Intrepid explorer Amal Al Saffar on polar bears, walruses and support for cancer warriors.
At just 23 years of age, Amal has done more than many of us manage in a lifetime. Two years ago, she became the first Bahraini woman to visit the Antarctic, in 2014, she climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, and she has just returned from a journey to the top of the world to visit the Arctic Circle.
So what inspires this intrepid adventurer? “It’s all about finding that passion that makes me feel connected and fulfilled. I don’t think I could stand being in one spot.
“I always wanted to study abroad but that wasn’t possible but I did go on short exchanges and programmes for leadership and the environment.
“A few weeks after I had come back from a programme in the States there was an interview on TV with the first Saudi woman who went to the Antarctic. She was a mother and she had to convince her husband. That was a challenge I didn’t face, and I thought ‘I want to be like that’. I had my laptop beside me and I straight away sent an email to the company she went with and I was delighted to be chosen to take part in my first expedition.
“The Antarctic, for me, was all about learning about the environment and raising awareness in the talks and interviews I gave when I came back. Just the mental preparation was incredibly challenging but also an amazing experience.”
Amal raised the BD10,000 needed to complete that first trip through sponsorship and, on her return, gave talks about her experience at companies around the island such as Coca-Cola, which was one of her supporters as part of its empowering women initiatives.
In 2014, another challenge called and the young Bahraini was part of a group which climbed Kilimanjaro, spending nine days on the mountain.
Then, earlier this year, a mountaineer friend, on hearing she wanted to go north, suggested that she journey to Norway to approach the Arctic Circle. After more fund raising, while still studying for her bachelor’s degree in international logistics management, Amal headed to the Svalbard Archipelago to join the ship Ocean Nova.
She says: “I was the only Bahraini and, in fact, the only Arab so it was quite an experience for me to interact completely out of my comfort zone. There were some misconceptions about the Middle East and women’s role here, with people asking you ‘don’t you want to be free?’ For me that was quite interesting, particularly since I was travelling solo – it doesn’t come much freer than that!
“I was glad to have the chance to dispel some of those misconceptions.”
Much of the journey focussed on wildlife and environmental awareness and each day the group would leave the ship in a Zodiac dinghy and explore the ice floes such as the Monaco Glacier, named for a visiting prince.
“It was fascinating, we got to see bones that were millions of years old and walrus tusks,” says Amal. “We saw walruses, which weigh between one and one-and-a-half tonnes and just make you think how do they move around? There were also polar bears and we were incredibly lucky to see a blue whale.
“They’re around 30 metres long and weigh up to 180 tonnes. There are people specialising in the Arctic for 10 years who’ve never seen one, so that was very special.
“What the journey did for me was added a lot to my awareness of the polar regions. In school here we study basic science but this is totally different. For instance, there’s the awareness of man’s impact on this region and I would really like to see polar study added to our curriculum here in Bahrain.
“However, the reason I did this journey was not just because I wanted to be out there and discover the world. At the same time I wanted it to be related to something valid. My trip to the Antarctic was about the environment; Kilimanjaro was about taking an opportunity to prove women’s leadership qualities and my Arctic journey I have dedicated to supporting cancer fighters in Bahrain.
“I have lost a female family member to the disease this year and two last year, so I wanted to raise awareness and show my support.
“I raised a banner while I was in the Arctic Circle but also, since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I will be donating part of my fundraising to the Bahrain Cancer Society.”
Once again, since her return, Amal has been doing presentations and interviews to raise awareness both of the polar regions and the possibility of youth and women’s empowerment and, though she has nothing planned for the immediate future, she has begun writing a book about her experiences.
She says: “I believe that working together we can make change. You can’t change the world over night, but if I do something small and the next person does something small there should be a tangible change for the better. People need each other to achieve the ultimate goal.”