ABU DHABI ON THE FLY
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.