When Viviane Paturel-Mazot was a child, she loved watching the TV drama Little House on the Prairie, which follows a wholesome American family living on a farm. "I was like the little girl with the braided hair ... Laura," says the Frenchwoman with a laugh. "I could see myself like this."
In a way, that dream has now come true for the former chief operating officer at Global Village, as she spends her days working on a farm. Or, more accurately, a camel farm.
"I have always loved animals," she says. "But since I arrived in the UAE almost 11 years ago, I've really come to have a passion for camels. It's hard to explain, but I just love camels."
It is this love of the dromedary that made Paturel-Mazot seek out the owner of a private camel farm and convince him to turn his land in the Dubai desert into a public cultural attraction. Today, The Camel Farm in Al Lisaili also has a mini petting zoo for kids and a camel-riding centre, while there is a camel-training track nearby.
Following with Emirati tradition
The farm opened in 2016 as a place to host the camels from the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre. But, with Paturel-Mazot's help and vision, it was spruced up and reopened as a visitor centre in November last year. In the past two months, it has hosted dozens of people every weekend. And, throughout the week, Paturel-Mazot, who works on the farm full-time as a managing partner, welcomes families, tourists and groups of students on school trips. "It's very authentic," says Paturel-Mazot. "We have a partnership with Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre, so everything we do has to be done according to Emirati tradition."
Her love for the creatures is clear; each of the 30 camels has a name and she can even define their personalities, saying they are often either "joyful" or "a bit more stubborn". One camel, called Saeed, was born on January 1. "It means 'happy' in Arabic, as he was born on Happy New Year," she laughs. "We now call his mum Umm Saeed."
She is also particularly fond of a camel called Fifi. "They all love to be petted, but if I go inside the tent and pet other camels Fifi comes over and pushes me gently with her head as if to say, 'Are you forgetting me?'
They're a little bit like humans – they all have their different characters," she says.
Introducing interactive experiences
Their innately gentle personalities led Paturel-Mazot to introduce "camel-hugging therapy" at the farm. She selects a few of the friendliest critters to hang out inside a tent, waiting for visitors to come and cuddle them. "When I first propose that to people, they're unsure, but once they're inside and cuddling the camels, they say they could stay there all day. It's really funny," she says.
Other interactive experiences offered at the farm include camel-feeding and riding, as well as petting and feeding the other small animals on the farm, with prices ranging from Dh10 to Dh150. The entrance fee is Dh30 (or free for kids under the age of three, and adults over 65).
Paturel-Mazot plans to introduce plenty more activities in the future. That will include the development of a training centre, where tourists can learn to ride the animals for longer than an hour, using the traditional and lighter Bedouin saddles (Paturel-Mazot says that the camels don't like the heavier, and safer, tourist-style saddles). She also plans to organise an eco-walk to pick up rubbish in the desert, and host a mini farming experience workshop during the week.
Plans for the future
"There's a lot of possible development," she says, full of enthusiasm. However, she is wary of overdoing it. "I'm trying to give a nice setting in farmland in the desert, away from the busy life of the city, so after you reach a certain number of visitors you don't get that kind of experience any more.
If we become that successful then we'll have to open another farm."
That might be more than just a pipe dream, since plenty of visitors are already raving about the "hidden gem" online. Kelly Faux, who wrote a review on Google about a month ago, said: "We will be back in a few weeks with our visitors, plus I need more camel hugs!"
Nicole Pitulia added: “It was such a wonderful day out and it was so amazing to spend time with the camels up close!”
Many of the comments are specifically about how warm and friendly Paturel-Mazot is as a host. "I've been managing amusement parks, so I can say I really know how to work with people, how to organise everything so people feel at ease, and how to entertain people," she says. "Being able to offer that, combined with the fact that these people are meeting the animals – especially the camels – this is something that, for me, is so precious."