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10 Tips for Enjoying the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, Madinat Zayed, Abu Dhabi, UAE

There is an art to enjoying a camel festival . . .

If you are looking for an authentic Arab experience, the Dahfra Camel Festival is a must see.

This celebrated festival occurs the last two weeks of December in a desert camp city that sprouts up just outside of Madinat Zayed about a 2 hour ride into the desert from Abu Dhabi. This is a serious festival. At the 2013 Festival, the winners of the various festival competitions took home 50 million dirhams ($13,623,978+) in prize money including 198 top-of-the-line SUVs.    

In 2012, Roger and I ranked this camel festival #2 in our 2012 Top Adventures In and Around Dubai; for 2013 it will retain its #2 slot. We just love getting down with the natives!

So here are my Top 10 Tips for enjoying the one-and-only Dhafra Camel Festival:


#1 Book a Room  . . .  or pitch your tent 

A camel festival compound proudly flying the UAE flag
 - wish we'd been invited to tea!  

Since it is a very long ride into the desert and activities run late into the evening, I strongly suggest that you plan on spending the night. The Tilal Liwa Hotel is right in the middle of the festival. The LiwaHotel is a 30 minute ride down the road. Roger and I have stayed at both and are comfortable recommending either depending on how much pain your wallet can endure.

Or . . . be adventurous and join the crowds who pitch their own tents. Just pick a prime piece of desert property and claim it as your own. Many festival participants travel from the Gulf region, some even come by camel caravan. They set up elaborate tent compounds that patriotically fly their country’s flag.  I decline Roger’s gracious invitation to attach an American flag to our antenna and “camp out” in our Ford Explorer.

#2 Don’t rush it 

Arabs love racing their Saluki hunting dogs, 
one of the oldest domesticated dogs know to man.  

To get the real feel of the festival, you need at least 2 days to experience the many events. . . Al Dhafra Mazayna (camel beauty contests) are center stage but also offered are races – camel races, Saliuki (Arabian hunting dogs) races and Arabian horse races. There are competitions with falcons, dates, Halab (camel milking), photography, Nabati (Arab poetry) and handicrafts.

Go shopping at the camel auction, the livestock market, a camel “bling-bling” souq or a traditional heritage souk where you can purchase Emirati goods hand-made by local women. “Camp follower” vendors set up tents along the main road selling everything from ear-splitting audio speakers to food stuffs, firewood, clothes, pots and pans and more. Roger makes a beeline for the Classic Car Contest but its meager offerings do not set him on fire.

#3 Adjust quickly to Arab time

Camel Beauty contestant poses for the camera. 

This is a pure Arab experience. Don‘t expect to see a schedule and if you happen upon one understand it's only a suggestion. Events sometimes happen spontaneously, run late or not at all. However, there are some basic times for certain events. Camel beauty contests generally occur in the morning starting around 7am and again in the late afternoon; races are mostly in the afternoon; the souqs open around 2 pm and run well into the night. But not everything happens each day. See tip #4.

#4 Reach out and touch someone 

Roger with kind gentleman who helped us find the horse races. 

You can’t be a shrinking violet if you want to get in on the good action. My tactic, which makes Roger cringe (I think it is a guy thing), is to talk to anyone I can find who speaks any amount of English. I inquire as to what is happening today, where and what time. I find most are eager to help an inquisitive American blonde.

It is important you not rely on one person’s answer. Think about the rule of journalism – you must have three independent sources before you can print it – most likely you will get conflicting information but just keep asking. When you find a good suspect you can even go so far as to ask him to take you there. He probably will politely oblige. Remember Bedu hospitality is in play here and Bedouins are bound by a cultural tradition to help anyone they find lost in the desert.  

If you see a cluster of expats being led by someone who looks official, just join the group. It's your best bet. A bonus would be to get an invitation for lunch or dinner at one of the tented compounds set up by festival participants.

#5 Become a participant whenever you can

Roger relaxing in the Camel Beauty Contests' reviewing stands. 

The races afford the opportunity to join the fun if you are brave enough. While the camels, horses and Salukis are running as fast as they can to win their races, owners and spectators are recklessly speeding alongside the track in their SUVs cheering them on. You too can join this merry ride if you are a good driver. I prefer to hitch a ride with someone else (all you have to do is ask) since it is a bit too “wild west” for my driving skills. Roger just won’t even talk about it. 

When there are reviewing stands, always take a prominent seat so you can see all the action. For a really good time, try to find the “Magic Carpet Ride.” I will let you discover what that is. Hint: locate the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority compound.

#6 Location, location, location

SUVs full of enthusiastic Arabs roar down the side of the track cheering on their prized Arabian horses.

It is all about being in the right place at the right time. Rather than wait at the race finish lines we find it far more exciting to drive to the starting line and mix with the contestants and their owners. All the tracks we saw have dirt roads on both sides so you can drive down them to find the starting line.  Caution . . . once the races start there will be a herd of crazies driving SUVs heading for the finish-line at breakneck speed alongside the sprinting animals – make certain you are well out of their way.

Didn't wake up in time for the camel beauty contest? Just stroll among the judging pens that are beyond the grandstands and pick out the ones you think are the most beautiful. Primer on judging a camel beauty contest to be posted soon. Be sure to read tip #9.

