A group of 30 women will gather at Al Bada Hotel and Resort in Al Ain early on Sunday morning before setting off on a seven-day, 140-kilometre journey through the sands to Abu Dhabi.
Jody Ballard, 58, a women’s wellness coach from the American state of Montana who runs Strategic Wellness Systems and Escape Events, has organised the trek. She was first inspired after moving to Abu Dhabi four years ago and watching the British explorer Adrian Hayes cross Al Maqta Bridge by camel. Hayes had just traversed the 1,600km Empty Quarter desert, following in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger’s journey of more than 60 years before.
The spectacle got her thinking about desert travel, particularly what Emirati families would have endured on their regular, long trips from the oasis at Al Ain to the small fishing village of Abu Dhabi.
“What about the women?” she wondered. “How many Emirati women in the past did long treks through the desert while pregnant or with young children, then made a fire and cooked dinner that night? How hard was this kind of journey for them?”
Ballard also wanted a deeper understanding of the UAE's cultural traditions for Whispers from the Sand, a historical novel she is writing.
The Heritage Walk has been organised under the patronage of Sheikha Shaikha bint Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan, who says: “To retrace the footsteps of our ancestors gives us a unique opportunity to honour the women who made this arduous journey not so many years ago.” Last January, Ballard was one of eight women to trek 115km across the Wahiba Sands in Oman with the group Mountain High.
“I saw bugs make beautiful little patterns in the sand, and realised that’s the pattern of henna. Why wouldn’t women take patterns from the environment around them? And why do we always see dates and coffee? It’s because when you’ve been walking long distances and you come into a place, you have to reenergise yourself, and this is the best way to do that.”
As well as developing a deeper understanding of the UAE’s heritage, Ballard hopes the women who’ve signed up for her expedition – eight Emiratis and 22 expatriates – will benefit in other ways. “There are multiple layers of gain – like overcoming fear and finding your own persistence and grit, which is the make-up of good leaders.”
A historical route they will tread
The walkers’ route goes through the sand dunes and the mountains, but the original trek followed where the E22 is today, passing oases en route.
Ali Al Saloom, The National’s guru on local culture, explains that families did regularly make the journey through the desert to Abu Dhabi, though most commonly from Liwa rather than Al Ain. “The desert environment forces you to become a nomad. People came to Abu Dhabi for pearl-diving season, which was from April to September.
“But the women didn’t go by foot, they rode on camels, with their captain out front, protecting women who were ‘the banks’, carrying all the family’s gold and silver around their necks. No one then would steal the treasure, because they knew the men would give up their lives to protect their women.”
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