ABU DHABI ON THE FLY

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Susan Kuro­sawa

ON a re­cent trip to Abu Dhabi, cap­i­tal of the United Arab Emi­rates, Depar­tureLounge was in­trigued to see a visit to a fal­con hospi­tal on the itin­er­ary. An au­to­mo­tive work­shop for ail­ing Fords? No, th­ese are pa­tients of an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent feather. Abu Dhabi Fal­con Hospi­tal, about 3km past the air­port, spe­cialises in the care of birds.

For tourists, a two-hour morn­ing tour (three hours with lunch) in­cludes a show in a free-flight aviary, a chance to han­dle a fal­con and a be­hind-the-scenes look at the fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing a peep at the beaked pa­tients as they wait for med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

This is more riv­et­ing than it may sound; in the clin­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion area be­side the surgery, the fal­cons sit on rails that are cov­ered in what looks like syn­thetic grass, each with its lit­tle blink­ered hood, wait­ing to be at­tended to.

‘‘ It is very stress­ful for them and if they see each other they might fight,’’ Ger­man­born hospi­tal di­rec­tor Mar­git Muller says.

De­spite the lack of an­cient copies of Reader’sDigest , rub­ber plants and a sooth­ing aquar­ium, it could be any old wait­ing room. In an an­te­room sit their lon­grobed own­ers, all male dur­ing my visit and one of them in tears. Their saucer-sized gold Rolexes and the cal­i­bre of lux­ury ve­hi­cles in the car park (no Ford Fal­cons, Lounge can as­sure you) sug­gests fal­conry is a rich per­son’s pre­serve.

The hospi­tal, the largest of its kind in the world, was opened in 1999 and about 60 to 70 birds are treated each day. Pa­tients come from Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain as well as from within the UAE.

De­spite the hospi­tal’s name, Muller tells Lounge saker and pere­grine fal­cons are not the only species looked af­ter. Owls and par­rots are some­times brought in and there is also a fal­con re­lease pro­gram to re­turn wild pere­grines and sak­ers to their orig­i­nal habi­tats. More than 1000 birds have been re­leased in Pak­istan, Iran and Kaza­khstan, all lo­ca­tions on the mi­gra­tion routes of wild fal­cons.

On the day of Lounge ’ s visit, about 10 fal­cons are lined up with plumage in mul­ti­ple colours and hoods with vary­ing de­grees of dec­o­ra­tion. One is wear­ing what looks like the tini­est of samu­rai hel­mets; an­other, in a black and yel­low con­fec­tion, could be off to the Dubai Cup.

Each has a pass­port and, like hu­mans, their pic­tures seem less than flat­ter­ing: bad beak days, rings un­der the eyes. Lounge im­me­di­ately thinks of the ti­tle of her favourite Erma Bombeck book: WhenYou LookLikeYourPass­portPhoto,It’sTimeto Go­Home.

As well as a sport, fal­conry is part of the tra­di­tional Be­douin way of life. The fal­cons have long been used for sur­vival hunt­ing in the desert; the favourite prey is hares and houbara bus­tards. There is a suc­cess­ful cap­tive-breed­ing pro­gram in the UAE for houbara, en­sur­ing fal­conry doesn’t de­plete this species.

‘‘ Each bird has an in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter,’’ Muller tells Lounge, ‘‘ and they be­come part of the fam­ily. Some­times they are very spoiled and take over the house.’’

Lounge likes to think of the sick lit­tle birds hap­pily well again, en­sconced back on their priv­i­leged perches, per­haps en­joy­ing television soap op­eras with names that trans­late to things like The Bird and the Beau­ti­ful. www.fal­con­hos­pi­tal.com.

LOUNGE flew the na­tional air­line Eti­had to Abu Dhabi. It has just cel­e­brated its first an­niver­sary of flights from Aus­tralia, tripling the num­ber of ser­vices within that 12-month pe­riod. More than 100,000 pas­sen­gers have flown with the air­line in that year and load fac­tors from Syd­ney and Bris­bane have con­sis­tently been above 80 per cent. To meet the de­mand, Eti­had will in­crease its Syd­ney ser­vices from daily to 11 flights a week from Oc­to­ber 31.

Farther afield, Eti­had is the only air­line from Aus­tralia of­fer­ing one-stop ser­vices (via Abu Dhabi, that is) to Dublin, Brus­sels and Geneva. We tend to get fix­ated with Asian stopovers (Sin­ga­pore and Bangkok are the hubs) en route to Europe, but the UAE is a fas­ci­nat­ing al­ter­na­tive.

Eti­had has plenty of ser­vices be­tween Abu Dhabi and Mus­cat, too (about an hour’s flight), so a side trip to lovely Oman is an easy prospect. Lounge was im­pressed by the ser­vice and the fierce clean­li­ness of the cab­ins, and many of the crew are cheery Aus­tralians. www.eti­hadair­ways.com.

FIND of the week: World Ex­pe­di­tions has launched a new edi­tion of its Re­spon­si­ble Travel Guide­book, a leaflet out­lin­ing the com­pany’s en­vi­ron­men­tal tourism poli­cies. ‘‘ Our aim is to en­sure that the des­ti­na­tions we visit con­tinue to en­joy their nat­u­ral and cul­tural di­ver­sity in decades to come,’’ says chief ex­ec­u­tive Sue Bad­yari. It’s all about sus­tain­abil­ity and cer­tainly makes for thought-pro­vok­ing read­ing. www.world­ex­pe­di­tions.com.

LOUNGE loves: Paul Th­er­oux writ­ing in The­Guardian on March 22 on travel lit­er­a­ture. Cut­ting through his crit­i­cisms of the genre, he makes the fol­low­ing point: ‘‘ A travel book, I had dis­cov­ered, was a de­lib­er­ate act, like the act of travel it­self. It took health and strength and con­fi­dence, op­ti­mism and deep cu­rios­ity and self­suf­fi­ciency . . .’’ Hear, hear.

LOUNGE loathes: The sin­gu­larly dread­ful travel nar­ra­tives lit­ter­ing her desk. A re­cent ex­am­ple, about Paris, has drippy lines of the ilk of, ‘‘ I’ve never re­ally un­der­stood much about cham­pagne, ex­cept that is has bub­bles and tastes nice.’’ As Th­er­oux might say, don’t even think about writ­ing travel un­less you are con­vinced you have some­thing to say.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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