You’ve seen the endless sands of Abu Dhabi, and that’s to be expected from the UAE, a city borne of the desert, but here are some more unexpected things that I did in Abu Dhabi, activities you wouldn’t quite expect in a place like this – Mangrove kayaking and visiting a Falcon hospital.
Did you know that Abu Dhabi is home to thousands of hectares of mangrove swamps? People forget that even as a desert land, a large part of it’s Northern territory is coastline, and the mangrove swamps lie between the Red Sea and the land.
In Abu Dhabi, the closest mangrove area is the Eastern Mangrove Swamps, and that’s where I headed to get an up close look at some of the mangroves. I booked a kayaking tour with Noukhada Adventure Company and headed down to the Anantara-run Eastern Mangrove Hotel and Spa where the meeting point is.
I was a bit early, so I wandered around the place a little while waiting for the 10.45am sign-up. The Noukhada crew came down around 10.30am to set-up their ‘booth’, which is nothing more than a table and a chair at the corner of the pier where they ticked off attendance, kept your things for you and collected the fee of 150AED/pax.
There was quite a big group for the 11am tour, about 20 people, all Caucasians except for me, ranging from families with older children to couples and other older folk . When everybody arrived, we were given a short briefing on kayaking and how to go about it. After that we were helped into our kayaks and set off for the mangroves!
I had a single kayak to myself, and it was pretty easy to maneuver and paddle. The only thing I didn’t realize was that the kayak was open top, so my shorts ended up quite a lot wetter than I thought they would! Also, the weather was very good that day and there was a lot of sun – my shorts were a little fitting so I couldn’t roll them up and ended up with a tan-line above my knees >_<
We had two guides, both originally from Philippines and had lived in the UAE for awhile. One lead the group while the other kept watch on the stragglers behind. We paddled into the main channel, an artificial one created as a passage by the Sheik’s orders, but unfortunately there’s some erosion going on so the water was quite murky and the channel had expanded quite massively from its original width of 6m.
We turned into a smaller natural channel, and you could see the change in the water quality – it became so clear you could see the schools of little fishes in the water darting around! The water also became shallower and we had to be careful not to get marooned on sandbanks here. It was nice being able to paddle right up to the aerial roots and have a closer look around – you had the occasional egret and other bird sighting as you paddled.
You could see lots of blackish things scuttling between the mangroves as well – our guide told us these were mangrove tree crabs and they had a symbiotic relationship with the mangrove trees – they dug holes that aired the roots while the mangrove provided them food and protection.
Kayaking can be tiring though! The whole tour took around 2 hours in total – we paddled until it was just too shallow to continue before paddling back, and from the front of the group I gradually lagged till I was near the back… I was quite happy to see our end point!
Overall it was quite a fun experience! I wished we could have had even more explanation on the animals and plants that we were seeing in the mangrove, but I guess it’s also dependent on what you see on your tour – we saw lots of crabs and some passing egrets but not much more. I think it’s a pretty great way to see another lesser-known side of Abu Dhabi and recommend anyone looking for a fun activity to consider this.
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The Falcon is the national bird of Abu Dhabi and a big part of it’s ancient traditions and history. In the Middle East, many people today still keep falcons for sport and hunting purposes, or perhaps just as a symbol of wealth.
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the largest one in the world and it sounded like something quite different from the usual tourist trappings. There are two tours available – 10am and 2pm, but do make sure you make an online booking first because they’ll turn you away if you don’t have one, like what happened to us the first time we attempted to go there!
We headed there on our last day in Abu Dhabi for the 2pm afternoon tour – me after the kayaking and the girls after their brunch, and we were joined by another German couple and an Indian man and ushered into the museum area, where our guide gave an introduction to the place and talked about the history of falcons and the hospital. Quite interesting overall, would have preferred that we didn’t have to stand throughout though, but they did offer us a welcome drink as well.
The more interesting bit would come when we headed into the actual clinic area:
Check out all the patients perched in the clinic! All the falcons have hoods on them so that they will remain calm, and the floor is lined with plastic in case of bird poop. The owners usually drop them off in the morning before work and pick them up again at the end of the day.
What I wasn’t expecting was the very thorough explanation on the work that the hospital does, and a live demonstration on how they treat the falcons. First they showed us how the sedate the falcons, with some anesthetic gas that knocks the bird out (safer than syringes, and once the bird is out of the cone it regains consciousness quite rapidly) so it’s calm enough for them to treat safely.
Falcon care is quite interesting – falcons need quite a lot of care, especially when it comes to their talons and their wings. They need regular pedicures to ensure their talons don’t get too long and poke themselves, and their wings are so delicate that just one broken feather can throw off their balance completely, so the hospital keeps a whole stock of molted wing weathers in the case they need to replace them (the bird molts every year, so it just needs to last for a year). Overall, very enlightening to see the doctors at work and the falcons being cared for.
We also got a chance to carry the falcons. Funny thing is that there was a newspaper there taking pictures of the hospital as well, and they got some pictures of us holding the birds. Too bad we can’t get those pix, I saw a pretty one of me pretending to kiss the bird =)
After the treatment room, we took a look around the facility at the other rooms:
And outside the main building, we took a walk to check out what else was on the compound:
And finally we came to the end of the tour, and ended up in another museum with 2 live falcons in a smaller cage.
I really enjoyed this visit and found it very educational, and I definitely recommend this to anyone who’s headed to Abu Dhabi! I only wish we actually had a chance to see the falcons in action, I would have liked to see how they hunt and fly.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
Located near Al Falah, close to Abu Dhabi Airport. Look for the sign along the expressway, you’ll turn into a desert like area as the building is a little way in.
2 hour tour @173AED – details here
You have to make a booking beforehand online! Head here to book, you can pay by credit card.