Here’s what most people think of the UAE. It is Dubai. The rest is just sand. In Dubai, the only place in the UAE, money falls from the sky every Wednesday to bless the entire population because that’s just how rich they are, and everyone eats unicorn tartar for breakfast brought to them by a robot, and even though it’s really hot you really never have to step outside of your Ferrari so it’s okay. That’s it. That’s the whole UAE. It’s Dubai and their champagne-soaked wealth and their skyscrapers. The rest is just sand. And there are some camels.

The rest is not, in fact, just sand. I mean, to be fair, there is an awful lot of sand, but there are seven Emirates in total and they have plenty to offer. I’ve been to five of them, back when I lived in the UAE in the late 90s as a child; school trips and an active father meant I got to see a lot more than shopping malls in Dubai but no one had ever told me about an island where there were wild gazelles, giraffes, cheetahs, and a 1,400-year-old buried Christian monastery. Until now.

...no one had ever told me about an island in the UAE where there were wild gazelles, giraffes, cheetahs, and a 1,400-year-old buried Christian monastery. Until now.

I’m about to discover one of the UAE’s more unusual islands. Sir Bani Yas lies about 170km off the coast of Abu Dhabi and if you know anything about it, I’m fucking impressed. If you don’t it’s probably because it was closed off to the public until 2008 – you could only be granted access to it with a special permit from the royal family – and you’re just finding out about it recently with the rest of us plebs. 

***

I land in Abu Dhabi late on a Sunday, where I binge eat five plates at the dinner buffet to top off my airplane meal, which I also finished with gusto because I am not above devouring plane food. We’re set to take a sea plane to the island the next morning which means two things: firstly, an incredible view from the sky; and secondly, we can only bring a backpack to the island. The second thing is somewhat problematic because despite my father’s best efforts to drill into me the ‘pack light’ mentality that came along with desperately wishing for sons who loved sports and instead getting two daughters who like shoes, I have never managed to stuff my shit into anything less than a carry-on even for a single night away. I leave the light packing to the hippies who backpack across Asia and say things like ‘discover yourself’.

The view of Sir Bani Yas island from the sea plane.

 

I manage to somehow cram my belongings into a backpack that looked like it may or may not rip apart at any moment and pass out. I meet the group I’m travelling with the next day in the lobby, and we head off to the marina to catch our sea plane. To get to the island, you can either spend an hour on a sea plane, or drive two hours by car and hop on a fifteen-minute ferry. The sea plane is clearly the best way to travel even though I lose rock paper scissors to one of the Kuwaiti journalists over who gets to sit next to the pilot. Flying over the island makes the one backpack rule worth it, as the plane lazily floats over a spectrum of pellucid blue waters dotted with thousands of green mangroves.

...the outdoor terrace comes with a plunge pool, and beyond that, wild gazelles roam freely. 

The island is home to three Anantara resorts – and there will be no more. The Al Sahel Villa Resort – our home for the trip and honestly the best one in my opinion – is situated in the center of the island, and is a study in lush savannah living. Rustic, safari-inspired vibes dominate – and I can honestly picture Robert Redford and Meryl Streep living out their Out of Africa romance, like right here. The huge standalone copper tub in the bathroom is one I have been hinting at to my husband for months; the outdoor terrace comes with a plunge pool, and beyond that, wild gazelles roam freely. They casually stroll past your room, grazing among the tall reeds with utter nonchalance alongside the occasional deer.

Wait, what?

After we settle in, we head to the Desert Islands Resort & Spa, another one of the resorts, which is nestled along the coastline, for a late lunch of grilled seabass. Halfway through our meal, a lone peacock rocks up to our table all kaleidoscopic teal feathers and haughty attitude. I have no idea why there’s a peacock and when I ask the waiter what he’s doing here, he replies simply, “They live on the land,” like it’s the most normal thing in the world. “Careful it doesn’t jump on your table,” he adds as an afterthought after walking off.

Wait, what?

 

***

We get an early night in order to wake up at 6 AM to go on a safari desert drive, the island’s most iconic activity apparently. Now honestly, 6 AM is an ungodly hour. I like my sleep and waking up any time before 8 AM is like raising the dead for me, but the minute we step outside the hotel to an electric sunrise where the sky is smeared with oranges and pinks, it’s all made worth it. We huddle into an open air jeep, and start to drive off, past a lake where in the distance a few early morning flamingos are just being their naturally graceful flamingos selves in the water. On our way, we drive past endless desert lands dotted with trees.

