Abu Dhabi – place of silence and splendour

Posted by on Jun 26, 2015 in In print this month | 0 comments

Sand, Sea and Salukis

Elegant, understated Abu Dhabi city – capital of the UAE – stands between the sand sea of the Arabian Desert and the tranquil tepid waters of the Arabian Gulf. These are the natural attractions for roadtrippers wanting to experience absolute beauty.

By Keri Harvey

Saluki and handler

Saluki and handler

The Empty Quarter is the largest uninterrupted sand sea on earth, and the light of late afternoon has turned the sandscape into still life fire. More precisely, we’re at Qasr Al Sarab – a magnificent desert resort that rises from the sand to resemble a majestic Kasbah city – and for desert lovers it is nirvana on earth. Vast, shifting sands curve and wind to the horizon in every direction, and the light breeze gently feathers sand off the crest of the dunes. Only the sun and stars offer a sense of orientation and surreal silence pervades.

Today, salukis and falcons hold the desert centre stage. Their speed and agility on land and in the air are breathtaking, and they’ve always been essential hunting partners for nomadic Bedouin people who historically lived in these reaches. Both bird and hound are still revered for their talents and remain an indelible part of the evocative Arab culture.

Salukis are like Arabian greyhounds, and the oldest known breed of domesticated dog. Regal and gracious, with webbed toes for speed over soft desert sand, they’re traditionally used to hunt hares and gazelle for their owners – and for a share of the prey in return. Salukis are said to be capable of maintaining a speed of 80km/hour for two kilometres. And then we witness this spectacle for ourselves.

A lone saluki and his robed handler walk out into the desert, showered red by the setting sun. Soon they are but a pale speck in the red sand sea of evening, almost invisible to the naked eye. Then the handler lets go the dog from a kilometre away and a ribboning sand cloud hurtles towards us across the desert floor. Too fast to photograph, too rapid to see in plain sight, the saluki skids to a halt at our feet in a spray of soft sand. Job done, he’s caught the ‘prey’ of a mechanical decoy hare. In character, the dog now waits patiently to be given his ‘share’ to refuel the speed machine.

Falconry at Qasr Al Sarab

Falconry at Qasr Al Sarab

And then the falcons are released to fly, one by one. They’re all peregrins and can fly at 180km/h, diving for prey in the air at up to 320km/h. These are insane speeds and we watch in awe as the birds chase an airborne feather dolly, swooping low and pulling out of dives just skimming over our heads. Peregrins can spot prey from over a kilometre away and are the favourite birds of the Emerati sheikhs.

We’re about 200km from Abu Dhabi city in the vast Liwa Oasis, denoted by a crescent of date-palm dotted villages in the vast Empty Quarter dunescape. Before arriving at Qasr Al Sarab though, we turned off the wide asphalt coastal road just a little way from the city and headed directly inland into sand. All the way we were flanked by desert dunes rising voluptuously on either side of the road. This is a road trip par excellence for sand lovers, and that’s just who we are. Wide eyed at the vastness, speechless at the surreal beauty surrounding us, we returned to our senses briefly when we stopped to stretch our legs at the Liwa Car Museum.

Giant dodge in car museum

Giant dodge in car museum

This is the personal vehicle collection of Sheikh Hamdan, also affectionately known as The Rainbow Sheikh – and likely so called for his colourful collection of cars. To be exact there are 223 vehicles inside and 10 outside, along with a jumbo jet parked in deep sand and a giant Jeep. Inside the museum the cars gleam and are arranged around an oversized Dodge. It’s so big that normal size cars can easily park underneath it. The red monster is a 1994 model and took five years to build. It then drove just 10 metres before the axle broke – end of story. Inside are also disco dune buggies, Cadillacs and Thunderbirds, not forgetting a literal rainbow collection of Mercedes Benz cars. There’s one in every colour of the spectrum, and then one with every colour of the spectrum painted on it – humorous and bizarre.

From Qasr Al Sarab we trace the road cutting through sand back to the main highway, passing duned camel farms en route. All over we see farmers tending their stock and camels walking in single file across the sand, as if it were firm ground. We’re heading further along the coast to Jebel Dhanna and then on to the desert island of Sir Bani Yas, one of over 200 islands off Abu Dhabi. Our vehicle remains on the mainland and we transfer to the island by boat – just in time before strong winds whip up the usually still gulf waters.

Sir Bani Yas island was the vision of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late ruler and founder of the UAE. He loved nature and dreamed of an island dedicated to wildlife, so in 1971 he put his grand plan into motion. Now half the island or 42km² is set aside as a wildlife reserve. Hardy trees were planted and irrigated with desalinated water, and exotic animals were brought in from around the world to keep company with the pure white Arabian oryx. So there are black buck from India, reticulated giraffe from Kenya and barbary sheep from Morocco, living alongside 2 000 mountain gazelle and 5 000 sand gazelle – not forgetting four cheetah too. It’s an intriguing concept to create a united nations of wildlife on a desert island, but offers a unique chance for local Emerati people to experience a world more typical of Africa. The island also has the only early Christian monastery site in the UAE, dated to 600AD and only discovered as recently as 2001. It’s open to the public in a show of respect and tolerance for other world religions.

Abu Dhabi skyline

Abu Dhabi skyline

A long drive on smooth straight roads, past tangles of oil fields and carpets of sand lands us back in Abu Dhabi city by evening. The city lights are twinkling and welcoming and tomorrow we will explore the capital’s offerings. But for now, we still have sand in our shoes and sea air in our hair. A dramatic and auspicious road trip may have ended, but salukis and falcons, streams of camels and swathes of date palms remain the movie in our minds. Along with some wildlife never seen before. Yet, it is in all these places that the spirit of Arabia lives, but mostly in the shifting sands that run red as blood in the evenings.



Abu Dhabi city highlights:

Grand Mosque – With a capacity for 41 000 worshippers, it’s one of the worlds biggest mosques and is exquisitely beautiful. It has 82 domes, over 1 000 columns, gold chandeliers, a 35-ton hand-knotted carpet and is of white marble inlaid with semi precious stones. See www.szgmc.ae

Ferrari World – It’s the world’s first and largest Ferrari theme park and has over 20 rides including the world’s fasted roller coaster at 240km/hour. It’s for all who love speed and fun. See: www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com

Manarat Al Saadiyat – an extensive $30 billlion art and culture district and future home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi (opening mid 2015), Sheikh Zayed National Museum (open 2016) and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (open 2017). See: www.saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae.

The Emirates Palace – believed to be the world’s most expensive hotel built at a cost of $3billion. Its private beach has sand imported from Algeria. See: www.emiratespalace.ae

Fine accommodation:

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara in The Empty Quarter; Desert Islands Resort and Spa by Anantara on Sir Bani Yas island – Tel: +971 2 656 1177; email: ; see: www.anantara.com

Jumeirah at Etihad Towers – also has Abu Dhabi’s highest vantage point – the Observation Deck at 300 – on floor 74 – Tel: +971 2 811 5555; email: or see www.jumeirah.com

Other information:

Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority – see www.tcaabudhabi.ae and www.visitabudhabi.ae

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