Asiatic cheetahs were reintroduced to Sir Bani Yas Island (Phoebe Smith)
Article Words : Phoebe Smith | 17 June

Beyond the city: How to explore Abu Dhabi's wild side

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

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.

Beyond the surface Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – probably the most famous site in Abu Dhabi (Phoebe Smith)

Beyond the surface Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – probably the most famous site in Abu Dhabi (Phoebe Smith)

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.

Kayaking the mangrove forest – probably the least famous site in the city (Phoebe Smith)

Kayaking the mangrove forest – probably the least famous site in the city (Phoebe Smith)

A grey heron hunts in brackish water (Phoebe Smith)

A grey heron hunts in brackish water (Phoebe Smith)

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

Luminous parakeets called for attention in the treetops while black storks strolled in the shallows
Peacock scatter Sir Bani Yas  (Phoebe Smith)

Peacock scatter Sir Bani Yas (Phoebe Smith)

One of the island’s 500-plus Arabian oryx (Phoebe Smith)

One of the island’s 500-plus Arabian oryx (Phoebe Smith)

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.

 

Showing feather repair at the Falcon Hospital (Phoebe Smith)

Showing feather repair at the Falcon Hospital (Phoebe Smith)

One of three pairs of grey-crowned cranes on the island (endangered in their native Africa) (Phoebe Smith)

One of three pairs of grey-crowned cranes on the island (endangered in their native Africa) (Phoebe Smith)

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.

A falcon wears its hood (Phoebe Smith)

A falcon wears its hood (Phoebe Smith)

An Arabian mountain gazelle grazes  (Phoebe Smith)

An Arabian mountain gazelle grazes (Phoebe Smith)

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.

Getting around Sir Bani Yas (Phoebe Smith)

Getting around Sir Bani Yas (Phoebe Smith)

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.

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

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.

The Rock Hyrax get bolder the longer you stand in one place  (Phoebe Smith)

The Rock Hyrax get bolder the longer you stand in one place (Phoebe Smith)

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 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.

An Arabian sand gazelle approaches visitors curiously (Phoebe Smith)

An Arabian sand gazelle approaches visitors curiously (Phoebe Smith)

A cheetah stands to attention (Phoebe Smith)

A cheetah stands to attention (Phoebe Smith)

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 out 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.

The City, as seen from the new Louvre museum (Phoebe Smith)

The City, as seen from the new Louvre museum (Phoebe Smith)

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…
Walking in the wadi, where a single tree has found a way to grow (Phoebe Smith)

Walking in the wadi, where a single tree has found a way to grow (Phoebe Smith)

Abu Dhabi highlights

1: Kayaking the mangroves

Pick up your paddle and head out either on guided trips or by yourself to spot wildlife both above and below the water in Mangrove National Park. Sea Hawk Water Sports  offers a guided paddle with a stop for food and swimming.

2: Getting a hammam

It may be Moroccan/Turkish in origin, but here it has a UAE twist. Prepare to be cleansed, nourished and detoxified with a mix of black soap, clay and olive foam, finished off with an Arabic coffee polish. Available at the spa within the Eastern Mangroves Hotel.

3: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

No visit is complete without wandering the marble floors of this huge complex. Go at night to see it illuminated but be sure to cover up; women in particular need to cover their hair as well as pretty much everything else.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (Phoebe Smith)

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (Phoebe Smith)

4: Visit Qasr Al Hosn

Currently an excellent free-to-visit exhibition, it tells the story of the origins of Abu Dhabi, here at the site of the oldest stone building in the city (circa 1761) – it was originally built to protect the only freshwater well. The fort is currently being renovated but will open to the public soon.

5: Go wildlife watching on Sir Bani Yas Island

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

6: Visit 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. Book a visit at falconhospital.com.

The Trip

Accommodation

You’ll not find many budget stays in Abu Dhabi and chain hotels are ubiquitous, but there are some good options for location and Arabic style.

In Abu Dhabi city, the author stayed in Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara, which is right next to the Mangrove National Park.

Sir Bani Yas only has three hotels. Highly recommended are the villas at Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Sahel Villa Resort, as they are the only hotel within the wildlife park itself.

When to go

Winter – the best time for a visit if you intend to be outside a lot. Temperatures are around the mid-20s (ºC) but can be as high as 30ºC or as low as 9ºC, so do take a jacket for the evenings.

Summer – between Jun and Sep can be particularly unbearable, with temperatures regularly topping 40ºC, meaning outdoor activities are out.