Trekking Across Oman Offers an Opportunity to Challenge Cultural Stereotypes

Photo courtesy Holly Malone

Photo courtesy Holly Malone

Janey McGill, along with a group of Anglo-Omani women, will carry the WINGS flag across 1,000 km of Oman’s Rub’ Al Khali, a desert in the Arabian Peninsula that spans four countries.

McGill, who spent four years as a soldier in the British Army’s Honourable Artillery Company, sees the trek is a physical journey, but also an opportunity to address stereotypes. Her goal is to encourage understanding, acceptance and respect for cultural and gender differences and identities.

We spoke to Janey to learn more about her plans for the expedition and how she anticipates her military training will help her.

WINGS WORLDQUEST: What inspired your expedition? And why Oman? 

JANEY MCGILL: The expedition has been an evolution of ideas, relationships and experiences over the best part of the last decade.

I first visited Oman in 2012 with my boyfriend at the time. He served in the British Special Forces, had lived in the Middle East and trained in Oman for several years. I was always intrigued by the region, which was a far cry from my upbringing in the Home Counties of England. I was also wary of the area. What we are told in the press about conflict and how women are treated made me anxious, but to go on holiday with an officer in the SAS seemed a pretty safe bet to me.  

On that visit I learnt a huge amount about Oman and the importance of its location on the geopolitical stage. The United Kingdom and Oman have a friendship that goes back a long way. There were also some key battles which took place in Oman that the Brits played a part in and subsequently helped to change the face of the country from an ancient civilisation pre-1970’s with few schools, medical care and little to no infrastructure to what it is now under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos.

In a region which suffers much unrest, this peaceful enclave sparked my interest about Sultan Qaboos’s leadership and what we can take away from that.

I watched Mark Evans speak at the Royal Geographical Society about his Empty Quarter crossing in 2016. In his presentation all of the images showed much hospitality and support from local gentlemen, but I didn’t see any women. Mark and I met and we discussed this and the cultural differences. He suggested that if I were to travel with Omani women, I would likely see a world that not many people do. It gave me goose bumps and the expedition took an a whole new angle.

The Empty Quarter was a desert that I had not yet visited but became captured by after being shown a small ancient arrow head from the area.

In 2010 I fractured five vertebrae training for a military horse race. After several years of rehabilitation and reading a book called the Phantom Major, about the founder of the SAS in Libya and their desert exploits during WWII, I had an insatiable urge to test my mental endurance.

WWQ: What do you hope to accomplish? 

JM: I hope to explore Omani women’s lives, opportunities, relationships and challenges and communicate this through writing, film, photography and talks.

The platform for these conversations is walking part of Oman’s Empty Quarter. I think there is no better way to elicit information and encourage conversations than a decent walk in a natural environment away from everyday life and rounded off with a campfire in the evening.

I can’t help but feel in the west we have an “our way or the highway” mentality. I think there is room for improvement for all of us wherever we are from.

I make a blanket statement now…I do feel that people as a whole are very quick to judge and not so keen to listen, and this certainly isn’t helped by the press. I believe that active listening is key to learning, understanding, accepting and respecting each other, from the horse’s mouth.  

I hope that this expedition will enlighten people as to the beauty of this region: its people, cultures, traditions, customs and beliefs.   

WWQ: Who are the women you’ll be with on the expedition, and how did you select them?

JM: Through twists of fate and meetings.

I was working in a job that I wasn’t meant for in Pimlico. By chance I met a Saudi Arabian lady who is married to a British man that we had mutual connections with. The couple have a house in Oman and invited me to see them if I were to visit. We did meet and through that I ended up at the Ambassador’s Christmas party where I met a British lady by the name of Maggie Jeans.

She has lived in Oman for nearly 30 years and introduced me to two of my team, a doctor and a construction consultant. One of my team I met through Instagram via a photography club and another with the assistance of Outward Bound Oman.

I very much went with my instincts on how we gelled over internet chats and finally we met when I was on a recce in May. Another team building trip will follow in October when we will take some time together and learn about each other’s personalities and nuances!

I’m also delighted that Sophie Hollingsworth, fellow Wings Flag Carrier, will be supporting us in the vehicles. We first met when we were speaking together at the Royal Geographical Society in 2017. With her exploration background and desert driving experience in Australia, she will be a valued member of the team. 

WWQ: How are you preparing for the expedition? 

JM: I have been preparing for several years now. The expedition has evolved to be something quite different to my first plan. Initially I was a little over optimistic as to what I could achieve in the time frame so have adapted accordingly to focus on the Empty Quarter. 

Mentally there have been, and continue to be, plenty of hurdles to find solutions to. On many occasions I go around in circles and feel that maybe a leap of faith is the only way to deal with things! However, the team’s health and safety is paramount to me, and I take responsibility for that. Equally it is important for our families’ peace of mind.   

In the final two months in the lead up to the expedition, I have left my job to focus. I had a demanding physical job in France which kept me very fit. Now I am back in London where I will be walking the dogs and working on my core and strength. I need to make sure my back is well-supported and strong!

The women and I communicate regularly via WhatsApp and video calls, and they help me plan on the ground. We also follow each other’s training via Strava. We keep tabs on each other! 

WWQ: How did your experience in the military prepare you for this? 

JM: My military training taught me that my capabilities both physically and mentally were far beyond what I realised. My confidence grew a huge amount over that period. It also taught me the necessity to adapt, keep a sense of humour, the darker the better, and to work as a team together. Utilising our best assets is essential. I have definitely taken this forward.

The military also gave me a sense of belonging. Being part of a team who are working towards a common goal for a greater purpose became very important to me. I missed that greatly when my career ended. That purpose has been rediscovered in organising this expedition. 

WWQ: What do you want readers to know about you and the expedition? 

JM: I don’t want children, but I do want to contribute to the world, help people and leave a legacy in another way. I think the expedition will go some way in achieving this. If it sows a seed of change I will be happy. 

It certainly encompasses issues that I believe are important today: that we are better together and we should utilise our strengths and learn from our weaknesses, as individuals, communities and nations.

Ultimately it aims to understand human nature and how we interact together despite our differences. 

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