On November 11, about 400 participants will test their endurance in the Caracal Challenge, a 15-kilometre walk through Abu Dhabi's Al Khatim desert.
Encompassing dunes of between 10 and 15 metres high, the six-hour trek is held partly at night, with guides using the moon and stars for navigation, and requires a high level of fitness.
More than a physical workout, the event is also a learning experience that ties in with conservation efforts. It teaches participants about the UAE’s natural environment while raising funds for the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund, which helps protect land-based species and interconnected environments across the GCC.
The trek is one of an increasing number of UAE events that weaves fitness, sightseeing and cultural tours. Simone Lawrence, development director of Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund, attributes the rise to the fact that people are looking for new things to do.
“There is a growing propensity for adventure in the UAE and the GCC. People are looking for something different,” says Lawrence.
“When everything is developing and there are lots of shiny new places to go to, these kind of tours offer a totally different perspective. People want to get active and to challenge themselves a little bit and they can do that while connecting with the soul.”
The Caracal Challenge has two main aims: to teach residents about traditional Bedouin life and to help them connect with the great outdoors.
“We want to get people out of shopping malls and back into nature,” says Lawrence. “In a country that has developed very quickly, there’s a lack of knowledge about the environment and we want to help address that.”
While organisers do not expect to see animals, guides will teach participants about endangered species such as the Arabian oryx and the houbara bustard. They will talk about red foxes, Arabian hares, spiders and scorpions.
The Caracal Challenge is geared towards people who live in the UAE, but it’s not just residents who are seeking more fitness-based tours, according to Christian Handrich, area manager at Giant Bike Tours.
“The tourism market is thirsty for new activities,” he says. “Many visitors ask for active tours, which are not car-based. This means that residents also participate as they join their guests. This trend will continue to grow as more and more people refuse to tolerate health issues and stressful lifestyles – they want change.”
Based in Dubai, Giant Bike Tours offers a variety of cycling excursions around the UAE. One of the most popular ones explores old Dubai and its traditional souqs before taking in an Emirati lunch. Another covers Al Ain, home to the country’s only Unesco World Heritage Site. Cyclists are driven to the garden city by bus or car and taken on a two-wheeled tour of six oases, learning about the traditional falaj irrigation system and archaeological sites.
Giant Bike Tours launched in Dubai in February after the owners identified that the emirate lacked guided cycle tours despite being a popular tourist destination.
“Our excursions are ideal for active people,” says Handrich. “They can be challenging for those less active, but they are fun and we cycle at a slow pace. We also stop every two kilometres for explanations on sights. These kinds of tours encourage people to get active in a gentle way.”
Handrich believes the UAE lags behind other countries when it comes to fitness-based sightseeing, but says the situation is improving.
“It’s a cultural thing, because people have been told to travel each metre by car and only walk inside malls. This will take time to change, but the UAE, with its modern government, will soon witness the shift.”
One team helping to effect this change is Jody Ballard and Dr Roy Panzarella, founders of the Women’s Heritage Walk, a 120km journey across the dunes from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi.
Training for the first event began in November 2014, with 40 people crossing the finishing line in March 2015. This month, training begins for next year’s trek, which has a waiting list of 185 expatriate women.
“We have grown in leaps and bounds,” says Ballard. “This year we will have a full complement of 25 expats and 25 Emiratis who will walk in the footsteps of the women who helped sculpt the country.”
Given the event’s exponential growth and the high level of interest, Ballard and Panzarella are looking at ways to accommodate more women. They want to do this without diluting the experience and while remaining true to the programme’s four pillars: cultural education, physical challenges, community support and women’s empowerment.
“There are many venues to learn about culture and heritage, and just as many sporting events and innovative gyms for women to attend,” says Ballard. “The question is, how do we go about changing personal habits toward a more healthy lifestyle, and what rewards are needed to begin to explore and learn?
“We all know we must eat healthy foods, have restful sleep, exert our bodies, maintain relationships, find meaningful work, but we are not always able to sustain these changes, particularly when it comes to daily exercise.
“The Women’s Heritage Walk is not just five days in the sand dunes, it is a comprehensive programme of targeting change with a community support system, or what we refer to as the ultimate girlfriend experience. Change through the adaptation of different cues, behaviour and a reward system are essential,” she says.
Ballard also believes that the trend towards combining exercise with sightseeing and education will continue to grow, especially in the UAE – a country that takes “profound care” in considering citizens’ needs.
“The leaders understand the people are their most valuable asset,” she says. “This is part of the culture.”
The Caracal Challenge, operated by Husaak Adventures, is on November 11. There are four tracks, covering 2.5km, 7km, 10km and 15km, ensuring all ages and fitness levels are catered for. The most challenging dunes appear only in the last half of the 15km course. At the end of each trail is a traditional Arabian barbecue with live entertainment. For more information, visit www.husaak.com/tcc/