Abu Dhabi

Be­yond the shop­ping malls and high-rises that most ex­pe­ri­ence, we dis­cover the UAE’S wilder side…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS PHOEBE SMITH

The UAE isn’t all glis­ten­ing sky­scrapers. Rare wildlife and sprawl­ing man­groves await just out­side cap­i­tal Abu Dhabi PLUS: 15 things to do in the United Arab Emi­rates

The ground of the wadi was golden and crum­bling, its fallen rocks ly­ing at my feet like bro­ken bis­cuits. My guide, Mare­lie, stopped and ges­tured to one green shrub: “This has to be my favourite part of the whole is­land,” she re­vealed with a smile.

I was stood with a group of five Brits, for whom see­ing a bit of green­ery on a stroll is usu­ally noth­ing to write home about. The si­lence was no­tice­able but Mare­lie was not eas­ily dis­cour­aged.

“Don’t you see how ut­terly in­cred­i­ble it is?” she asked. “Here in the mid­dle of a bar­ren and desert-like land­scape, where no wa­ter ex­ists; here a sin­gle tree has found a way to live.”

The group nod­ded some­what du­ti­fully. “Amaz­ing,” she re­peated be­fore lead­ing us fur­ther up the trail. I had to ad­mire her pas­sion. The plant in ques­tion was, to the ca­sual eye, noth­ing par­tic­u­larly spe­cial, but if the last few days in the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) had taught me any­thing, it was not to take things at face value when it comes to Abu Dhabi, and I had a feel­ing there was more to this.

Cer­tainly, if you’d have said the name of the UAE emi­rate to me a week ago, I’d likely have dis­missed it as a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of the Ara­bian peninsula, of­fer­ing lit­tle more than shop­ping malls, deca­dent ho­tels and wide highways with big cars. So, when the op­por­tu­nity arose to be in­tro­duced to its ‘wild side’, I was cu­ri­ous enough to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.

The roots of the city

Abu Dhabi is both the UAE’S bustling cap­i­tal and the name of its en­com­pass­ing emi­rate – the big­gest of the seven states that make up the coun­try. I started in the city. But rather than stay down­town, I chose a place by the wa­ter’s edge and – cru­cially – by a lit­tle-known area called Man­grove Na­tional Park. I ar­rived late at night, and out of my win­dow I could see noth­ing more than dark­ness, with the lights of the cityscape ap­pear­ing like a neon smudge in the dis­tance. When I woke the next morn­ing, how­ever, I re­alised that the dark­ness was in fact a huge ex­panse of wa­ter, home to 110 sq km of man­grove for­est.

To look at it from my bal­cony was im­pres­sive, but to re­ally ex­plore it I had to take to the wa­ter. Luck­ily an ar­ray of means to do so was on of­fer, from ca­noes to stand-up pad­dle­boards and even wa­ter­bikes. I opted for the seren­ity of a kayak, and joined a small group to pad­dle our way through the in­tri­cate root sys­tem.

As soon as we left the main chan­nel of wa­ter and turned into the re­serve it­self – where mo­torised boats are not al­lowed – we be­gan to see signs of life of the feath­ered va­ri­ety. Lu­mi­nous green para­keets called for at­ten­tion in the tree­tops while black storks strolled in the shal­lows. Waders spied us cau­tiously as we slowly floated by, with one black-winged stilt pay­ing par­tic­u­larly close at­ten­tion.

“There’s all kind of crea­tures here: sea snakes, tur­tles, mud­skip­pers and lots of birds who lay eggs in the trees,” ex­plained our guide.

‘Lu­mi­nous para­keets called for at­ten­tion in the tree­tops while black storks strolled in the shal­lows’

⊳ At that mo­ment I drew my kayak to a halt to look at a small stri­ated heron, perched at eye level in between the gnarled branches. Man­groves are an amaz­ing species. Able to thrive in brack­ish wa­ter, not only do they house an abun­dance of wildlife but they help pre­vent ero­sion and re­duce car­bon emis­sions by ab­sorb­ing them. Al­though nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring in this area, they were once ex­ploited for their wood. But thanks to the late (and con­ser­va­tion­ally minded) Sheikh Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan, not only did he cre­ate a re­serve to pro­tect them but he also launched a project to plant more. Look­ing at their knuckle-like roots, as an iri­des­cent jel­ly­fish bobbed in between, I was glad he did – I felt a mil­lion miles away from the city.

