For some, the desire to explore is ingrained from childhood. Three Middle East-based adventurers reveal what drives them to tackle extreme challenges.
The Endurance Athlete: Omar El Galla, Egypt
Ten months ago, Omar El Galla sat staring at the Mediterranean Sea, aware that he did not smell good. For 36 days, he had run the length of Egypt – 1 500km from Aswan to Alexandria – and in that time, he only took two showers. He may not have been fresh, but El Galla felt fulfilled.
It was his second major challenge in as many years, having previously spent 65 days cycling 6500km around Egypt. Finishing the remarkable run would have sated most people’s appetite for adventure but the extreme sport athlete is not done yet. This September, he will attempt to complete the final instalment of his Egyptian trilogy by swimming the length of the Red Sea coast.
“Uncovering the hidden powers of your body is addictive,” El Galla explains. “The sense of achievement when I finished the run was indescribable. I was tired, sweaty, and I smelled terrible – but it’s the happiest I’ve ever been.” He didn’t set out to do something this extreme, though. “When I started the cycling trip, I just wanted to get to the end, to complete that adventure. Then, your mind starts to work and these other ideas form. The run came next and now I feel I have to complete the triathlon.”
Those close to him have been watching El Galla’s transition from desk job to endurance athlete with a mix of trepidation and fascination. But for him, life has never made more sense. “My friends started calling me Omar Etganen, which means ‘gone crazy’ in Arabic. At first, they couldn’t understand why I would put myself through it. They could see the mental and physical toll on me was insane, my body was suffering,” he shares. “After a while I think they started to see how much it meant to me. I’m just a regular guy who felt seriously depressed and wanted to do something to make myself feel alive. I think most people who go down this road are searching for meaning. When you find it, it brings you great joy.”
The Deep-Sea Diver: Faisal Al Mosawi, Kuwait
Faisal Al Mosawi broke his back in a car accident aged 20, ending his professional football career in an instant. The Kuwaiti was left paraplegic – but from trauma and tragedy sprung opportunity. Al Mosawi had been intrigued by marine life since childhood but a phobia of the ocean prevented him from pursuing his passion. Feeling like he no longer had anything to lose, Al Mosawi set about earning a series of Padi scuba diving qualifications and in 2013, he completed a journey around five of the world’s most dramatic dive sites, from Egypt to Indonesia.
“I wanted to feel normal. I didn’t want my disability to stop me,” Al Mosawi explains. “When I am sitting in my wheelchair I feel like a bird in a cage. When I go underwater I feel free. It is like the cage door has been opened and I can fly. No disability, no pressure, no constraints.” Al Mosawi decided to embark on a new challenge: breaking a Guinness World Record. In August 2018, after months of training, he became the fastest person in the world to scuba dive 10km, smashing the existing record by almost an hour. “After one hour I felt tired. After two hours I felt hungry so under the water I ate bananas. After three hours I was exhausted.
After four hours I was dying,” he shares. But the thought of becoming the fastest man to swim 10km underwater kept him going. “I gave myself two options: finish or finish. There was nothing else.” Using 26 tanks of oxygen, he completed the swim in five hours, 24 minutes.
He has since been traveling the world to encourage people to shed their stereotypes about those living with disabilities. “Finishing that dive was the most beautiful moment in my life because I felt like there were no limits to my power. Every day I wake up and touch my certificate to remind myself it is not a dream.”
The Desert Explorer: Max Calderan, Italy
Max Calderan first dreamed of crossing Saudi Arabia’s vast Empty Quarter, Rub Al-Khali, when he was seven. Reading about the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass in an Italian encyclopedia, Calderan told his mother that he would one day go to the desert and cross it. This January, he walked 1 100km, most of it virgin sand, to trace what he now calls the “Calderan Line” – from the west to the east of Saudi Arabia, through the Empty Quarter. Each day he hiked for 18 hours, six of them at night, through unforgiving desert terrain, mountainous dunes, and one particularly punishing sandstorm. “If that storm had lasted any longer I would’ve still been in the middle of the Empty Quarter now,” recalls Calderan, who has been based in Dubai for most of his adult life. “Towards the end I remember closing my eyes and speaking to the desert. I said, ‘Do what you want to me but please let me finish.’ There are many moments I felt my life would end but fortunately I made it through.”
A grueling training regimen, including three months of nighttime hiking, as well as planned deprivation of food, water, and sleep helped prepare the Italian for what seemed to many an insurmountable challenge. “I was like an animal in my training for so long that when I finished, I had serious difficulty because my life was still in the same rhythm of exploration. I came back and stayed in a five-star hotel but all I wanted to eat was dates and almonds from by backpack and I ended up sleeping on the terrace of the bedroom on the floor. My mind was still in the desert.”
The motivation for Calderan, like many explorers, was deeply personal. Having fulfilled the childhood promise made to his mother 46 years ago, he now recognizes the powerful inspiration his achievement is for others. “I entered this expedition in an egoistic way; it was my dream and I did it for me. But in the silent simplicity of the desert, you find yourself searching for meaning. Crossing the Empty Quarter may be my legacy but it is only important if someone reading about it starts to think that nothing is impossible.” He considers that all have the capability and the creativity to be curious, to change something in their lives, stating, “I will be happiest if someone sees my story and then decides to set off on their own adventure.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia