Embarking on a 120-kilometer journey across the desert and on foot, too, may not sound appealing to everyone, but the fifth annual Women’s Heritage Walk has become not only a culturally significant event but a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
As with the others that came before it, the fifth annual event commemorates the annual Bedouin journey from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain in search of cooler weather, taking days to get to their destination. On Friday (January 31, 2020), more than 70 women will set out on the five-day journey. Over the years it has attracted hundreds of eager participants, representing dozens of nationalities, each looking to get a personal experience steeped in Emirati history.
Walking a path trodden by their Bedouin ‘sand sisters’ years before, along the way the women sleep in traditional Bedouin tents, learn to make Arabic coffee and bond with one another over aching feet and sandy clothes.
“The walks focus on four pillars: highlighting culture and heritage, promoting health and wellness, inspiring strength and leadership and community-building,” says organizer Maya Itani, from Lebanon. “They are multi-faceted events that really touch so many different aspects of human existence and provide participants with the space, time and platform to build a deeper understanding of themselves and a deeper bond with other people.”
The entire experience was created by the American author and clinical counsellor, Jody Ballard, after she learned about the traditional Emirati expedition while researching a book. Ballard was amazed at the tenacity of the tribes in the face of such an arduous journeyman with no modern conveniences, says Itani.
“She wanted to offer a contemporary version of the walk to help women to realise how strong they truly are and to help them connect with others in a way they are unable to during their daily lives.”
Each of the women who signed up has been training for their journey for the last three months. Dr Nada Khogali, a staff physician in the Emergency Medical Department of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, signed up for this year’s walk after watching friends participate in previous years.
“I saw the transformation they went through, the journey they went on, and I decided that 2020 is my year, to be physically healthy, spiritually healthy, mentally healthy and become even closer to Allah,” she says. “Becoming accepted as a sand sister after hearing about it from two of my friends has been my goal for nearly a year. I jumped at the opportunity to join.”
Dr Khogali, who was born in Sudan and raised in the US, has been training by hiking in the desert and doing regular stair climbs.
“My training has consisted of trying to improve my stamina,” she explains. “I’ve taken private classes with a trainer, joined in fun classes with other women in clubs around town and started running the stairs at work after my shifts. The walk provides us with experienced trainers who guide us through walks in the desert. We meet on Friday mornings in Al Wathba with backpacks full of water and snacks in our pockets and start our treks through the dunes. During my first training session, my lack of stamina was apparent but the training sessions have become easier the more I have trained and the more stairs I run. I wanted to make sure I won’t hold anyone back.”
This year marks another first for the event: the opportunity to create a band of sand brothers, too. The inaugural Men’s Heritage Walk begins on February 7, with dozens of men already signed up, all eager to test their grit.
“The Women’s Heritage Walk had successfully run for five years and the organizers were constantly being asked about the possibility of creating a counterpart for men,” explains Itani. “This year they were able to offer it due to the support of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, which helps in all the planning and operations of the two events.”
Simon Pepper, a trainer based in Abu Dhabi, will be co-leading the men’s group. He’s been working with the group to prepare them for the demands of the journey, with walks in Al Wathba desert and other training.
An athlete accustomed to participating in adrenaline-pumping obstacle course races like the Spartan Arabia , as well as trail runs and CrossFit, Pepper has been looking forward to getting involved in something more spiritual.
“We all have to slow it down sometimes. My training and my races hit not only my physical state hard but also my mental state so I’m actually looking forward to not having to meet expectations like I do during a race,” he says. “Not that I expect this to be a proverbial ‘walk in the park’ by any means.”
Pepper points out the challenge will be as much mental as physical for the group.
“As well as looking after the participants’ safety and wellbeing, I feel for me the most challenging part will be what happens in my own head space,” he says. “I’m an anxiety-depression ‘fighter’ so to spend a lot of time in the solitary space that is the desert will be not only a challenge that the team will face but one I will also face personally.”
“This is not a fitness event reserved solely for super athletes,” stresses Itani. “The journey can be completed by anyone [after a medical clearance] and we support our participants in preparing for the event through two months of weekly training walks in the desert. While it is a challenge, it is one that almost anyone can complete.”
An Aussie journalist with a passion for snowboarding, CrossFit and the outdoors, Caitlyn is an freelance writer based in Dubai. She's previously worked at Time Out, 7DAYS UAE, Arabian Radio Network and Lovin' Dubai and has a serious coffee addiction.