Sleek dromedaries pounding their way around a fenced and graded sandtrack, urged on by robotic jockeys and a cavalcade of hooting Land Cruisers …
Welcome to camel racing in Doha, Qatar.
It is a sight, and experience, never to be forgotten.
If, like me, you harbour the exotic notion of a stately two-humped camel lumbering across the undulating sands or of Bedouin charging around acrobatically on these “ships of the desert”, prepare to have such assumptions completely overhauled.
A day at the Al Shahaniyah Camel racing track in Qatar will toss all such beliefs out into the desert winds.
Camel racing is like no other sport I have watched or experienced.
It is also big business (a car for the winner of each race and QAR100 000) and is deeply entrenched in the Arabic culture.
And, for this South African, it is completely fascinating.
(Not forgetting how privileged I am to be part of the FIFA 2022 World Cup and a smorgasbord of what to see and do in Qatar.
An immersive experience
I think it is fair to say, that camel racing in Qatar is an “immersive” sport. This is because you, as a spectator, are part of the cavalcade of trainers and owners urging their charges to the finish line.
No sitting back on the grandstand or alongside the railings, awaiting the competitors on the home straight …
Oh no, you join the fleet of SUVs in tracking, chasing and cajoling the swift-footed caravan of camels from start to finish.
Fortunately for us, the 24-seater tourist bus in which you are a wide-eyed passenger, is bigger than the other swanky SUVs. And since you come with no vested interest in any of the competing camels, you are unlikely to come a cropper.
While the focus of camel racing is meant to be on the camels, you’re likely to be equally intrigued by the trainer- and owner-turned-rally drivers’ race, as they chase alongside you and their camels.
Or is it just me?
Hopefully this video gives you better insight of camel racing in Qatar.
Cars versus camels
The camels leave the start much like horse-racing, but the SUVs, unlike horse-racing, race alongside them in an adjacent tarred track. Those whose steed is up front, moves to the front … well, that’s how it is supposed to happen.
It’s all fairly orderly up until the 2km mark of the 6km race. This is when the best trained camels start moving towards the front and so do their owners (on one side of the track), and their trainers on the other.
Yes, you’ve got it. Camels in the middle sand track, owners to the right and trainers to left in their dedicated routes. Oh, and not to forget the TV crew (the only vehicle that moves ahead of the camels throughout the entire race).
It’s organised bedlam!
Since the camels are racing at 40 kilometres an hour, the SUV fleet is doing likewise, all within a constrained space.
While there were no bumps or crashes during our visit, this happens regularly – and hence the stand-by presence of police and an ambulance.
(We were told that after the “blockade” when Qatari-Saudi relations were none-too-friendly, the locals would apparently delight in denting and scratching their neighbours’ cars. The Saudi neighbours grew wise to this and hired Qatari-registered vehicles for their day at the races instead.)
Cheering your charge on
Back in the bad old days, children rode camels in races. These children were light and agile in guiding camels. But, of course, they were not immune to injury or even death.
Thankfully, in 2005, whip-cheering robots were introduced as child-riding was banned.
These 1.5kg robots are controlled remotely by the trainers who have the ability to vocally guide their camels or press a button to whip them into action.
As far as I could tell, the whip is just visual – appearing in the camel’s peripheral vision. In many instances, the pretend whip is never used, since camels, like all other racing animals, do not necessarily respond positively to a beating.
Instead, we were informed, the camels respond to a trainer’s voice via the robot jockey, the hooting and presence of his car. (I am afraid I did not see any women trainers, but I do believe there are women owners!)
I can only deduce that camels must have superb hearing and exceptional peripheral vision, since the vehicles may not go ahead of the lead camel but only come alongside them. Equally confounding is how a camel is able to tell his trainer apart from all the others, since most of the chasing posse consisted of identical white Land Cruisers! (I wonder if these are the cars that they win.)
As if to prove me wrong, however, we learnt that no tinted windows are allowed. This is to ensure that the camels can see their trainers. It is also to allow the organisers to check for cheating.
Given the stakes – cars, money and the possibility of the Amir, the ruling monarch, buying your winning camel – playing outside of the rules is a concern.
This is why racing is strictly controlled by the organisers.
Steroids and the use of electric shocks via the robot are apparently among the methods used to give camels a better chance of winning. Competing camels also wear COVID-like masks to ensure that no-one gets to spoil their strict race-day eating regime.
According to our guide, between 30 and 35% of camels and their trainers are disqualified after racing. This is thanks to the efforts of the Camel Racing Committee to end unfair play.
As a deterrent, however, the disqualification does not appear to worry competitors too much. As long as their camel is viewed crossing the finish line first on television, that’s all that matters, since little fuss is made about those who are disqualified from competing.
Oh yes, did I mention that there are TV channels dedicated to camel racing here.
As a Muslim country, there is no betting involved, as this is against their faith.
Racing times and facilities
Camel races happen throughout the September to March camel racing season. Some are run midweek, as well as every weekend; some are hosted early morning or early evening dependent on the temperatures.
There are three types of contests – for locals; the sheiks and for international competitors and these are hosted on 3km, 6km or 8km courses. Only one distance is hosted per race day and camels do not switch from one distance to another.
We visited when 6km races hosted for sheiks were being run. We watched five of the 15 races held from about lunch time on a Saturday in late October. It was in mid-30s that day. As one race, which lasts for about 10 minutes, ends, the next one begins.
Behind the scenes
We were privileged to go behind the scenes at both the beginning and end of the race.
At the end, it’s checking for cheating and the cooling down of the camels, while upfront it’s the final preparations for the big race.
There are camels everywhere, surrounded by their trainers and camel hands (most of them are Sudanese). They are either hollering or whispering sweet nothings at their charges, putting their robot jockeys in place and leading them to the start … it’s like a scene from the movies.
Except you are part of this Mardi gras – the sounds, the smells and even the stuff that makes your garden grow.
I told you, it’s an immersive event.
If time allows, and you know someone with connections, do visit the surrounding “camel city” – the paddocks where these Lamborghinis of the desert live. I’m told it is a wonderful blend of old and new, and about 20 000 camels to view!
Certainly, as we were leaving and the sun was beginning to dip into the horizon, large groups of camels and their teams were heading to the racetrack for training sessions.
You will also learn all sorts of useless information about camels like:
- The girl camels are faster than the boys, and they race separately
- Camels can drink 120 litres of water in three minutes
- There are more than 100 words for camel in Arabic
- Camels compete in beauty contests. Botox gets used!
- Camel milk is very nutritious
- Camel racing first started at weddings as a form of entertainment
Camel Racing Tour
The tour takes about four hours, leaving from Doha for the track about 50 minutes away on the Dukhan highway.
We paid QAR165 for our tickets with Murex Tours, and also enjoyed a welcoming cup of tea/coffee and bottled water on arrival.
Wow! I’ve learnt something new!
This was fascinating Debs!
Amazing experience and information,hopefully you getting paid for this illustrated info of Doha,put all in book form big hugs
Wow thanks for this Debbie, so enjoyed reading it.