Obviously none of this greenery existed until about 30 years ago,” says the guide, gesturing around casually to the umbrella thorn acacia and gum trees that spot the land.

Wait, what?

And so, we are finally told the story of this unusual island.

So as the story goes, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE and ruler of the nation for over 30 years, was actually a very accomplished and avid hunter. In the 60s, as he was hunting, he discovered that there were almost no Arabian oryx left. And that’s how his plan for the island was sparked.

In the 60s, as he was hunting, he discovered that there were almost no Arabian oryx left.

After he became the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1971 and then the first president of the UAE, he earmarked Sir Bani Yas as an island retreat. He began to send the nearly extinct Arabian Oryx to the abandoned island. The he started to send more animals, in a Noah’s-Ark-like move. He sent gazelles. Then came the deer. And the antelope. He had over 3 million trees planted by hand, including the resilient mangroves who sprout out of salty water. Then the world began gifting him animals for this island. The giraffes were a gift from Sudan. The llamas were a gift for his third wife, Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi. 

Then the world began gifting him animals for this island.

Out of an abandoned island Sheikh Zayed created a nature reserve. In 1977, he passed a law prohibiting hunting and turned his efforts into a formal initiative by the name of ‘Greening of the Desert’ in a monumental effort to preserve his nation’s heritage and animals, and Sir Bani Yas was his way of giving these creatures their own piece of earth, where they could thrive undisturbed. It is, at its core, a conservation island, a wildlife sanctuary for the endangered animals of the UAE, Africa, and beyond. 

Sir Bani Yas belongs to the animals; the humans are an addendum, allowed to observe respectfully. 

The Arabian Wildlife Park now dominates the island. Sir Bani Yas belongs to the animals; the humans are an addendum, allowed to observe respectfully. The island is now home to 15,000 animals from 30 different species, most of whom are indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula and who can survive in the UAE’s climate and environment, including golden jackals, emus, three Sudan cheetahs, spotted deer, and hyenas, and even the surrounding waters of the Arabian Sea are a no-fishing zone for an 8 kilometer radius. The few Arabian oryx that Sheikh Zayed had started the island with now number at more than 400, a preservation victory that removed them from the endangered list – it is now the world’s largest herd of the species. 

Out of an abandoned island Sheikh Zayed created a nature reserve. 

We drive into the giraffe sanctuary, where our guide Ali, promptly stops the car, and allows us to get out. I am now going to befriend a giraffe. Screw my husband who says we can’t get a cat because he’s “allergic” – this is way better. All of my dreams are coming true.

There are now 40+ giraffes on Sir Bani Yas island; they’re skittish creatures so you can step out of the car and slowly venture towards them but at a certain distance they’ll begin to eye you wearily as they nibble on the trees. We take photos and I marvel at these spectacular creatures.

Casually hanging out with giraffes.

 

The cheetahs are kept in their own enclosure, and the island currently has three of these graceful, speedy animals. While the other animals hang out with the casual nature of your best buds, cheetahs are more shy and tend to stay away. We're lucky enough to spot one of these spotted beauties lazing around, before he promptly decides he's had enough of us and ventures off. The cheetahs are the main predator on the island, though they also have hyenas, who we don't spot on the drive. 

As we drive back out of the enclosure, venturing to a hilltop spot where we have a 360 view of the island, road signs along the way keep catching my eye. Animals have right of way.

Other countries who were having trouble keeping species native to their lands from becoming endangered or extinct, would send them here 

The island became such a conservation success that their breeding programmes, which they implemented soon after its inception, became globally recognised. Other countries who were having trouble keeping species native to their lands from becoming endangered or extinct, would send them here to breed and thrive, and be returned. Chad sent their scimitar-horned oryx Sir Bani Yas in a plea to help increase dwindling population.

...until 2008 virtually no one really knew about this place. It was not open to the public and you could only come onto the island with a special permit from the royal family. 

But until 2008 virtually no one really knew about this place. It was not open to the public and you could only come onto the island with a special permit from the royal family. After Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004 – as the story goes, of course – his sons decided that they wanted to show the world his legacy, what he had created with this plot of earth, and they opened it up.

