In A Niche Of My Own – HAJAR ALI

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 1 – SINGAPORE, published October 2012 Meeting Hajar Ali in person brings to mind a quote by Isabelle Eberhardt (Swiss explorer and writer), “A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places.” This lady of slight frame, founder of Urbane Nomads, a luxury travel company that specialises in exotic locations, has made waves recently by being the first woman in the world to cross the Em pty Quarter desert in the Middle East on 27 March 2012. What took her to the largest uninterrupted body of sand in the world was to explore new destinations for her travel company’s clients. One of Hajar’s favourite legendary explorers was Wilfred Thesiger, British Explorer and Travel Writer, who captured his travels across the Arabian Empty Quarter in the periods between 1945 and 1950 in his books “Arabian Sands” and “The Marsh Arabs”. She thought this expedition would be right up the alley of Urbane Nomads, which is about travel outside the imagination and scope of a normal mainstream traveller. Through her research, she found out that no woman has ever been recorded to cross the Empty Quarter, in part due to the cultural backdrop. This is because generally the Bedu women travel with the entire group and Bedu communities avoid the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter), with the exception of the very adventurous. US geologist Jeff Wynn who was helping Hajar with the logistical planning felt that it could be partly attributed to the Wahhabist culture, which is a conservative branch of Islam. There have been efforts to bring females through the Empty Quarter (both local and foreign) but these were not full crossings. It may also have simply been a case of desert exploration simply falling out of fashion after the era of Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Although it was her first expedition, it did not stop her from aiming to fulfil her goal of becoming the first woman to cross the Empty Quarter. Her belief, advance planning and logistical support led her to successfully traverse one of the world’s driest, hottest and harshest environments. As she progressed through the seemingly endless sand dunes, she began to understand what the famous explorers of the past, such as Freya Stark and Rosita Forbes expounded, that it is the journey that counts, not the destination, and she began to treasure each moment of her historic voyage. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Hajar has always aspired to exciting, far-flung travels, and the first trip that she undertook alone was to Beirut when she was 21 years old. “I remembered the first taxi ride that I took. The taxi driver drove for an hour to a destination that was supposed to be five to ten minutes away. There I was in a faraway place and all alone for the first time in my life. Needless to say my imagination ran wild. I tried to get down from the taxi and approached men dressed in military garb for help, but all they did was push me back into the taxi! Thankfully, in the end, I found out that it was a case of the taxi driver having a really bad sense of direction.” Hajar’s good nature and humour was apparent as she continued to recount her travel experiences during her first solo trip, which started her love affair for travelling. Coming from the real estate industry,

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Hajar felt that she would be more suited to the creative and service-oriented travel industry. She saw that there was a gap for the savvy internet generation that traditional mainstream travel agencies neglected to serve. Hence she focused her target audience on the well-travelled and successful intrepid travellers, seeking privileged access to remote places in the world. These are the people whose heels have conquered well-worn circuits and yearn to travel where others’ footprints are few and far between. Where the local scenery commands more than derision and apathy, and travel is done in a unique, sustainable and rewarding manner that assimilates foreign local cultures and sensitivities. With this positioning and fresh clarity in mind, she founded Urbane Nomads that allows discerning travellers to experience luxury travel at exotic locations and be acquainted with pristinely preserved local cultures before they are lost forever through civilisation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA During the first year of setting up, it was all a learning process and Urbane Nomads only started operations towards the end of the second year. What kept her going was the desire to create a niche for herself in the overcrowded, postcard travel market. She believed in her vision and kept building up her network and knowledge of unusual destinations. She persevered in creating know-how that was not easily replicated and dared to push the boundaries, best epitomised by her crossing of the Empty Quarter. Hajar’s ability to distinguish herself on a global scale led her to be featured in international luxury travel tradeshows, with veterans in the industry with over 20 years of experience. Although she started from scratch, it took her a relatively short four years to get there and she is amazed at how far she has come. “Trying to find your own niche is the most important thing if you are starting out on a business.” Hajar added, “A taste for adventure always helps, as well as the willingness to take risks.” Her adventurous spirit has brought her to high places and her eclectic network includes Princes of Northern Pakistan and Warlords in Afghanistan. “Of course, there is always an element of risk when you take the road less travelled. Therefore, it is crucial to have the support of people who know what is going on.” All the extraordinary travel experiences have certainly enriched Hajar as a person. Now that she has established herself in the luxury exotic travel segment, she hopes to explore other methods so that more people are touched by her philosophy of low impact, sustainable travel that protects the local culture. One possible option that she is exploring is through luxurytravelstories.com. It is a project inspired by Chatwin’s book ‘Songlines’, where she hopes to use the idea of ‘singing the world into existence’, to connect the world using stories. So what comes next on this adventurer’s itinerary? Hajar aims to be the first woman to get to the Pole of Inaccessibility on Antarctica on foot. As she works towards securing the funding and awareness for this expedition, we are certain it will be yet another challenge that Hajar relishes overcoming, as with so many others, with courage and creativity.

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