I stepped from the ashtray where my hotel served breakfast into the bright Arab
sunshine, and true to his word, Abdu was waiting half a block away. If this little game
saved him from paying commission and getting into trouble with licensed taxicabs I was
fine with it, I could walk the half block quite easily.
My request had been to see more of the countryside and if possible, some
agriculture. Of course being a guide he had replied he knew the exact spots I would like
to see. In both Mexico and South Africa my quest to explore agriculture had resulted in
farm visits that had not been pre-arranged; I had already seen Abdu’s work at the
Heritage Hunting Center so I was not worried. I settled into the cab’s passenger seat and
we hit the black top going out of town at a substantial speed.
It was not long and we were at the Camel Farm. I had no concept of what a camel
farm should look like or under what kind of conditions camels were raised. I had seen a
thousand camels at the racetrack in Dubai, but I did not know if there were other tracks,
and how many? How many camels does the race industry need?
My mind had switched to reporter mode, and I was making my way through the
enclosure trying to find the Boss Camel Farmer or at least someone who spoke English
well enough to answer my questions:
* What is the gestation period of a camel? Do they have multiple births? Are they
easy birthing or do they need help? Caesareans?
* How fast do they grow? When is a camel ready for training at the racetrack?
Are there other markets? Is there a market for camel meat? What about the hides? Is there
a good demand for camel leather?
* What kind of feed do they get? Does it vary through the production cycle?
When do you feed them high-energy feeds? Where does the feed come from? Is it grass
I found a fellow who could answer my questions and while haltingly, did his best.
Abdu explained later that they had few (none) visitors who showed as much interest in
the management of camel production. It became apparent to me that the Farm we were
visiting was closer to being a petting zoo than an actual production facility, though it did
offer a good number of the animals and allowed visitors to get up close and personal with
These animals were used to humans and we did not have any demonstrations of
the mucous ball defence they were known to exhibit, for which I was glad. It was early in
the day, and I did not want to have a bunch of camel snot drying on my shirt as we
headed off to the next stop.
We did get some information on the one-hump-or-two variations in the animals
and I was surprised by the difference between the two. It is much more than an upgrade
from a regular pickup to an extended cab, which is what I would have likened it to for
North American farmers.
The two-hump Bactrian is the only truly wild camel remaining and makes up
about 6% of the world camel population. It has longer hair and is able to withstand the
cold of the Asian winter, primarily the Gobi Desert of Mongolia.
The one-hump model is officially a Dromedary or Arabian and has short dense
hair that acts as insulation from the heat of the desert. It is a less aggressive animal and
makes up 94% of the world population. It can live to an age of 50 years, and 40 years is
quite common. Three million of these animals are slaughtered annually for meat.
As we left the Camel Farm I thought about my approach to gathering information.
These facilities were not used to reporters, and I was travelling undercover as just a
regular tourist. Naturally, the operators wondered why all the probing questions when
most visitors were content with ‘Can’t I pet him?’ There might also be some cultural
differences in the number and depth of questions. I re-evaluated my approach: I was used
to turning most of my adventures into newspaper stories, and I really had no market for
camel management stories.
Maybe I was motivated by the job—or maybe it was just that I wanted to know
purely for myself; I settled on that and decided it was okay to ask questions at whatever
level we were talking in the moment. I was not going to be that guy who dominates a
group tour with his questions, but since I had an individual guide and we were not part of
a bus tour I was okay with asking questions.
Miles were of little consequence. Abdu was a good driver, the blacktop highway
was as smooth as a racetrack and there was little traffic—he drove like he had a
destination in mind and Presto we arrived at a roadside plant stand. This surprised me; in
what to me was the middle of the desert was a virtual oasis of shrubs and flowering
We pulled in and walked through assorted greenery and blooming plants, making
our way to the back of the outdoor-display and there it was, a greenhouse. The owner
appeared and offered to show us the facility.
“The sun is too hot, too sharp, we need to protect the plants,” he said as we
walked through the hooped structure where vegetable plants were fastened with twine to
the lattice overhead. The system was rudimentary at best but he was making it work; he
explained that the plants were tied up to prevent disease and facilitate picking. Water was
delivered through a one-inch plastic hose, which snaked everywhere throughout the
greenhouse and its surrounding structures.
