Written by Pete Mathers, Senior PR Account Manager
“Look! An Arabian oryx,” came an excited cry from the back of our open-sided land cruiser, which was parked in the bush on Sir Bani Yas Island.
“I don’t think that’s an Arabian oryx,” I said. “It looks more like Bambi.”
“He’s right,” said a third voice. “The Arabian oryx is brown, with wavy horns. I think there’s one over there by that goat on its hind legs, nibbling the leaves on that tree.”
“I’m afraid you’re all wrong,” interjected Marie, our expert safari guide, who having spent years leading game drives in Namibia’s Etosha National Park was used to dealing with know-it-all tourists.
“The Arabian oryx is white not brown,” explained Marie, “and it’s got straight horns. What you see by the tree is an Indian blackbuck, the fastest of the antelopes, capable of reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. And that’s not a goat that’s nibbling the tree it’s a sand gazelle, specially adapted to life in the desert.”
So it turns out we knew little about Arabian oryx. But perhaps that wasn’t so surprising. After all, very few of these animals – the smallest of the four large antelope species that make up the oryx genus – would be alive today if it wasn’t for the very island on which we were now standing. Certainly none in the wild.
That’s because Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island is a very unusual place with a rather incredible history. In 1971, when the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became the first President of the United Arab Emirates, he chose Sir Bani Yas as an island retreat for himself and his family, building the lodge that has since been converted into a luxury Anantara hotel.
A nature lover and a passionate conservationist, it wasn’t long before Sheikh Zayed had outlawed hunting on Sir Bani Yas Island and begun a visionary ‘Greening of the Desert’ initiative, which over the years has seen the planting of nearly three million trees, all individually watered by thousands of kilometres of underground piping.
He also recognised the need to preserve his country’s wildlife, particularly endemic species like the Arabian oryx, which by the mid-1970s were extinct in the wild. Four of these fierce creatures – and they can be pretty fierce Marie assured us – were acquired from a zoo in Arizona and transported to Sir Bani Yas, forming the basis of the wildlife sanctuary known today as the Arabian Wildlife Park.
Comprising 4,100 hectares – a little over half of the island – the park is now home to more than 10,000 animals, including gazelles, giraffes, hyenas, ostriches and around 450 Arabian oryx. In fact, so successful was the breeding programme of the oryx that in 2011, 14 of the animals were released into Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert – to live among the dunes as they had done in previous centuries.
There are even five cheetahs, three male and two female, introduced to the island to help control the buck and gazelle populations. It’s not as mad as you might think. Cheetahs, like giraffes, did used to live on the Arabian Peninsula. It was man that drove them to extinction in these parts. So perhaps it’s fitting that it’s man that has reintroduced them to the region, creating in the process a wildlife experience that’s unique in the Middle East. Where else can you watch a cheetah take down a gazelle in the morning, and be swimming in the warm, inviting waters of the Arabian Gulf in the afternoon?
As it turned out, the world’s fastest animal eluded our detection on this occasion, but all the other species were there in abundance, free to roam over the island’s heartland. And what a heart it is. As we drove further inland, canyons cast shadows against rocky slopes whose vibrant colours betrayed the minerals within – the deep purples of magnesium, the blood reds of iron and the greens of copper oxide adding an artist’s touch to the otherworldly landscape.
Beneath the highest peaks, small carpets of green rolled idly away towards the dazzling Arabian Gulf. Mountain gazelles stood huddled in the shade of acacia trees, whose wiry frames are perfectly designed to withstand the island’s arid conditions. Though planted artificially, none of the trees here are strangers to the region, or to the trials and tribulations of surviving in the desert. Frankincense has been seen in these parts since Biblical times. Christ’s Thorn has an equally long lineage and produces edible fruits greatly enjoyed by the island’s sand gazelles. Blackbucks on the other hand are more likely to go for the evergreen Ghaf trees, while giraffes – so I’m told – are inclined towards the Toothbrush Tree, so named for its use throughout the Muslim world as a chewing stick, said to have a pleasant fragrance and a warm, pungent taste.
“These are the only five species of tree on the island,” explained Marie as sunlight danced upon the vaulting ridges. “Except of course for the mangrove trees.”
I’d had a taste of the mangroves earlier in the day on a kayaking trip. Like everything else, what had once been an import is now a vital part of this fragile ecosystem. Not only do mangroves provide breeding grounds for fish, they also counteract pollution by absorbing CO2, and act as a barrier to erosion from the sea.
Sitting in my kayak with my paddle on my lap, surrounded by the mangroves and with the sun on my face, it was hard to believe I’d been at Abu Dhabi airport just an hour beforehand. That’s the other great thing about Sir Bani Yas Island. Yes it’s one of the region’s greatest conservation stories, but it’s also so accessible as a tourist destination.
Rotana Jet now operates a service five times a week from the UAE capital to Sir Bani Yas, with single fares starting from as little as £36. The 50-seater plane takes just 40 minutes to reach the island’s airstrip, where guests are met by Anantara’s waiting staff.
For the moment at least, the luxury hotel brand has exclusive rights to accommodating guests on the island, offering them the choice of three unique properties. Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, where I was staying, was the first to open in 2008. Walking into its grand central lobby it wasn’t hard to imagine that this was once the sheikh’s VIP guesthouse, with royal portraits above reception, urns as tall as men spouting tropical foliage and locally hand-crafted furnishings.
At more than seven square feet, the bed in my room was exceptionally spacious and equally comfortable. Hardwood furnishings and rattan ceiling fans gave a sense of history while modern conveniences ran to complimentary Wi-Fi, a giant flatscreen TV and an iPod docking station. From the private balcony I had views of the lagoon-like, infinity-edged pool and the Arabian Gulf beyond.
Second to open was the Anantara Al Yamm Villa Resort, where I lunched at the Italian-inspired Olio restaurant, widely renowned as one of the best in Abu Dhabi. When I could eat no more I asked if I could peek into the villas. All 30 are decorated in a neutral style using carved wood and colours that complement the natural surroundings. Each has a rain shower and free-standing bathtub as well as its own deck, with larger one- and two-bedroom villas coming with their own private plunge pools.
Guests can step straight from their villas onto a white-sand beach, laze around the pool on loungers in the sunshine, be pampered at the Anantara Spa or partake in any of the island activities. As well as kayaking and nature and wildlife drives, options include archery, mountain biking, horse riding, trekking, snorkelling, diving and deep sea fishing, all accompanied by Anantara’s expert staff.
That evening, after returning from the game drive and the spectacular falconry show that followed, I headed over to dinner at the third and most recent of the island’s properties. Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort is the only hotel to be located within the boundaries of the wildlife park itself. Drawing inspiration from the luxury lodges of sub-Saharan Africa, its 30 villas boast traditional thatch roofs and most have private plunge pools, allowing guests to cool off in peace as they watch gazelles grazing only yards in front of them.
After the day I’d had it came as no surprise to hear that Sir Bani Yas was named ‘World’s Leading Sustainable Tourist Destination’ at the World Travel Awards in 2014. We were eating outside at Al Sahel’s Boma restaurant at the time, enjoying a South African-style braii of boerewors, steak, chops, chicken and my personal favourite, bobotie – a dish of curried minced meat topped with an egg-based crust and baked until golden brown. Like the wildlife park itself, it felt like a slice of Africa in Arabia. And as I looked up at the moon, hanging like a Bedouin’s dagger against the dark velvet sky, I couldn’t help but feel that Sheikh Zayed himself would be proud of what has become of his private island home.