Wildlife watching is not the first thing that comes to anybody’s mind when imagining a Dubai vacation or break. The desert city however has some very beautiful and protected wildlife sanctuaries, which offer pleasant breaks to mall sore travelers. I had happened to experience 2 of Dubai’s best kept wildlife secrets in 1 day. While 1 had been by invitation, the other had happened by chance. I had stumbled upon the quiet Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary on my way from Oman and my eyes had been shocked to see layers of mobile shell pink in midst of sand dunes. They had been the resident flamingos of Ras Al Khor and they had strutted pink and proud against Dubai skyline shimmering in the background.
The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is UAE’s first Ramsar wetland site and is one of the few urban protected areas in the world. Located at the head of the salty Dubai Creek, Ras Al Khor lies between the Persian Gulf and Al Awir Desert and consists of salt and mudflats, mangrove forests, lagoons, pools and few tiny islands. It is open to visitors and the best time to watch the fflamingoes is at the feeding time in the morning. An important winter destination for aquatic and migratory birds, Ras Al Khor supports nearly 67 species of avians, especially the East African and West Asian flyways. It stretches over 620 hectares and is a gem of a place. A covered walkway from the parking area leads to the watchtower and wired enclosure keeps visitors at bay. Powerful binoculars however are provided by the friendly watch tower guards for closer views of these magnificent gangly birds.
I had spent the entire morning there basking in the surreal sight of free wildlife in midst of Dubai’s busy commerce before heading out for its next wildlife secret. That one had been by invitation and had been absolutely incredible. A surprise visit to the stunning Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and an overnight stay at the beautiful Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa had been included in the trip and awesome would be an understatement to describe the experience. Established in 2003, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a 225 square kilometers of natural reserve and UAE’s first national park. Careful planning and dedicated rehabilitation is relentlessly followed to preserve UAE’s beautiful desert heritage and reintroduce nearly extinct local wildlife.
It had been located an hour away from the city and I had looked forward to a night in the desert. Dubai’s desert had been rose coloured and gently rolling and shadows had marked them in a fascinating way. Small meswak bushes had grown in clumps and I could almost picture Bedouin ladies of an erstwhile era collecting the twigs to use as toothbrushes. Henna shrubs had lain scattered in hedges and the leaves were still used for make up and hair dye. After a rather uneventful drive by the time I had finally reached the gates of Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the sun had dipped low and the desert breeze had turned mild. My friend’s vintage Range Rover had gleamed dully as it had awaited me and his other guests. T.
We had tied up our hair in traditional keffiyeh (headscarf), piled onto the vinatge jeep and had got going. The desert had stretched in mounds bordered by indigenous gaf trees (planted to stabilize the shifting sands during sand storms) and small patches of wooded shrubs. The sandy stretches had been home of the desert scorpions and snakes which came out only at nights after the sands gave off the day’s heat. Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has many unique mammals like the sand fox, red fox, caracal, sand cat, Gordon wild cat, Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and sand gazelle apart from a wide variety of rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, shrews and rodents, living in it. There is also a healthy population of many varieties of skinks, beautiful lizards, geckos, snakes, insects and worms. Seemingly inhospitable its is a wonder how the arid sands have nurtured life of so many creatures and ancient generations of human civilization and trades. Many plants also grow in the desert and during flowering time, shrubs like broomrape, caper, daisies etc colour the sands in multi coloured patches.
The desert had bben dry and devoid of blooms when I had visited, but it had been very beautiful in its blushing colours. Gazelles and oryxes had scampered past and it had been a beautiful evening drive through the rolling sandy expanse. My host was a close friend from Lebanon who had struck gold in UAE and was a partner in the Dubai based luxury tour company called Platinum Heritage. http://platinum-heritage.com/ They specialize in luxury experiential tours and believe in upholding the Emirati hospitality in its truest form. Although the evening had been promised to be eventful and long, I had been content at just staring at the beauty of the desert.
After crying over the non existence of the desert in the city, where manicured lawns, fruiting date palms and brilliantly flowering flame trees have taken over, the soft starkness of the rolling sands had been like a visual treat. Romeo, the pet falcon had made a grand entrance, hooded, decked up and accompanied by an attendant in an air conditioned luxury car. He had been small for his size, highly arrogant and I had quickly realized that some of the sheen of money had rubbed off on the prized falcons too.
Romeo was highly prized and he knew it. Falcons are the fastest moving creature on the planet and kill prey by swooping down at them at an incredible speed. Much prized and kept as treasures by the rich Arab sheikhs, falcons are seasonal pets. Falconry came into existence when the Bedouins started catching these migratory birds and training them to hunt, to tide over the scarcity of food in winter. They would keep the falcons all winter, hunt small animals and birds with them and release them with the advent of summer. Training a falcon takes skill and patience because they can never be maintained as domesticated birds. Even if a falcon lives with a master for a few months or even a year, they tend to fly away the moment they get released. Bedouins train the falcon by giving them a portion of the hunt to eat first. Falcons are kept fit by making them undergo 2 kinds of swooping movements called ground pass and air pass. A small portion of meat is attached to a long rope which is swooped around like a lasso for the falcon to catch. The trick is to catch them when they are eating because a falcon will always fly away once it is full.
Falcons are also pretty fidgety birds and are usually kept hooded to keep them calm. A swanky souk in Dubai has been dedicated for the accessories and treats of these precious seasonal birds. Located at Nad Al Sheba-Meydan Road, the 27, 500 square meters Falcon Heritage and Sports Center is the only place in Dubai where UAE’s national bird can be legally sold and bought. The center also has a museum dedicated to the bird, which is a part of the Emirati history and integral part of desert life, apart from shops selling delicate hoods, protective gauntlets worn by handlers and a falconry training school and veterinary clinic.
Symbol of force, courage and pride, falcon is represented in UAE’s stamps, currency and national emblem. Falconry is an important and historical part of Arab tradition and they love this forceful bird of prey. Falcons travel with their owners only in 1st class, live in constant air conditioning as they cannot stand hot weather and are worth their weight in multiple Ferraris. In fact, the bigger and heavier (females are bigger than the males) falcons fetch mini king’s ransom and the female white falcon is one of the most expensive pets in the world.
I had loved the falconry show and the swooping movement of the bird had been fascinating to watch. Post falconry, we had headed for the dinner camp where traditional dinner and Tanura dance had entertained us till stars had crowded the sky. It had been a beautiful evening and as I had gotten escorted to the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, I had wished for the evening to go on.