She is the first woman in history to cross the Rub Al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, in Saudi Arabia, the biggest sand desert in the world. Currently, her eyes are focused on the highest, coldest, driest and windiest place on earth: Antarctica. She is determined to also become the first woman to reach the Point of Inaccessibility, the place on the Antarctic continent furthest from the Southern Ocean and most difficult to reach.
Hajar Ali, 32, is not the average Singaporean woman. Born and raised in the Southeast Asian city-state, Ali started traveling intensively rather late. “I had a very sheltered childhood and my hobbies very much involved reading,” she said about her youth. However, once she started traveling in her early 20s, she realized she wanted something more edifying than just going to restaurants and hotels and shopping in mainstream cities. Her passion for adventurous traveling was born.
Ali describes herself as adventurous, creative and competitive. The lure of remote places and the luxury of being unplugged from the outside world attract her to undertake expeditions to places like Rub Al-Khali and the Point of Inaccessibility. However, she also hopes “to inspire those who have difficulties existing within the ‘establishment’ due to discrimination or lack of skills and those who have already decided not to tread a conventional path that there are ways that one can excel outside the established system; that the inability to color within the lines might make one a failure in one field but not in another.”
Read here the intriguing story of Hajar Ali, about the difficulties she faced during her Rub Al-Khali expedition, her fascination for Antarctica, how she prepares for the expedition to the coldest place on earth, and her message to people unable to be successful in mainstream society.
Where does your passion for traveling come from? Did you travel a lot as a child with your family?
I started traveling intensively rather late in life, in my early 20s. My strongest memory and impression while traveling as a child was when we were traveling past the Dead Sea en route to Umrah. I saw a vision of a man, wrapped in all white, galloping a white horse on its shores. That moment inspired a lifetime fascination with horses and horse cultures. Horse-themed trips form a significant part of the trips offered by Urbane Nomads, a travel company I started four years ago specializing in luxury travel to remote places.
When did you become interested in adventurous travels and why?
The first place I traveled to on my own, without knowing anybody, was Beirut. This trip came after a discussion with a friend who loves snowboarding on alternative snowboarding destinations. While I love everything that comes with traveling to large, mainstream cities — the restaurants, hotels, shopping, etc. — I always wanted something more edifying. Initially, I was looking for ways to reconcile horse riding with my travel plans, or trying a new sport or experience. There’s also the lure of areas that are more remote and less explored.
You were the first woman to cross the Rub Al-Khali (Empty Quarter). When did you decide that you wanted to do that trip and how did you prepare for it? Was it the first expedition you made, or had you already done some before?
Prior to the Rub Al-Khali trip, I’d gone on trips like horse riding through the Atacama (the driest sand desert in the world located in South America), safaris in East Africa, the North-West Frontier Province (currently called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in Pakistan in the wake of the raid on Osama Bin Laden, and eagle hunting in far-western Mongolia with Kazakh horsemen. The Rub Al-Khali was, however, my first expedition.
Did you face any additional challenges during the Rub Al-Khali expedition as a woman?
Mounting an expedition as a woman was an additional challenge. The questions that could have been asked by the authorities as to what I was doing in the desert, etc. — these were definitely issues that I had to contend with.
What were the reactions of people around you when you decided to cross Rub Al-Khali alone as a woman? Did you face a lot of resistance from your near ones?
My brothers knew about it; my parents didn’t. Most people who knew were gracefully indulgent of my plans. Jeff Wynn, a US geologist who was once based in Saudi Arabia and who’d crossed the Empty Quarter several times, was very supportive and an incredible source for logistical advice.
In your newsletter, you write that you want to inspire woman who face cultural barriers with the choices they make and feel they don’t fit in society. Can you elaborate on this?
To clarify, I hope to inspire not just women. The message is for those who feel that they’re unable to find a niche within ‘mainstream’ society. An expedition to Antarctica serves as a high-profile platform to deliver the message that success can be achieved in your own way, and you could carve your own niche in which to achieve this success. Too often, mainstream society defines success by either academic or financial success, which hampers those with alternative talents.
I do, however, realize that women face challenges in the form of cultural and societal expectations, which might prevent them from pursuing interests that are deemed to be incompatible with being a woman. These are personal choices that they have to make – reconciling their interests and pursuits with societal expectations. A supportive family and inner circle definitely helps.
How has the Rub Al-Khali trip changed your life?
At this moment, I’ve not looked back to the Rub Al-Khali trip and dubbed it to be life-changing. Going ahead with and completing the expedition was very satisfying. For quite some time, the idea of the expedition had rather consumed my life, so I was very relieved to have ‘gotten it out of my system’ and grateful that I’d had the opportunity to go on the expedition to the Rub Al-Khali and that the expedition had concluded without too much incident.
Tell us more about your upcoming trip to the Pole of Inaccessibility.
