Sitting about two metres off the ground with little to keep her from falling but a camel’s hump and a whole lot of trust, Katie Higgins knows a lot can change in a year.
Rewind 12 months and the idea of getting up close and personal with a camel was terrifying for the Dubai resident.
But today Ms Higgins, 29, is part of the UAE’s first all-female camel racing team.
Riding her trusted camel Jebel Ali, Ms Higgins competed in the first Female Camel Racing Series C1 Championship at Al Marmoom Camel Racing Track two weeks ago – less than 10 months after she rode a camel for the first time.
“It’s honestly mad to think where I’m at today,” she told The National.
“From an absolute fear of camels to complete adoration, it’s been the best experience of my life.
“I remember one time I was driving home from the beach and there was this camel mum and her baby. We had fruit in the car and they came right up to us and stuck their heads in the window.
"I was petrified and threw the fruit to shoo them away.
“Now, here I am sitting on a camel nearly every weekend making friends with them. They have such individual personalities.”
Crossing the finishing line fourth out of eight female riders, the Irish art teacher now has her sights set on a win when she gets back on the saddle on November 26.
Riding centre to train female camel jockeys
The Arabian Desert Camel Riding Centre, near Al Marmoom Heritage Village in Dubai, opened its doors in January and is described as the UAE's first licensed centre for camel riding, training and race preparation.
The centre, owned by Obaid Al Falasi, is managed by Linda Krockenberger.
Soon after it opened, Ms Higgins and Ms Krockenberger set up the UAE’s first camel racing team made up solely of women.
“It all came about after a chance meeting on social media,” she said.
“I’ve lived here since 2016 and was planning to move back to Ireland after a whirlwind year due to Covid-19.
“One of the things I wanted to tick off my bucket list was to ride a camel in the desert, but a solo ride, not the kind you see at desert safaris for tourists.
“I found Linda on Instagram, sent her a message and it just spiralled from there.
“I had her first proper desert ride on a camel in January, posted some pictures on my Instagram page and got so much interest. That’s essentially how we set up the race team, pure word of mouth.”
While the centre accepts male students and holds mixed classes on certain days, its primary focus is on training a women's team to participate in heritage races across the country.
The races generally take place between October and March and are separate from the races involving robot or male jockeys.
Some of the eight women on the team had horse-riding experience, but most were completely new to the sport.
Now, they train most mornings and evenings and cover between eight and 12 kilometres in each session.
Riders travel at speeds of up to 45 kilometres an hour, with only a small handle for support and a stick to help direct the camel.
Ms Higgins reflected on a bumpy start to her first race.
“Looking back at the video, I could see my poor camel needed to go to the toilet right at the start line, so essentially that slowed him down,” she said.
“The race itself lasted about three to four minutes, it was on a straight track and it just went by so quickly.
“When they are running fast it feels like a horse canter, so if you move with the camel it can be smooth.
“Trotting is the hard part. You sway from side to side and it’s hard to get in the rhythm of your camel. I haven’t fallen off yet, though, so that’s a bonus.”
The sport is dominated by men and Ms Higgins said she initially had to deal with her fair share of “funny looks and cutting remarks”.
But now, 10 months into her newfound passion, she is slowly gaining respect.
“Traditionally, men train camels, feed camels, race camels, it’s not something women do. So it’s just about proving yourself and I think we have done that,” she said.
“The more they have seen us control these huge animals and hold our own with them, they have started to come around.
“When we pass men and their camels in the desert now, they smile at us and ask us questions, they’re curious.”
Ms Higgins said the team would need to be patient to compete against male riders.
“It will take a while until we get to that, but let’s tackle one step at a time," she said.