“Not all who wander are lost,” said JRR Tolkien famously. That is precisely the impression one gets from Zainab al Kiyumi after listening to her tales of adventure with a women’s only group. Clad in an abaya with a slight hint of a tan (which she ‘wears as a trophy’ following a trek), the founder of Wanderlust Oman talks with a feminine grace that adds an intriguing element to her personality.
A student of biotechnology, Zainab realised that she wanted to be an entrepreneur in the adventure business after she started trekking and hiking in 2016. Raised in a culture which prefers segregation of the sexes, she realised she was not comfortable going for treks with mixed groups. That is when the idea of Wanderlust Oman struck her. “I started thinking maybe there are other women like me who want to go out on hikes and treks but are not comfortable in mixed groups,” she said. “In a split second, I decided to venture into this market; I listed down ideas, the name of the business, opened an Instagram account and posted an advertisement for the first trek.”
To her surprise, 17 girls turned up for the first trip including four from Kuwait and three from UAE. Zainab laughs as she points out the irony of the situation. “When the girls registered, I was like ‘Where were you all for a year when I was searching for companions to go along on trips and it was free then… now I have a business and you have to pay for trips and you show up.’”
Since then, her business has grown to include five more girls in the team with the youngest being a 12 year old who is being trained in the tricks of the trade. Zainab and her team regularly go on new trails and test the difficulty level for the women in the group who will join them before heading out with them. “There are no rules for adventure activities in Oman, so I adhere to international rules and check what I need before I take the girls out - first aid, emergency exits, transportation requirements etc.” For difficult trails, which include abseiling, she takes help from other groups, which may include a few men who are experts.
Going back to nomadic roots
In the beginning, the idea of women going alone on treks was shocking within the community. “Sometimes, parents would call to check if I really am a woman conducting these treks,“ says Zainab, “But then gradually this reversed as they saw the change in their daughters. Parents now call me to take along their daughters.”
The Omani and Arab communities are slowly opening up to the idea that such adventures are healthy and life changing for a lot of girls. There is no fear of being labelled a ‘black sheep’ within the community because as Zainab points out, “This is who we have been since the beginning as Arabs, a nomadic tribe where women would walk in the desert to get water or food in the ancient days… now we wear boots and call these journeys ‘hikes’.”
A trek becomes a journey
A large group of women – of any age - is usually associated with boisterous banter. However, Zainab points out that there is little if not none of that and absolutely no ‘diva moments’ on their adventures. “Most of the time, everyone is concentrating on where to put their feet next.” But there are games on the go – icebreakers where the ladies get to know each other and most of them go on to become friends. “So there is some chatter and a bond is formed. It is a healthy process.”
Such trips are not just about the treks, but a personal journey of self-empowerment too. “We often place limitations on ourselves and we will never know what we are truly capable of unless we try it. When we discover ourselves amongst nature and within a safe and encouraging space of like minded people, the process is far easier,” says Zainab. She narrates stories of women who went on treks for the first time and were afraid of jumping from boulders or swimming in wadis to cross a path. “They’ve never experienced these things before, so they have to conquer their fear and take the leap because sometimes when you’re halfway into a trek there’s no going back. The only option is moving forward.” It may take a little while, but with patience, encouragement and support from numerous women, there’s a leap of faith. This is the dawn of change for many of these women when they are confident that their bodies and minds are capable of being strong.
“It’s rewarding to see the empowerment,” says Zainab, adding a pinch of humour, “I always tell the girls, when you face an obstacle or have to jump, you have to go ahead either way. So you decide whether you want to jump happily or with an expression of panic- you just have to choose the way you want to be seen in the camera and Instagram!”
Wanderlust Oman can be reached on +968 95878786 or wanderlust.om@gmail. com