140km heritage trek from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi to honour the women of the past

On International Women’s Day, 44 women will set off on a six day journey to honour the women of the past, and bring together women of the present — local and expatriate, young and old.

ABU DHABI // On International Women’s Day, 44 women will set off on a six day journey to honour the women of the past, and bring together women of the present — local and expatriate, young and old.

The 23 expatriates and 21 Emirati ladies will walk 140km across the dunes from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi, as part of the second annual Women’s Heritage Walk. They will set off on Tuesday morning from Al Bada Resort in Al Ain.

Emirati Najat Al Sayed, who owns Elyazia Beauty Center in Dubai, is doing the walk in honour of her 81-year-old mother, Elyazia Al Sayed Abdulraheem. Hearing all about her daughter’s upcoming desert voyage sparked memories for Elyazia of the hardships she endured while doing the same journey more than half a century earlier, when life was very different.

“My mother was telling me today how she remembers as a seven year old child, when they rode camels from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi. She would sleep on the camel, and then fall off onto the sand in her sleep. She would not want to wake up and go back on the camel, because she just wanted to have solid sleep without being jiggled about. She’d make a big scene and cry, and her mother would say ‘please don’t embarrass me in front of everybody, just get back on that camel.’ She’d say ‘no way, I’m going to sleep right here.’ She said it was very hard.”

On Tuesday evening, the women will be joined around the bonfire of their Bedouin camp by Maj Ali Saqar Al Suweidi, president of Emirates Marine Environmental Group and his elderly mother, Umm Ali, so she can share with the women her own memories of walking and riding camels through the desert. The group will share traditional food, of the kind that Al Sayed’s mother Elyazia used to eat when voyaging through the desert as a child. “She told me they always ate rice and dates and they had animals with them, so sometimes they ate mutton. But nothing fancy.”

Half a century ago, desert travellers did not have luxuries that modern walkers might take for granted, such as of suntan lotion, comfortable walking shoes and modern water bottles. “My mum said believe it or not, some of the water was transported in these huge pans”, explains Al Sayed. “I asked her — ‘with the movement, how would you not lose the water?’ She said yes, she could see the water spilling from these big pots. They also carried some water in sheepskin vessels.”

Al Sayed, 56, regularly walks six kilometres a day around her home in Dubai, and considers herself in good shape. But during her weekly training sessions, she found walking on sand dunes was “an eye opener”. “Every step you take, your foot sinks in the sand and after doing that so many times, you really get tired”, she said. “But my heart wants to do this so much, so I know I will be able to do it.”

The walk is being led by American women’s wellness coach Jody Ballard. “I’ve been doing all kinds of administration and countless phone calls, so I cannot wait to get out to the desert now to get off the grid,” says Mrs Ballard, who is organising the walk through Escape Events and her own company, Strategic Wellness Systems. Sponsors include Sheikha Shaikha bint Mohammed, who was also the walkers’ patron last year, and Sheikha Fatima bin Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, who is also the patron of the Mother of the Nation festival which is being held on the Corniche later this month. “These sponsors us are people who truly believe in the heritage and culture and of women’s empowerment”, Mrs Ballard adds.

Among the expat walkers is Marcela Romero from Chile, who lives in Al Ain and homeschools her children. “I have lived in the UAE for a year and a half and I really find this country fascinating”, she says. “I want to get to know people from here and learn about their customs.”

Romero is already familiar with the desert life, as her villa is in front of a large sand dune. “We love to just jump in and get lost in the dunes,” she says. “When you first look at the desert you just see all this sand, but when you go into it, there are all these geckos running around, birds, and camel farms — there is a lot of life out there. But the peace and serenity there is incredible.”

The walkers feel safe knowing that they will be trailed every step of the way by emergency vehicles, should any of them require assistance. “I know I am protected, so I am lucky”, says Al Sayed. “My mum said in their times, they would get sick and there might be no medical help for another three days walking, so people lost their lives trying to cross the desert. They‘d just bury the bodies where they fell. I will be remembering those people while I am walking. Because of them, we are here today.”

The Women’s Heritage Walk culminates with a walk through modern Abu Dhabi city, ending at the Sheikh Zayed Centre in Al Bateen on March 12. Their progress will be posted on Instagram every day at whw_uae.