Working Wonders: Dubai farmer who gave up the music industry for a life with camels

Jodie Whileman on why she switched her career in music for a desert workplace

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

Jodie Whileman had her sights set on working in the spa industry as a teenager – but now she is more likely to be checking camel fur for tangles.

The 36-year-old Briton is managing partner at The Camel Farm on the fringes of Dubai, overseeing a community that is home to tortoises, rabbits, donkeys, goats, turkeys and chickens.

Ms Whileman left an art and music studio management role to go full-time at the family-friendly visitor attraction this year.

Here, the mother-of-two tells The National about her authentic desert workplace and how a 2019 camel trek got her hooked.

How did your relationship with camels begin?

Sheikh Hamdan Heritage Centre [adjoined to the farm] is our partner and they have 30-40 camels. Every year they do a camel trek.

I saw an advert for it on Facebook and after reading it, I thought it was for three or four days.

We did 15 nights, in the desert, from the Saudi border to Global Village, 750km of which was on camelback.

We trained every day for six months, getting to know the camels, and learning how to put saddles on in the traditional “shedad” Bedouin style with blankets and ropes.

There were over 1,000 applicants and 12 of us ended up going.

On the first day of training, I got lost coming to the farm and didn't make it in time because it was already sunset.

How did you end up running The Camel Farm?

My personal life was difficult at the time and the training was my “meditation” which gave me an insight into the [UAE's] culture and people.

I remember reaching Global Village and realising that we were back to “real life”.

But I didn't want to give up on camels. Last year I was working full-time with an art and music studio and this offer came.

We got invited to do races and I had been coming to help with training. I was doing it as a side hustle/hobby and then they wanted me to take over.

We'd had an amazing season and managed to expand and build new features to the farm, so I decided to take the leap.

I came on board in August 2022 but I've been full-time at The Camel Farm since June this year.

I love the desert and camels, I'm a people person and business-minded too.

So the farm has evolved?

It's five years old now and a lot has changed.

We've rearranged enclosures and built a kitchen so we can have a full-time chef as we started doing evening grills, and more activities and promotions.

We now have a fully-fitted washroom and are more inclusive with wheelchair access.

By the end of this month, we're going to have overnight tents.

We're also trying to reduce plastic use, which is an issue in deserts and harmful to camels.

We ask everyone to bring reusable water bottles and we have a drinking fountain so they can refill.

We’re also reusing water, food and camel manure for the plants.

Have your animal numbers increased?

We brought in new animals and we also rescued animals such as rabbits, which people are unable to care for at home.

Our donkeys also came from a welfare centre.

We've got two big rescued tortoises; one had been run over and has a chipped shell.

A family reached out just before the summer and said they couldn't take care of a camel any more. They'd had him since he was six months old. He is now four and was tied to a tree.

We're trying to integrate him because he'd never seen another camel, so there's training involved.

In total, we have about 40 camels – 12 in the visitor section – five Omani goats, which are new to us this season, and around 15 other goats. We've also got four turkeys and pigeons.

We're not really a working farm, we're more about helping animals and taking care of them.

What happens on a daily basis?

Guides give tours of the farm and take visitors inside the closures for feeding, as well as teaching visitors about the animals.

We have a short camel ride inside the farm for children. The one-hour desert ride in the dunes is only for people aged 10 and above.

Our visitors are a good mix of tourists and people living here.

We don't have that many opportunities to be in nature or have these kinds of encounters with animals in Dubai. This is a way for us to allow people to do that.

We get people coming here who have been living in the UAE for 20 years and who have never been to the desert.

We also have returning customers.

I grew up in the countryside – in the North of England – and was often around farms. This is as close as I get to that but in the desert.

What are your duties?

I oversee the daily operations, ensuring the well-being of the animals, management of staff, and making sure everyone's schedules and duties are done. I also look after the training when we have new staff.

I don't do everything hands-on every day, but there's feeding, watering and cleaning the enclosures to be done. I arrange for veterinary care when needed. We've got the farrier in today.

I like to saddle the camels and sometimes take the desert rides, depending on how big groups are if we need more than one guide.

I also do the feeding, if we have baby animals. That season will be coming again soon.

There's also running our social media; that's our marketing, along with word of mouth.

Anything unusual you offer?

Camel hugging therapy.

We take people inside an enclosure with some of our friendliest camels. They do some grooming and get to know the camels on a more personal level. When they come out … everyone's so relaxed.

Camels have different personalities and they are very calming.

People can think of camels as aggressive, or that they spit. They're not that way unless you annoy them. I enjoy seeing people overcome being scared of them.

There's one in particular that I'm in love with called Hanan. She comes over inside the enclosure and rests her head on my shoulder.

Does your 2023 workplace surprise you?

Yes, and some people are surprised to see a blonde British woman working at a camel farm in the middle of the desert.

When I left school I did a beauty therapy sciences diploma and worked in spas for a while. I wanted to open my own spa, so I got a business degree.

The plan was to come here, save some money, go home and build a business … I just never made it back.

I have to pinch myself sometimes when I'm driving here in the morning, coming past the desert. I feel very privileged.

Updated: November 27, 2023, 11:33 AM