There are easier ways to get from Kuwait to Oman. It’s a thought that no doubt crossed the minds of Bashar Al Huneidi, Mansour Al Safran and Colin Wong, out at sea in their kayaks somewhere between the two, as they battled with physical and mental exhaustion. The obvious follow-up question might well have been, “Why are we doing this?” for which there was a valid and important reason, and surely enough to keep them going.
Having completed the trip, Al Huneidi is now happy to reflect on the experience. “We’re talking 2,000km in total, rowing non-stop for 11 hours a day, burning up to 6,000 calories each time, then camping somewhere on the shore, waking up and doing it all again,” he says. “We covered up to 28 nautical miles each day, which is roughly 52km. After leaving Kuwait on November 9 of last year, we reached our final destination on February 9, so the expedition took us a full 90 days.”
The trio followed the southern coastline of the Arabian Gulf as much as possible, paddling to the edge of Kuwait and switching to a car to travel through Saudi Arabia until they reached its border with Bahrain; then it was back into the kayaks, leaving Manama, circling Qatar and following the length of the UAE. There were stops at various islands as they approached Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then the three headed into the waters of Oman, around Musandam and back into the UAE, finishing on the other side of the country in Khor Kalba.
It must have been an incredible journey, and the three kayakers speak of the amazing sights and people encountered, as well as the hardships they overcame in equal measure. But, central to the trip, and hinted at by its name, the K2O Expedition, originating in Kuwait and involving the water beyond it, is a powerful environmental message, which Al Huneidi remains passionate about. “The ocean gives life to us all and it is shouting,” he says. “I’ve seen it abused since I was a child, and I felt it was time to do something about it.” Before his expedition across the Gulf, Al Huneidi had been running Kayak4Kuwait, which organises kayak tours around the islands of his homeland, allowing residents to appreciate the fragility of their natural charm. “I thought that I should spread the message across the GCC, drawing attention to the environmental issues while talking about the true beauty of the Gulf, the unique marine life we have and why it needs our protection,” he says. “We all live in the Arabian Gulf and depend on it to sustain our lives.”
Al Huneidi gained support for his idea from Sheikh Abdullah Ahmed Al Hamoud Al Sabah, general director of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority (KEPA), who presented it at a GCC summit. Other countries from the region were quick to back the expedition, which proved vital in making the necessary arrangements. The next step was for Al Huneidi to choose his team, appointing Al Safran, a professional BMX rider who previously competed as a flat-water kayaker, with a place on the Kuwait national team. They were joined by Wong, a professional kayaker from Cork in Ireland.
Clearly, fitness and experience would be a requirement. “I’ve been kayaking since the 1980s, but this was the biggest expedition I’ve ever organised,” says Al Huneidi. “I’ve been a competitive snow skier too, so my fitness has always been good.”
But, even with a solid team and the support of the surrounding countries, the trip was never going to be easy. “Our first support ship sank, and the second one almost completely broke its masts,” Al Huneidi reveals. “Then generally, we had to contend with storms and rough seas, and from a logistical point of view we had the border crossings, coordinating with the local authorities and travelling through restricted zones. However, we were very motivated throughout, and the importance of our mission empowered us.”
When it comes to recalling the toughest point physically, Al Huneidi is quick to respond. “The last section of Qatar, making our way through the refinery area, we had huge wind and current changes, and our speed went down to almost 1.5 or 2 knots,” he says. “We had to paddle through the night, and the distance took a lot longer than expected.”
Sweeping coastline views, and the sight of turtles and dolphins spurred the kayakers on, with their determination fuelled further by encountering the very pollution they were fighting against, from household and industrial waste to discarded fishing cages, as well as the damage caused by anchors and the many oil tankers passing through the Gulf. “We saw first-hand the critical stage our sea is at,” Al Huneidi confirms.
“There is a serious need for tough measures and actions to be taken as a priority. We can’t go on destroying our source of life through our own careless development. More powerful environmental initiatives are needed, with stricter guidelines for sustainable practices.” It was a message that Al Huneidi and his crew took with them to each destination. “All of the receptions we experienced were amazing, sincere and hospitable, reflecting the genuine old Arabian generosity in every sense,” Al Huneidi describes. “I remember at the beach in Kumzar, a village in Musandam only reachable by sea that relies so heavily on the prosperity of the local fishermen, and all of the children and villagers lining up to meet us. By raising awareness, we want to save the sea for future generations, and that was so important in a village like this.
It was a really heartwarming moment.” Just as memorable was the reception the trio received in Khor Kalba, which marked the completion of their journey. “The Khor Kalba mangroves are a protected area that border the shores with Oman,” says Al Huneidi. “Waiting for us was the deputy ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Abdullah bin Salem Al Qasimi, the UAE minister of environment and climate change, Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, and the ambassador of Kuwait in the UAE, Rahma Hussein Al Zaabi. They brought with them members of the public, the media, and even poets and performers. It was a grand celebration and a deeply touching finale.” The stops along the way, which included Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of the UAE, were chosen to boost the environmental theme. Al Huneidi would talk with the media and government officials each time, promoting the region’s nature and beauty, but also the importance of preserving it. “We heard the same story from the people connected to the ocean, like fishermen,” he says. “They compare what it was like 60 or 70 years ago to now. The fishermen know more than anyone who is responsible for the damage and who needs to make it right. Some people see the sea and they think nothing of it, using it as a dumping ground. But the sea is alive; it’s a creature that gives us life.”
With the region having developed so rapidly over the last few decades, the building work and growth have been difficult to control, taking a toll on the environment in a number of ways. Traditionally, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain have displayed some of the largest per capita ecological footprints in the world, according to the Global Footprint Network, with the Gulf waters affected by added pollution, waste, changes to the ecosystem and overfishing caused by the sudden expansion and population increase.
Yet, such dramatic changes have also encouraged these countries to take note, becoming more proactive to lessen the impact by introducing a diverse range of schemes and initiatives. While such action is a positive step, Al Huneidi says that everyone should aim to get involved without waiting for the various authorities to take action. “Individuals are more powerful than governments,” he argues. “They can boycott and refuse any product that is harmful to their nature, ask for reform, and use their voice to change the direction of development and stop further careless behaviour.”
Organising the K2O Expedition was Al Huneidi’s own way of making a difference. “Involving all of the Gulf countries reflects the united effort that is needed to solve and plan our environmental future,” he says. “Marine life knows no borders, and we must be very active in terms of protecting our nature and ecosystems. When you consider that we already have a hostile environment here in terms of the extreme heat and dry desert, that puts even more emphasis on our most precious resource.” News of his achievement has already resulted in others taking more interest in local environment issues. “I’ve been receiving more calls from people wanting to do something to help,” Al Huneidi admits. “As a result, we’re looking forward to a bigger involvement from the public and hope to gain corporate support for some programmes that will help reduce our ecological footprint and promote sustainable growth.”