Owners and camels (photo)

Trainers prepare to leap out of the way of racing camels near Liwa, Abu Dhabi.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

By Carl Hoffman

There’s no bugler, no announcer shouting “And they’re off!” There aren’t even any jockeys. Drinks at the bar and betting? Forget it.

At camel races in Abu Dhabi, it’s a dusty chaos of men, camels, and SUVs. The grunting spectacle starts at dawn Fridays (the beginning of the weekend) at camel tracks throughout the emirate. Hundreds of the animals plod through the desert morning from nearby stables, ridden by handlers from Pakistan and Afghanistan and India, among others, and owned by local Bedouin Emiratis.

The track is a long sand oval—up to 9 miles (15 kilometers)—with a road on both sides. The sport’s traditional child jockeys were banned in 2002; today’s riders are 18-inch-high (46-centimeter-high) robots, decked out in bright racing silks and outfitted with mechanical riding crops.

Raced by group, age, and distance between October and April, the camels line up at the start, held by human jockeys wearing protective vests and helmets. When a green net rises, the jockeys leap out of the way and the camels take off.

At the same time, the owners jump in their SUVs and roar after the animals in a honking, shouting mass. They urge the camels on with cries of “hut, hut, hut” into one VHF radio and cause the robotic crops to strike them by blowing into a second radio.

Spectators may not be able to cash in a winning ticket, but the owners do—a consistently winning camel can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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