We head down to the city’s newest attraction to get up close and personal with some wild beasts...
The wild called, and we answered. Last month saw the soft launch of the much-anticipated Dubai Safari, and we were more than willing to don our khakis and be at one with nature in the 119-hectare animal sanctuary. Here’s what we found when we left civilisation behind…
Drive through the Safari Village
Perhaps the only drive-through in Dubai where you won’t come out with a cheeseburger and large fries. The main attraction of the park is a Safari Village driving experience, where visitors board a bus and embark on a 75-minute journey through “Africa” and “Asia” to marvel at the beautiful creatures originating from those continents. The village houses the UAE’s only drive-through hippo and tiger exhibition, the UAE’s largest drive-through lion and elephant exhibition, the world’s first drive-through crocodile exhibition and the UAE’s largest troop of baboons (more about them later). The safari village is also home to the white rhinoceros – weighing up to 2,300kg.
Witness some lazing lions
There are nine brown lions living in the Safari Village, led by dominant male Scar (naturally), and tailed by runt of the litter, Roy (of course). On our visit, the lions are sprawled out catching a few rays and a bit of shut-eye, although our tour guide tells us that male lions rarely do much else, relying on females to hunt the prey, feed the entire pride and raise the cubs… We’re saying nothing. We also learn that the roar of a lion can be heard from 8km away on a still night, which makes us thankful of the remote Al Warqa 5 location.
Have a laugh with some hyenas
If we’re going down the Lion King route, it’s only fair that we give the hyenas a mention. And we discover, in fact, that they are actually creatures after our own hearts. Nature’s original recycling machines will eat literally anything – carcass, bone, the lot. Notorious for their laughter, which is a sign of strength, the striped hyenas are led by a dominant female and live in the Asian section of the village. It’s hard not to like them. In fact, we think we might just have found our spirit animal right here.
Dodge a buffalo
The saying goes that an elephant never forgets – but what you really need to worry about are the buffalo. The herd are situated in the African area, nestled safely away from the lions. Our guide tells us that if someone does something to hurt them, they will remember it for years after the incident. It seems our similarities with the animal kingdom only continue to grow. Neighbouring the buffalo are the huge white rhinos – which are currently sectioned off from the safari and will be gradually introduced to the vehicles.
Hang out with baboons
The backside of a baboon can look frankly obscene (or hilarious, if you’re a kid), but in actual fact, their vibrant red bottoms actually signal the mating season. On our visit, there are red moons aplenty, which we hope will soon mean the patter of tiny feet, although this is already the largest troop of baboons in the UAE. We see at least a couple of dozen on the rampage, led by a dominant female, who dictates everything to the rest of her squad.
Come together with the antelope
The male and female springbok antelopes were originally kept separate – until the antics of ladies’ man Chris brought the herd together. Keepers noticed that the male springboks had taken a dislike to Chris, but that in the presence of females he was in his element. As well as springboks, the safari is also home to sambar deer and some mini antelope-like klipspringer. The antelopes share their quarters with a couple of ostriches, who we’re told could “snuff out the life from us” with one kick. Charming.
Take a dip with a crocodile
The Safari Village is home to world’s first drive-through crocodile exhibit, where the bus literally drives through crocodile infested waters, while you cling to your seats within. You’ll need nerves/a bus made of steel.
Explore the globe
As well as the Safari Village, there are other zones where you can observe the animals and learn about where they come from, at the bargain price of Dhs85 for adults and Dhs30 for children (access to all zones). The Arabian Village is a 60,000-square-metre area where visitors can learn about wildlife species native to the region, such as Arabian oryx and Arabian wolves. The African Village is home to a diverse array of mammals, including white lions that were rescued from a hunting farm in South Africa. There is also an Asian Village set to open and a Wadi area, where you can have a picnic on the grass while listening to the smooth sound of flowing water – punctuated with the odd roar from Scar and co.
Dubai Safari is inhabited by the most diverse array of animal species in the UAE and the Dhs1billion project by Dubai Municipality is dedicated to animal welfare and conservation. The park intends to provide a safe home to 5,000 animals by 2020 and is committed to contributing to global efforts to protect endangered species and ensure animal welfare through best practises and techniques anchored on expertise and scientific research. Up-close animal encounters will also be available when the park opens fully in January, including giraffe-feeding, some meet-and-greet animal experiences and a kids’ farm.