The big sheikh-up!

Not quite a mil­lion miles away is an­other en­vi­ron­men­tally aware le­gacy cre­ated by the same much-loved Sheikh. Sir Bani Yas Is­land was once a pri­vate patch of land – 17km long by 9km wide (roughly the same size as Guernsey) – used by him as a pri­vate hol­i­day es­cape. Though he loved the iso­la­tion, his real pas­sion was an­i­mals; in par­tic­u­lar the indige­nous wildlife of the Ara­bian Peninsula. And so, start­ing with the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Ara­bian oryx, in 1977 he trans­formed the idyll into a wildlife re­serve where, get­ting nat­u­ral­ists and con­ser­va­tion­ists in­volved, he set up a breed­ing pro­gramme to help bol­ster num­bers. So suc­cess­ful was it that he be­gan in­tro­duc­ing other strug­gling species and al­lowed vis­i­tors on week­ends. Now it’s open to the pub­lic ev­ery day for sa­faristyle drives from one of its three ho­tels.

I was ea­ger to see it for my­self, but first there was an­other an­i­mal-shaped sur­prise en route: a visit to the Abu Dhabi Fal­con Hos­pi­tal.

“There are three types of fal­con that have tra­di­tion­ally been used to hunt with in Ara­bia,” said guide Hassan, who was stand­ing between a pho­to­graph of a gyr­fal­con and the late Sheikh, who – we were just learn­ing – passed a law to stop peo­ple cap­tur­ing and keep­ing these great birds in the 1980s.

“The gyr, the saqr and the pere­grine,” he ges­tured to a cabi­net filled with stuffed ver­sions of these birds of prey – the first be­ing the largest, the sec­ond is the UAE’S na­tional sym­bol and the third is the fastest.

But this wasn’t just an ex­hi­bi­tion of taxi­dermy and le­gal­i­ties. Min­utes af­ter learn­ing about their wing­span (well over a me­tre), where they live (mainly the moun­tains) and how their own­ers pay for them to travel in ut­most lux­ury (they get their own pass­port), we went into the ‘hos­pi­tal ward’ to meet some spec­i­mens who were very much alive.

Sat on a green beam, their eyes cov­ered over with a spe­cial leather hood to keep them calm, were around 35 birds. Some flapped their wings, some oc­ca­sion­ally called out in a sound that re­minded me of a whis­tle, and oth­ers ap­peared as though they may well be sleep­ing.

“Peo­ple bring their birds here for all dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but mainly it’s for check-ups, to have their claws trimmed or their feath­ers re­paired,” ex­plained se­nior vet Rad­hakr­ish­nan Ran­jith as he se­dated a beau­ti­ful cream-and-brown gyr­fal­con cross­breed and be­gan clip­ping away. He then pro­ceeded to open out her tail feath­ers, where he then pointed to a gap in the fan that was cre­ated.

“This can be a prob­lem when they need to fly and bal­ance,” he ex­plained, and so when some of them come here to rest and malt, we col­lect the feath­ers and use them to re­pair bro­ken or miss­ing ones.”

I watched in awe as he showed how they could sim­ply slide a half feather over the dam­aged one’s shaft and make it as good as new. From beauty treat­ments to a chilled-out space to malt in peace, I soon learned that these birds were se­ri­ously spoilt.

But it wasn’t just my new feath­ered friends who would get to in­dulge in a lit­tle spot of lux­ury. Af­ter a three-hour drive west of the cap­i­tal, on a long and straight road from the city where desert stretched ei­ther side as far as the eye could see, we took a ferry from Jebel Dhanna to reach the is­land of Sir Bani Yas.

