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Climbing a ridge at sunrise Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: As many as 60 women from 24 nationalities are set to embark on a gruelling five-day trek from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain this Friday to gain insights into a heritage developed from life in the arid deserts of the UAE.

The 125-kilometre expedition (January 31 – February 4) is part of an annual event called the Women’s Heritage Walk (WHW) during which the women, collectively known as ‘Sand Sisters’, will recreate the seasonal journey undertaken by Emirati tribes of yesteryears.

Woven throughout the adventure are the four essential pillars of culture and heritage, health and wellness, strength and leadership, and community building.

Asma Al Mutawa and Jody Ballard
Asma Al Mutawa and Jody Ballard Image Credit: Supplied

Launched in 2015, the walk is a heartfelt tribute to the women of the UAE who travelled from the coast to the inland oasis, where families would traditionally join the date harvest during the cooler climate of Al Ain.

Over the years the project has grown from strength to strength, especially since the time prominent Abu Dhabi-based literary advocate Asma Al Mutawa partnered with the programme and enriched the walk with a slew of cultural activities.

“Shaikh Zayed Al Nahyan said, ‘He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.’ We are proud of our heritage and want to keep it alive,” said Al Mutawa. “This time we have a record number of participants walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. We couldn’t have done all of this without the support of organisations like the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Danat Al Emarat Hospital for Women & Children, I am also thanfkul to the volunteers who worked tirelessly to put this event together,” added Asma.

As they retrace the ancient route, walkers will learn everything from cooking Emirati dishes, making gahwa (traditional Arabic coffee) to sadu weaving and falconry. Other highlights include a session on how to navigate using stars and a presentation on the story of Salukis, the oldest dog breed in the world and a trusted companion of Bedouins.

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Mouza Al Hameli and Maryam Lootah Image Credit: Supplied

Long waiting list

Despite the steep participation fees (Dh6,000), there’s a two-year long waiting list of women wanting to join.

Emirati Mouza Ali Alhameli who took part in the Walk in 2019 described the trek as a life-transforming experience. “It’s a journey of self-discovery as you learn from nature and feel connected with the universe,” she recalled. Gagan Preet Kaur from India who participated in 2018 said she has fond memories of the event.

Men join the cause

Saeed Hajri, heritage walk participant discusses how men have joined the walk Mazhar Farooqui, Features Editor -Special Reports

Buoyed by the success of the women’s walk, the organisers have now rolled out a men’s walk too.

Nearly a dozen men will take part in the inaugural edition of the Men’s Heritage Walk from February 7 to 11.

Hamad Ghanim, 40, who’s in charge of the men’s walk, said he’s happy with the response. “It’s going to be a life affirming experience for us as we connect with the heritage and culture of the UAE and forge deeper bonds with ourselves and fellow walkers through physical, mental and emotional development,” said Ghanim, who’s got bachelor’s degree in supply chain management and logistics from a US university.

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Women's Heritage Walk participants climb a ridge on the dune Image Credit: Supplied


In the lead-up to the walks, both male and female are undergoing specialised training from certified desert guides to prepare themselves for the rigours ahead.

“Any time people gather to complete a difficult task - magic happens,” said American author and clinical psychologist Jody Ballard who founded the project. “This year in two separate walks, 60 women and 12 men will accept the challenge, overcome fear, and disrupt their lives, hoping to discover their internal and external strength and perseverance,” she added.

Ballard said her partner Asma Al Mutawa’s involvement is integral to ensuring the Walk truly honours Emirati heritage as she highlights those values to preserve and celebrate the identity, traditions, and history of her country.

A medical team and ambulance will be on call 24/7 during the trek and the walkers will be followed by support vehicles.

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Men undergoing training in the lead up to the first Men's Heritage Walk (MHW) from February 7-11 Image Credit: Supplied


Women’s Heritage Walk: January 31-February 4

Men’s Heritage Walk: February 7-11

Did you know

The Women’s Heritage Walk was borne out of a curiosity to learn and understand the traditions and culture of the UAE originating in the daily trials of living in the desert.