The Pole of Inaccessibility on Antarctica is defined as the point on the Antarctic continent furthest from the Southern Ocean. The Pole of Inaccessibility is more remote and far more difficult to reach than the Geographic South Pole.
Since the first humans set foot on the continent in 1821, 330 people have successfully reached the South Pole. In comparison, only six men have reached the Pole of Inaccessibility. If successful, I would be the first woman to do so.
When did you come up with the idea of traveling to Antarctica? How are you preparing for this trip and what difficulties are you expecting to face?
I think the attraction of Antarctica, as per most of the travel destinations that’s held an attraction for me, has been subliminal. I’d been fascinated by Antarctica for some time. Completing the Rub Al-Khali expedition has given me confidence to pursue the expedition to Antarctica.
One of the biggest challenges for the Antarctica expedition is in finding major sponsors. I am still looking for sponsors in order to make this a reality. I hope to be able to work with companies in order to align their CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives and brand image with this pioneering expedition to Antarctica.
Difficulties I can expect in Antarctica would definitely include the danger of frostbite, crevasses — the thought of having to rescue oneself by hacking at a lip with an icepick after falling into a crevasse is dizzying — hypothermia, high sun exposure, and all the dangers of an expedition in such extreme circumstances: dehydration, inconveniences like blisters and wounds from the friction created by manhauling, etc.
What attracts you to do this kind of challenges?
The lure of remote places. The luxury of being unplugged: No Internet, no TV, nothing connecting you to the outside world. For Rub Al-Khali it was the stillness and quiet of the desert. Waking up early morning in the Rub Al-Khali is an incredible feeling.
Antarctica will be a much longer expedition, projected to be 77 days, excluding the time traveling to and from Antarctica. It’ll be an interesting test of mental fortitude to be in ‘the-coordinates-of-nowhere,’ with little to no connection to the rest of the world, for that period of time.
What other expeditions do you have in mind to undertake after going to the Pole of Inaccessibility?
I am intending to go to the Iraqi Marshlands, Insha’Allah. This will be a follow-up to the Rub Al-Khali expedition.
You are the founder of Urbane Nomads. What makes this travel company different from other travel companies?
Urbane Nomads specializes in luxury travel to remote places. There is an emphasis on adventure travel and destinations rich in culture and/or history. We incorporate adventure to the most touristy of destinations. We suggest the culturally-rich and relatively inaccessible island of Sumba for clients going to Bali, for example; a trip to Lamu (an island in Kenya), or a heli-trip to Lake Turkana for clients going on an East-African safari; or an alternative route on horseback to get to Machu Picchu that allows clients to enjoy the biodiversity and better appreciate the scenery to the destination.
For those looking for a real adventure, we outfit eagle hunting trips in Mongolia, working on movable gers (collapsible circular tents) customized for the clients’ needs accompanied by the best Kazakh eagle hunters. Or a trip where clients are included in the hunting rites of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari (in sub-Saharan Africa). On these trips, we ensure that the clients’ comforts are met — from delicious meals that meet the clients’ dietary requirements to high thread count sheets — in locations where orchestrating these trips would be a logistical feat given the inaccessibility.
What people do you target with Urbane Nomads?
A well-traveled demographic looking for greater adventure in their travel experiences while preferring to retain their basic luxuries.
What are your own favorite travel destinations? What do you like about those places?
Patagonia in Argentina. The scenery is stunning and this is where I had the idea to set up Urbane Nomads.
The Burmese Himalayas seemed almost unreal with its tropical rainforests set against cool Himalayan climes and vistas of snow-capped mountains.
Ruggedly beautiful is a term I reserve for northern Pakistan. The scenery and the quaint villages — it’s easy to believe that this is indeed the setting for James Hilton’s Shangri-La (in his 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon’).
And of course, the Rub Al-Khali. The expanses of sand and waking up to that stillness, fresh air, believing that you’re somewhere truly remote, is unbelievable.
Some of the camps in northern Kenya. Sleeping to the sounds of thunderous hooves past your tent, waking up to the sight of camels chewing on the leaves of your outdoor bath. As with all the above, it’s the feeling of being at one with nature.
Do you usually travel alone or with friends or family, and why?
Most of the traveling I do is on my own. It’s a little difficult to include friends or family on my trips due to my travel preferences and travel patterns, especially when I’m traveling with the intention of recceing a destination for Urbane Nomads. I try to cover as much ground as possible, and days are spent ‘inspecting’ hotels, trying out activities, and keeping up with a hectic flight schedule.
Describe your ideal vacation.
Somewhere culturally rich and either remote or not on the tourist radar. I would love to visit Ethiopia — the Danakil Depression as well as its more touristy sites — and I am curious about Southern Sudan.
— The writer can be contacted at [email protected]