Discover The Embracing Our Past Issue

Sir Bani Yas: A wildlife haven in the middle of the desert

How often do we get to wake up to the sight of Arabian gazelles running freely?

My watch read 05:00 AM when I woke up to the sound of two gazelles playing on the wooden steps in front of our beachfront villa on Sir Bani Yas Island. I quietly nudged my cousin awake, and we tiptoed to the balcony windows to get a closer look. How often do we get to wake up to the sight of Arabian gazelles running freely?

We watched them run off to the beach as the sun rose. The serene, majestic sight gave us a better kick than our morning coffee ever could.

Less than two hours later, we strapped on our sneakers and jogged to the reception building, where our scheduled 07:00 AM adventure awaited us. My husband and I booked the farthest  one-bedroom beach villa  from the reception building on purpose—an excuse for us to get some morning exercise in. Running against the cool winter breeze left us feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy the activities we booked prior to our visit.

Al Yamm one-bedroom villa. Courtesy.

Our mountain biking guide, Mike, was waiting for us in the hotel lobby with his biking gear on. He led us to the sand-coloured, windowless safari Land Rover that was parked out front. We drove for about 15 minutes to our starting point on the other end of the island, where we tested our bikes out first and then rode them up and down the hills of the reserve. We biked alongside gazelles and oryx, which were feeding from the trees. Mike informed us about how the island came to be millions of years ago, when geological forces created the salt dome island that is present today.

By the time our 90-minute mountain biking adventure was over, we were famished. We rushed to the breakfast buffet and enjoyed a hunger-satiating meal overlooking the lush green mangroves across from us.

The winter season is the perfect time to visit Sir Bani Yas Island, 8 km offshore from Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. It is one of the largest islands in the UAE, and more than half of the island (about 4,100 hectares) is a wildlife park dedicated to conserving endangered Arabian wildlife such as cheetahs, giraffes, hyenas, ostriches, the Arabian oryx, and Arabian gazelles. The island derives its name from the Bani Yas tribe, which first inhabited Abu Dhabi.

Sir Bani Yas is awildlife park dedicated to conserving endangered Arabian wildlife. Courtesy Anantara Hotels.

This world-leading and award-winning sustainable island came to life in 1971 when the late founding father of the UAE H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan declared it a natural reserve. The aim was to preserve endangered Arabian wildlife species and provide them with a sanctuary where they can roam freely.

Forty years later, the island is now home to over 1,000 employees and over 13,000 animals, and several million trees have been planted there under the direction of H.H. Sheikh Zayed. Three properties are offered on the island: Al Yamm, Al Sahel, and Desert Islands, all operated by Anantara Hotel and Resorts.

Exterior shot of Al Yamm one-bedroom villa. Courtesy Anantara Hotels.

We stayed in Al Yamm, as we preferred beach villas, and it provided access to the most pristine beaches on the island. Danat was the first of the three to be built and is a hotel building, while Al Sahel, the last to join the series of properties, offers villas and rooms located in the middle of the wildlife reserve.

‘I feel like I’m in another country. I can’t believe this is in the Arabian Gulf’, exclaimed my cousin as our jetty approached the crystal clear blue water surrounding the island.

Although it’s a beautiful reserve and holiday retreat now, Sir Bani Yas Island had an important commercial history, as it was on the trade route between Iraq, the Arabian Gulf, and then on to India and the Far East. My husband and I are huge culture and history buffs, and so we imagined how dhows passed by in the old times and wondered if the sailors took a break and swam in the pristine waters.

The hotel’s helpful staff emailed us the activities list as soon as we confirmed our booking. The two days we stayed there were packed with different outdoor activities, including horse riding through the bush trails, a wildlife car tour, and an outdoor movie night by the beach. We also visited one of the most important historical sites in the UAE.

What many are not aware of is that this 87 square km island is home to the UAE’s only discovered Christian monastery and church. Courtesy Anantara Hotels.

What many are not aware of is that this 87 square km island is home to the UAE’s only discovered Christian monastery and church. The location that is open to the public was discovered during excavations in 1992. The site is believed to have been built around 600 AD. The church contained cabins for monks and prayer rooms. In addition to the discovery of the site, archaeologists also discovered approximately 15 kinds of glassware and pottery, believed to have been used during religious ceremonies. Some are now on display in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Sir Bani Yas Island. Courtesy Anantara Hotels.

We stayed on the island for a total of two nights, and we believe that it provided us enough time to enjoy the different activities and check out the sites while still having time to unwind and relax. Sir Bani Yas is a good alternative for GCC nationals and residents who’d like to go on a wilderness trip in Africa but only have a weekend to spare for a holiday. The three hotel properties on the island can arrange for Dubai and Abu Dhabi airport transfer services. There is also a small airport on the island for private jets to land on.

There are many sports activities options on the island. Courtesy Anantara Hotels.

If you plan on visiting the island, we would highly recommend packing sports gear, swimwear, and sneakers. The list of activities to do, from kayaking to land sailing to pearl diving, and the activities we opted for on our trip are suitable for families and children. Also, have a look at the activities list beforehand and arrange to pre-book them with the hotel, as the timings you would prefer could be overbooked. Last but not least, take lots of pictures. It’s one of those magical places that you don’t want to forget!

Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.