Dhs85 (adults, including safari), Dhs50 (adults, excluding safari), Dhs30 (kids, including safari), Dhs20 (kids, excluding safari). Open daily 9am-5pm during soft launch, 9am-9pm thereafter. Al Warqa 5, opposite Dragon Mart (no number).
The Wasit Wetland Centre
Is there anything better than feeding the ducks? How about watching 198 species of bird soaring through natural vegetation against a backdrop of stunning desert skies? The Wasit Wetlands are 4.5 sq km of salt plains on the outskirts of Sharjah that serve as a sanctuary for local and migrating birds.
Once a swampy wasteland, the area was cleaned up in 2007 and declared a sanctuary for protected species soon after. These days it’s also a sanctuary to birdwatchers, who flock to marvel at a natural sight and a gathering of species you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else in the UAE. It’s also a top day out for the kids, who have the opportunity to see some impressive-looking birds, learn about nature, and slosh about in some wet mud in the process.
The wetlands now provide a comprehensive ecosystem, which comprises coastal sand dunes and salt flats, linking ponds and a large, open lake that is maintained by an upwelling of underground water. The boundary trees purify the air and eradicate harmful gases and dust. This increases the ratio of oxygen and reduces the greenhouse effect, aiding the habitat for its numerous migrating and rare birds and making sure they (and you) have nice clean air to breathe. We imagine you’ll come back with a spring in your step, and lungs like Susan Boyle.
Majestic, awe-inspiring and extremely rare. No, we’re not on about SuBo anymore; we’re talking about the tens of thousands of migratory birds that rest at the wetlands on their way to, or from, Africa, Asia and Europe. Eight huge aviaries on the site recreate natural habitats from valleys to flatlands, which house 60 species of endangered birds including the northern bald ibis – of which there are fewer than 500 in the world.
That bird, which is noticeable from its bare head and long, curved beak, is classed as critically endangered, which is the highest risk category, and the last remaining wild colonies are believed to be in Morocco. This troubled ibis is currently in breed at Wasit and the prospective hatchlings have some ready-made playmates waiting.
The centre recently welcomed two baby herons, who live in the Shrubland Aviary with their mum and dad and the goliath heron, a very large wading bird, also known as the giant heron. The new family is a great success story for the centre, and a delightful sight for the kids.
As well as ibis and herons, the centre is home to flamingos, pelicans, ducks, harriers and many other species of our feathered friends, protected yet free to spread their wings in their natural habitat.
The centre has been providing a peaceful getaway for visitors of all ages since it opened its doors to the public in 2015. Built into the sand dunes, bird-lovers can expect games, activities and a cosy café offering breath-taking views over the Lagoon Aviary – as well as a smashing cup of tea.
Complimentary buggies are available so you can chauffeur tired feet round the aviaries and you will be provided with binoculars to properly scope out the area – and any shy birds.
Hana Al Suwaidi, chairperson of the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority, says: “The centre aims to educate people on the birds and it offers its facilities to the public and researchers.
“It contains eight bird aviaries, each providing detailed information and signboards about the birds that frequent the area.”
You can take in the natural spectacle from dedicated bird-watching huts, or take your chances under the open skies. And if the worst comes to the worst, there’s nothing like a bird-poo shower for some good luck to start the new year. On second thoughts, maybe take an umbrella.
Wasit Wetlands is not just a place to watch the birds, it also prides itself on being an educational centre where you can learn about the different species, what they eat, where they nest and how to recognise them simply by their feathers.
Educational events are run for schools and groups of children, and families can tour the centre, play games, enjoy the activities and then take the buggy through the wetlands for an interactive, relaxing and fun day out.
Guides are provided for walking tours if you fancy stretching your legs and afternoons are feeding time in the aviaries, when you can enter the giant bird homes and get up close and personal with your new mates.
Little birdwatchers won’t even realise they are learning as they take part in fun, educational games geared towards spreading information about the perils facing migratory birds. Not only will this encourage them to be more considerate of household pets and domestic lighting, it will also bring your electricity bills down. Result!
Dhs15 (adult); free (kids under 12). Open Sun-Thu 9am-6.30pm; Fri 2.30pm-6.30pm; Sat 11am-6,30pm; Sun closed. Ramtha area near the suburb of Wasit, Sharjah (050 213 3915).