Want to do something truly extraordinary with your family? Time to get lost in one of the world’s most unique cultural events – Al Dhafra Festival
The Al Dhafra Festival is held annually in the at the end of December to celebrate and preserve the heritage of the people of the United Arab Emirates, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Now held over three weeks, the Al Dhafra Festival brings together a variety of traditional Bedouin cultural events including camel racing, saluki racing, date packing, falcon hunting and the centerpiece event, the Camel Mazayna Competition (Camel Beauty Contest).
To an outsider some of these events might sound a little hard to believe, but this is serious business – visitors and competitors come from all over the GCC, with the Camel Mazayna alone attracting over 1,500 entrants, involving 25,000 camels and prize money on offer is upwards of 55 million dirhams – that’s $15m USD!!
We have attended the event three times now during our time living in the UAE, with very young children. We hope to attend every year as each time we discover more places, events and happenings and its an opportunity for us to truly embrace the country we live in – far from the shopping malls, high rises and luxury hotels that people so often associate with the UAE. Dates for 2016 are yet to be announced but the event runs approximately the second week to the last week of December.
I certainly wont claim it is one of the easiest events in the world to find, navigate your way around or even understand – and its probably not the easiest thing you will ever take your kids too – but I think the Al Dhafra Festival is a must for anyone living here in the UAE or visiting at this time of year. Its certainly been one of the most culturally rewarding experiences we have undertaken and we have never regretted the long drive and exposing our children to this event.
To make things a little easier on you and your family, here are our top 10 tips for tackling the Al Dhafra Festival with Kids.
(This article was first published in December 2015. We have since updated some of the information to reflect changes we noted during the 2015 event, most notably the building of more permanent structures and a much more assertive effort by organisers to guide tourists through the event and treat them as their special guests).
1. Be prepared to get lost
The Al Dhafra Festival is held in the Western (Al Gharbia) Region of the Abu Dhabi Emirate, near the city of Madinet Zayed. This is about a 2 hour drive from Abu Dhabi or 3 hours from Dubai – taking the E11 costal road, then the E45 into the desert. Be warned it is not in the town itself, but beyond; signage is historically quite poor, so keep driving through the town of Madinet Zayed and after civilisation seems to end, do keep going! There is a small exit to the right, then a roundabout under the highway, turn here and you have arrived at the front entrance to the event – then pretty much follow the cars (best bet is to follow the Liwa Hotel signs from the E11) – don’t expect any obvious maps!
If, however, you end up zig zagging the township for an hour an a half (maybe just a little speaking from experience here….) then there are several very new and well maintained play parks in Madinet Zayed for stretching legs. I’d suggest come bearing road trip entertainment for the little ones as once you leave the major cities, there’s kind of a whole lot of nothing to look at out the windows – maybe an odd random camel or impressive looking sand dune to point out.
2. Fuel up
Speaking of getting lost – keep an eye on your fuel levels when desert bound. There is a portable fuel station at the event, but if you’re running low and certainly before your homeward trip (about 170km to Abu Dhabi) I would suggest filling up in Madinet Zayed where there are several ADNOCs. (December 2015 update: It looks like a permanent ADNOC is now being built on site)
3. Bring a 4×4
Although the main road into the event is tarmacked, most of the car parking areas are not and you may well find yourself doing some cross-country trekking between events (roads, what roads?). You could get away with a standard sedan vehicle, but this may restrict your movement around the event and you don’t want to be caught out axle deep with the kids. Be warned; you think the driving in the cities in the UAE can be slightly mad, wait til you see how the country folk and GCC visitors drive, wow! (December 2015 update: Most roads within the complex are now surfaced and easy to navigate car parks, you should be ok now in a standard vehicle – other than feeling slightly belittled my the monster trucks around you!)
4. Get your bearings and use some guess work
Unless you are fairly fluent in Arabic, be prepared to get a little lost in translation. I did notice a lot more signage inside the event last year (2014), and some of it even in English but you still need a fair bit of guess work and trial and error. Once inside the event, you will normally find someone who speaks enough English to direct you to where events are happening (the grounds are huge so you cannot easily walk from one competition or display area to another).
Note finding an online guide in advance as to what is happening each day is nigh on impossible (and if you do, the events scheduled may or may not be on!) Do check out the official website for the Al Dhafra Festival for a more detailed description of the events you can find; they are not very good at keeping it up to date but the events themselves don’t change much year to year.
Although not prominent, there are several Emirati guides willing to explain the events program and give you recommendations. If you head to the Traditional Souq first (December 2015 update: this is now a permanent structure that has been built next to the camel mazayna complex) you might be able to speak to a guide FIRST – in fact they looked to be actively seeking out tourists at our last visit to guide you on what events are occurring, even personally guiding you to them and placing you with an English translator to explain what’s happening.
