‘The last time I smelled that smell, it belonged to a mountain puma.’ Seeing as we’re clambering through an area in which the Arabian leopard has been spotted (no pun intended), this is not music to Time Out’s ears. The smell – a musty, animalistic marking of territory – is strong. Clinging precariously to a cliff, a pool of water ready to receive us below, we’re not in an ideal position to spring a hasty escape. Happily, Frenchman Christophe Tourenq’s nostrils prove an imperfect predictor, and we continue our climb to the bat cave unmauled.
This is Wadi Wurayah, recently pronounced the UAE’s first protected mountain area. At first glance it may seem a barren landscape, the dull brown mountains looming stoically with no hope of life beyond, but delve further into this 129sq km of protected land in Fujairah and you can find an astounding 20 species of mammals (including what is believed to be the last Arabian leopard in the UAE), 17 species of reptiles and amphibians (five of which are endemic to the area), and 19 species of insect never before discovered by entomologists. It’s the richest natural environment the country has to offer.
Tourenq, a science and research manager at EWS-WWF (a partnership between Emirates Wildlife Society and the World Wide Fund for Nature), led the team that campaigned for Wadi Wurayah to become officially protected – a goal that was realised in March last year. That’s phase one out of the way; now they need to start managing protection of the area and promoting eco-tourism. ‘The goal is definitely not to keep people out.
It’s to let people in sustainably,’ says EWS-WWF’s Lisa Perry. Tourenq adds: ‘A friend once said to me, “Nature can manage itself. It’s the people you need to manage.”’
And it’s true. The freshwater pools of Wadi Wurayah are crystal clear, reflecting flawless renditions of surrounding mountains. Visitors often leave dirty nappies in these pools. At the mouth of the wadi, senseless patches of graffiti – names and even phone numbers – desecrate the rocks, and garish blue plastic bags filled with rubbish are displayed in the trees. Tellingly, the deeper we venture into the wadi, the lesser the litter, allowing the natural beauty to make its impact.
EWS-WWF’s plans include full-time rangers to patrol the area, designated hiking trails, and a camping area with a shaded majlis for barbecues and picnicking. A visitor centre is also in the works. The natural richness of the wadi is something EWS-WWF is eager to promote. ‘We want people to realise that there are places like this in the UAE,’ says Perry. The area is culturally significant, too. Walk two hours into the wadi and you’ll find the remnants of 16 separate Bedouin settlements. Bedouins lived in Wadi Wurayah for 2,000 years, with the last communities vacating around the early ’80s. There remains a lot of in-depth local knowledge about the area, from medical uses for plants (one containing calcium carbonate can heal broken bones) to the ‘secret society’ that collects lucrative wild honey (worth Dhs700 per litre) from the mountains. And while EWS-WWF’s grand plans for the wadi as an eco-tourism hub will take time to come to fruition, the public are welcome to explore and camp around Wadi Wurayah right now.
As Time Out’s hike continues, we finally make it to the bat cave and are secretly pleased to find there are no bats. The closest we come to a brush with the wild is when EWS-WWF’s Moaz Sawaf (inset, right), known as ‘the poop man’, finds a fresh dropping from a young red fox. Like a less-terrifying Gillian McKeith (Sawaf is endearing rather than scary), he pulls apart the dropping and sniffs at it, finding the hair of a recently digested goat. The fox is close, but we never see it – after all, the wildlife is wild, and will likely scarper at the hint of a human. The critically endangered Arabian leopard, for example, has only been caught by camera traps and is yet to be seen by a person.
However, if you do want to see wildlife during your trip, remain quiet and there’s every chance you may spot something, from rare frogs and fish to one of the world’s last remaining Arabian tahrs (mountain goats). Either way, a trip to Wadi Wurayah is a real chance to get back to nature here in the UAE, which is why it’s worth protecting.
Dubai Outdoors Club
You can get outdoors and make new friends with social group Dubai Outdoors Club, which organises regular group activities from kayaking to parachuting. Founder Tiffany Schultz tells us: ‘I started the group because I wanted to get outdoors more, but I didn’t expect it to take off as much as it has.’ The group now has more than 200 members. Sign up online to keep up to date with what’s going on – new trips are planned every day. ‘There’s always stuff happening, and it’s all very informal, so you can just check in and sign up for activities any time,’ says Schultz.
Wadi Wurayah is the richest natural environment in the UAE, so it needs to be looked after. Christophe Tourenq gives his top tips for an eco-friendly visit
• Don't leave your litter behind. It pollutes soil and water and poisons the wildlife.
• Don't burn or cut the vegetation – these are unique species that we want to survive.
• Watch where you put your feet and fingers – the area is home to a lot of animals. For example, an endemic Oman saw-scaled viper could be sleeping or waiting to ambush its prey. If disturbed, it will rub the scales of its skin together and make a rattle-snake-sounding ‘ssssss’ to warn you off. Just move away – it’s not an aggressive species, except when harassed.
• Don't wash your clothes and dishes in the water. Soap kills aquatic life and spoils the water, which is often used downstream by locals.
• Respect sites of historical significance in the area. Don’t interfere with old settlement walls or buildings.