The 'camel whisperer'

Dutchwoman Lilianne Donders has an almost mystical affinity with camels, as she showed at the Al Dhafra Camel Festival.

United Arab Emirates - Madinat Zayed - Jan 30 - 2010 :  Lilianne Donders pose for a portrait at the Al Dhafra Festival. ( Jaime Puebla / The National )

AL GHARBIA // When she moved to the region from the Netherlands 30 years ago, Lilianne Donders did not plan to fall in love with camels and the desert - it just happened. Her affinity for the animal was easy to see yesterday as she walked through the pens at the Al Dhafra Camel Festival. Dressed in an orange jalabiya, her hair covered by a yellow scarf, she had an almost "camel-whisperer" affinity with the animals.

As she circulated through the pens, camels approached her and rubbed their heads on her arm, some even planting kisses. "Camels are as smart as dogs, they sense everything about you," she said. "If you are afraid of them they will be afraid of you, but if you approach them with confidence they will be confident of you." Ms Donders shares her home in Oman with seven camels, five dogs and several cats and turtles. But she is most fond of the camels.

"They truly are the most intelligent of creatures. At my home all my doors have double locks on them because the camels know how to work the doorknobs." She is a walking encyclopaedia of camel knowledge. If a person was lost in the desert, he should follow a camel and it would lead him to water, she said. Ms Donders followed her husband, Robert Weener, to a job in Oman in 1980. Only 10 minutes after having set foot on Arabian soil, she was greeted by customs officials: "Welcome home. Your stay in Oman will be most remarkable indeed."

"Never were truer words spoken," she said. Those first steps were the start of a journey that covered many Middle Eastern countries and thousands of miles, travelling on foot with her camels through some of the remotest parts of Arabia. "Although I am originally Dutch, in my heart I am an Arab," Ms Donders said. She was fascinated by the Bedouin of Oman from her first encounters. She was intrigued by their nomadic lifestyle and longed to walk the caravan routes.

In 1997, while in Syria, she bought two pairs of camels, both mother and daughter, and planned to walk with them along the silk routes. While preparing for the caravan, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she was being treated, she learned that her husband would be transferred to Tehran. Rather than call off her plans to trek the silk route, she decided to extend the route, from Damascus to Tehran.

The "Caravan for Cancer" was born. Her walk was sponsored and the proceeds went towards establishing a clinic for Bedouin women living near Palmyra, Syria. When her husband's next transfer came, from Tehran to Dubai, she walked again. This was the "Caravan of Hope" with proceeds going to a mother-and-child clinic for Palestinian refugees. Ms Donders is now cancer-free. A year from now she plans to bring her own beloved camels to the Dhafra show.