Nuzzling into the warm fuzzy neck of Mr Mustafa, I breathe in his earthy scent and let out a sigh of relief as I run my fingers through his silky hair.
Seconds later, he catches sight of another beaming blonde and the moment’s over as he bounds off as fast as his bony legs will carry him in search of more snacks and snuggles.
That’s because my new tall dark and handsome friend is a one-year-old baby camel, and the other woman is camel-whisperer Jodie Whileman, who cares for 45 of the animals at The Camel Farm in the Al Lisaili desert.
Since taking over the running of the farm three months ago, Whileman, 35, has become incredibly close to its furry residents, and the camel hugging therapy sessions mean that visitors can get up close and personal with the beasts.
“I think guests can be quite nervous at first but once you’re in there it’s a truly unique experience and really relaxing,” says Whileman, The Camel Farm’s managing partner.
“Each camel has its own character and Mr Mustafa is very cuddly by nature. The camels get as much out of a good cuddle as we do.”
Anyone over the age of 10 can book in for camel hugging therapy, with the experience costing just Dh30 and lasting for as long as the guest and camel feel comfortable.
“We have a 13-year-old boy with autism who visits us every week and it really relaxes him and helps with his sensory development,” says Whileman.
“Camels can get quite a bad reputation, but they are intuitive animals and very social creatures. It’s very easy to form a bond with a camel and being so close to them is a special feeling.”
Cozying up to Mr Mustafa, I am inclined to agree. Once the initial hesitation passes and I am physically shown that camels have no upper teeth, my tentative pats quickly progress into a warm embrace.
Ten minutes later, with the expanse of the desert sprawling beyond me and a camel under my arm and I feel like a serene Lawrence of Arabia.
Though camel hugging therapy may sound a bit left-field, the concept makes a lot of sense when we break it down to basics.
Research shows that being out in nature is beneficial to our mental health, while recent studies have also shown that cuddling releases oxytocin, which has a calming effect, and dopamine, which is the feel-good hormone.
Petting a dog during a stress-inducing situation has also been shown to significantly reduce anxiety levels and the presence of a familiar pet has been shown to be calming.
Though there is yet to be any scientific research into camel cuddling specifically, the fact that I’d volunteer for such a study speaks volumes.
According to Whileman, Mr Mustafa is one of the farm’s most loving residents, though without The Camel Farm, his story could have been very different.
After his birth, Mr Mustafa’s mother sadly passed away and he was brought to The Camel Farm to be adopted by female camel Shabana who had lost her calf around the same time.
The pair were both blindfolded for a week so that Shabana would accept her new baby and feed him her milk. Today, both camels are thriving, and mother and son are inseparable.
“Camels are a lot like humans, in that they form strong connections with each other that can last a lifetime,” says Whileman.
“They’re very tame and intelligent and sometimes quite attention-seeking. Being out in the desert and spending so much time with them is a privilege.”
As well as camel hugging, The Camel Farm also offers trekking, Bedouin experiences and tailored packages for schools and couples.
The space is also shared with the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre, through which Whileman was first introduced to camels when she decided to take part in the annual trek from Arada in Abu Dhabi to Global Village in Dubai.
“I’m from England and I’d never really had any experience with camels before the trek in 2018,” she says.
“I was new to Dubai and looking for unique things to do in the region. The trek itself took 14 days and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“After that I’ve never looked back. The farm is a real passion project, and I can’t imagine my life without the camels.”
As well as the resident camels, the farm is also home to a donkey, bunnies, chickens, guineafowl, turkeys, cows, deer and goats.
And, if a hug from a camel doesn’t raise your spirits, a kiss from a baby goat should do the trick.
Emma Pearson is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist with an ever-rumbling belly and permanently itchy feet. Currently based in Dubai, Emma lived and worked across the UK and US before settling in the UAE five years ago. Favourite country: Vietnam. Favourite food: crisps. Favourite writing topics: fitness, feasts and far-flung lands.