Tariq Al Salman built this farm and nature reserve in 2015 Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

An hour’s drive from Dubai, through a stretch of green farmlands, close to Ras Al Khaimah Airport, tucked down a pebbled dirt road, lies RAK Nature’s Treasures. On this languid sunny weekday afternoon, the eerie silence around the closed metal doors of the natural history museum and farm, belie the startling treasures within. Built in 2015, it is the culmination of Emirati engineer Tariq Al Salman’s lifelong quest– to bring nature close to city dwellers. The 200,000 square feet piece of land is home to a host of rare collectibles from his travels and also to an assortment of birds, animals and reptiles.

Step inside and expect to experience a sensory overload from the strange mismatched sights. At the entrance, greeted by a lone leering monkey in a cage, our eyes fall on a vintage Range Rover parked right across in a dusty garage. Adjacent to this, is Tariq’s most prized, private collectible museum. Stacked in an exhibition hall, the doors to which open revealing rows of massive corals on one side, flanked by shelves teeming with unpolished gemstones, fossils, stuffed birds, herbs and farming tools.

Tariq, lively yet unassuming, dressed in a white kandurah and cap, leads us to a guided tour and shares, “I have been collecting from a young age, picking up anything and everything that looked unique to me – sometimes sea shells from the beaches or a coloured stone from the deserts, at times a curved piece of wood from the mountains. I used to store them at home and a few years ago, decided to build this museum.”

Amidst hundreds of gemstones and fossils in the hall, he walks us to a massive purple amethyst with an open sparkling jagged centre, originally from Brazil. “I found this striking gem in Pakistan, but brought it to the UAE with great difficulty, after several failed attempts to get it through the airport,” he says. A little away sits a fossilised whale vertebra, weighing 4.2 pounds (almost 2 kgs), brought from Sri Lanka. On a shelf above is a dolphin skull he found awash on a beach in Zanzibar.

Widely travelled to 57 countries, Tariq’s collectibles too, come from across the globe. A few of them, albeit are from the UAE itself, scouted from wadis in Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. In his palm, he shows a fossilised Ceratite Ammonite from Jebel Jais, and then steers us to an old dhow in the middle of the room, heaped with mounds of seashells and corals, gathered from the beaches of UAE since his childhood.

Browsing around we discover that the museum is filled with several eclectic curios, each with a story of its own – there is a meteorite, a dinosaur egg, a taxidermy section with stuffed gazelles, wild cats and parrots, preserved snakes and crocodiles in jars alongside medicinal herbs (tree bark and dried frog legs) as well as coloured sands from distant lands. “Unlike in a museum where everything is displayed behind glass shelves, at RAK Nature’s Treasures we let people touch and feel nature’s wonders,” explains Tariq. At his farm, visitors can also meet animals at close quarters and pet them. The caged ones are let out in the open a few times a week, he shares.

The 53-year-old father of five, grew up in the heartland of Ras Al Khaimah. His love for nature and pets, was intrinsic to his childhood. “We always had parrots, chicken, pigeons and goats at home and a vegetable patch fondly tended to by my father,” he recollects.

Exploration and curation for the museum has been no less than an adventure for Tariq. It has taken the avid scuba diver and hiker, on a few dangerous and, at times, hilarious tracks. In Kabul to buy precious gemstones, he says, he encountered several buyers, until he was led on to a dubious part of the city.

“There I finally met the big fish who tried to sell me a coral worth thousands of dollars, but I confessed that I had only come for a few gemstones,” narrates Tariq. “Fortunately, he let me go, but not before I had to spend two hours, stressed and waiting to be walked back to the main market by his men.” At another instance, while holidaying in Greece, he carried back a cactus in the suitcase. “But when I opened the bag at home, out came a live brown snake that was hidden inside the plant,” he laughs.

Sometimes his love for collecting these treasures has even led to monetary losses. Once in the Philippines, Tariq went on a shopping spree buying stashes of eye-catching corals and stones, only to be told at the airport that he could take none of it in his baggage.

Enthralled by his witty anecdotes, time slipped by and we moved from the museum to his farm, at the centre of which stands a gigantic pigeon house, conical with little holes on the top for pigeons to breed.

Around this is an indoor rainforest with papaya trees, banana plants, grapevines and fig trees. At the other end, are the traditional mud houses, some painted with bold, black and white African prints.

In the central courtyard takes place the weekend market, where people come to sell organic produce and handmade ware. From here we set step into the unique salt cave, the walls of this dim-lit serene room plastered with batches of mountain and sea salt, emanate a sense of calm and ethereal aura. “Being in a salt room is therapeutic for our body and mind,” reveals Tariq, “It’s one of our most admired sections, we even conduct yoga and meditation classes here.”

Past this are the fish tanks with fiery orange Tilapias, sharing space with the tortoises sunning outside. Besides the Potter’s wheel, (you can make your own clay pot for as little as Dh10 and take it home once dried) are the bird homes of flamingos, peacocks, parrots and ducks.

In the petting zoo little visitors can feed carrots to the rabbits, milk to the kitten and baby goats and if they have a heart of steel, hold the African Boa.

Much to our horror, Tariq takes the boa out of its cage and entwines its curved body around his arms and urges us to touch it. “She has been with us from the beginning, for almost six years, she is very tame,” he reassures. “One of my reasons to build this place, was to educate people about farm life and cultivation. There are adults I have met here, who have never seen a cucumber plant, chicken hatch or held a snake before.”

As a community initiative, in a patch near the greenhouse, frequent visitors can grow their own vegetables.

At the time when we visited, there are pumpkins, tomatoes and bottle gourds. “It’s equally a learning process for me,” says Tariq, “Sometimes, someone would get a few strawberry seeds and we plant them to see if they would grow in this environment. We have also tried to cultivate giant tomatoes.”

Walking along, we get an aerial view of the farm through a short stroll on the skywalk (a raised walkway), from where we see gazelles huddled together, donkeys playing in the sand and a few camels meandering about.

Out on the evening sky, as the ball of orange sun is slowly setting, it’s end of our tour, walking back, we leave with the endearing image of Tariq tenderly feeding leafy tendrils to an eager ostrich flapping its giant brown wings.

RAK Nature’s Treasures

Timings: 8am to 8pm, closed on Tuesdays

Tickets: Dh20 for adults and Dh10 for kids between ages 6 and 10.

Potter’s wheel Dh10

Contact number: 055 750 5556

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