We visit the desert island retreat with a twist in Abu Dhabi
It’s almost unfathomable that after driving a few hours south from the UAE capital, it’s possible to hop on a 20-minute ferry ride en route to a tropical game reserve. Sir Bani Yas Island is home to native African animals roaming among green trees, mountains and lawns, all growing in an otherwise barren desert. This lush landscape comes with a rich history: the Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) has recently unveiled an archaeology site on the island, which is now open to the public, hence our latest visit.
While most of us are used to the bonkers ideas conceived in the UAE, and are unsurprised when seemingly impossible concepts are proved possible (mall-based ski slopes, the previously planned air-conditioned beach at Palazzo Versace, the North Pole-themed waterpark in Ras Al Khaimah), Sir Bani Yas may well take the biscuit. After all, this could be the UAE’s version of Jurassic Park.
The evidence hits me as soon as I set foot on the island. The desert turns green before my eyes, and amid all this foliage is history – centuries of it. It includes a remarkable discovery, in this area of the globe at least – the remains of a sixth-century Christian monastery that was used thousands of years ago by a group of adventurous monks.
It would have been a small building and, back then, would have just about fended off the elements; there would have been no fertile shrubbery or wildlife. I soon start wondering what these barmy monks were thinking, coming out here to be all alone, and how they survived. ‘It’s thought they lived here for more than 100 years,’ explains Peter Hellyer, our knowledgeable guide, who’s been working on the project since its inception. ‘This would have been a major costal trade route from Mesopotamia through the Arabian Gulf, then on to India and China.’ These men were probably involved in the Gulf pearling industry, which provided minimal trade so they could get on with their solitary worshipping.
The remains of the monastery were first discovered in 1992 during a survey of the island by former UAE president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who had visions of turning the place into a wildlife reserve. Since then, a team of archeologists have been piecing together the puzzle, excavating and cataloguing various artefacts.
After 19 years of work, they now know enough to show the site to the public. Visitors can see the remains of the monastery’s basilica Roman architecture and visualise a nave, side aisles, a western annexe and a sanctuary; the archaeologists are currently putting together detailed information about the relics. There is also a grave in a significant position just outside the building. An important figure in the ancient community is believed to be buried here, and the team hopes modern forensics and DNA techniques can reveal more.
Back to the present day, this is merely one of a number of attractions on the island: thanks to the vision of Sheikh Zayed, this patch of sandy terrain has been turned into a living anomaly. It’s now home to more than 10,000 animals, all relocated from around the world. These include the region’s largest herds of Arabian oryx, plus hyenas, flamingos, sand gazelles and, bizarrely, giraffes and cheetahs. Essentially, the place is a giant five-star zoo, where the animals don’t have to worry about high or low seasons, whether there will be enough to eat or if they should migrate to certain areas for water. Here they live the lives of domesticated house cats, fed with offerings of live animals and their favourite plants, and monitored so visitors can enjoy them.
To make the most of my visit, I opt for a mini safari 4x4 tour of the island. Unusually, it’s pouring with rain (the heaviest precipitation the UAE has seen in the past six months) so, armed with festival-style binbag waterproof jackets, we venture into the shrubbery, hoping all the animals haven’t scarpered to escape the rain (or the rustling black figures moving towards them). Fields of acacia trees, gum trees and toothbrush trees – so-called because they contain fluoride, and are ideal for brushing your teeth – have been planted next to thousands of kilometres of pipes that release water intermittently to aid growth.
Back in the 4x4, we trundle past a bulbous, luxuriant green hill that stands out against its pale backdrop. Peter explains that Sheikh Zayed had the entire mountain wrapped in water pipes and had mossy crops planted upon it, to prove that anything could be achieved on the island. He created life in a habitat where virtually nothing could live. While it seems an eccentric request, and far from environmentally friendly (no surprises there), I can’t deny the mountain is eye-catching; among the yellow and grey rocks, it appears almost miraculous.
Along the route we pass dozens of oryx jumping around and ostriches mincing toward the vehicle. Not shy in the slightest, they inquisitively admire themselves in our wing mirrors, treating the 4x4 as their personal beauty counter. We drive on in search of a cheetah cub; while the cubs prove elusive, we soon stumble upon two adult male cats sitting a couple of metres from our vehicle. At this point, contrived habitat or not, our open-top 4x4 wouldn’t offer much protection against an aggressive cheetah – it’s an undeniably thrilling experience. Luckily, we realise they’ve just eaten, and we watch them affectionately licking the blood from each other’s coats after a hearty feed, the freshly devoured carcass lying nearby.
‘The best way to get really close to the animals is by bike,’ explains one of the other safari-goers as we return to base. Never one to turn down a challenge, I book myself onto the early-morning 18km mountain-bike trip, sneaking up on the wildlife and taking smaller dirt tracks into the mountains for salivating panoramic vistas over the greenery. Still in awe, still surprised, and still wondering where I am, I’m certain Sir Bani Yas Island has to be seen to be believed.
Need to know
Getting there By car, head south from Abu Dhabi on the E11 highway towards Ruwals. It will take about three hours. Turn off at Marsa Jebel Dhanna, where there will be signs to the port for Sir Bani Yas Island. From there, jump aboard the ferry. You’ll need to book in advance in conjunction with activities on the island, although the resort often offers package deals (02 801 5400). Alternatively, if you’re feeling flush, book a chartered plane from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Sir Bani Yas. Book via the Desert Island Resort and Spa on the island at a fee of Dhs1,300 return per person (02 801 5400).
Where to stay For overnight trips, the only resort on the island is Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa, which has everything you’ll possibly need, including eateries The Palm, Al Shams, Samak and The Lounge. Expect five-star service. Rooms start from Dhs1,500 a night. www.desertislands.anantara.com (02 801 5400).
What to see Day trippers and hotel guests alike can take part in a host of activities across the island, from archery (Dhs60) or a 4x4 wildlife drive through the enclosures and wild areas (Dhs100) to an 18km cycle ride up the hills and rock formations on the island (Dhs60). (02 801 5400).
History and geography The island was home to the earliest human settlements on the Arabian Peninsula, and a total of 36 archeological sites have been found to date.
The island was named after the Bani Yas tribe, the first tribe to populate Abu Dhabi.
Sir Bani Yas was a hotspot in the pearling industry around 1590.
The Arabian Wildlife Park occupies more than half of the 87 sq km island.