Dive with sharks, swim with dolphins, ride a camel, train a falcon. When it comes to wildlife, the UAE has loads of choices…
Camel & horse rides
Abu Dhabi by dromedary
Head to the luxurious Qasr Al Sarab desert retreat by Anantara, around two hours south of Abu Dhabi by car in the middle of the Liwa Desert. The hotel offers two camel treks daily, one early in the morning and one at sunset – the hotel provides pick-ups in slick four-wheel-drives. Driving through the sunburnt dunes, beautiful, gentle camels await, sitting in a line with their handler. The caravan of four camels is tied together by ropes, one behind the other, and the nickname ‘ships of the desert’, becomes apparent; the swaying motion of their stride giving a sensation that’s a bit like being on a boat. Riding these magnificent creatures takes some getting used to, with possibly the trickiest part for riders being when the camel gets down by bending its front knees – when you’ll have to be wary of toppling forwards and tumbling off.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, www.qasralsarab.anantara.com (02 886 2088).
Dubai by dromedary
Al Sahra Desert Resort Equestrian Centre, off the Jebel Ali-Lahbab road in Dubai, offers camel excursions around the Dubailand nature reserve that last around 40 minutes – ample time to take in the scenery, wildlife and enjoy an early morning or evening (during the summer) out on an Arabian dromedary. Al Sahra Equestrian Centre is also home to 33 horses as well as five camels and you’ll see small groups of gazelles and foxes scampering around the dunes while you’re out on your ride. Curious desert foxes have been known to plod over for a closer look at visitors, too.
From Dhs180 per person. Al Sahra Desert Resort Equestrian Centre, Jebel Ali-Lehbab Road, email@example.com (04 427 4055).
Mushrif Equestrian Centre offers desert horse riding at dusk during the hot summer months. Mushrif Park itself is a vast, dune-filled place with an interesting, hilly landscape that makes a change from Dubai’s typically flat topography. Horse riding is more comfortable than barrelling around on a camel, and involves far less work from your core and legs to stay upright. It’s a very relaxing way to spend an evening, and if you take one of the full moon desert rides, you might also discover a more spiritual side to the experience. It’s only a short drive from the city and definitely worth a break in your usual routine.
Dhs300 per person for a 90-minute desert ride or full moon ride. Lessons from Dhs450 for four private 30-minute beginner sessions. Mushrif Equestrian Centre, Mushrif Park, Al Khawaneej Road, www.mushrif equestrianclub.wordpress.com (04 357 1256).
Falconry holds a prominent place in the customs and traditions of the UAE – so much so that in 2012, it was officially recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In the day of old, falcons were used by Bedouins for hunting food to supplement their meagre diet. Once a falconer had trapped the bird of prey, he would have up to three weeks to train it before the migrating birds began to arrive. A strong bond of trust between the bird and the handler had to be established, and for this, a leather hood was used to cover the bird’s eyes and it was deprived of food, to subdue it, making it easier to tame. Eventually, the hood was removed and the bird was allowed to take short-distance flights, before live prey was finally introduced.
Similar training methods are still used today, though falconry is now practised purely for sport and is controlled by UAE law. After the annual hunting season, the birds are placed in isolation at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where they are given full medical check-ups before completely healthy birds are entered into the wild. Each falcon is micro-chipped so that they can be easily identified. Guests interested in these magnificent birds of prey can take part in the hospital’s Falcon World Tour – a three-hour tour that teaches the history of falconry and about the life of the birds in modern times. For those interested in trying their hand at the sport, Shaheen Xtreme offers the only official falconry course in the UAE. Other experiences, such as sunset falconry displays and interactive falconry experiences are also on offer.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital Falcon World Tour: Dhs220 (adults including refreshments and lunch), Dhs80 (children including refreshments and lunch). For more information on Royal Shaheen Experiences and courses, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (04 435 6550).
Learn more about one of the UAE’s most prized hunting tools at Banyan Tree Al Wadi’s Falconry Mews in Ras Al Khaimah. Home to falcons, hawks, owls and eagles, the facility educates visitors and also offers a falconry course for those who want to try handling the birds themselves. There’s also a falconry deck, where you can watch a raptor show and a bird-watching hide.
Banyan Tree Al Wadi, Ras Al Khaimah, www.banyantree.com (07 243 5000).
Platinum Falconry and Wildlife Safari
Learn about both ancient and modern training techniques and even try your hand at swinging the lure or flying a falcon yourself. Your guided tour will take place in a Mercedes G-Wagon and pass through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
Half-day morning safaris Dhs545 (adults), Dhs445 (children aged five-11), private vehicle Dhs2,180. Sun, Tue, Thu and Fri (Sep 15-May 15). Platinum Heritage, www.platinum-heritage.com (04 388 4044).
A number of tour operators in Dubai offer desert safaris (see listings p116). Arabian Adventures offers a rise and shine half-day tour on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, where you’ll drive through the dunes, travel on camelback and experience a taste of Bedouin life from Dhs260 per person. One of the newer tour operators in Dubai, Platinum Heritage, offers excursions to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve for a number of safari experiences including the platinum night safari and satargazing.
Arabian Adventures, www.arabian-adventures.com (02 269 1711). Platinum Heritage: from Dhs345 per person, www.platinum-heritage.com (04 388 4044).
Head out on a 4x4 adventure in the Hajar mountains with Absolute Adventure, experts at navigating the local terrain on the UAE’s east coast. Afterwards, treat your weary body to a relaxing massage in a cabana on the beach at the Fujairah Rotana, before spending the night at the hotel. Then rise with yoga in the property’s gardens.
