Forget the towering Jebel Hafeet or its sprawling wildlife park, Al Ain’s biggest draw these days is its new hi-tech watersports facility, a place where you can surf 3.3-metre waves, man a raft down a torrential river or, like our adventurous writer Craig Hawes, navigate twisting rapids in a kayak.
I’ve been sitting inside the kayak for all of three minutes listening to Raj, one of Wadi Adventure’s sinewy Nepalese instructors, explain how to exit a capsized boat, when he suddenly announces that he’s going to flip the vessel to see if I’ve got the gist of it. This, I realise, will entail me being underwater, upside down and with my bottom half strapped into the kayak.
I wince as I’m reminded of the scene in An Officer And A Gentleman – that one where the US Navy training recruits are put in a replica cockpit, shot backwards at spine-jerking velocity into a large pool and then have to unharness themselves before swimming to the surface. One of the recruits almost drowns and has to be given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“Are you absolutely 100 per cent sure about this, Raj?” I ask. “Shouldn’t I go and have a little paddle around, get a feel for the thing, maybe even get my hair wet first?” After Raj’s assurances that he’ll flip the boat back over himself if I don’t quickly surface, preferably within about two seconds, I take a deep breath and prepare for my – slightly premature, I feel – baptism. It’s part of my initiation before being let loose on the swerving man-made rapids that gush above us.
I’ve already watched a training video, been kitted out in a life-jacket and helmet and now, to my horror, it’s time for the real thing. After surviving the dunking – just as well, as I was also being filmed for alpha.’s app – and convincing Raj of my ability to do it without his help, we set off into the glassy-still practice lake, where I learn to navigate using my body and the double-blade paddle.
Within minutes I’m questioning my level of fitness as my arms start to feel like they belong on one of those Hindu holy men who keep them raised above their head for aeons. Who knew paddling a boat could be so tricky or energy sapping? Not me. Yet turning these things even a few degrees exceeds in difficulty anything I attempted as a neophyte car driver. Never again will I watch the Oxford-Cambridge boat race with the same degree of sneering inverted snobbery. Moving and manoeuvring in water takes serious strength.
Eventually we go to the start of the milder of the two runs, to which you are transported on a huge conveyor belt. Somehow I manage to complete the run without capsizing. Gaining in confidence, I do it a second time – and topple over right at the end, managing to extract myself from the boat using the wet-exit technique I’ve been shown. I’m disorientated and slightly humiliated, but alive to paddle another day.
Kayaking is just one of the options available to visitors of Wadi Adventure, which is situated at the base of Al Ain’s Jebel Hafeet. Open since April, it’s got loads to offer water-sports enthusiasts and has already hosted several events, including various triathlons and a stand-up paddle-boarding race.
If you enjoy its river runs (there are two of varying difficulty to try), you’ll also enjoy the white-water rafting. More of a team effort, this means clambering aboard a dinghy with several others (including at least one instructor), which then hurtles down rock-festooned gullies of frothing rapids. It’s like being in the film Deliverance, only without the presence of any banjo-playing inbreds. It’s a ride guaranteed to whiten the knuckles, but be warned, if the instructors think you’re up to it, they will occasional capsize you on purpose, They’re a bit sadistic like that.
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How to get there
Take the Al Ain Road from Dubai. After approaching the city, head for Jebel Hafeet and follow the signs to the Green Mubazzarah or Wadi Adventure – they’re close to each other.
Price: Standard entrance fee for Wadi Adventure is Dh100 and kayaking is an additional Dh100 for an all-day pass. Check the website for prices of other activities, which start from Dh25.
For more information check out www.wadiadventure.ae