#7 Finding petrol in the desert 

With our gas gauge hovering close to empty,

Roger says, "Shukran" to the festival organizers for providing a mobile fueling station. 

Everyone knows the first rule of traveling to the desert is to go with a full tank of gas. But what do you do when you are there and the petrol stations are few and far between. The organizers of the camel festival have solved that problem for you with a portable fueling station. With our gas gauge hovering very close to empty, Roger gladly takes advantage of this service. Oh yes, you only want to visit the festival in a four-wheel drive vehicle since you don’t want to miss something interesting because you can’t drive off-road. 

#8 Eating at the festival 

Bar-B-Q Goat anyone? 

Street food vendors are plentiful serving traditional Bedu and Arab cuisine cooked on the spot. There are even a few “pop-up” restaurants. Feeding a crowd? Go to the livestock souq and purchase your meat for the evening’s feast - goat and lamb seem to be most plentiful. I bet you can even find someone who would cook it for you. If you are not wild about street food – or picking out your dinner from a corral, there is more traditional hotel fare at the adjacent Tilal Liwa Hotel. This year we had lunch at the Tilal bar. Can’t say we were overwhelmed with the food but it served the purpose. The bartender very cordially allowed me to teach him how to make a dry martini – he didn't know what it was - go figure! The second option is the Liwa Hotel about 30 minutes up the road in Liwa. We stayed overnight there and had a very nice buffet breakfast.  

#9 Be careful what you admire . . . Mashallah

Mashallah! Aren't these just the cutest camels? 

Be careful how you compliment a beautiful camel. You may end up taking it home. If you tell an owner, “What a beautiful camel you have,” it triggers Arabs’ generous nature and the owner could feel obliged to gift you with the admired dromedary.

In the Arab culture, always add “Mashallah” to a compliment. This means “As God has willed it” and it glorifies Allah for anything which is pleasing or beautiful and gets you off the hook. It should be used whenever you praise or admire someone or something. Adding Mashallah to a personal compliment also guards that person from the "evil eye."

My friend Linda tells the tale of being in Tunisia and admiring a friend’s stunning gold charm on her necklace, which the owner took off and presented to her as a gift.

 “Of course, this cultural blunder resulted in my needing to return the favor with a present of a gold charm to her,” said Linda. “It was an expensive way to learn to add ‘Mashallah’ to my compliments.”

When Roger heard this he made me practice "Mashallah” 20 times just to protect us from any unexpected camels appearing on our doorstep.

#10 The MUST see event of the festival

Million Street chaos. 

Million Street . . . . this is hard to imagine. One of our first UAE road trips was to the Tilal Liwa Desert Resort where we saw the sign “Million Street.” Not until we visited the festival did we learn what that meant.  At around 4:30 pm every day during the festival there is the parade - this is a pageantry of camel beauty contestant winners who are for sale - road is so named because millions and millions of dirhams change hands in the buying and selling of camels on this street during the festival. It is a tad out of control.

Zooming around the parading camels are cars full of excited participants robustly cheering, FRANTICALLY honking their horns, joyfully backfiring their engines, and blasting loud Arab music in celebration of their camel’s win. In the middle of the chaos, camel handlers proudly strut their award-winning dromedaries down the broad dirt boulevard with as much aplomb as a bevy of fashion models on the runway.  And then you have the “escapee” camels who have managed to elude their handlers and are running wildly amongst everything else. Oh, and don’t forget the fearless photographer who gets right out into the middle of the fray and her darling husband sitting in the car just holding his head in his hands.  This bedlam continues long into the night.

  

Well there you have it. Your personal guide to enjoying a camel festival. We will back next year! Inshallah! Hope we see you there. 

Postscripts . . .

 

The Al Dhafra Festival, formally in its seventh year, actually started 21 years ago to settle an argument between a father and his son-in-law as to who had the most beautiful camel. Today, it has grown into an iconic camel festival where hundreds of buyers and sellers come from the across the UAE and surrounding Arab countries. The festival strives to preserve and promote Emirati heritage and the pure bred Asayel (tan) and Mahajim (black) camels.  

 

Directions:  On E11 past Abu Dhabi take exit #236 towards Madinat Zayed. After passing through Madinat Zayed you can follow signs to the festival or to the Tilal Liwa hotel. This is how the festival was set up in 2013 . . .  Once you turn off the highway, continue straight on that road. On our left was the livestock souq and tents selling different goods; on our right on top of a dune was the traditional souq; next to this souq was an encampment of tents where they were selling camel bling-bling. Continuing on this same road, on our left is a smallish white building - site of the camel and saluki races. Following signs to Tilal Liwa Hotel we turned left at a roundabout; as we approached another roundabout we saw a long structure in front of us. This is where the camel beauty contest was held with the holding pens for the camel contestants behind it. On our right was the sign for Million Road. The Tilal Liwa Hotel is just beyond all of this.

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Tags: Abu Dhabi, Middle East, UAE, United Arab Emirates, events, festivals

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Comment by Shannon Farley on January 14, 2014 at 4:48pm

Great story and images! Thanks!

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