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Text by Aaron Rawnsley
Do you ever go camping in UAE mountains and look up at the ridgeline and see some guy running along the goat trails with a headlamp and a smile? That may be me enjoying a nice evening solo run. Here is my background as a passionate endurance athlete, an avid outdoorsman, and a father of three young boys.
How did I get started?
I’ve always been reasonably fit and trained in some capacity, but in 2018, I felt the urge to hit the trails more consistently and decided to register for some local races. I hooked up with some similar minded runners and ran trails together at Wadi Showka and Jebel Hafeet on weekends – which are both good for fitness and great for camaraderie. While I enjoy the chitchat with other endurance athletes, I prefer the solitude of a good mountain run with the required self-sufficiency and discipline.
In 2018 I ran the inaugural Oman by UTMB 130km ultra race and knew that I found my calling in the mountains. A group of us trained some together, shared gear tips and did a few ‘off-piste’ recce runs between isolated villages in the Hajar mountains. The journey from preparation to completion was monumental and I felt I could do more, if I worked harder. The following year in 2019, I registered for the gruelling 172km Oman by UTMB race, which I now know is the ultimate endurance event in the Middle East. Imagine running up a VK after 100+km and at the top getting a 15 minute medical check to see if you are authorized to continue the race, then in the middle of your second night at 130km, you have to climb a cliff to the summit of Jebel Shams (3,000m altitude), the highest peak in the Hajar Mountain Range, by using an iron ladder fixed to a rock face. For those who don’t know, a ‘VK’ is any climb that involves a sustained 1,000 meters of vertical climbing – no small feat.
The Life Balance
Endurance training is a priority for me, but many people struggle with the appropriate balance between family and training. My solution is to mix the two activities. I try to lead by example and take my boys out to the mountains camping so often that it is natural for them. I feel that kids feed off their parents’ energy, and consequently my kids sense that trekking, camping, and running mountains is a regular fun family activity all year round. I assume that if I were not so experienced camping that it would be a struggle to bring the kids out there, but that just takes time and patience. Another important element of taking the kids to the mountains in UAE is that the mountains are fascinating!
Hajar Mountains: Playground or History Museum?
Locked away in the Hajar Mountains and the desert, is an unlimited treasure trove of experiences with nature and history. The Hajar Mountains are 15 million to 35 million years old and store an infinite number of sea fossils today. Watching kids discover sea fossils in the mountains is an inspiring experience as it drives their curiosity and motivates them to ask questions on how the mountains were once a seabed, teeming with aquatic life. The hidden gems also include abandoned villages which are dotted around the mountains of the Northern Emirates. These are like untouched open-air museums, providing a peek into what life was like many hundreds of years ago, with their stone huts, and terraced farming and water catchment systems.
Enjoy UAE Outdoors All Year
There is a misconception among many people that outdoor activity during the summer in the UAE is a bad idea. Yes, absolutely, there are restrictions that come with the extreme heat. But with the right knowledge and good planning, there’s so much still to enjoy. Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah, with its high altitude, provides many options during the summer. Camping up high near the summit is amazing, with evening temperatures hovering around 22-24 degrees, which makes for a comfortable night’s sleep under the stars. The trekking paths are now well built and extensive, providing incredible 360-degree views in the morning or late afternoon. Ras Al Khaimah Tourism is also in the midst of building additional active outdoor lifestyle-oriented facilities at Jebel Jais, broadening the variety of activities for everyone.
Bonding with a Fox on Jebel Jais
In July 2021, I took my older sons camping separately on consecutive weekends high up on Jebel Jais for some quality ‘one-on-one’ time. This adventure has created one of our most special memories. On both occasions, our tent was visited at night under the stars by a friendly Arabian Red Fox. The reaction of sheer excitement by my sons is something I’ll never forget: priceless experiences, great Instagram memories, and great thrills seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat. I must emphasize that I know the terrain well, I have the right equipment, my sons are experienced campers, and we take many precautions, so it’s not like it’s my first time camping and it’s the first time outdoors for my sons.
With Effort Comes Reward
Camping and outdoor adventures have now become an integral part of our family’s life. Intuitively, my wife Louise and I know that exposing our sons to this side of life during their developmental years, is the right parenting approach for us. We see anecdotal evidence of this regularly in their improved behavior, sustained energy levels, hormone balance, and how well they sleep. They engage socially on a healthier level with each other when we camp alone, and with their friends when we camp with other families. They take so much away from these adventures. They learn about the importance of environmental respect and conservation, different types of fauna and flora, and that ‘with effort comes reward’. They develop mental grit and develop physically when we embark on more challenging hikes.
Screen Time vs Gritting Your Teeth
Sure, we allow our sons ‘screen time’ and they go to friend’s birthday parties at indoor play centers. We would be disadvantaging them from much needed social interaction and intellectual development if we didn’t. But we feel we have been able to strike a balance between a healthy amount of screen time and the ‘artificial world’, against experiences in the great outdoors. Ultimately though, what it all boils down to, is I feel a significant responsibility as a parent to lead by example and create an environment for my sons that normalizes connecting with nature, regular participation in physical activity beyond the confines of the concrete jungle, and that getting outside your comfort zone and gritting your teeth every once in a while, is a healthy part of your development. The added bonus is that we create lifelong memories together and engage in undistracted quality time as a family.
“… but it’s too strenuous!”
I hear regularly from parents that they are reluctant to take their children on these sorts of adventures because it’s too strenuous, and their children aren’t physically capable of it just yet. Well, I beg to differ. The terrain that young children can negotiate and cover is mind blowing! Given the opportunity, adequate preparation, a little positive motivation, and of course parents leading by example, my young sons cover up to 20km in a single day over technical terrain, with some hefty elevation thrown in the mix to really test them. Of course, everybody has a different starting point, but don’t underestimate what young children are capable of when an outdoor activity is approached as an ‘adventure’. The return on investment with these sorts of activities is immeasurable.
Trail running has offered me friendships that are rich in knowledge, inspiration and support. During 2019, trail running with great friends of mine and well known DTRs, Matt La Frome, Clement Vigier and David Ohara, really opened my eyes to the incredible natural wonders locked away in the Hajar Mountain range and other adventures. Also chatting to experienced friends like Emily Hoa from Arabian Fit Trekkers about lesser-known hiking/trail running routes, and suitable camping locations, particularly for the warmer months, expanded my knowledge of ‘life outside the cities’ even further. I’ll be forever grateful to these people for the knowledge and experience they passed on and I am now able to share with my family. It has shaped the way I now live life here in the UAE.
Final Words of Wisdom
There has been extensive trail development works across the Hajar Mountains recently, which has encouraged higher volumes of foot traffic. It’s fantastic to see more people getting out of the cities and embracing the great outdoors, but there’s also been an increase in the volume of rubbish left on the trails and in the frequency of mountain rescues, as some newcomers underestimate the hard work and preparation while overestimating their skills. Some infrastructure development in key areas that educates people on environmental respect and conservation, as well as appropriate pre-hike/run preparation would benefit all. Also, some form of trash collection system would be a worthwhile addition. The Hajar Mountains are stunning but can be brutal and unforgiving at the same time. Safety and leaving no trace should always be the priorities.
Next on the agenda this year is a high-altitude fast packing trip in the Himalayas in May, which serves as a lead into the infamous Tor des Geants around the Aosta Valley, Italy in September. Details to follow.