Egyptian Camel Racing at the Wadi Zalaga Camel Race
When you first think of Egypt, your thoughts inevitably and rightfully jump to the iconic pyramids of Giza, or the legendary Sphinx. But what if we told you that a highlight that can’t be missed on your exploration of Egypt is camel racing? This diverse country holds an annual competition, where two tribes in the Sahara Desert compete for the prestigious title of winner. Egyptian Camel Racing is truly a unique experience – put it on your bucket list now!
Picture this. Hooves thundering down the straight. Sand splattering up from the ground from the impact. Egyptians in the back of trucks and in cars, bellowing enthusiastically to their friends, relatives and favourite camels. Their brilliantly white robes flapping behind them, one hand on their head to protect their keffiyeh (Egyptian headwear). Dust and sand is flying in every direction. Small boys are perched high on the camel’s backs, rocking violently to the rhythm of the movements. They cross the finishing lines and the winner is pulled from his throne atop the camel. They’re showered in presents and adoration. Both camel and jockey are treated with God-like reverence. This chaotic, organized madness is a traditional race called The Wadi Zalaga.
Countries are defined by their sport – not only their own achievements, but the way in which it brings people together. What is it about sport that breaks down barriers? That enables people from all walks of life, all ages and all races to come together and do something fun? Sport has the ability to mend wounds and create them.
Camel racing has been a national past time in Egypt for thousands of years. The country relies heavily on camels to transport goods across the desert dunes, and thus regard camels with a high degree of respect. Camel racing is extremely popular in many countries across the world with similar arid environments, including Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Mongolia.
The Sinai region in eastern Egypt is renowned for camels, and have been breeding camels in this region for thousands of years. Camels live up to 20 years old, however their prime racing years are 7 and 8. Most are bred for that exact purpose. In Egypt, racing is a chance for many tribes to showcase their beloved animals. It’s a way to show appreciation for the protection they offer in the desert.
The camels are mostly purebreds, and most tribes prepare year-long for this race. They feed primarily on barley and corn, which makes for a lean, strong animal. Preparation consists of long-distance running and walking, which intensifies as the race approaches. Some camels become famous racers, and their offspring can gain high asking prices when sold. A successful racing camel can cost up to 200,000 Egyptian Pounds. This is serious business for these Egyptian tribes. It’s an endurance race, as the camels are initially slow and cumbersome. The winning tribe gains all the glory and boasting rights.
Camel racing is a centuries old tradition in the Bedoin tribes, however it has been more casual than organized. Bedoin is a relatively recent term in the Arabic language. It’s used commonly to refer to the people (Arabs and non-Arabs) who live, or have descended from tribes who lived nomadic lifestyles outside cities and towns. Bedouin means “desert dwellers” in the Arabic language.
The Wadi Zalaga Camel Race
The race is held in a region/town called Wadi Zalaga, providing the famous race its name. Racing is held in the Winter months, to avoid the blistering Summer heat. Between October and April, the sand is alive with racing camels. Jockeys are boys as young as 8 and no older than 11. The children are thin, nimble, light and most importantly, they have no fear. Their baby faces can be seen riding on camels from a very young age. Sometimes, they’re taken out of school for up to a year to train. This is regarded as a great honour and it’s very prestigious for a family.
The Wadi Zalaga Camel race has been an official competition since the 1970s. At the time, camel racing was simply a casual sport, one that had been engaged in for hundreds of years. The Sinai region was known for tourist safaris, and at the end of the safari, they would hold camel races to entertain the tourists (and themselves). The race is followed closely by a pack of cars, racing each other to get as close as possible to the action, to cheer on their relatives or a favourite camel. The race is very important to these tribes, and is held on the same day each year – January 10th.
Over the years the Wadi Zalaga Race developed into a competition between the two main Bedouin tribes in South Sinai, the Tarabeen and the Muzeina. However, in 2017, 15 tribes participated in the 27 kilometre race. Traditionally, the race has been competed to join together these tribes and relinquish any hard feelings.
The Wadi Zalaga Camel Race is traditionally a three-night festival. Bedouin and tourists begin arriving in the high mountains of the Wadi Valley two nights before the big race. It turns the Wadi into what would appear to be a large town in the middle of the desert. The valley is divided in half – one side by the Muzeina tribe members, friends, and tourists who’ve come along. The other is by Tarabeen tribe members and their visitors.
Temperatures in the desert at night reach well below freezing, therefore fires are lit at every camp. This enables race attendees to provide heat for food preparation. It also ensures that locals can sip the sweet Bedouin tea. Around these camp fires you’ll find Bedouin artists, storytellers and musicians, and debating tribe members.
The race begins…
Everyone in the valley is up with the sun on the morning of the race as the anticipation builds. The valley erupts in a billow of dust as the race begins, and seasoned Bedouin drivers careen alongside the fifty or so camels racing through Wadi Zalaga. Some speed ahead of the pack to the finish line. Others follow closely beside their relative or favourite camel. The stakes are high, and excitement and tension builds as the camels and cars speed around corners to reach the finishing line.
After all the camels and cars arrived, the Bedouin gather again to announce the winner. This year it was from the Muzeina tribe. The Master of Ceremonies is an older, respected Bedouin leader from one of the two tribes. He draws the spectators and riders around the trophies and prize money, which has been donated by fans across the Arabian Peninsula. The young jockeys are treated as royalty, and the camels rewarded for their efforts.
When all the prizes have been handed out, everyone slowly makes their way back to their respective camps. Those with long journeys home pack-up and are soon homeward bound.
Watching these majestic animals race across the arid desert is certainly a life experience you won’t forget in a hurry. Add the Wadi Zalaga Camel Race to your bucket list now!
Author: Michelle Hyde