As soon we be­gan along the one road that runs the cir­cum­fer­ence of that is­land, sight­ings be­gan to ap­pear. The un­mis­tak­able grey horns of an oryx emerged from be­hind a bush, as it strolled non­cha­lantly into the road. We slowed and watched it walk by in no par­tic­u­lar hurry. Reach­ing a fence, I looked at our guide, Kate, quizzi­cally. “Do the an­i­mals not roam free?” I won­dered. “For the most part, yes,” she af­firmed. “But with peo­ple liv­ing on the is­land, and all the cars and ser­vices, there has to be a perime­ter fence.”

I was wor­ried it would feel like a glo­ri­fied zoo, but I needn’t have. As soon as I stepped out from the ve­hi­cle to walk to my villa, set within our African lodge-in­spired ac­com­mo­da­tion, I had to nav­i­gate my way around a gath­er­ing of peacocks and three gazelle.

Af­ter set­tling in (which con­sisted largely of me dump­ing my bag and head­ing im­me­di­ately back out­side to watch the wildlife from the com­fort of my own heated plunge pool for half an hour), we set out on a drive to get our­selves ori­en­tated.

In ad­di­tion to the wildlife, the is­land was also home to the na­tive Bani Yas tribe – from which it gets its name. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have been dig­ging this land­mass for decades now, and es­ti­mate that hu­mans have lived here for the last 7,000 years at least. In 1992, they un­earthed a Chris­tian Monastery dat­ing back to around 600 AD – the only pre-is­lamic Chris­tian site dis­cov­ered in the en­tire UAE.

“They be­lieve it was used by monks, as this is­land formed a key lo­ca­tion in the old pearl trade route from Me­sopotamia through the Ara­bian Gulf,” ex­plained Kate as she pointed out the bound­ary walls and ges­tured to where they be­lieve the font would have been lo­cated.

But ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal re­mains are not the only things found on the is­land; there’s been at least 35 other arche­o­log­i­cal sites dis­cov­ered. We set out to visit sev­eral: stop­ping at the graves of the tribe that once mined the is­land’s salt de­posits (80 per­cent of Sir Bani Yas is made up of salt) and called this place home, as well as a tomb thought to be over 4,000 years old, and then the re­mains of an old watch­tower.

The high­light, though, was how ubiq­ui­tous the wildlife was, munch­ing on the aca­cia shrubs and ghad trees that the late Sheikh had planted as part of his ‘Green­ing of the desert’ pro­gramme in the 1970s. Here on the small is­land, trees are reg­u­larly fed with de­sali­nated sea­wa­ter, to keep things grow­ing and to sup­port the an­i­mals. Its hoses made it look part-wild and, at the same time, partly man­i­cured. As the sun set, we spied a smaller crit­ter among the an­telopes. “Rock hyrax,” said Kate as we cooed over its fat, fluffy body. Then, be­hind the bold one stand­ing in the mid­dle of the road, sud­denly emerged a whole host of these lit­tle guinea pig-like crea­tures, whose clos­est rel­a­tive is ac­tu­ally an ele­phant or man­a­tee.

One by one

In search of more wildlife en­coun­ters, we rose the next morn­ing be­fore dawn. Within min­utes, our Land­cruiser was in the pres­ence of Ara­bian sand gazelles with fur coats as pale as the silt they are named af­ter. When the Sheikh de­cided to cre­ate a wildlife refuge here on the is­land, he thought of it as a kind of ‘ark’ in which he would pre­serve indige­nous Ara­bian wildlife that had be­come, or was on the verge of be­com­ing, ex­tinct. The big­gest suc­cess story

‘Ar­chae­ol­o­gists dig­ging at Sir Bani Yas Is­land es­ti­mate that hu­mans have lived here for 7,000 years’

⊳ was that of the Ara­bian oryx, which be­came of­fi­cially ex­tinct in the wild in the 1970s, but ex­ists here as a flour­ish­ing herd of 500-strong spec­i­mens. In fact, the breed­ing of these crea­tures has been so suc­cess­ful that, ev­ery year, herds are rein­tro­duced to the wild of the main­land and through­out the rest of the Emi­rates.

“You could say our breed­ing pro­grammes have been too suc­cess­ful,” laughed our guide, which at least ex­plains the pres­ence of the an­i­mal we all were hoping to get a glimpse of next: the Asi­atic chee­tah.

