Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Caracal Challenge to celebrate 15 years of EWS-WWF

I woke up really late yesterday with aching and sore muscles, but feeling absolutely happy, all thanks to Friday's heavy dose of adventure outdoors in Abu Dhabi's Al Khatim desert!

To mark 15th anniversary of Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF and their nature conservation work, Husaak adventures organised first ever Caracal Challenge, 15 km desert trek in Abu Dhabi's Al Khatim desert. 400 people across GCC countries including families, fitness enthusiast and adventurers took part in this challenge and you won't believe that such big number of people completed this tough challenge. I personally know 2 such champions and saw so many other inspiring people around me yesterday including a 77 year old super-active youngster and even a 7 year old girl who was all happy at 7 km mark!
Desert Walk
This challenge was a great outdoor activity in completely untouched desert of Al Khatim, where challengers not only tested their endurance but even navigated desert landscape at night and learned about the UAE’s natural environment. I should say Husaak Adventures done an outstanding job along with Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority by marking the path with flags, providing all required information in advance and giving freedom to such large number of people to explore desert on their own but also keeping track of them! You really need to know your job and desert well to organize such beautiful event in middle of of nowhere and with such big number of people! I now know why Husaak Adventures is GCC's favorite adventure company!

The initiative donated all net profits towards EWS-WWF’s Terrestrial Conservation Programme that is designed to protect land-based species and habitats across the UAE and Gulf region. The funds collected will go towards developing a central biodiversity database, integrating protected area networks and building awareness around the initiative. Before the official start of Caracal Challenge excursion representatives from organizers talked about the event. Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, Deputy Director General of EWS-WWF told us shortly how she attended one of the adventure with Husaak Adventures and the concept of Caracal Challenge was born. Dr. Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Executive Director - Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Sector, Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi talked about UAE's natural landscape and wildlife. Ali Khalil Husain of Husaak Adventures told us about what efforts went in to organize the event and what precautions participants need to take on excursion. The race started at around 4.50pm and went on till midnight. There were 3 exit points on 15 km route, first was at 2.5 km, second at 7km and 3rd at 10km. Participants could exit the race or refill their water at these exit points.

I was delighted to accept the invitation by EWS-WWF and to participate in Caracal Challenge. Being an outdoorsy person I have always grabbed opportunity to explore the desert of UAE though it is one of our camping trips or any events. So I had an exact idea of difficulty level of this challenge as I have hiked these sand dunes before. Plus from my experience of wild life drive in Dubai desert Conservation reserve my eyes are a bit trained to find out treasures in desert. This was mainly a desert walk for me on my own pace while looking out for natural beauty in dunes and Al Khatim desert didn't disappoint me! 

I could spot this beautiful butterfly on one of a bush in middle of sand dunes, yes butterfly in desert!
Butterfly in Desert

There were many lush green bushes in Al Kahtim area, which indicated the presence of water table in this area. 

I could also spot sand grass and one of my favorite dead looking grass, which is actually alive at the root. 
It's not dead
Walking in desert far away from any settlement is almost like meditating, you feel such calmness in a beautiful landscape! Al Khatim desert is untouched apart from volunteered walked here before us to prepare for challenge. So it was also clean, otherwise you always find left over coal from barbecue or campfire in desert near cities in UAE.

One of the beautiful site in desert is sunset. The sunset in desert reflects those twilight colors not only the sky but in the sand too!

The sky was equally beautiful after the sunset with moon getting brighter and rising stars! I heard from many fellow participants a comment like they never seen so many stars in UAE! Of course I didn't loose an opportunity and discussed with them about light pollution and how Bedouins in olden days used stars to navigate across Sahara desert! Actually because of full moon it was not an ideal night to watch stars but desert is great place in UAE for sky watching.
It was an amazing site to see people walking with headlights or torches on the silhouette of sand dunes at night! Climbing on some of the dunes was very challenging, slopes were steep and every time you try to climb your feet go deep into sand, then you need to exert extra force. But I felt hiking sand dunes is one of the safest hike, as there is only soft sand everywhere and no rocks, even if you fall you won't get hurt badly.

By the time I reached 2.5 km mark I felt really happy that I could do this without much preparation
with an average fitness level! So to celebrate this small achievement organizers provided this photo opportunity. We could feel sand everywhere on us by this time but it was worth getting dirty! I am now definitely inspired to give more attention to increase my fitness and endurance level. The people who exited challenge at 2.5 km mark were transported to 7 km mark, where there were arrangements of relaxing around campfire and some food and beverage arrangements. After watching some champions reaching 7 km mark from desert behind and hugged by EWS-WWF Panda, I decided to just lie down next to campfire and look up in sky! It was so pleasant in desert, I was ready to stay there for next 3 months, till the weather starts getting hot again.

EWS-WWF's Panda
Later we were transported to Arabian Nights Village where we had a nice arabic dinner with live performance of arabic singing with Oud. I am definitely coming back to this hotel specially when I learnt they take pride in not providing satellite TV instead immerse their guests in culture! 

Caracal Challenge was a fabulous, one of a kind event, much needed in UAE where people sometimes think there isn't much in desert (without much exploring it). The participants attending this event were so full of positive energy that it's not surprising almost everyone made some new friends here. It supports this discussion I had just few days back through this post when you are close to Nature, you become more authentic! 

After talking to many participants, I can surely claim they learnt so much about UAE's natural heritage and natural landscape, which was the ultimate goal of this event! This event was a great success-story of spreading awareness about UAE's environment.
Refilling Water in my reusable stainless steel bottle
But can't resist mentioning a slight disappointment here out of a good intention. It was actually delightful to see that organizers took great efforts in arranging numerous water dispensers to refill water bottles at start point and every exit/refill point. But I still found many empty plastic bottles littered in pristine desert. I just kept on picking them up and stuffed in my backpack. It was saddening that message organizers were trying to pass on to the crowd was not understood by them properly. I completely understand, it's very important to be hydrated in desert while walking or racing and health was definitely bigger priority. But what were the ways to pass on the message to less receptive part of crowd without any confusion? May be providing only one or two bottles each with a sticker "Refill It" on it? The water bottle in complementary back pack was a plastic bottle (not really a sustainable product, adding to more plastic waste at end of cycle). Instead of that may be 'bring your own empty bottle' would have worked better? (Just an idea) Because it was really easy to achieve that from my experience. I packed my favorite stainless steel water bottle in my bag and refilled it a few times. As I am attempting a zero waste lifestyle in UAE, this topic is really dear to me. When I saw the water dispensers at start point, I just hoped not to see any plastic bottle litter in this untouched part of desert. But I really appreciate organizers team and partners who thought about this issue of plastic water bottle waste in UAE and took steps in right direction. Without taking these first steps, we will never come to know what works and what doesn't. The efforts are refreshing and very welcoming!

I am sure EWS-WWF along with their partners will continue with their great work of conservation in the region and we will have many such green celebrations in future! On behalf of all those who attended I would like to say, we are very much looking forward to such desert challenge again, may be The Caracal Challenge 2017?
Walk of Shadows!

P.S. If you are curious what exactly is Caracal? It's an Arabian wild cat, read article here about my first experience of this fierce cat at Al Hefaiya Mountain Conservancy in Kalba. 

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