The long-awaited day finally came to start our adventure through the desert. From today we, the eleven final participants from nine different nationalities, would spend the next 14 days riding through the UAE on the back of our camels.

The organizers have done a great job in the selection, finding people who would get along well on a challenge like that. Of course, each one of us also brought a great sacrifice to join this trip. We all left our families behind which made us grew together like one and made the whole experience even more enjoyable and intense! Everyone was taking care of each other and we were happy for each other. Our trek would take us from Ghayati through the UAE’s part of the Empty Quarter – Rub’ Al Khali in Arabic – all the way to Dubai. The Rub’ Al Khali is the world’s largest continuous sand desert covering 650.000 km2 of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.

The camels were already waiting for us while we were driven down by some SUVs to our start point. This would be the last time for the next two weeks that we had the luxury of sitting in a car with AC. I also decided to leave my phone at home in order to disconnect during this time.

Full of excitement we started our first day of riding. Waking up very early in order to greet our camels and prepare them. This is now the test of how much we learned in the training and will determine our skills and comfort for the upcoming weeks.

Some delicious and strengthening breakfast was awaiting us to get us all ready for the first of many days to come. The ride took us over some stunning dunes which we were not prepared for at all. Of course, I have been to Liwa many times and I know the immense dimensions of the dunes. I always wondered during the training how we would overcome them. Now we are here and actually mastering one after another. Nevertheless, this is just the beginning of what we would be expecting. With every dune it became easier and the fear of the indomitable would vanish. So, we kept on going through the dust and heat.

We stopped a few times to adjust our ‘Shadads’ (Saddles) and after a few hours of riding we would stop for lunch. Some time to eat, relax and freshen up and the ride would continue for some more hours. The afternoon was always hard. Getting back after the downtime was difficult. But after a few days it would not make a difference anymore and we hopped on our camels as easy as is. What didn’t change every day was the excitement to see our camp in the afternoon and it boosted us with some energy for the last stretch.

During the ride it stunned me how the wind has formed those dunes in all the different shapes and shades they unfolded in front of us. For a very long time we didn’t even see a piece of vegetation; so harsh is the desert in this area. At some point I was finding myself standing on the camel which we always saw our trainers doing. So proud of myself of this achievement that all the pain of riding was gone and kept me going.

Most of our days had the same routine: We wake up early morning, prepare our things, have breakfast, prepare our camels, ride 7-8 hours with a lunch break and when reach the camp we let our loyal friends drink and eat and remove the shadad so they can rest for the next day. A quick shower, dinner and some stories around the campfire before we take a good night’s sleep to be ready for the next day. Everything was very well organised. Our things were taken from one camp to the other, food was always prepared fresh!

Normally we would spend our evenings talking about the day and looking at pictures. Sitting around the campfire and listening to some stories about the old days in the UAE or we would have a competition going on for entertainment. These evenings are proof that most of those things we have in our daily life are not even required to have a good time. To be honest I didn’t miss my phone at all. Being disconnected felt very liberating. And as I also didn’t bring a watch I learned how to read the time on the sun. It was only difficult in the mornings. It felt like time was passing slower than usual. Sometimes, while sitting in our majlis tent looking out into the night with a mesmerizing star-sprinkled sky; with the bonfire in front of me — it felt like a movie set. When I stepped out into the night, reality caught me that this was all tangible.

Day after day was passing by, and we were getting back on our camels again and again. It was a real test for our stamina. Sometimes I was wondering from where we got the energy to continue. But every single time I asked myself this question I realized that this would not have been possible without the positive energy and spirit of our leader and CEO of the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre, Abdulla Hamdan and the whole team accompanying us on this trip. He was the force and the drive for us to continue despite our pain and exhaustion. His incredible encouragement, his jokes and his support kept us in a great mood. It made us forget all the exertion, the struggle and the strain. We were happy to start a new day crossing the endless desert. Traversing the Empty Quarter, we were not only facing immense dunes but vast lake beds which used to be shallow lakes thousands of years ago. The lakes lasted only for a couple of years and left behind great plains of hardened calcium carbonate, gypsum, marl or clay. The diversity of subsoils we were passing through was impressive. I could not believe I would actually be here. Before the trip it all seemed so surreal and far away. And here I am in the middle of it!

Slowly we were getting closer to civilization. From the endlessness of the dunes we were reaching a street where from time to time we saw some cars passing by. Curiously they were taking pictures of us. The closer we came to the city areas the more the traffic would come until we reached Al Wathba and we had to cross the highway. With police escorts, we mastered the first bridge and then the second. Gradually, not only us but also the camels got used to the traffic and noise. Spending already more than a week in absolute seclusion, we adapted to the tranquillity and peace which surrounded us.

During the last two days, we met people at the Marmour heritage camp who asked us questions about our trip. It is not easy to sum it up in a few words. So much happened and so much to digest. We were all very emotional knowing that this is our last night together!

The last day would be the final stretch from Al Qudra lakes along the cycling track to Global Village. A great surprise came along the way when we were honoured by the visit of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai. He escorted us for some time talking to us in order to find out where we are from and how we are enjoying the experience.

Finally reaching Global Village at sunset, we were welcomed by family and friends who celebrated this thrilling and magical experience. It was really hard for us to realize and understand that this was the end of the trip.

Couple of days into normal life again and back in the office, I realized how this trip has changed me. How my perspective towards a lot of things has become completely different. It gave us extensive insight into life before the oil boom in this country we call our home. There are only a few people who have done this kind of trip in the past couple of years. It makes me extremely proud and thankful for the opportunity we got from Abdulla Hamdan and the entire team at the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre. ■

Written by: Denise Ostermann
Photos: Denise Ostermann

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this article was published in OutdoorUAE printed magazine issue #93 February – March 2019

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