The Arabian Quest 2005 Challenge will see 200 of the UAE’s hardiest souls rough it out on Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains

Tomorrow’s arduous Arabian Quest race unites UAE’s mountain-lovers to publicise Ras al Kaimah’s threatened mountain heritage.

Tonight, 200 of the UAE’s hardiest souls are camping out in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah.

Tomorrow at 5am, they set off with compasses and maps to follow the rocky route of the Arabian Quest 2005 Challenge, or in the case of the fittest of all, the Arabian Quest 2005 Extreme Challenge.

If all goes well, they can all expect to be back within 12 hours.

Organiser John Falchetto, who kicked off mountain racing in the UAE with the King of Qihwi Challenge last April, has designed this year an even more challenging event combining trekking and mountain biking.

The route goes from Wadi Bih up to the 1,921m peak of Jebel Bil Aysh. Teams of two must navigate through a series on control points to the summit and back along rocky and unmarked trails.

 But the event is much more than an exercise in alfresco masochism.

Falchetto also hopes to raise money and awareness to help preserve Ras Al Khaimah’s natural heritage.

After recent rains, competitors can expect to find mountain valleys carpeted with knee-high grass.

“I’m 45, but I’m as fit as I’ve ever been,” says Adrian Hayes, an ex-Gurkha officer who will be competing.

This is, however, a marginal environment under threat from development and overgrazing.

The site of the race could itself soon be unrecognisable if a scheme to build a major resort at the mountain’s peak goes ahead.

“Any money that we make from the race will go to the World Wildlife Fund project to create a national park,” says Falchetto.

He reveals the eventual aim is to create a protected area for native species, like the tahr and Arabian leopard.

“Although first of all something has to be done about the herds of goats that currently eat everything that grows up here.”

The contenders

In the meantime, he hopes the race will also provide a fun weekend for the casual visitors as well as a challenge for the UAE’s dedicated mountain-folk.

“There are two very different types of participants,” he says. “For many, it will be a social event — which is one reason why we are having the camp on Thursday night.”

However, there are about 20-30 people who are into hiking and mountaineering in a serious way. For them, a race like this is a rare chance to find out who really is the fittest.

Among all these hardcore hikers, the man to beat is John Young. Last year, despite finishing way ahead, he missed out on victory due to his failure to pass a single “well-hidden” control point.

The 47-year-old engineer admits that over the last few weeks, he has visited the site to scout out possible tracks through the rugged terrain of Jebel Bin Aysh.

Victory, he admits, is a definite objective. “It’ll be a good workout and there’s nice scenery,” he says. “But it’s always nice to do well in life.”

His key challengers include Adrian Hayes, an ex- Gurkha officer and now Regional Sales Director for Airbus.

Hayes’ punishing routine for a full calendar of adventure races includes pounding up and down one of Dubai’s tallest towers twice before starting work.

For him, the Arabian Quest is a minor challenge as he gears up for an assault in August on the Tibetan peak of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain.

“I’m 45, but I’m as fit as I’ve ever been,” he says.

However, a spot on the podium is a foregone conclusion for no one. For safety reasons, all competitors must complete the course in pairs – limiting the fastest competitors to the time of their partners.

“There is also an element of orienteering involved,” says Falchetto.

“The weaker teams may do better if they talk to each other and co-operate. Also, on long events everyone has ups and downs so that if people encourage each other, they will do best.”

In any case, the rankings should prominently feature the Gregory family.

Last year, Chris Gregory won the men’s event while his step-mother, Dee McEnery, came an extremely close second to John Young’s wife, Barbara, in the women’s event.

“I am competing with my brother Ian, so I think I am in with a chance,” says Chris Gregory. “I am relying on him to pick a good route and find the shortcuts.”

Chris’s father, John Gregory, nicknamed the Lord of Ras Al Khaimah after two decades of outdoors activity, is taking the race less seriously.

Socialising is the key element of his race strategy. “I can operate on little sleep,” he says. “So I’ll try to keep everyone awake the night before.”

For a good cause

The Arabian Quest will raise money to establish a protected area in the Ru’us Al Jibal mountain.

With the Environmental Protection and Industrial Development Commission of Ras Al Khaimah, WWF aims to involve local tribes in conservation by providing training as park rangers and as ecotourism professionals.

This area is the last remaining refuge of the UAE’s population of Arabian leopards and caracal lynx, and could provide safe haven for the reintroduction of the rare Arabian tahr.