From Dhs350, www.adventure.ae (04 345 9900). Fujairah Rotana Resort & Spa, Al Aqah Beach, www.rotana.com (04 244 9888).
The Emirates Wildlife Society, in association with WWF, has spent more than three years tagging and tracking the hawksbill sea turtle, a critically endangered species. It is now monitoring a total of 80 turtles through its Marine Turtle Conservation Project, launched in 2010. Turtles have been tagged in the UAE, Qatar, Iran and Oman using satellite transmitters to pinpoint the migration patterns and locate feeding grounds of this species in the Gulf region. The data collected will be used to help develop conservation strategies to protect the species. Additionally, injured junior hawksbill turtles in the region are rescued and nursed back to health by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project operated by the Jumeirah group, before being released back into the wild.
Turtles are brought to Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office or to the Aquarium team at the Burj Al Arab by members of the public before being referred to vets at the Al Wasl Veterinary Clinic. Once the cause of sickness is identified and primary care administered, the turtles are returned to the Burj Al Arab Aquarium where they are closely monitored. They are then transferred to the two Mina A’Salam turtle enclosures – the large one for big reptiles and the smaller one for the little ‘uns. Here, the turtles learn how to forage and regain buoyancy before they’re released back into the wild. Many of the rehabilitated turtles are also fitted with satellite tags, and the progress of the turtles is published on www.seaturtle.org.
Members of the public can feed the turtles at the Mina A’Salam enclosures – feeding takes place at 11am on Wednesdays and 1pm on Fridays. Free educational talks also take place on Wednesdays at 11am. Other ways to get involved with helping to protect endangered marine turtles is to ‘adopt’ some by purchasing adoption packs available from a number of outlets, including Al Boom Dive Centres, Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa and Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. The packs cost Dhs200.
The Jumeirah Turtle Rehabilitation Unit,
www.facebook.com/turtle.rehabilitation, email@example.com (04 301 7198). For more info on turtle adoption packs, visit www.gulfturtles.com/adopt-turtle.
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
Explore the deep blue with a ride in a glass bottom boat, cage snorkelling, diving or walking with sharks, or try your hand at scuba diving. Dhs50 will get you access to the aquarium tunnel and underwater zoo. Dhs75 will get you a platinum aquarium package, Dhs85 a diamond aquarium package and Dhs100 an ultimate aquarium package. Dhs250 is the price of an annual membership.
Open daily 10am-midnight. The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai, www.thedubaiaquarium.com (04 448 5200).
It may not be the best zoo in the region, but as the oldest in the Arabian Peninsula, this wildlife sanctuary, built by a Dubai resident in 1967, is still home to some fascinating species of animal. These include big cats such as lions and jaguars, monkeys, deer, bears and giraffes. The zoo also provides a protected home for endangered species including the Bengal tiger and gorilla. Also expect to see a golden eagle and parrots.
The entry fee is just Dhs2. Open Wed-Mon 10am-6pm. Jumeirah, www.dubaitourism.ae (04 349 6444).
Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort
White lions, cute sand cats, vultures, giraffes and a whole host of other exotic (not to mention rare) species roam the spacious grounds of Al Ain Wildlife Park – a refreshing, educational and eye-opening conservation project. The park also has a night-time safari in the summer.
Dhs15 for adults; Dhs5 admission fee for children (three-12 years). Al Ain, www.awpr.ae (03 782 8188).
Banyan Tree Al Wadi
This beautiful hotel is set in grounds of more than 100 hectares, of which 60 are dedicated to a nature reserve – home to local desert wildlife such as Arabian gazelles, camels and oryxes.
Wadi Khadeja, Ras Al Khaimah, www.banyantree.com (07 206 7777).
Adventure company Noukhada offers a wide range of expeditions, including kayaking trips through mangroves. You can also head out on an excursion that involves paddling out to Abu Dhabi’s Bird Island. This rock formation is home to sea eagles, among others, and you might even spot a nest or two.
From Dhs200 per person. Noukhada, Sheikh Khalifa Highway, www.noukhada.ae (050 721 8928).
Ras Al Khor
Not many residents know it, but Dubai is home to one of the world’s few UNESCO-protected wildlife sites. The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary (situated between the towering Burj Khalifa and the stretching Meydan Hotel) is a 620-hectare site that’s home to more than 20,000 birds and 67 different species in the winter months. The most exciting are the flamingos, the population of which has doubled in the last 30 years, and now more than 3,000 birds call it home. Amateur photographers, screw in your zoom lens, pack up a picnic and spend a rare afternoon of tranquillity communing with nature.
Free entry (permit may be required). For more information, see www.wildlife.ae (04 606 6822).
Sir Bani Yas Island
Tour the Arabian Wildlife Park on Sir Bani Yas in specially-designed 4WD vehicles. Expert guides will help you discover free-roaming indigenous and non-indigenous wildlife as well as a myriad of birdlife, amid beautiful geological formations and various archaeological remains.
Contact the Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, www.desertislands.anantara.com (02 801 5400).
This 129km stretch of land is the UAE’s first protected mountain area. Extremely rare species of insect – in particular, dragonflies that had not been recorded anywhere since 1957 and were thought to be extinct – have been found for the first time in the nature reserve. In fact, since September 2011, 56 new species have been discovered in the wadi, including 26 that are new to science. Wadi Wuryah is famous for providing a home to other rare animals, too, including the Arabian tahr, Caracal lynx and even the Arabian leopard. It’s also home to some 300 plant species, including the UAE’s only native orchid. A fantastic spot for a wild weekend.
Wadi Wuryah, Fujairah.