My watch shows 6am as we start walking from our one-bedroom villa to the reception area for our wildlife drive. It’s a five-minute walk, but my wife and I cannot make it in time; we spot a sand gazelle family a few metres from our villa. As avid photographers, we simply can’t let this opportunity go. The spell is eventually broken by a voice shouting, “Let’s go out for more surprises!”. It is Kate, our guide for the safari, who has come to fetch us in a modified Land Cruiser.
Yes, this may not be the best time to be out on the famous Sir Bani Yas Island, a mere 380km drive from Dubai. But the off-season rates — on stay and excursions — were too good to pass by. Just 8km offshore from Abu Dhabi’s western region, it’s one of the largest islands in UAE and more than half of it is dedicated to wildlife conservation. The journey of this World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination award-winning island started in 1971 when the Father of the Nation Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan declared Sir Bani Yas Island a nature reserve. His visionary Greening of the Desert programme transformed this barren island to an oasis for endangered Arabian wildlife.
We booked our tour with Anantara Hotels and Resorts, the only group with three separate properties on the island — Desert Islands Resort & Spa, Al Sahel Villa Resort and Al Yamm Villa Resort. You have to take a boat ride from Jebel Dhana jetty on the mainland to reach the island. As our official check-in time was 3pm, I sought to book the 2pm boat, but the hotel employee on the phone insisted I take the noon trip. I was in doubt, but he convinced me, saying, “Believe me, sir, you won’t regret it.”
And we didn’t.
After an almost four-hour drive from Dubai on the E11 highway, we reached the dedicated jetty at Jebel Dhana for Anantara’s guests. After a welcome ceremony, the hotel staff directed me to a covered parking area for guests where my car was to spend the night. A luxurious 20-minute boat ride and a shorter scenic car ride got us to the Al Yamm Villa Resort on the island.
After quick reservation formalities, we are taken to our one-bedroom villa in a golf cart. It’s built on the beach and is surrounded by trees. As it was a full moon night, we could see and hear the waves rushing to shore just a few metres from our room. The feeling of tranquility was superlative.
It’s not only the pristine beach or wildlife; in accordance with the rich history of the island, numerous archaeological sites have been discovered on it in recent years. One is the remains of a Nestorian Christian monastery, which dates back to 600 AD. You have to take a separate tour to visit all these sites.
The show-stopper of our tour was the wildlife drive at Arabian Wildlife Park. It guarantees an almost one-on-one encounter with animals ranging from giraffes to cheetah to the Arabian Rock Hyrax. Seeing these beautiful animals in the backdrop of rugged mountains is surreal. On Bani Yas, you can find a variety of landscapes from savannah to salt dome to sand. This is home to one of the world’s largest herds of endangered Arabian Oryx, once extinct in the wild.
The scene of a herd of Oryx, or Eland (the world’s largest antelope), blowing dust in the air as they race through the landscape is spectacular. Every bit of the safari will give you the feeling of being in Africa. From one window of our vehicle, we saw a pair of Cheetah brothers sleeping a few feet away while from the other we enjoyed a soothing peacock dance. Whether you are in a vehicle, or walking, you are never far from an interesting species of deer, antelope or gazelle.
Sir Bani Yas Island is so stunningly beautiful that we regretted not visiting it earlier. Being wildlife enthusiasts, we travel to different African countries every year. Wildlife safaris like those take months of planning. You spend hours on the internet looking for cheap flights, hotel promotions and tour packages. Eventually, you embark on a journey of thousands of miles from Dubai. Compare this with Sir Bani Yas Island, which under the supervision of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company, now has more than 13,000 animals and birds roaming free in their natural habitat.
Want to rediscover yourself in absolute wilderness? It will take more than one visit to Sir Bani Yas Island.