As the seaplane dips and begins to descend, we scramble towards the windows, craning and squinting. Will we spot any wildlife? Gazelles or herds of oryx galloping across savannah-like plains? We don’t see any, but it doesn’t quash the excitement. This is Sir Bani Yas, after all – as fabled as Narnia if you’re an expat. It’s the Noah’s Ark of the Middle East, the Jurassic Park of the emirates.
When you think about it, Sir Bani Yas isn’t too dissimilar from Isla Nublar (the wild Costa Rican island depicted in Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur epic), though there’s no billionaire hell-bent on recreating a marauding Tyrannosaurus Rex from a fossilised mosquito, and no steamy jungle to hide in if he does. Sir Bani Yas is a peaceful (and dinosaur-free) island, one of eight in an archipelago eight kilometres off the coast of Abu Dhabi, with invitingly warm Gulf waters lapping at its shores.
The 87sq km island was once the private retreat for the late ruler and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who spent much of his time there, chilling out with family and friends. The royal family still owns two residences on the island, though since Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004 the rest has been open to visitors. One of the former guesthouses underwent an expensive refurb as part of a tourism project managed by Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), and flung open its doors in 2008 as the luxurious, five-star Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa – a weekend getaway for expats with money to burn.
But this isn’t just any palatial resort, and Sir Bani Yas isn’t any old island. Its defining feature is the impressive collection of wildlife – more than you’ll find anywhere else in the UAE. Sheikh Zayed was fond of all creatures great and small and worked tirelessly during the 1970s to develop Sir Bani Yas into a sanctuary for native and exotic species. Today, the island is a carefully created biological reserve that’s home to around 23 different species of free-roaming animals, including giraffes, Arabian oryx, gazelles, striped hyenas and even cheetahs.
Still buzzing from the seaplane arrival, we’re greeted by a couple of healthy-looking, khaki-clad hotel representatives, who drive at a snail’s pace towards the hotel. ‘We have to drive at 50km an hour around the island to avoid hitting any animals,’ they explain, pointing at the main culprits: small, grey-coloured partridges that rush across the road without warning, and sinewy gazelles lounging in the shade of the trees.
Gazing around at the serenity, it’s not difficult to understand why Sheikh Zayed found solace here. Thanks to his vision to ‘green’ the desert, the island is far from barren. Though the scrubby vegetation and salt-encrusted rocks seem typical of the UAE coastline, the landscape is surprisingly fertile, with some 2.5 million plants, mangroves, date palms and sea-view olive groves cloaking the area with greenery. In the centre of the island, a cone-shaped mountain has a majlis constructed on the top, where Sheikh Zayed used to entertain his guests. Another mountain rising in the distance is the greenest of them all; planted, irrigated and christened ‘Green Mountain’ as a gift to the Sheikh from his devoted staff.
The 64-room hotel is, as to be expected, resplendently lavish. The lobby is scattered with antiques, Arabian art and curios, while rooms have balconies large enough to throw a party for a herd of oryx. Each enjoys a breezy view of the sea, while the royal villas have a private plunge pool and direct access to the beach. Then there’s the luxurious Safaa Spa, not to mention a glorious infinity pool that’s mere footsteps from the sand. And though it’s pretty hard to resist the tempting sun lounger/pina colada combo, there’s simply too much on the agenda to laze about.
Guests have a host of nature-based activities to choose from, including a brisk mountain bike ride, a kayaking expedition through peaceful mangrove lagoons or snorkelling in the clear waters to spot dugongs, sea turtles and schools of tropical fish. The most popular excursion, however, is the (brutally) early-morning game drive. Piling into an open-air jeep with yet another healthy-looking, khaki-clad guide, the tour explores the island’s game parks, where you can spot hundreds of skittish sand gazelles basking in the morning sunshine, bulky South African elands (which can jump 2.5 metres into the air, apparently) and the UAE’s largest herd of critically endangered Arabian oryx, which seem disinterested in our jeep and more focused on munching on bales of feed. Judging by their portly bellies, these horned, white beasts seem overfed, but apparently it’s so the keepers can tell whether or not an animal is sick (oryx like to eat, so a skinny one is a dead giveaway).
The highlight of the game park drive is undoubtedly the collection of curious, gangly-necked giraffes, which immediately lope through flocks of peacocks to investigate our jeep. To our delight, they stick their heads inside and promptly lick our hands with their sloppy, blue-hued tongues.
Setting off again, we try to spot the island’s other wow-species: four cheetahs. There are three males and one female, named Gibbs, Gabriel, Safira and Ella. Three of the cheetahs have undergone a painstaking ‘rewilding’ process, which gradually introduced them to hunting and feeding without human intrusion. It took between three and five months to rewild these cats, which were taken from the Sheikh Butti Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre in Dubai and the Sharjah Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife. Today, the cheetahs prowl around the island and hunt of their own free will, their cuisine of choice being the sand and mountain gazelles and axis deer. Thankfully, humans aren’t on the menu, though the mountain bike rides are limited to the lagoon area, just in case.
Sadly, we don’t spot the cheetahs on this drive, squashing any fantasy of seeing a National Geographic documentary-style hunt. ‘That would be very unlikely,’ chuckles the guide. ‘You won’t see an African savannah chase. The prey is too easy. The gazelles are fairly stupid – they don’t know what’s going on around them.’ Also, he adds, the cheetahs are lazy when they’re not hunting and spend most of the day sprawled out under a tree looking ‘like big, fluffy rugs’. The chance of glimpsing them – even with the help of other guides radioing through recent sightings – is slimmer than a sick oryx.
We eventually give up and attempt to drive back to the hotel, our path blocked momentarily by island traffic: a couple of ostriches, strutting around and fluffing their feathers indignantly. They are just one of around 170 species of bird on the island, joining emus, flamingos, wild ducks, Caspian terns, cormorants, pintails, and many more.
Back at the hotel, a visit to the colonial-style library reveals old maps and historical books about Arabia. In one, there’s a faded photograph of a young Sheikh Zayed, kneeling in the sands in front of a simple Bedouin tent and smiling openly at the camera. Staring at this black-and-white snapshot of the past, it’s hard not to admire the Sheikh’s vision, dreams and determination. With a bit of imagination, he did what seemed impossible: building cities from the sand, greening the desert and, in developing Sir Bani Yas, creating a lasting legacy to share with future generations. And for that – and perhaps the knockout seafood dinner that night – we are eternally grateful.
Need to know
Unless you’re lucky enough to own a helicopter, it’s quite a journey to reach Sir Bani Yas. Jebel Dhanna is a whopping five-hour drive through Abu Dhabi and then along the fist-chewingly boring Sila Tarif Road, which trundles for an eternity through a wasteland of electricity pylons and oil refineries. Once you reach Marsa Jebel Dhanna jetty, you can take a 30-minute speedboat ride to the island. Of course, you could always splash out and jump on a Royal Jet seaplane from the terminal near Abu Dhabi International airport, which whizzes across to Sir Bani Yas in an hour and lands in rather spectacular fashion at the island’s private marina. We know which option we’d choose…
Where to stay
Anantara Desert Islands Resort & Spa (02 801 5400; www.desertislands.anantara.com). Packages start at Dhs1,499 per room per night, including breakfast (conditions apply).