Did you know a group of flamingos is called a “flamboyance”? That the sand gazelle avoids predators with incredible bursts of speed, often reaching 60 miles per hour? Or that oryx have a rather unusual circulation system in their heads, which cools their blood?
Neither did I. Until I visited Sir Bani Yas Island that is. (And now I’m brimming with wildlife facts that go down well at dinner parties.)
Located nine kilometres off the coast of Jebel Dhanna, 170km southwest of Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas is 17.5km from north to south, making it the largest natural island in the UAE. Its name comes from the Bani Yas tribe, who first inhabited the capital, and this island formed millions of years ago, when a “salt dome” was created that’s still present today.
Fast forward a couple of millennia and, in 1971, the island was established as a nature reserve by the late ruler and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. On the back of kick-starting his “Greening of the Desert” programme on Sir Bani Yas, Sheikh Zayed banned hunting and created a long-term conservation plan to provide a sanctuary for Arabia’s endangered wildlife.
Back then, the Arabian oryx, a species of antelope, was extinct in the wild. But thanks to this initiative, over 400 of them now roam freely in the 4,100-hectare Arabian Wildlife Park, alongside over 13,000 other animals such as gazelles, cheetahs, giraffes and hyenas.
I see all of these animals (except the stealthy hyenas) the day I hop into the Toyota Landcruiser with our safari tour guide, Mark. Hanging out of the large open windows, I snap photos of a couple of smooching giraffes, a poor one-horned oryx and a snoozing cheetah with a belly full of gazelle (the remnants of which aren’t far away. Luckily, we miss the kill).
To be perfectly honest, I had no idea just 48 hours before that such an amazing experience was even a possibility in the GCC. My husband and I had decided we needed a break, booked a couple of nights in the most beautiful local property we could find, and headed out on the two-hour journey from our Abu Dhabi base to the port in Jebel Dhanna just 24 hours later, in order to catch the ferry that takes you to this island paradise.
As we step off the dock and climb into the car that takes you to your hotel – we chose the beachside villas at Al Yamm Villa Resort by Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Resorts – I’m reminded of those first few optimistic scenes when Richard Attenborough leads Sam Neill and Laura Dern into Jurassic Park (later, as we’re in a car at dark, driving past beady, glowing eyes, this first impression becomes less comforting).
Even if you just stay in the hotel and lay by the beach for the entire duration of your stay, it’s a fantastic experience. But the temptation of all the activities is too much to bear – you can try watersports, hiking, mountain biking and a fascinating cultural walk around some of the 42 archaeological sites that have been uncovered in the area.
Of course, the safari is a must, but we also try archery (the first time I tried I was pretty good, but here I break my bow on my first attempt and pull every muscle in my back).
The rest of the time we spend lazing on the sunbeds outside our villa (apart from that one morning, when the area is occupied by a roaming gazelle), making friends with the lovely staff (some of whom have lived on the island for over six years) and sampling Anantara’s numerous restaurants. One day, as we wander along the beach, hunting shells (and avoiding the variety of animal bones strewn about), we spot six stingrays and one baby Gulf shark, circling near the shore.
No matter where you’re coming from in the world, this experience is worth every dirham (and it costs a fair few). If nothing else, you’ll at least leave with a few wildlife facts. Or, in my case, a bruised arm, aching muscles and a serious case of sunburn, but a strong desire to return the very next chance I get.
From Dhs1,275 per room, per night. Visit www.sir-bani-yas-island.anantara.com.
Four to try Activities on Sir Bani Yas Island
Culture & history tour
Learn about the island’s rich history and experience local culture and hospitality. On the tour, you’ll find out how Sheikh Zayed implemented the conservation initiative to protect nature by initially adopting and planting a mangrove tree. Also discover some of the 42 archaeological sites that have been uncovered on the island so far.
This brand new activity allows visitors to find out more about the conservation side of the project and how exactly the on-site vets and experts ensure all of the animals’ safety, and how they protect the island's fragile ecosystem. One unique element is the planting of a mangrove for each visitor to Sir Bani Yas, and how they sustainably developed the resorts.
Operated by a third party, this traditional experience lets you explore the ocean's depths and discover ancient pearl diver techniques. Search for pearl oysters off the coast, snorkel in the clear waters of Discovery Islands, and sneak a peek at vibrant coral reefs. You might even be lucky enough to find and take home a couple of gems of your own.
Eager adventurers must book themselves in for the mountain bike tour. Explore the rugged terrain and stunning landscapes on a personal guided tour that takes you through some of the island’s most picturesque parts. You can choose between an easy or more advanced route, depending on your abilities.