From a private royal playground to a conservation safari island, this is the inspiring and intriguing, certainly almost biblical story of how Noah’s Ark came to be on Sir Bani Yas.
Beginning when this 87-sq-km desert island was originally Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s private retreat. The founder and first ruler of the United Arab Emirates was given a bevy of exotic animals as gifts when exploring Africa as a young royal. After this, he took an interest and started collecting exotic species now thriving on the island’s huge wildlife. Sheik Zayed’s initiative was to save a native species that had teetered on the brink of extinction; the Arabian oryx. Officially declared extinct in the wild in the late 1960s, it’s plight moved the animal-loving emir to begin developing Sir Bani Yas as a place to protect it.
“The oryx is the main reason the island is the way it is today,” says Matt Bottomer, an adventure guide who familiarizes visitors staying on Sir Bani Yas with its many resident creatures. “Sheikh Zayed searched the world to see if there were any oryx in captivity. “He found a handful and started a breeding program here.”
To prepare the island for those few remaining antelopes in the early 1970s, the late Sheik launched an extravagant project to ‘green a desert’. Hundreds of thousands of trees, including acacia, ghaf (the national tree of the UAE), frankincense, gum and mangrove were planted in the desert scrubland of the 87-square-kilometer island to create a habitat for the oryx and other animals. This has since grown to a forest of 4 million, irrigated by desalinated water pumped through an undersea pipeline from the mainland, giving the island a gorgeous greenery throughout.
Today, over 10,000 Oryx have been released back into the wild, due to this breeding programme, with 500 currently living on the wildlife park on the island, which also now homes several indigenous species, as well as other Asian and African animals, including cheetahs and one of Shaikh Zayed’s favourite animals, the giraffe.
Only a limited number of visitors were allowed on the island when the wildlife park was established in the 1970s. The weekend tours became so popular they had to be booked more than a year in advance. Since Sheik Zayed’s death, in 2004, Sir Bani Yas has gradually become more accessible. The 87sqkm island (the size of Abu Dhabi city) has since developed into an eco-tourism resort by the Tourism Development and Investment Company and opened to the public in 2008.
Reached by a 50-seat plane from Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or a 250-kilometer drive from the UAE capital followed by a ferry crossing, Sir Bani Yas recreates a wilderness, but without the hassle of camping. Awarded the ‘World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination’ at the 2014 World Travel Awards in Anguila, accommodation is in one of three luxury resorts managed by Anantara;
Anantara Al Yamm
This beautiful beach front seclusion was first on our itinerary, these villas include a freestanding bathtub, a wet room and a bedroom which opens up to the beach. These villas face the East side of the island so be prepared for mother nature’s wake-up call; the sun-rise was a magical experience to watch from our bed/terrace/beach. Admire flocks of flamingos gracing the mangrove lagoon and waves washing over pristine white sands from the shoreline barasti villas. Here, you can kayak along the mangrove shores, go pearl-diving or scuba dive off the island in the coral-reef and sea turtle filled Persian Gulf.
Anantara Al Sahel
Live out your wildlife adventure dreams from rustic lodge luxury in the west of the island. We stayed in a beautiful villa created with the look and design of the savannah; high arch ceilings, a free-standing brass bathtub and a four-poster canopy bed, just one part of the many things to enjoy here. The area is surrounded by the Arabian oryx and vibrant peacocks that eat right out of your hand (just ask for the birdseed at reception!) Find a small jacuzzi on the deck with a canopy overhead to shield from the intense sunshine, and a cooling infinity pool by the main reception and restaurant. We got to sample an authentic hog roast in the evenings at the outdoor BBQ restaurant, as well as platitudes of flavours from all over the world.
This is where you have to try the guided safari tours in a 4×4 and get up close to the brother cheetahs (Gabrielle and Gibbs) – who were pretty aloof and chill when we found them! Wadi hikes in the mountains, nature walks on the southeast of the island and mountain biking inside and outside the park are even more direct ways of experiencing the territory. “Each offers the chance to find different animals in different habitats,” Bottomer says.
Ananatara Desert Islands
Designed to resemble a coastal fortress, palatial splendour and glittering Gulf views surround the north side resort. This beautiful Arabian hotel features outdoor dinner evenings on the beach, complete with live Arabic music; wrap up in a blanket on the woven carpet sofas or inside a traditional Bedouin tent with only the lanterns and star light to light the way. A perfectly romantic evening, with plates and plates full of flavoursome middle-eastern cuisine to further delight the senses.
The island is also home to UAE’s only discovered Christian monastery, which can be visited during a Desert Islands Resort & Spa Culture Tour. Believed to have been built around 600 AD, and abandoned in 750 AD, the monastery was initially discovered during excavations in 1992. Other activities including the pampering Anantara Spa rituals, timeless Arabian activities like archery and falconry, a wide range of water sports and of course a mouthwatering choice of restaurants.
The state-of-the-art stables offers a variety of equestrian activities and lessons, each tailored to meet individual abilities, and are home to a few exquisite ex-race horses, these beautiful Arabian stallions have all been gifted or hand-picked by the Sheikh’s family. I was lucky enough to ride a beauty by the name of ‘Magic’ (it was fate), we rode off into the sunset together after doing a round of trotting and cantering in the paddock.
I cannot recommend this island enough. From the generous and welcoming hospitality by the Island guides, hotel staff, the chefs, the skippers and helmsmen, to exploring all the possibilities and adventures in and around the island, it’s absolutely impossible to feel bored or think back to reality in any sort of way. For the person who has everything, or who thinks they’ve seen it all, take them to Sir Bani Yas and I guarantee, not only will you have the most incredible experience but you will leave feeling inspired and motivated to do what you can to lead a more noble and philanthropic life. Just look out for the Arabian Oryx!