5. Western food choices are limited
I’d go as far to say non existent other than a soft drink and sweets stall we found, otherwise the choices we could locate seemed to only be Middle Eastern cuisine with menu boards written entirely in Arabic. If your little ones are particularly adventurous by all means go for it – but I could recommend you BYO snacks for the kids, or purchase something in Madinet Zayed if you’re not feeling experimental.
(December 2015 update: There was not only a portable KFC but also an Italian style cafe truck located inside the Traditional Souq at this years event, along with the traditional Arabic meals. Clearly they are making more of a push towards catering for the Western audience as this is the first we have seen of these options).
6. Know thy camel
So what exactly makes a beautiful camel? From our limited experience (and the faithful handbook they gave me back in 2012 which I am constantly referring back to!) there are two distinct types of camel you will see at Al Dhafra – the taller dark Majahim and the lighter Arabian Asayel – both are dromedary (single humped camels). Camels are judged on factors including;
Upper Parts – back length and height, hump shape and position
Front Parts – neck width, shoulders and feet
Back – leg size and straightness
General shape and fitness – beauty displayed, toe parting length, physical health and hair shininess
Why should you know this? On our first visit to the Al Dhafra Festival- completely naive and oblivious to how the camel mazayna event worked (and lets be honest I still am) – we were invited to be seated in the Royal stand, followed by a tour of the camels obviously waiting to do their “lap”. We could say nothing more than “nice camel” to the owners. Having a few more facts like these up your sleeve will make you come across far more intelligent, and you can wow your friends with this otherwise useless information.
You can try your luck at popping your head into the media centre next to the camel mazayna grand stand – they might be able to help you out with some booklets in English that explain the event.
7. The Arabs are very passionate about their camels
And by this I mean loud! If your little ones scare easy do warn them – though as a family or clearly a visitor to the UAE you will be seated further away be security. The hoards of young men chanting, banging their sticks in the grand stands is louder than an English football game and can be a little overwhelming.
The camel racing as well brings a crowd of very over-excitable young men beeping their horns loudly and joining (though not at great pace) the camels racing around the enormous desert track in 4×4’s, almost completely drowning out the presence of any actual camels. Note the camel racing here uses real life jockeys, they are all Asian men though, not young boys that may have been used in the past. There is a comfortable lawn area for viewing the camel racing for those who wish to be slightly less involved!!
Ok granted my Miss 4 rocked up a ballet dress last time, but just a couple of things to be aware of. This is a desert festival so there is A LOT of sand and wind to contend with; those with long hair will want a hair tie at the very least. It does cool in the evening once the sun goes down and whatever footwear you choose will fill with sand. Dressing in moderation for men and women is always recommended wherever you travel in the UAE, but be particularly mindful of this when you’re outside of the capital cities – don’t come in your beach wear basically. Women do not need to be wearing head scarfs but be conservative, the event is vastly attended by young men but there are some families around too.
If you are bringing a small infant, other than at the Traditional Souq you can pretty much forget bringing the stroller as you’ll be traipsing it through sand; a baby carrier is your best option for getting around.
9. Timing of events -what timetable?
If you do find a timetable – I’d consider it suggestive! The only written guide we could find didn’t explain what day the beauty contests were on and there were other events happening that weren’t in the schedule we were given but the Emirati guides there directed us to what was happening. They were particularly keen on us watching the date packing for some reason ….
There is a Children’s Village, located at the rear of the Traditional Souq. It appeared to be operating all day, no clear opening times were given but I wouldn’t expect anything much to happen before midday at an event like this. It was set up with a stage show area but no event timetable given and I suspect performances – rightly so – would have been in Arabic. My children enjoyed doing some colouring and the shopping at the sweet stalls but I expected a few more things to be included.
(December 2015: The kids area this year included some traditional wooden play equipment – use at your peril! It really was pieces of wood tied together by yarn and looked extremely dangerous! The locals were however delighted to have our little blondies join in with them)
10. Accommodation options are limited
Although we have previously tackled the festival as a day trip from Abu Dhabi, its a long day with small children. I would suggest that an overnight stay in one of the nearby luxury desert hotels like the Tilal Liwa Hotel might be a good option to get in two days of action. Our past experience is that the camel racing and camel mazayna events have been held on alternate days so this way you could experience the best of both. It would also give you an opportunity to see “Millionaires Row”, an apparent camel sale that happens along the main road each evening, we have missed this as we headed back before dark (A camel sold in 2014 for 1million DHS was reportedly now worth 25million DHS in 2015, this is BIG business!).
If camping is your thing you could also try pitching a tent Bedouin style – I would suggest having some desert camping experience under your belt before attempting this though!
There you have it – the fun and adventure of attending a genuine Bedouin cultural festival – off the beaten path but well worth the effort.
Have you attended the Al Dhafra Festival before? Is there anything else you would advise families to be aware of? Did you have any questions we could help with if you plan to visit?
If you want to discover more adventures for kids in the UAE, don’t forget to check out our Travel Diary – and 15 Important Facts to know before visiting the UAE
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