At 6.30am on February 11, the members of the Dubai Exiles under 10s rugby team began a 72km journey through the famous Wadi Bih in the Haj mountains. It was cold, they’d been up since 4am, and they knew the going would get tough. But the purpose of their mission, and the team camaraderie that had got them through weeks of hard training, would carry them all to the finish.
Amazingly, despite their youth and inexperience, they came 122nd out of the 163 adult teams taking part. ‘It was hard going, but we were all there for a good reason,’ explains the youngest team member, nine-year-old Nicolaas Zwager, a pupil at JESS in Jumeirah. ‘We are trying to raise money for a centre in Ethiopia for orphaned children who have AIDS. Our Wadi Bih run was one of the main activities to get funds for them.’
The centre in question is the RAEY Child and Family Development Project, which helps children aged four to 10 years who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. ‘We have a lovely life in Dubai, and we go to a great school with fantastic facilities and teachers. But these orphans have nothing. It’s really sad, because the centre cares for about 100 children – but there are more than 7,000 more on the waiting list,’ says Nicolaas. An old pro at the annual Wadi Bih trek as an individual participant, Nicolaas, whose parents are keen runners, has been on the route every year since he was tiny.
‘I even went along with my mum as a baby because she was still feeding me – although I couldn’t run then,’ he laughs.
The Exiles team is the youngest group of runners to take part in the annual Wadi Bih run, organised in several legs as a relay event. Each child ran three legs, a total of approximately 12km. Ten-year-old Luke Baerschmidt says, ‘We all play rugby together for our club and for our school, so that, along with school athletics, keeps us fairly fit. But, we had to make sure our bodies were used to running distances, so every Sunday, we met up and ran around Safa Park. I like running, and this is the first time I’ve ever done it properly as a sport. I’d like to continue doing it now, and raise even more money for charity.’
According to their rugby coach, Duncan Walker, the Wadi Bih relay run is all about teamwork, having fun and giving to those less fortunate. ‘These boys all demonstrated the commitment and determination they’d need to get them through the run. It was a great team effort and I’m proud of them for taking it on.’
But the boys are the first to admit they experienced lots of ups and downs along the way. At one point, a steep incline of more than 1.5km threatened to defeat one young runner. ‘It was so steep, my car had difficulty getting up it in first gear,’ says Sam Dobson, (Nicolaas’s mum) who organised the team’s participation and drove a support vehicle for them en route. ‘Kieran was struggling but the lads gave him terrific support by getting out of the car and running with him, even though it wasn’t their leg. It was fantastic to watch.’
Jamie McKinnon, aged 10, laughs, ‘We kept our energy levels up by eating gummy bears and biltong! The mixture of sugar and protein is supposed to give you lots of energy – or at least that’s the plan. By the end of the race, there were gummy bears all over the back seat of the car. Nick’s mum says she’s still finding them!’
Sam, who trekked up the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia in March with Gulf For Good to raise more funds for the orphanage, hopes that some of the children will get a chance to visit the RAEY Centre later this year. ‘It would be great if they actually get the opportunity to see what all their hard work has achieved. And it’s educational for kids in Dubai to have the opportunity to witness what real, grinding poverty is actually like.’
Sally Baldrick, whose son Alex, also 10, ran in the event, agrees: ‘I’d like my son to have a greater appreciation of his situation. I think many children living in Dubai simply don’t know how lucky they are because their lifestyle protects them so well from harsh realities. I’m very proud of the boys because, in their minds, they are hoping their efforts will provide these children with a few of the benefits that they enjoy.’
In the end, covered in dust and with aching legs, the boys made it triumphantly across the finish line in a very respectable 6.5 hours. The afternoon was spent at The Golden Tulip Hotel in Dibba and one would think a well-earned rest was in order. ‘Getting to the end was the very best bit,’ says Nicolaas. ‘We finished the race at about 1.30pm and had ginger beer and a barbecue. After that, even though our legs were sore, we played rugby all afternoon! Brilliant!’
Running for a cause
At last count, the Dubai Exiles Under-10s rugby team, who were sponsored by Chartis Insurance, had raised a whopping Dhs20,200 for the RAEY Child and Family Development Project, which provides food, shelter, education and medical assistance to more than 100 children who have been orphaned through HIV/AIDS. The Wadi Bih run is just one of the boys’ fundraising activities. They have sold homemade cookies and held second-hand book and toy sales at their local rugby club too. One team member, Louis Walker, has raised Dhs3,060 through a range of projects he initiated.