"Really! Here in the UAE?" asks my husband incredulously when I mention we are heading to the wilderness of Al Gharbia for an Arabian safari. A four-hour drive from Dubai, a few minutes on the TDIC (Tourism Development and Investment Company) ferry and a short bus ride later, we find ourselves at the plush doorstep of the Desert Island Resort and Spa on Sir Bani Yas Island.
We can't wait for the safari drive scheduled early the next morning. My mind is playing back scenarios of slow-motion Animal Planet hunts while the bemused bellhop moves our bags into a spectacular suite overlooking a cobalt Arabian Gulf. The resort blends into its surroundings, mirroring the colour of the neighbouring hills with mangroves covering the lagoon nearby with a sheet of deep green. It feels untainted and unsullied by the outside world.
Labour of love
Sir Bani Yas Island is the largest of eight natural islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the western region of Al Gharbia. Nurtured and preserved with care by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the breeding and conservation programme of Sir Bani Yas is the labour of his love for the island's natural habitat and the heritage of his people. He also created the Greening of the Desert programme, where the focus was on a verdant landscape for the benefit of numerous indigenous species of birds and animals. The core ideology of the TDIC combines responsible tourism with sustainability. To emphasise this, a wind turbine, the first of its kind in the Middle East, was set up in 2004.
The evening is spent exploring the places around the resort, a mountain-biking excursion and relaxing by the pool.
Early the next morning, a safari Jeep is ready to drive us into the wildlife reserve. Our safari guide, Sonika, has been at Desert Islands for more than a year now and loves all aspects of her outdoor work. In this arid and dusty Arabian landscape lies a beauty that is as subtle as it is raw.
Colours of nature
Every now and again, a patch of green breaks the monopoly of the orange-and-brown hilly terrain. Sprightly sand gazelles run about, kicking up dust while a blackbuck sits on the warm ground, his antlers glinting in the sunlight. Several African beisa oryx shuffle about, their mask-like faces sharply focusing on us. One can see a range of species, including the Arabian oryx, mountain gazelle, flamingo, ostrich and the striped hyena.
Crunching and spitting up gravel with her wheels, our Jeep rumbles alongside a group of cow-like eland. They can jump eight feet from a standing position if startled or provoked. Sonika's radio buzzes and cackles to life with news of a cheetah sighting and we make a dash to catch a glimpse of it. Cheetahs are excellent at camouflage and the safety of the wildlife park ensures their survival. Bred in captivity and released into the wild, the three resident cheetahs are successful hunters thriving under the watchful eyes of the TDIC.
We pay a visit to the tallest and most graceful of the park's natives — the giraffes.
The distinct odour of their enclosure drifts across as Sonika explains that these belong to the reticulated breed and are generally peaceful. A lone giraffe, an old male, snorts at our vehicle and Sonika mentions that he has been separated from his group because of his cantankerous behaviour with the ladies.
Leaving behind the world of the hunter and the hunted, the park gates close and we pass quiet olive groves.
Late morning has brought on a hot summer sun that burns down on the stark hills. And while the cheetahs gave us the slip this time, there will be a next time, that's for sure.
Why go there?
Go for a glimpse of Arabian wildlife and for an unforgettable experience of a lifetime at Sir Bani Yas Island.
In keeping with their eco-sensitive approach to tourism, TDIC plants a mango sapling for every guest of the Desert Island Resort and Spa. So by visiting the island you do your part towards the Greening of the Desert programme.
How to get there
From Dubai: Follow E11 straight down from Dubai, past Abu Dhabi, Mirfa and Tarif in the direction of Liwa Oasis. At Jebel Dhanna turn towards the jetty for Desert Islands/Sir Bani Yas Island.
TDIC operates an hourly ferry service between the island and the mainland.
From Abu Dhabi: Sir Bani Yas Island is located approximately 170 kilometres from the city.
Where to stay
Desert Islands Resort and Spa by Anantara: Voted as one of the Condé Nast 100 Hot List of 2010 resorts, this luxurious resort and spa offers all the creature comforts, with large rooms and suites besides beach villas, fine-dining experiences, a tranquil spa and an inviting pool.
Things to be aware of
II Do be mindful of nature and the animals in particular. Loud noises, provoking the animals or feeding them is not permitted.
II Fishing is not permitted anywhere near Sir Bani Yas Island.
II A decent dress code should be maintained on the island as in the rest of mainland UAE.
Snorkelling: There are several reefs for snorkelling and good swimmers are encouraged to try it out.
Kayaking: Adventurers can head to the sea and the bay for this activity. Basic training and equipment are provided.
Archery: Beginners and experts alike are given an opportunity to try the archery range.
Mountain biking: If rugged terrain and panoramic views are right up your alley, try the mountain-biking experience.
Nature and wildlife walks: A guide will walk you through the history and geography of the island and its wildlife.