My thoughts were of the market gardens I had visited in North America, how they
were usually on the edge of a city (oftentimes along the river) frequently being forced to
move further out of the city as housing encroached on their acreages. Agreeing to comply
sometimes provided an owner with the capital to expand their acreage but that is another
The location of this facility did not make sense, it was not on the edge of a city; it
did not appear to be on a busy highway.
“This is where the water is,” said our host pointing to the pump that was drawing
water from who knows how far below the sand. Now the location made perfect sense. His
market was Dubai, supplying shrubs and potted plants to those that could afford a yard,
and vegetables for the restaurant trade, a ready market year round that would pay a
premium for his fresh greenery.
“Dubai was created as a free trade zone, Abu Dhabi (the capital city) has all the
oil money,” offered Abdu as we sped to our next destination. I welcomed his commentary
over the music from his radio and was glad he was offering information rather than more
of what he had been listening to.
“I saw you looking at the bag yesterday when you were eating the shark. It said
‘Dubai’ but they do nothing but package it there,” he said. “The area was created as a free
trade zone” he repeated, “It has grown that wealth on trade and repackaging.” I found this
particularly interesting because by this time a decade had passed since Winnipeg had
spoken about the intention of having a free trade zone—about the same time that Dubai
had taken the giant step. The two cities were now in very different places economically.
As I write this (2021), another 15 years later, Winnipeg’s intended free trade zone has
undergone several name changes and various CEOs but it is still a long way from
We were rocketing down the road and the suspense was too much.
“Why are there fences on both sides of the road?” I asked. “Fences are to keep
things in or to keep things out, and I have not seen a single animal on the other side of
that fence all day. Is the sand protected from trespassers?”
Abdu smiled like he had been waiting for my question, “It is to keep camels from
crossing the road. There are camels that have escaped caravans at one time and bred in
the wild or have escaped from farms like the one we visited. At the speeds people travel
on this road, it would be awful to hit a camel.” I nodded, and agreed. I hate it when
someone tells you a story that is almost too far fetched to believe but so close to being
plausible that you cannot call him on it. I left his story there, stretched out alongside both
sides of the road with miles of chain link fence high enough to stop a camel.
Moving on, we happened upon another vendor unpacking his wares; he had an
assortment of fruits I did not recognize, but was transporting them in the ubiquitous Del
Monte banana box. I had seen this crate used for everything from moving belongings to
and from university, to packing and moving books to the library when my own shelves
would no longer hold my collection—and here it was in the middle of the desert in the
Arab Emirates. The owner explained that what he was selling was grown on his farm and
I offered him a few dollars to give up his post of commerce and show us around.
“Not necessary,” he said, “My wife and son can show you around.” I spent the
next hour on a mixed farm in the middle of the desert. It is amazing what a drink of water
will do when added to the heat of the wasteland.
The animals looked to be struggling from the heat and a severe shortage of grass,
but goats and cows were captive in the fenced areas and again the one-inch plastic hose
Fruits and vegetables seemed to be faring much better than livestock in the heat of
the Arab spring and appeared to be doing quite well. When I asked about nutrients the
son explained that everything had to be added in a solution with water since the soil was
pure sand and offered no nutrients at all. I have visited many areas where I was surprised
that farmers were able to eke out a living against the strain of Mother Nature but this one
would be near the top of the list.
The unrelenting heat, the rolling sand shifting with any kind of wind, and any of
the other challenges I had not even seen. I am sure insects would travel a great distance
for the succulent green leaves of these plants. Yet, this man and his family called it home
and seemed happy to be carving a living out of the sand.
As a part of the same settlement we came upon a couple of men, a father and son I
assumed, who were digging a well. The sun had long ago turned their skin to leather and
I could not guess their age but the equipment they were using to deepen their well was
older than both of them combined. They had a tripod of poles set up over the well and
told me that they needed to go to a depth of 800 feet to access the water under the sand.
The area around them bore testimony to their dedication. Water flowed through a
small concrete aqueduct running along the driveway to the enclosure that held the house
and animal pens. The trees along the driveway were in full bloom, obviously the
beneficiaries of the well and aqueducts. It was a sharp contrast to the area around it,
which offered not even a hint of foliage.
“There is water there,” the senior man assured me. “We just need to get to it, and
that might not be today, but there is water there.”