First, a word of warning. Do not set out for the camel races expecting an easy ride. Set your GPS for 24˚11’26”N by 54˚38’49”E and hope for the best. Only when you see a metallic space station rising from the sands of Al Wathba will you know that your journey is coming to an end.
In truth, the trip is a large part of the fun. Follow the Al Ain road through Al Wathba (about 45 minutes from the Abu Dhabi Corniche) and look for the road signs. You’ll arrive at a sparse racing track populated with
a pitiful gathering of lippy beasts. This is the Al Wathba racetrack, used for the big public holiday events. It also means you’re in the wrong place. The weekly track is further along in a barren area not dissimilar to Star Wars’ Tatooine.
Inside, camels, Bedouin trainers and more well-to-do visitors jostle around the edge of the dirt track – the sounds and smells are everything you might imagine them to be. The elaborate grandstand itself – the aforementioned space station – is virtually empty. Despite the throng, the track itself is lacking in action. Everyone is standing around looking like they’ve nothing better to do. Other than the grandstand and the vast desert there’s nothing to see: no stalls or shops to browse; no souvenirs or burgers to be had. It’s somewhat underwhelming.
And then a shout goes up. Everyone presses up against the railings. In the distance, an apocalyptic cloud of dust looms towards you at tremendous speed. The camels lunge forwards, lips and tongues lolling back around their ears, muzzles covered in frothy spittle. Perched on their backs are tiny electronic devices, wrapped in Arabian cloth and woven into the saddlebags. Jockeys fell out of favour in 2005, when the use of children under the age of 18 was banned by the government. What we have here are their sci-fi descendants – robots, bought in from East Asia at about Dhs7,000 a pop, operated via remote control. These robots can be made to tug on reins and wield racing whips.
Even more amazing is the sight of the frantic owners, who follow the camels along the side of the track in crowded 4x4s. Around 40 vehicles trail the animals in hot pursuit, passengers yelling and yodelling to freak the animals to a faster pace. Can anyone join this mad train, Time Out wonders? ‘Only if you have your own 4x4,’ explains a track official. ‘If you go in a smaller car, it will not be good. Nobody sees you. They’re all watching the camels.’ The owner of the fastest camel stands to win a magnificent prize. ‘Could be a luxury car,’ the official says. ‘Yesterday it was 10 luxury cars.’ There may be as many as 15 races in a single morning, with up to 50 camels in any one race. ‘We tried more,’ he tells us, ‘but it was dangerous. Too many 4x4s.’
Camel racing at Al Wathba takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and occasional Saturdays, 6.30am-8.30am until April.