In 2008, the first Anantara resort opened, Desert Islands Resorts & Spa – it was originally Sheikh Zayed’s guesthouse, converted into a luxe hotel. A few years later came the Al Sahel resort, in the inner grasslands of the island, followed by Al Yamm resort, the beachside baby of the trio. And that’s where it ends. They will allow no further construction on the island to keep it as a space where animals reign supreme and humans get the privilege of being near them; to have too much footfall could damage the conservation efforts.

Sir Bani Yas is now home to over 400 Arabian Oryx. Once almost extinct, this is a preservation victory that removed them from the endangered list – it is now the world’s largest herd of the species. 

 

On our drive I’ve already seen ostriches, urial sheep from Iran, and hyraxes – entitled little creatures who stubbornly plop themselves down in the middle of the road to stare down a Jeep 18365438 times their size and refuse to move. Hardcore.

There is an irrigation system of over 73,000 miles to sustain not only these animals, but the plants that sustain them. It is surreal to imagine that this island with its divergent wildlife, exists so close to Abu Dhabi, and has created its own perfectly balanced ecosystem.

***

But the story of the island gets even crazier. Though 30 years ago it was barren and abandoned until Sheikh Zayed stepped in with his conservation efforts, it wasn’t always. The uncovered archeology tells its own tales. The earliest evidence of humanity on this island dates all the way back to the Bronze Age around 2000 BC.

The most significant discovery however, came in the form of a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery, the ruins of which were uncovered in 1992. It is the UAE’s only discovered monastery, and earlier this year when the Pope, in a historic move, visited the nation, he actually came to this church with the ruling sheikhs, to pray. 

The earliest evidence of humanity on this island dates all the way back to the Bronze Age around 2000 BC. 

This 1,400-year-old Christian monastery - the only one discovered in the UAE - was uncovered in 1992.

 

The monks are predicted to have lived here for about 200 years, from the 6th to 8th century, at which point they moved on. No one knows what happened to them, and only one body was actually found. Later the Bani Yas tribe settled on the island – and it is from them that the ruling family of the UAE are descended. They left it for good at least a century ago; by 1940 the island’s water supplies had dried up and it was abandoned for good.

In 1992, the ruins of a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery were uncovered on the island. It is the UAE’s only discovered monastery.

It is a lot to take in and my mind is exploding all over the place with the fascinating history of this strange little island. After a visit to the monastery, which is small and would probably have housed about 30 monks at the time, we head to dinner where we digest an African-style barbecue along with all the info we’ve been given today. 

*** 

The next morning is a more relaxed wake up call. We go kayaking among the mangroves. These too have been planted, for the birds and marine life – these crazily tenacious trees actually remove carbon dioxide far better than their regular land-growing counterparts. A NASA-led study actually referred to them as being “among the planet’s best carbon scrubbers.” I Googled this last part obviously.

Earlier this year when the Pope, in a historic move, visited the UAE, he actually came to this church on the island, with the ruling sheikhs, to pray. 

The island is apparently also home to a slew of pretty insane wildlife including dolphins, sea turtles, and even dugongs (those adorable fat sea cows that look like they need a cuddle). You can go snorkeling and diving and there’s even a shipwreck we passed when we were flying in – but that’s a whole other story.

 

Our final activity of the trip is archery, at which I am certain I will dominate. I have, after all, watched all of The Hunger Games, and clearly this qualifies me to become a master at this craft. My first two arrows don’t even go near the board. As soon as I start to get good (and by ‘good’ I mean my arrows stopped flying off sideways narrowly missing people’s heads) I am pulled away from my destiny as the next Katniss Everdeen to catch the ferry back to Abu Dhabi.

***

This island’s crazy story is at its core, one of conservation, concern for the wildlife of one’s country. Back in Abu Dhabi, I catch a glimpse of a portrait of Sheikh Zayed in the lobby of the hotel – whose likeness is still on display everywhere in the UAE even 14 years after his death – on my way to visit his namesake mosque. His presence is everywhere and the people of his nation seem to have a sort of atavistic adoration for this ‘father’ of their nation, but it’s likely that very few of them know the story of the island he adopted and transformed to become a sanctuary for animals. The UAE’s accomplishments are usually very shiny and glitzy. They break world records for breakfast and there’s always news about some crazy new skyscraper or the most expensive X or Y. But what has not made the news as much as some emerald-infused shawerma or whatever, and what should, is the story of Sir Bani Yas Island.

what has not made the news as much as some emerald-infused shawerma or whatever, and what should, is the story of Sir Bani Yas Island.