our first stop was the heritage market. We found out later that we make the right choice by visiting the heritage market because it is only the traditional market that has products guaranteed to be from the UAE. We bought some tasty Emirati treats from one stall. (I forget the name of them, but I’d had them before at the NYUAD National Day celebration.) The treats are little balls of dough fried and covered in date syrup and sesame seeds. So delicious! Mom and Dad picked out a lovely piece of art that was two painted date leaves and a mini rug, suitable for framing.

We also checked out the entries for the date packing contest — I thought that the contest was about how entrants filled the dates, but actually it was how they packaged the dates. Curiously, the entries were not on display. We found the date-packing contest area and asked whether we could see the entries. The group of Emirati men in charge of the contest were happy to oblige. One entry was particularly pretty — the contestant had packed three dates in each pastel-colored box and tied each box with a bow. Sorry, no photo of the date contest. Actually, no photos of the market at all, which is too bad because the buildings were made out of traditional materials.

After we left the heritage market, we went to the camel beauty contest. (Mom and Dad were not interested in the camel milking stand.) Now, I expected this to be a contest based on how attractive the camels were. But no, actually it is a contest of how well decorated the cames are. You can see the decorations in the pictures. Did you know that there are black camels? I did not! I thought all camels were tan. The black camels are much larger than the tan camels, and seemed more ornery in that they were growling a lot.

While we were checking out the tan camels (camera malfunction, no photos of this section), a nice Emirati man approached us and asked if we would like a tour of a camel farm. I asked him about how long the tour would be, and he said 30 minutes. So, we decided to go for it.

Turns out we were not the only Westerners he had rounded up for this tour. Our group of 25 or so people met up, then formed a caravan to drive to our guide’s farm. (Again, I was stressing about the car vs SUV, but we were OK.) Rashid (our Emirati guide) gave us a very extensive tour of his camel farm, including presenting his one-year-old camels that he is evaluating for their racing abilities and may still sell, and his two-year-old prized camels that he will not sell (at least, not for less than one million dirham).

You may have heard about camel racing in the UAE…until fairly recently, children from Southeast Asia served as the jockeys. However, the government stepped in and put a stop to this, repatriating the children and paying them recompense. Now, the jockeys are robots. Dad had the clever idea of asking the man with the robot to actually turn it on, and I have to say that I kinda feel sorry for the camels. Those robots swing their whips really fast! It must hurt.

We also got to see the room where they keep the alfalfa, and where they set up the camel’s “buffet.” (Rashid’s description) Mom even got to feed one of the prized two-year-old camels. Rashid next allowed a couple people to briefly ride a camel, but the camel got spooked, so only three of the kids in the group got to do it (which was fine by me).

To wrap up the visit to the farm, Rashid took us to the majilis (like a living room with cushions on the floor) and served us coffee, tea, and dates. He was so hospitable; I was very pleased that Mom and Dad could have a taste of the famed Arabian hospitality while they visited. We also got a taste of the different concept of time: our 30 minute visit was actually more like 2-3 hours.

After we left the farm, we drove to the camel race track and followed some camels who were practicing. This was very cool, as we have yet to catch a camel race — they are at 6 AM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, so my motivation is very limited. Perhaps while the Lindsays are here visiting we’ll make it. However, this was a great opportunity to actually drive next to the track, which we could never do during a race. Since the jockeys are robots, the owners/trainers follow the camel during the race in their cars so that they can control the jockeys. Spectators like us will just stand in the grand stands. I actually wonder how much you can really see from the grandstands, as the camel racetrack is ENORMOUS.

Speaking of enormous, my Dad estimates that the camel festival was probably 100 square miles. Really. Once we got there, it was camel farms as far as the eye can see. I wonder how all these people (and camels!) get to the festival — do they live in the Western region year-round and just make a trip of a few hours for the festival, or do they live all over the UAE? Do entrants come from outside the UAE?

  • Mom and me in front of the huge black camels
  • Dad and black camels
  • Mom with prize camel. The mask is to protect the camel from flies and other annoyances.
  • Robot jockey
  • The camels have a snack
  • Mom feeds the prize camel
  • Camels on the racetrack -- see the jockey on the one on the left?
  • Plants in the desert (you can't see the irrigation in the photo though)
  • Dunes on the way home from the festival

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