Dis­tinct from its African rel­a­tives, these are slim­mer, shorter cats, and once used to roam freely through­out Ara­bia. Now they only live wild in Iran and are a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species. Here on Sir Bani Yas, these chee­tah roam free in the des­ig­nated Ara­bian Wildlife Park (half the is­land – de­mar­cated by fences) and help keep the num­bers of an­te­lope and gazelle from get­ting our of hand.

We ma­noeu­vred our way to an area of the park where one chee­tah in par­tic­u­lar is usu­ally found prowl­ing. Sud­denly we were sur­rounded by a gang of tur­keys, cluck­ing and gob­bling nois­ily.

“Err… why tur­keys?” I asked, puz­zled. Surely these were not the indige­nous wildlife the Sheikh had wanted to pro­tect.

It turned out that they were a gift from a for­eign dig­ni­tary – I guess fi­nally an­swer­ing the ques­tion: what do you get the Sheikh who has ev­ery­thing? Other ‘gifts’ in­cluded os­triches, gi­raffes, Bar­bary and Ural sheep, black­buck and fal­low deer (among oth­ers), all found here on the is­land. In Ara­bic cul­ture, no gift – it seems – can be de­clined, and though they are not ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing ex­tra species on Sir Bani Yas, the park will al­low them to live out their days on the is­land.

Sud­denly, we spot­ted move­ment up on a rise above the perime­ter fence. It was one of the chee­tahs – a male, son of one of the orig­i­nal chee­tahs brought to the is­land sev­eral years ago from a zoo. He, like those be­fore, had been re-wilded so that he could hunt for him­self.

I watched as he looked right down my cam­era lens, his eyes burning into my soul. The two black stripes ei­ther side of his nose and on his cheeks looked like they were painted on with kohl (a min­eral ground down to wear as eye makeup and once mined here), fram­ing his fea­tures in per­fect sym­me­try. See­ing him sit up and stretch his legs be­fore ly­ing back down was as thrilling as it got, but I could have watched him for hours.

We re­turned to feast on lunch – a mix of Ara­bian mezze with khubz flat­bread fol­lowed by a tongue-tin­gling curry, then a dessert of dates and cof­fee. Full and sat­is­fied, we per­suaded our­selves to go for a walk to Wadi al Milh (Salt Val­ley), where Mare­lie had shown us the green shrub on a steep-sided slope. It was nice to wan­der with­out a fence or hosepipe and in sight in a place that showed what Sir Bani Yas, if suc­cess­ful, could be­come. Ever since this land­mass – ac­tu­ally a large salt dome – was pushed up from the ocean over tens of thou­sands of years ago, it’s been built on by monks, mined by tribes, and now of­fers a sanc­tu­ary to wildlife that, with­out it, might very well have been ex­tin­guished en­tirely from this re­gion. So per­haps Mare­lie was right: finding a tree in a desert was amaz­ing. But finding a thriv­ing throng of pro­tected wildlife out in the Ara­bian Peninsula – which not only saved species but also en­cour­aged the other Emi­rates to do the same – was even more so. In fact, you might say that it was pure an­i­mal magic.

‘The chee­tah looked right down my cam­era lens, his eyes burning into my soul…’

Some­where between a game re­serve and a wildlife park, the con­ser­va­tion ef­fort be­hind this is­land is what makes this a truly spe­cial des­ti­na­tion.

6Visit the Fal­con Hos­pi­tal

Learn more about these in­cred­i­ble birds, who were once used to hunt hare and houbara (a type of bus­tard) for the Be­douin but now com­pete in com­pe­ti­tions only – in between they are looked af­ter in real lux­ury. Two-hour tours run from Sun­day to Thurs­day and cost AED170PP (£34). Book a visit at www.fal­con­hos­pi­tal.com

Be­yond the sur­face Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – prob­a­bly the most fa­mous site in Abu Dhabi; ( right) kayak­ing the man­grove for­est – prob­a­bly the least fa­mous site in the city

Wadi roam Walk­ing in the wadi, where a sin­gle tree has found a way to grow...

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